As of this writing, we are one week away from (God willing) Evan’s ordination to the priesthood. To be completely honest, it’s all a bit overwhelming.
Earlier today the Paulists released a brief video profile of Evan in which he talks about his calling, how this blog started, the broader Paulist family and how he prays with bread. If you have four-and-a-half minutes, I think it’s worth watching. (Of course, I’m Evan’s dad so my opinion in this matter is not especially objective.)
Thank you all for your prayers for Evan and for all of us. Please continue praying and, if you can, please join us for the livestream of the Ordination at 10:00 a.m. Eastern on Saturday, May 18, 2019. You can find the stream on the Paulist Fathers Facebook page or their YouTube channel.
An invitation arrived in the mail this week. It wasn’t, of course, unexpected. In fact, we’ve had the date for a while now. The arrival of the invitation moves the ordination more solidly into the realm of “this is going to happen.”
I very much wanted to write something insightful here — something which summed up the last six years, something meaningful and inspiring.
But as I contemplate this next step in Evan’s journey all I can really give voice to is a profound sense of gratitude to God. Gratitude for both my sons, for my wife, for the life God has given me, and for love that God has shown me through all of this.
So I’ll leave the invitation here and ask your prayers for us and for Evan as he takes this next important step in his journey of faith and service.
We’re back from Washington, D.C. and I don’t know that there’s any way I can properly capture the experience for you. It was, in truth, a little overwhelming. Perhaps the best thing to do is to share little slices of what happened to give you a sense of what it was like.
Friday evening was the Promises Mass for the Paulist community. At present, the Paulist seminary occupies the top floor of St. Joseph’s seminary. The main chapel is a beautiful, compact space with a soaring ceiling and a sanctuary space surrounded by marble. The Mass was a celebration of the community during which two novices made their first promises, the continuing students renewed their promises for the coming year and Evan made his final, lifetime commitment to the community.
The Mass was lovely, with Fr. Andrews hitting the right notes of service and devotion during difficult times. The voices of the congregation, led by seminarian and cantor Richard Whitney, filled the worship space giving the occasion a sense of unity.
When it came time to make his commitment, Evan spoke clearly and firmly. I don’t think I was prepared for the emotional impact of the moment. I keep rewriting this paragraph over and over trying to find the words to capture the experience and I just can’t seem to manage. (Which doesn’t exactly bode well for the rest of this post as there are bigger things coming!)
After the Mass there was a reception for everyone in attendance. Kit and I had some time to meet and mingle with the Paulist community. Over the past five years we’ve gotten quite close with several of the Paulist priests and others who are associated with the community. (Shout out to the Paul and the media team who were providing great coverage for the event.) We also met the parents of a young man who made his first promises. It was great talking to them and reflecting on our own experience of having a son in seminary.
Evan was one of four men ordained that morning. The others represented other orders, but all of them had family there to support them. We have been to a deaconate ordination once before–for a friend who was entering the permanent deaconate in Salt Lake–but it is very different when it is your own child.
With an acapella choir of Franciscans for accompaniment, we spent about two hours in the solemn observance of the Mass and ordination. As has been the case in other ordinations, the most powerful moment came when the candidates lay prostrate on the floor while the choir and congregation chanted the Litany of the Saints. It was a few minutes of heaven on earth as we asked the Universal Church to pray for the men as they moved forward in their formation as priests.
A bit later in the Mass Evan was vested in his stole and dalmatic (the traditional vestments of the deacon) by his friend and inspiration Fr. Michael Hennessey C.S.P.
Ian, Evan’s older brother, was given the opportunity to bring forward the gifts during the Mass.
It was a timeless sort of experience. We were participating in a centuries-old ritual as our son joined an organization which is two millennia old. The cool perpetual twilight of the Crypt church, the smell of the incense, the plain chant and the ancient prayers and formulas made this a moment out-of-time; at once ephemeral and eternal. We were able to be fully present as the Mass unfolded and, at the same time, it seemed to end too soon.
Kit and I wanted to be completely present to the Mass, so we didn’t take any pictures. We’re grateful to Kit’s sister Beth and to the Paulist media team for sharing the pictures they took.
As a consequence of their ordination, deacons are able to impart blessings on objects and people. Some time ago Kit and I realized that we didn’t actually have a crucifix in our home. We decided we’d buy one and ask Evan to bless it for us. We found a San Damiano crucifix at the Basilica gift shop. We took it (along with a few other religious items we picked up) to the seminary after the ordination. Evan put on a stole and blessed everything by following a rubric from a book of blessings he received as an ordination gift.
This was, for me, a very surreal moment. I have seen hundreds of objects blessed. I have a modest understanding of the theology involved. But, to see my own son performing the ritual was … odd. It reinforced the fact that by virtue of ordination he has been ontologically changed. Again, words fail me in conveying exactly how it felt.
The final event of the weekend was the first Mass at which Evan served as a deacon. He’s been assigned to work at St. Elizabeth’s parish in Rockville, Maryland. To this point, he’s mostly worked with the young adults and RCIA groups. As a deacon, he’ll be spending a lot more time in the sanctuary. We were able to attend Mass with him before we had to catch our flight home.
The Paulists brought along the students and novices and some of the priests who had come for the ordination. We watched as the familiar beats of the Mass moved along, but with a new joy as we saw our son performing the actions of a deacon. This rendered the ordinary extraordinary in every sense of the word.
For Kit and I, the overwhelming response is gratitude to a God who has invited us to a ringside seat as our son cooperates with grace. It is humbling and beautiful to witness. We are also grateful for the many people who have prayed for Evan and for us through this experience. May God richly bless you as he has blessed us.
A Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers! With a child who is discerning a religious life, you wonder, how do you act as “mother” now. Do they still need you? Are you still relevant? Do you have something to offer in their life choice? The answer is of course, yes.
As a mother, you understand that giving of yourself is how you care for your children. From this life long giving, your child has learned to be a generous giver themselves. Mother’s Day is a time when most people take a moment to give their mother a special thank you for all the giving they have done. From an early age, the child in return gives a card and gift. At first they are the handmade items from school, the handprint plaque, the freely drawn hearts, the macaroni necklaces. All these things come from the heart of the child and the imagination of the teacher. Later, it turns to candles, bath soaps, and gift cards. The child has matured enough to know they should give, but are too immature to understand their mother as a person.
The last stage is the mindful gifts. The time when the child understands that the mother is a person in her own right and knows what would mean the most to her. This is different for each family and is as diverse as families themselves. The child has truly learned how to give from the heart the way the mother modeled for them.
There is a gift I haven’t received yet but know (hope) will be coming to me. At the time of ordination, the hands of the priest are anointed with sacred Chrism Oil. Traditionally the ordinand’s hands were then wrapped in a cloth called the maniturgium. This tradition has been discontinued and now the newly ordained priest just wipes clean with a purificator cloth. The second part of this tradition was to present the cloth to the mother of the newly ordained. This part of the tradition is being revived with the purificator. The cloth is being set aside for the son to present to his mother.
That is the first gift.
The second comes when the mother dies. She is to be buried with this cloth in her hands. Upon greeting the Lord in heaven, He will say “I have given you life, what have you given to me?” The mother then presents the cloth and replies “I have given You my son.”
I was given the gift of a son, I am pleased to return this gift to God. I cannot wait to receive the maniturgium from my son’s ordination. This is the final gift.
Seems like we don’t post as much here as we did when our son first informed us that he wished to enter the priesthood. It occurred to me that we are in the eye of the storm right now. The quiet time after a storm hits and before the storm ends. He is on his pastoral year getting a taste of what it would be like to work in a parish setting. Next year he will return to D.C. to go back to the seminary and continue his classes toward getting his master’s degree. He is a little more than half-way through this process. We have become accustomed to the thought of his life’s calling and where it might lead him. We are now seasoned seminarian parents who know where he is, how he is being treated, and where he is headed. In a few years however, we will enter the backside of the storm as he approaches ordination. When will he receive ordination as a deacon? What are his responsibilities at this point? What if he changes his mind between the deaconate and priesthood? At his final ordination as a priest, what is expected of us? Are we involved in the ceremony or merely attendees? What is the traditional gift from the parents at ordination? (We think it is the chalice and paten.) Where do you find such thing? Can you get them made special just for your child? Are we expected to have a party for him?
The back of the storm is coming but right now, I think we are content to bask in the short burst of quiet and sunshine that is the now. Soon enough, we will batten down the hatches again and return to riding out the storm. As we enjoy this quiet moment, we realize others are just entering the whirlwind of their child’s decision to enter religious life. I pray our earlier posts will be signposts through the turbulence for these people and that they will find the answers they need.
There have been a couple of great vocations posts over at Aleteia in the last few months and I thought they were worth passing along. Both were written by Matt Wenke and they give insights into his journey as a parent who saw a child called to religious life.
If other men’s daughters expressed an interest in the convent or the cloister, I wouldn’t have questioned it at all. I would have been respectful of their choice and genuinely happy for them. “What a noble and beautiful vocation!” or, “What a meaningful life with a holy purpose!” I no doubt would have thought.
When I heard of my own daughter’s interest in the cloister, my immediate thought was, “Oh, my gosh, I hope you get a vacation… how often can you come home to visit?”
Isn’t it sad that my first thought wasn’t about Nora’s vocational fulfillment and spiritual well-being? My initial thought was that I might be missing my daughter’s presence in my home, and her gentle, delightful company.
His honesty continues as he lays bare his struggles with giving his daughter up to God. Take a few moments and read the rest of his story.
One of the consolations, he’s found, is that he has been able to experience his daughter’s community.
Best of all, the Sisters graciously welcome us at the monastery twice per year for three day visits — with very liberal visiting times. These visits are a joyful reunion, punctuated by her prayer times, to which we are invited and in which we love to participate. In the chapel, we have a chance to praise God together, and get a sense of Frances Marie’s everyday life.
Ironically, in “losing” our daughter to a cloister, our “family” has grown! It is an absolute pleasure to “touch base” with the entire community as part of our visit. The sisters have become true family to us. Our concerns and burdens are theirs and theirs are ours. In the parlor the sisters show themselves as joyful, even playful women of all ages; they are witty and funny, seriously prayerful, reflective and wise.
According to a study released in 2011 a little over half of those who were ordained report being actively discouraged from their vocation by a family member. Beyond that, it is difficult to say how many potential vocations have been lost because someone who was discerning was steered onto a different path. In some ways, it seems like we are our own worst enemy when it comes to recruiting and forming new religious.
There’s a certain amount of speculation about why parents might be so selfish. Some point to cultural changes, or poor liturgies, or unbridled capitalism. I suspect there is truth to these ideas, but I think they tend to paint parents with a broad brush and ignore the very real experience of the parents.
We will experience the same feelings and concerns most parents feel but in a different way. We miss our children deeply and worry about them. This worry is especially true of parents whose children are missionaries abroad. And while their needs are taken care of by their dioceses or orders, we have concern for their well-being and support them financially with as much as our incomes allow. Our lives can seem almost easier with the care they receive from their dioceses or orders but that is not always the case.
In truth, ours can be a difficult lot. This is not to discourage anyone from encouraging their children to listen for God’s call. My daughter does not know about what concerns me. I say it only in an acceptance of the fact that our child’s choice is atypical, making us as their parents also uncommon. Our children have chosen Christ first and foremost for their lives and their loves. We could not be more proud, could we? However, we know that this choice comes at a cost rarely understood. We often find ourselves at a loss. We may stumble when trying to tell others what our children are doing. A teacher, a plumber, an at-home mom, even a tattoo artist, is easily understood but a monk, nun, consecrated or a priest? These often require an explanation that extends longer than the line at the deli will allow…
…We do our best as parents to answer all the questions. However, quite honestly, after a while, it can become distressing. Some of the questions and comments we can receive are so negative. My husband and I joke darkly to each other that we might have had a better reception if we had announced her decision to join a traveling band of jugglers rather than a recognized order in the Church. In the end, all these questions come down to this: Why would anyone choose a priestly or vowed religious life?
In the face of these kinds of objections, it is understandable if parents begin to doubt the validity of their child’s vocation call. They aren’t villains, just parents who are in uncertain territory. It is natural that they’ll want to know how their child’s decision will impact their lives. Vocations – like any other life choice a child makes – will have an effect on the family.
Have you listened to your parents’ reasons? Before you try to explain the mystery of a vocation to them, allow them to tell you what their concerns are. These reasons could range wildly. They may think that you don’t really listen to them or honor them. They may want you to have a “normal” life that would include marriage and their expected grandchildren. They may think that you have abandoned them and won’t see them. They may think that you need to have several years of experience after college before you can make a decision. They may think that a religious community is full of misfits, or that religion is a scam. They may think that you will be happier and be more productive in doing just about anything else than becoming a religious.
From there, it goes on to offer several concrete suggestions for engaging in dialogue with parents. It ends on a very encouraging note:
Parents often feel bonded with the brothers in their son’s formation, and they come to realize that their son has many, many brothers. The brothers themselves look with affection on the parents of one of their own. In a sense, parents don’t lose a son so much as gain many, many sons!
(Kit and I have certainly felt that way about the Paulists. We have enjoyed meeting many of the seminarians and priests and frequently joke about all of our new “sons”.)
Answering the call to religious life raises questions for parents and we – those discerning and the Catholic community at large – owe it to them to take their concerns seriously and do our best to accompany them as they undertake the vocations journey with their child.
As we’ve noted before, the preparation for the priesthood goes beyond just academic and theological work. In fact, those things exist to equip the seminarian to act in the world. The USCCB Program for Priestly Formation puts it this way:
The Church continues to place the highest value on the work of priestly formation, because it is linked to the very mission of the Church, especially the evangelization of humanity: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). Our apostolic origins, which bind us in communion with the Lord and his mission, motivate those who engage in the ministry of priestly formation, underscore the urgency of their task, and remind them of their great responsibility.
A big part of priestly preparation is having opportunities to participate in the mission of the church through real ministry. During the Paulist novice year, the students engage in social service at soup kitchens, shelters, and other social service sites. As they move further into formation, the opportunities for service grow.
Next spring Evan will be joining a Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) mission to Ireland. This mission trip will work with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and will be ministering to both Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. Therese Aaker posted a few thoughts on her trip to Ireland last spring, explaining the need for ministry to Catholics:
Generally, people there are bitterly angry about the Church. They’re angry with God at best, and indifferent toward Him at worst. They grew up in Catholic schools, but without good catechesis; they know very little about Church teaching. Most sadly, they do not know the Person of Jesus. All they know of the Church is its corruption — and as a result, my generation there is absent from the Church entirely.
A quick Google search of “seminarian mission trips” turns up several mission trips both in the US and beyond its borders – including a mission trip to Perdue University. In each case, the primary purpose of the mission is to serve as a bearer of Christ’s love. Yet, at the same time, the missionaries are growing and developing in faith and charity as they prepare to enter priestly ministry.
If you have a moment, I’d ask that you offer up a prayer on behalf of all of the missionaries serving around the world.
Some parents object when their son declares an interest in a vocation. There are lots of reasons given, but I suspect that the root of the problem is lack of understanding of the priesthood. For too many of us priests are remote, mysterious figures who occupy some other plane of existence. We don’t see them as human beings. Fortunately, it’s easy to get past that – just spend some time getting to know the priests in your life.
Last year we suggested taking a priest to dinner as a way to better understand your son’s vocational journey. That advice still stands, but it may not always be practical or possible. A few months ago I stumbled across a bit of light entertainment which gives a surprisingly good insight into priestly life.
I was poking through the used DVDs at a local music store and came across the British comedy series Bless Me, Father. A quick check on Wikipedia gave me reason to believe it was worth watching and the price was much lower than retail, so I snatched it up. Kit and I watched all 21 episodes over the summer and found them to be both charming and honest.
The story – which was written by a man who had been a priest – centers on a newly ordained priest assigned to a small parish in post-war London. It begins with his first time hearing confessions in the parish and traces his life through most of his first year. The parish pastor is a clever old Irishman by the name of Fr. Duddleswell. Together they deal with a neighbor who runs a nightclub and is a bookmaker on the side, the bookmaker’s black Labrador, the local Mother Superior who completely lacks sympathy and empathy, affairs of the heart, affairs of the parish, and Mrs. Pring the rectory housekeeper.
We were so taken with the series that I dug a bit and found out it was based on a series of books which had been published in the 1970s. Fortunately, they are available as e-books. The first two Bless Me, Father and A Father Before Christmas served as the direct inspiration for most of the episodes.
There are a couple of interesting takeaways from both the books and the series.
First of all, they are set in the 1950s, so they are steeped in the Catholic world prior to Vatican II. This becomes most obvious in the area of interfaith relations. Fr. Duddleswell talks about his Anglican counterpart as a “doubtfully baptized Anglican layman.” Yet, most of what goes on in the books could be taking place at any parish in any part of the world. Fr. Duddleswell and Fr. Boyd deal with all the same human fears and failings as every other priest – and they do so with a wonderfully pastoral approach. There is a particularly touching episode in which Fr. Duddleswell contrives to find a way to comfort a child who is fearful that his grandfather is damned to Hell. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but I will note that Fr. Duddleswell’s solution is clever, compassionate, and colors juuusst inside the lines.
Secondly, Fr. Boyd is honest about his insecurities and fears in the books and it is clear that the author is writing from his own experience with only the smallest of embellishments. He meets up with old friends – including one who left the seminary to purse an outside life. He visits his family in the second book and we learn about his upbringing and vocation. We walk beside him as he struggles to understand his feelings for a pretty, young nurse when he is hospitalized for an extended period. By the end of the two books I had tremendous sympathy and respect for both of the priests.
The books are authentically Catholic throughout, fully faithful to the teachings of the Church and also authentically human, fully faithful to the characters. Reading them is about as close to spending a year with priests as you could get without actually moving into the rectory. If you want to better understand the priesthood, you’ll find your time well invested with this series.
It makes interesting reading, so I’ll encourage you just to follow the link above and see what those “3 things” are. I will tell you that I shared the article with Evan and he said it was pretty consistent with his experience — and the experience of his Paulist brothers.
What is most encouraging about the article is the end. After dispensing insight and advice, the author finishes with:
In short, be the man God made you to be and then He’ll make you into the Priest He wants you to be. Don’t worry about anything, because if Jesus Christ wants you to be His priest, then no power on earth or in hell can stop that from happening.
A few days ago the Aleteia blog ran an article about a group of deacon candidates who were being installed as “acolytes”. This reminded me of a piece we ran a couple of years ago about the “minor orders” and their role in priestly formation.
Back then, I wrote:
During formation, the candidate would go through the four minor orders — porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte. The progression through the minor orders was a bit like gaining rank in the military, each of them brought the candidate new responsibilities.
I went on to point out that two of the orders — lector and acolyte — are still used today in formation for both priests and deacons. What I failed to do was to explain these to important offices.
You may already be familiar with lectors — those who read a portion of the scriptures at Mass — but it may surprise you to learn that this can be a formally instituted ministry. The Code of Canon law (the law which governs the Church) states:
Can. 1035 §1 Before anyone may be promoted to the diaconate, whether permanent or transitory, he must have received the ministries of lector and acolyte, and have exercised them for an appropriate time.
§2 Between the conferring of the ministry of acolyte and the diaconate there is to be an interval of at least six months.
These ministries are important steps on the way to ordination as a deacon which, in
turn, is an important step on the way to priestly ordination.
Lectors, as you would expect, are tasked with reading the scriptures at Mass. This practice goes back to the Jewish church where the scriptures were read as a matter of course in worship. In the early days of the church, it was necessary to find someone who had sufficient education to be able to read. The origins of the office are found there.
Candidates for the priesthood or deaconate are installed as lectors (typically) by a bishop. In a lector’s installation, he is given a lectionary or book of Gospels while the bishop says, “Take this book of holy Scripture and be faithful in handing on the word of God, so that it may grow strong in the hearts of his people.”
There are lay lectors as well, of course. Men and women who have been identified as fit for this service to the church. They are not instituted by a bishop, but rather trained at the local parish. They fill the role of lector, but are not formally installed in the ministry.
The role of the acolyte is somewhat more complicated and represents a more technical level of service during the Mass. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal — the book which outlines all of the rules and rubrics for Mass– explains the role of the acolyte this way:
The acolyte is instituted for service at the altar and to assist the Priest and Deacon. It is his place principally to prepare the altar and the sacred vessels and, if necessary, to distribute the Eucharist to the faithful as an extraordinary minister. In the ministry of the altar, the acolyte has his own proper functions, which he must carry out in person.
It goes on to list specific duties including carrying the thurible if necessary and purifying the vessels used for the Eucharist. There’s a nice summary of the duties at CatholicAcolyte.com.
Acolytes are instituted by a bishop, who places the sacred vessels in the hands of the candidate and says “Take this vessel with bread for the celebration of the eucharist. Make your life worthy of your service at the table of the Lord and of his Church.”
People often express surprise at how long the process of priestly formation takes. To someone outside of the Catholic church it can seem a long road, indeed. Yet there are milestones as the young men move through their training and find themselves growing in both skill and dedication. Lector and acolyte are two of the more visible milestones and it is worth remembering that each plays an important role in both formation and service to the people of God.
Over at Aleteia.org Deacon Greg Kandra made vocations the focus of his homily. He leads off with a quote from a letter that he received from a friend in Philadelphia:
“This morning we received devastating news at Mass. Our beloved Augustinian pastor has been diagnosed with liver cancer that has spread to his lungs. The priest who told us said that he was visiting him yesterday when a cousin came into the hospital room and told him that they are all praying for a miracle. His response was, ‘I have already received a miracle. I am a priest.’”
This is probably the best – and most honest – answer to those who have an objection to a man entering the priesthood. Ordination is an extraordinary event and being allowed to share in the priesthood of Christ in a special way is, indeed, a miracle.
Deacon Greg speaks with great reverence and love about his own call and ordination as a permanent deacon and talks of it as an on-going source of grace and blessing in his life:
Surveys tell us again and again that clergy and religious report among the greatest job satisfaction in the world.
That’s because it’s not a job. It’s a vocation.
As that priest in Philadelphia knew: it is, in fact, a miracle.
Finally, he suggests ways of introducing young men to the idea of the priesthood. The best advice he gives is that you should ask God if you (or someone you know) is called. He points to Pope Francis who advises young people to “Ask Jesus what he wants and be brave!”
In an address to seminarians in Rome this week, Pope Francis outlined the appropriate way to respond to God’s call — to be all in and not “half-way” priests.
“We respond to this vocation in the same way as the Virgin Mary does to the angel: “How is this possible?” Becoming “good shepherds” in the image of Jesus “is something very great and we are so small.”
“Yes, it is true, it is too great; but it is not our work! It is the work of the Holy Spirit, with our collaboration,” Francis said in his address to the College, adding spontaneous comments here and there to his prepared speech.
“It is about humbly giving oneself, like clay that is to be moulded, letting God the potter work the clay with fire and water, with the Word and the Holy Spirit.”
It is true that “at the beginning intentions are not completely righteous, and it is hard for them to be so. All of us have had moments when our intentions were not completely righteous but in time this changes with everyday conversion. Think of the apostles! Think of James and John. One of them wanted to be prime minister and the other a minister of the economy because it was a more important role. The apostles’ mind was elsewhere but the Lord patiently corrected their intention and in the end the intention of their preaching and martyrdom was incredibly righteous.”
So, on this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, take a moment to ask God to call those whom he chooses to the priesthood and offer to be the bearer of that message if you can.