This is the fourteenth installment of A Deacon’s Diary. In the thirteenth installment, Steve prepared for his priestly ordination.
For the third time this year, I was prostrate on the floor of a church. This time, it was a plain, beige, linoleum floor. I was shaking as I lay there. Maybe it was nerves or anticipation or stress I’d been carrying for the past decade of formation.
My family sat in a pew only feet from where I lay and I heard the sound of a small boy repeatedly dropping a toy car. I wondered if it was one of my nephews.
I thought I heard my grandmother, Mary, calling my name in a whisper that seemed distinctly like hers, even though she’d passed away in Fall 2013. I paid attention and wondered what she might be saying.
I lay there and I prayed as the choir and congregation sang the Litany of Saints. And I imagined all the saints and all the people I knew—even those who couldn’t make it to Gesu Church, Milwaukee that morning—gathered around.
Despite my shaking, I was comfortable as I prayed and found myself in the flow of the liturgy. Third time’s the charm, I thought.
Ordination weekend began on Friday, after months and months of planning. Some parts of it (like the “First” Mass the day after and the reception for Sunday) had taken the better part of a year.
Friday was a bit of a whirlwind day.
A last-minute, early-morning trip to the barber.
Photos for the province magazine in the morning.
Lunch with Archbishop Hebda, who was ordaining the five of us.
Rehearsal for the ordination itself.
Time was fleeting and there was plenty to do. Mostly, I wasn’t looking at my to-do lists (those were mostly done), but I was trying to sort out how to spend time with people who had come. And I was looking for some space and silence as well as the friends who knew how to support me in these moments that would soon be “before” and “after.”
It’s like a wedding, I had been telling people for a while. I thought this was to help friends and family sort out expectations. Maybe it was to help me sort out the reality of it all, too?
That afternoon, I’d arranged a viewing of Tolkien’s papers held by Marquette. Dr. Bill Fliss, the archivist for the collection, graciously hosted twenty of my guests. For my friends, this was something cool that I could arrange as a gift for them. Neither Bill nor the archival holdings disappointed.
For me, it was a way to set aside some time with a particular group of friends and see them before everything began. Or at least somehow began more than it already had. May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment, said Bishop Mark at my diaconate ordination. All of this had begun in September, or actually a long time before that.
I think I had half an hour to myself that afternoon before meeting a friend—one of my diaconate vesting priests, Guz—for Mass.
It’ll be the last time I serve as a deacon, I told him. And we had a quiet Mass in the chapel of the Jesuit community at Marquette, with St. Ignatius Loyola looking down from a large stained-glass window. When we both lived at Marquette, we’d met often for Mass and it seemed like a natural conclusion to a cycle of formation and preparation.
Then it was off to the province dinner to celebrate anniversaries and jubilees. Every year, the night before ordination, our province commemorates Jesuits who have milestone-years of service as priests and as Jesuits. I sat with John and Brett, who would vest me the next morning. John greeted me with a bear hug at the dinner and told me how happy he was. Greg, who had vested me at diaconate, joined us too.
Afterwards, Brett and I went for a walk and ended up chatting on a bench next to Marquette’s Joan of Arc chapel. It’s one of my favorite places, especially at night when the lighting and twilight tease out the features of the 15th-century building.
How have you been praying these days? He asked.
I’ve mostly been praying with the texts of the Mass, since I’ve been practicing celebrating these past few weeks.
He looked expectant. I paid attention.
And I’ve been trying to sit in silence, waiting for God’s presence, I added.
By the time we finished chatting, it was late and I walked him back to the dorm he was staying at. I gave him two white stoles, embellished with gold lambs. They were for the next morning. I’d had them made for all my vesting priests—the three from diaconate in September and the two for priesthood—and needed to make sure those two got to the church in the morning.
I went home and did the very last thing I needed to do: I washed and pressed my white alb and amice (a strip of cloth that protects the collar of the vestments).
I ran into a friend, Tim, in the community’s laundry room and we talked a bit and prayed together. He reminded me of the importance of Paul’s companion, Barnabas, on whose feast I would be ordained. “Barnabas” means “Son of Encouragement.” Another friend, Titus—a monk in New Hampshire—texted me something similar the very next morning.
I paid attention. It seemed that in the remaining hours friends had gathered, saints had gathered. Bruno, Ignatius, and Our Lady of Montserrat (who were all on my ordination prayer card—a kind of souvenir of the day that guests could take with them). Joan of Arc, Linda, and John. Titus, Tim, and Barnabas. Grant, Greg, Guz, and Tolkien. Marnie and Chris. Scott, Mike, Julia, and Lezlie. Brett and a whole cloud of saints, friends, witnesses. They were standing with me here in the “before” and would be there in the “after” of the next day and the days, months, and years to come. Pray for us, I uttered.
The next morning went quickly as the clock was ticking down and time was giving way to something touching eternity.
I got myself caffeinated. (Coffee is a necessity, especially on an important morning!) I packed a small bag with extra ordination prayer cards and some trail mix. I showered, shaved (a rarity!), and dressed all in black clerical garb. I ran into a few brothers having breakfast in the dining room and we spoke quietly. I was grateful to see them; I was avoiding long conversations, as I wanted some time for silence with God. So I returned to my room for a few moments.
I checked my phone. Our ordinandi group chat was blowing up: we had agreed to wear matching blue argyle socks that were a gift from a classmate (in honor of Our Lady). Even the bishop had agreed to wear them. Everyone was posting photos of them as they started the day.
Until the moment the opening procession began, things were gently chaotic.
I made it to the church on time, only to have discovered that I had forgotten my cincture at home, despite having laid my black suit, roman collar, and white vestments out the night before.
I walked into the sacristy and thankfully found that there were extra cinctures. I realized, too, that my vesting priests were downstairs in the lower church and I went to go find them—they needed to be in the sacristy.
I needed to find my family so that the Masters of Ceremonies could have my mom help bring up the gifts. I found my Aunt Mary and Uncle Ken and asked them to have my mom seated at the end of the row. Most of my family was—predictably—late.
And as I walked through the church in an alb and deacon’s stole, I kept running into people I knew, people I was glad to see, and happy that they had come. They too would see both sides of this event.
I took a last-minute photo with my vesting priests, my close friends Brett, John, and Greg, Grant, and Guz. John wanted a photo of himself with the bishop and then I turned my phone off.
Just as the procession was underway, I took my spot in line – last, since the five of us were alphabetical. And from then on, I found I was just carried by the flow of the liturgy – the hymns, the ritual. I’d brought myself to this point in the morning, amidst a lot of to-and-fro. I prayed that God was here, too.
The day before, during the rehearsal, one of the guys in the ordination class asked me: So when is the actual moment when we’re priests?
I knew this! I explained: Technically, it’s after that one long prayer is said by the bishop. But … I wonder about the flow of the various moments into one another—they all seem to be part of the same movement. The promise of obedience, the prostration, laying on of hands, the vesting, the anointing of our hands, the presentation of the chalice and paten, the sign of peace. Then we’re led to the altar.
None of those moments seemed separate to me, but all part of a movement that realized in us the priesthood.
On that Saturday morning, I felt a lot of emotions as we moved through this choreographed set of rituals, each emphasizing something important. I felt relief. And joy. I felt nervous. And I felt the company of many brothers, but particularly the five who were seated behind me. I belonged to this fraternity, their presence said. Unexpectedly for me, they claimed me as their brother with their embraces, with Brett and John vesting me, with the never-ending line of priests laying hands on my head.
I didn’t know exactly how I would feel. Some of it, I expected. Other parts, I didn’t. Later that afternoon, after greeting and chatting with many of the guests at the reception, I didn’t know what to feel—there was so much … joy … overwhelm … brotherhood. A good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. (Luke 6:38)
Many of the guests wanted the first blessing that a new priest can give for a year after ordination. I was ready – I had memorized a formula and had it on a card, too, in case I got nervous.
I decided to use a formulaic blessing because when I get nervous, I’m bad with spontaneity. Besides, who was I to bless people?, I wondered. I was prepared, though, as I knew people would ask.
There were so many moments when perhaps I was nearly a priest. But it had happened, amidst the dance of the ritual that morning, amidst my family, friends, and dear brothers. When did it happen? Or when did I feel it happen? I’m not sure – there are a lot of deep and emotional moments.
But people lined up to ask my blessing. For each, I asked them who their favorite saints were and I included them in the prayer.
My friends and family told me that it had indeed happened. Some stood, some bowed, some knelt, some kissed my hands on the spots they had been anointed.
People who had blessed me were asking me to bless them. God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people, one liturgical text exclaims. And this is what it was: friends, family, brothers, saints were gathering to be reminded of their own holiness. A holiness found in the gifts—Eucharist and sacrament—we had just celebrated. A holiness from God in relationship with us, of which I was now a newly-made sign.
On the Monday following, I celebrated Mass for the first time in the parish and heard confessions during the afternoon. After Mass, people lined up for that first blessing. That afternoon, people lined up outside the confessional. So many firsts—Mass celebrated by myself without the company of concelebrants, MCs, acolytes, and choirs; speaking the words of mercy, forgiveness, and absolution as often as they needed to be heard.
When did priesthood happen? When did I feel it happen? I’m not sure. But plenty of friends and saints saw it happen. And I paid attention.
Header photo by Jeff Zmania.