Ten years ago today (that is, June 12, 1999) along with five other good Jesuit friends (they’re good Jesuits and good friends), I was ordained to the priesthood during a Mass at church (called—surprise!—St. Ignatius Loyola) in Chestnut Hill, Mass., right on the campus of Boston College. I am tempted to say it was the greatest day of my life, and why not? There are other days that certainly come close—the day I was accepted into the Jesuits; the day I entered the Jesuit novitiate; the day that a little refugee-made-handicraft shop where I worked in Nairobi opened its doors for the first time; the day I met my two newborn nephews. So let’s just say it was one of the greatest.
I had been waiting for ordination for many years, having witnessed, since before entering the novitiate in 1988, many of my “older” Jesuit brothers ordained over the years, and realizing, with each group of Jesuits moving into Holy Orders, that my “class” was moving ever closer. Every year until then, I was amazed to find myself weeping during the Litany of the Saints, when the congregation calls on all the saints—from age to age--to pray for the ordinandi, the men being ordained. And I rushed to receive my friends’ “first blessing,” which they always did tentatively but confidently, if you know what I mean, as if they had never done this before but had been born for it all along--and of course they were.
Actually, I almost didn’t make it to my own ordination. The week before I caught a horrible flu, and one of the older Jesuits with whom I lived, named Vin, generously rushed me to the emergency room here in New York. I was angry! How could God do this to me the week before my ordination? What if I weren’t able to go? What about all those guests? I said to the older Jesuit, “I have to ask you this—why is God doing this to me?” Vin looked at me with mock seriousness and said, “In punishment for your sins!” And we both laughed. What a ridiculous question. God wasn’t doing anything to me. I was just sick.
But when I walked up the aisle on June 12, that scare magnified my gratitude. How good it was to be there.
After the Mass, when we walked onto the steps of the church, we were surrounded by our Jesuit brothers, who--clad in their albs or wearing their clerics or, for the younger ones, just a suit and tie--hugged us tightly and congratulated us, teased us and were happy for us. My Jesuit provincial immediately knelt down and asked for my blessing. And then—behold, as the Bible would say—a few steps down the stone staircase were my mother and father, my sister and her husband and their new baby, along the rest of family and friends, friends, friends from all parts of my life. All the people who had nudged or helped or prayed or loved me to where I was. It was like heaven.
Anyway, since that day, I’ve loved being a priest. Why? In good Jesuit fashion how about three reasons.
1.) Confessions. In the first few months, when I was still learning how to celebrate the Mass--that is, learning not to (oops) forget the Creed on Sundays and remembering to pour the water in the wine, and pretty much navigating my way around the Sacramentary (which seems easy now) confessions were so simple. And beautiful. How wonderful to offer a word of forgiveness and see a weight lifted, sometimes it seemed, almost physically. How wonderful to remember during every confession since my very first one what my theology professor said to our class, “Confession is not about how bad the person is, but how good God is.” How wonderful to be able to say to someone who had been estranged or distanced from the church, or who had not been to confession for decades, “Welcome back!” I could say that!
2.) The Mass. Eventually I got to know my way around the Sacramentary. But as soon as I did I wondered, Who am I, as Mary said to the angel Gabriel, that I can say these words? Who am I that I can pray these ancient prayers along with the People of God? Sometimes when priests celebrate the Mass, as most priests will tell you if you asked, they might get momentarily distracted. (“Did I consecrate the bread and wine?” said one Jesuit in a community Mass when I was living in East Africa.) Me too. But sometimes I feel overwhelmed when I reach certain phrases. “From age to age, you gather a people so that from east to west...” “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you....” “You raise up men and women outstanding in holiness...” Who am I that I am permitted to celebrate the Mass in the Room of the Conversion of St. Ignatius in Loyola, Spain? At the Grotto in Lourdes? At the parish in which I received First Holy Communion? In our community chapel? In convents, in hospital rooms, in living rooms? Who am I, Lord?
3.) Baptisms. There is nothing more enjoyable for me as a priest than celebrating a baptism. Babies are miracles. You know that, right? And welcoming a beautiful little baby—silent, fussy or squalling--into the Christian community means welcoming them into something that they probably won’t understand for a while. It’s like giving them a secret gift that will be opened in many years: the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of the church, the gift of fellowship. But not everyone will open this gift right away. Now, like some gifts it might not be appreciated at the moment it is given. But some day it will. Maybe, I think, they’ll open that gift when they’re a child, maybe when they're a little older, maybe when they're college students, maybe not until they're married or until their own children are born, or maybe not until they are facing death. But the gift is there, waiting, expectant, patient.
I wish that more people felt called to ordination. I wish that more people were invited to ordination. Many years ago, when I attended my first Jesuit ordination Mass at Holy Cross College, I remember thinking that I couldn’t imagine being a priest. Ten years later, I can’t imagine not being one. As Thomas Merton said, it seems the “one great secret” for which I was born.
James Martin, SJ