As I write this column, my Jesuit community is preparing to celebrate a number of jubilees, or anniversaries, for three Jesuit priests. The evening’s celebration will consist of what some wags refer to as an L.S.D., that is, liturgy, social and dinner.
Apparently, one must be advanced in years for a jubilee celebration as a priest or religious. Unlike, say, a marriage, the earliest anniversary one can politely observe seems to be set at 25 years. Why this is so I am uncertain, though perhaps in the past the huge numbers of religious and priests would have meant marking quinquennial jubilees every single day. This longstanding tradition is enforced, as a sociologist might say, by a variety of informal means. During a party at my community in Nairobi a few years ago, we were merrily marking someone’s 50th anniversary as a Jesuit. I mentioned cheerfully that since I had entered the Society of Jesus five years prior, perhaps a party might be in the cards for me as well. The shocked expressions and stunned silence signaled that I had committed a faux-pas - hardly my first in religious life, but certainly one of the more egregious. No, I would have to wait for some time.
But, with your indulgence, let me mark another jubilee: my first year as a priest. (Actually, it’s been 17 months, but who’s counting?) Overall, it’s been a wonderful year, and also one in which I’ve learned a few unexpected lessons....
First, your favorite homilies may not be everybody else’s. One week, for example, I poured myself into the preparation of what I hoped would be a terrific homily. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that after Mass I eagerly awaited loud huzzahs from the congregation. Instead, I got this: Have a good day, Father. Nice weather, huh? The next week, on the other hand, I judged my homily to be quite tepid and rather pedestrian. Oh well, I thought glumly. But at the end of that Mass: Great homily! Father, that was wonderful! So lesson one: the Spirit blows where it will.
The second lesson had to do with hearing confessions. Suffice it to say, I will not break the seal of the confessional, but I can report that a certain newly ordained priest spent far too much of his time in the confessional yakking away at his penitents. Yak, yak, yak. By chance, he stumbled upon a fine new book called A Confessor’s Handbook, by Kurt Stasiak, O.S.B., and under Some Things to Avoid read this line: Do not say too much. And like St. Augustine picking up his Bible in the garden, the newly ordained priest knew instantly that these sublime words were directed toward him. So lesson two: listen.
Third, inspect the church before you celebrate Mass. This excellent advice was offered by the pastor of our local Jesuit church. A few months ago, before celebrating a weekday Mass at an unfamiliar church, I arrived early to check things out: the microphone, the hosts, the vessels, etc. Oh, Father, you worry too much! said the somewhat perturbed sacristan, who assured me that everything was in its place. I smiled politely and kept checking. Father, you’re such a worrier! she said, this time more insistently. So I ceased my inspection. In any event, after the consecration I noticed that while there were four small hosts on the paten, there were some 60 people in the pews. I motioned to the eucharistic minister to bring over some extras, but she shrugged in embarrassment: no reserved hosts. Each unfortunate communicant received a tiny little crumb. Lesson three: better safe than sorry.
As I said, it’s been a wonderful year, richly rewarding and educational to boot. Almost every day I am taught something new by patient parishioners, experienced priests and knowledgeable authors. And I figure that by the time I reach my very first jubilee, I’ll have many more of the kinks worked out of my priesthood. After all, I have 24 years of lessons to go.