As I approach the first anniversary of my ordination next month, my friends and family have started to ask about the experience of being a priest: whether the first year was what I expected it to be, whether I’ve learned anything new. To be sure, there have been many moments in which I’ve been surprised by joy, to borrow C. S. Lewis’s phrase.
For the most part, however, as I approach this first anniversary, it’s not so much my priesthood as your priesthood that is on my mind. As John F. Baldovin, S.J., notes in this issue, a recurring theme in the documents of the Second Vatican Council is the common priesthood of all the faithful. By virtue of our baptism, each of us shares in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. God has given us the gift of the ministerial priesthood in order to provide for the sacramental life of the church; but in giving us two types of priesthood, he did not thereby give us two types of Christians. Every Christian is called to preach, to reconcile, to heal in ways that accord with his or her vocation.
That was made clear to me during my ordination, as I lay face down on the cold tile floor of the Fordham University church. Those who have never been to an ordination may not be familiar with this part of the liturgy. About halfway through, just before the candidate is formally ordained, he lies prostrate as a sign of humility and total self-donation to God. Everyone present prays over the candidate, invoking the grace and assistance of the communion of saints. Since the candidate is literally at the lowest point of the church at that moment, the people in the pews are symbolically between him and heaven. Before a man is ordained a priest, then, the people of God exercise their priesthood and mediate between God and the candidate. If you ever hear someone complain, therefore, about the “clerical” or “club-like” appearance of a long line of priests laying their hands on the candidate during an ordination, you can remind them that the laying on of hands happens only after the laypeople in the congregation have exercised their priesthood.
That is as it should be. It was my friends who first broke open the word of God for me; they who first made Christ present to me in a new and powerful way; they who first forgave me and revealed to me the mercy of God. Without their priesthood, without your priesthood, I wouldn’t be here. If I am ever tempted to think of myself as uniquely gifted or as somehow set apart for holiness, as if the “powers of the priesthood” were somehow my own, I try to remember that. The ministerial priesthood is a participation in the priesthood of Christ himself; the priesthood of the minister is a mediation only for the sake of reconciliation in Christ. In other words, “my” priesthood is not “my” priesthood at all; it belongs to Christ and to his church.
The last thing I’ve learned this year is that I am needed. It feels good to feel needed. Yet this feeling does not inflate my ego, for I am also aware of my need for the church, for the people of God. I need your priesthood because I stand among you “in weakness and in much fear and trembling” (1 Cor 2:1-5). That’s not such a bad place to be though; it was there, in my weakness, when my finitude and sinfulness first met the infinite mercy of God that my desire to be a priest was born. That isn’t false humility; I know I have worldly strengths. As St. Paul reminds me, however, a ministry of reconciliation, which is the ministry of priesthood, finds its greatest strength in weakness, perfected through the grace of Christ.
So this spring I give thanks for my priestly ministry. More important, I give thanks for yours. If I can be half as good a priest for you as you have been for me, than I’ll be one very happy man when I go to meet the Lord.