The Hard Part Comes After


Body and Blood of the Lord

I was in Richmond yesterday (Saturday) for the ordination of three men to the priesthood for our diocese. I love to go to ordination every year. It reminds me of my own a few years ago. It tells me I have another year under my belt. Two of the three are younger than me, so that’s good. And two of the three have less hair than me. I don’t know what to make of that. But going to ordination for me is perhaps similar to those of you who are married and might enjoy going to a wedding every once in a while … or the same reason why some of you don’t.

The ordination mass was three hours long, almost as long as the Easter Vigil where adults are brought into the family of the church through Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist, but not as messy. There’s a lot of symbolic elements, deep and meaningful words, ancient and loaded gestures—the calling forward of the candidates to be ordained and their decisive response “Present!,” the promise of fidelity to the bishop and his successors, the prayer calling down the Holy Spirit while the candidates lie prostrate on the cold marble floor of the cathedral, the laying on of hands by the bishop and then by every priest present, the prayer of consecration, the anointing of the priest’s hands with sacred chrism, the investiture in stole and chasuble, the offering of bread and wine by the parents of the new priests and the bishop reminding them of their responsibility to celebrate the sacred liturgy, then the exchange of peace with the bishop and every priest present once again. It was exhausting. But I still enjoy going every year.

Despite the length of the ordination mass full of symbolic elements, deep and meaningful words, ancient and loaded gestures, everyone present was aware, I am hoping they were anyway, that it takes so much more than those three hours to make a priest. There’s the 5 or 6 years of seminary education and training in various parish settings, the work of spiritual direction and vocational discernment, then the many years of remote preparation even before a young man enters the seminary, years of prayer and listening, of reflection and self-examination, of talking with pastors, parents, mentors, siblings and close friends, years of bargaining with God, of running away and evading the issue, years of growth in trust and that eventual surrender to God’s plan. The whole process is so much longer and messier than those three hours in an air-conditioned cathedral where everyone is well-behaved and eager to please. Instead, a whole lot more goes into the making of a priest, and it doesn’t always end well. We only hear of the ones that do.

seminarian 003

And after ordination, the real work really begins. There is so much more on-the-job learning and training that have yet to take place. Up until then, a priest only knows how to do things by the book. My former liturgy professor once said, the only place where everything happens according to the book is in the seminary. In the parish, you learn to deal with every manner of exception to the rule because you’re working with real flesh and blood human beings who don’t always come in neat little packages, who will bring new and strange ideas and experiences you’ve never even heard of, who will come seeking the compassion and healing of Jesus Christ without knowing the right words to say, without following the steps outlined in your textbook, and with every possible variation of the classic examples that you were prepared to address—well, if they had stuck to the textbook.

So a priest’s first mass takes place on the day of ordination. The three newly ordained men stood with the bishop at the altar and along with all the priests behind them, placed their hands over the bread and wine upon the altar, and said the words of institution as we read it in sacred scripture. “Take this bread and eat of it; for this is my body.” “Take this cup and drink from it; for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.” It is a gesture that has been passed down for generations, a link all the way back to the first Eucharist the night before the Lord’s passion. And the bread and wine become by the words and power of Jesus Christ his very body and blood. We profess it, we believe it, we celebrate it. Yet we know the bread and wine upon the altar had a long and eventful journey before finally arriving at that moment. The bread was once wheat gathered from the fields, milled into flour, kneaded into dough, baked in an oven, then broken and shared. The wine was once bunches of grapes harvested from the vine, crushed and fermented, aged and bottled, then poured and consumed. It is a messier process than their being blessed and distributed to the faithful as mass.

bread & wine

And when the bread and wine are transformed into the flesh and blood of the Lord, there is still much transformation they are supposed to bring about in the faithful who eat and drink that Eucharistic meal. The bread and wine are offered by the people of God as symbols of themselves, the fruit of the earth and the work of their hands. Whenever I look out into the assembly at Sunday mass, I know some of your stories and your journeys, and … whew! Enough said. Along with bread and wine that become Eucharist upon the altar at the hands of a priest, the people of God also ask to be transformed, to be changed into Eucharist, food to feed the world hungry for God. But if we have not offered ourselves along with the bread and wine, what exactly do we expect God to transform and make holy? And what exactly do we expect to receive back at communion? Just bread and wine? When we receive the bread and wine now transformed into the body and blood of Christ, food and drink to nourish the soul, we are supposed to also be changed along with the bread and wine that we might be food and drink to nourish the world that hungers and thirsts for God.

We who take communion when we approach the altar do not take communion for our own spiritual nourishment alone. We take communion so that we might bring God to our sisters and brothers who hunger and thirst without knowing it. It will take a lot more of our time and patience. It will be messy beyond all expectation. But that is to be expected. When you feed a hungry child, the work is not done when the child leaves the table. They have to use that nourishment to grow and mature—a process that isn’t always predictable nor fun to witness.

So on this feast of the Body and Blood of the Lord, we behold a mystery in bread and wine, food and drink offered, blessed, and given back to us so that we might feed others. This hour in church is the easy part, just as those three hours of the ordination mass are the easy part for a priest. The hard work is what comes after. There is a whole lot more work yet to be done. It is our work, first to place ourselves at the service of God’s plan, that God might accomplish his work of transforming the world. God gives himself to us as food. We who take and eat his body, we who take and drink his blood, are now sent to feed and quench the world, to fill their hunger and thirst for God. This hour of church is the easy part. I don’t know why to some people, coming to church is such a cross. So if our own hunger and thirst are not satisfied first, how will we satisfy the world’s hunger and thirst for God?

LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@stlouisreview.comSeminarian John Schneier prayed Evening Prayer from his breviary in a chapel at St. Mary's, the temporary home of the Seminary.
LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@stlouisreview.comSeminarian John Schneier prayed Evening Prayer from his breviary in a chapel at St. Mary’s, the temporary home of the Seminary.

Rolo B Castillo © 2015

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