The National Catholic Review

 

Ten years ago today (that is, June 12, 1999) along with five other good Jesuit friends (they’re good Jesuits and good friends), I was ordained to the priesthood during a Mass at church (called—surprise!—St. Ignatius Loyola) in Chestnut Hill, Mass., right on the campus of Boston College.  I am tempted to say it was the greatest day of my life, and why not?  There are other days that certainly come close—the day I was accepted into the Jesuits; the day I entered the Jesuit novitiate; the day that a little refugee-made-handicraft shop where I worked in Nairobi opened its doors for the first time; the day I met my two newborn nephews.  So let’s just say it was one of the greatest. 


I had been waiting for ordination for many years, having witnessed, since before entering the novitiate in 1988, many of my “older” Jesuit brothers ordained over the years, and realizing, with each group of Jesuits moving into Holy Orders, that my “class” was moving ever closer.  Every year until then, I was amazed to find myself weeping during the Litany of the Saints, when the congregation calls on all the saints—from age to age--to pray for the ordinandi, the men being ordained.  And I rushed to receive my friends’ “first blessing,” which they always did tentatively but confidently, if you know what I mean, as if they had never done this before but had been born for it all along--and of course they were.

Actually, I almost didn’t make it to my own ordination.  The week before I caught a horrible flu, and one of the older Jesuits with whom I lived, named Vin, generously rushed me to the emergency room here in New York.  I was angry!  How could God do this to me the week before my ordination?  What if I weren’t able to go?  What about all those guests?  I said to the older Jesuit, “I have to ask you this—why is God doing this to me?”  Vin looked at me with mock seriousness and said, “In punishment for your sins!”  And we both laughed.  What a ridiculous question.  God wasn’t doing anything to me.  I was just sick. 

 

But when I walked up the aisle on June 12, that scare magnified my gratitude.   How good it was to be there.

 

After the Mass, when we walked onto the steps of the church, we were surrounded by our Jesuit brothers, who--clad in their albs or wearing their clerics or, for the younger ones, just a suit and tie--hugged us tightly and congratulated us, teased us and were happy for us.  My Jesuit provincial immediately knelt down and asked for my blessing.  And then—behold, as the Bible would say—a few steps down the stone staircase were my mother and father, my sister and her husband and their new baby, along the rest of family and friends, friends, friends from all parts of my life.  All the people who had nudged or helped or prayed or loved me to where I was.  It was like heaven.

 

Anyway, since that day, I’ve loved being a priest.  Why?  In good Jesuit fashion how about three reasons.

1.) Confessions.  In the first few months, when I was still learning how to celebrate the Mass--that is, learning not to (oops) forget the Creed on Sundays and remembering to pour the water in the wine, and pretty much navigating my way around the Sacramentary (which seems easy now) confessions were so simple.  And beautiful.  How wonderful to offer a word of forgiveness and see a weight lifted, sometimes it seemed, almost physically.  How wonderful to remember during every confession since my very first one what my theology professor said to our class, “Confession is not about how bad the person is, but how good God is.”  How wonderful to be able to say to someone who had been estranged or distanced from the church, or who had not been to confession for decades, “Welcome back!”  I could say that!

 

2.) The Mass.  Eventually I got to know my way around the Sacramentary.  But as soon as I did I wondered, Who am I, as Mary said to the angel Gabriel, that I can say these words?  Who am I that I can pray these ancient prayers along with the People of God?  Sometimes when priests celebrate the Mass, as most priests will tell you if you asked, they might get momentarily distracted.  (“Did I consecrate the bread and wine?” said one Jesuit in a community Mass when I was living in East Africa.)  Me too.  But sometimes I feel overwhelmed when I reach certain phrases.  “From age to age, you gather a people so that from east to west...”  “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you....”  “You raise up men and women outstanding in holiness...”  Who am I that I am permitted to celebrate the Mass in the Room of the Conversion of St. Ignatius in Loyola, Spain?  At the Grotto in Lourdes?  At the parish in which I received First Holy Communion?  In our community chapel?  In convents, in hospital rooms, in living rooms?  Who am I, Lord?

 

3.) Baptisms.  There is nothing more enjoyable for me as a priest than celebrating a baptism.  Babies are miracles.  You know that, right?   And welcoming a beautiful little baby—silent, fussy or squalling--into the Christian community means welcoming them into something that they probably won’t understand for a while.  It’s like giving them a secret gift that will be opened in many years: the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of the church, the gift of fellowship.  But not everyone will open this gift right away.  Now, like some gifts it might not be appreciated at the moment it is given.  But some day it will.  Maybe, I think, they’ll open that gift when they’re a child, maybe when they're a little older, maybe when they're college students, maybe not until they're married or until their own children are born, or maybe not until they are facing death.  But the gift is there, waiting, expectant, patient. 

 

I wish that more people felt called to ordination.  I wish that more people were invited to ordination.  Many years ago, when I attended my first Jesuit ordination Mass at Holy Cross College, I remember thinking that I couldn’t imagine being a priest.  Ten years later, I can’t imagine not being one.  As Thomas Merton said, it seems the “one great secret” for which I was born.


James Martin, SJ

 

Comments

Anonymous | 6/16/2009 - 10:38pm
Lovely.  Thank you for sharing this!
Anonymous | 6/13/2009 - 4:59pm
Happt Anniversary Fr. Jim! I continue to pray for you every day. Your vocation is a blessing to the church and to me personally. Thank you!
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 7:42pm
Father Martin.  You remind me of my namesake, Father Francis Paul Sausotte, SJ...He I am sure would add a #4 -Teaching...For which I am indebted everyday I awake and remember St. Ignatius.  Thanks for your truly great story and God Bless,  AMDG!
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 3:19pm
''I wish that more people felt called to ordination.''   More are.    I am.   I wish.   I envy.     
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 3:45am
Happy ordination anniversary!  :)
Anonymous | 6/11/2009 - 11:27pm
Father Martin gets it right again. Priesthood is all the terrible things people think it is; it is lonely, it is frustrating, it is long hours for little pay. In short it is all those things you could say just as easily of a marriage or of being a parent. And yet why do people persevere? Because of the joys. If we  shape life's meaning from the sufferings it causes then we will be miserable - be it as spouses, parents or priests. But there is joy in life no matter what our vocation, and if our vocation is priesthood then the ''doing'' of it can give us joy. Father Martin's trinity of confession, Mass and baptism is right on accurate, but perhaps one more could be added: teaching. there is an incredible joy to be found working as a priest in the RCIA, in adult education and in the Christian formation of young people. One of the great gifts a priest has is to bring God to people and people to God - that happens on the altar, but also in the classroom. When that moment comes and you see the light in the eyes of a teenager, or a catechumen which says, '' I never saw it that way before'' or ''Now I get it!'' or simply ''Wow!'' - there really is nothing quite like it.  It is a shame there are so few priests these days; so few people really experience priests in their lives, it is little wonder they know little of priesthood's joys. It is good when someone like Father Martin reminds us - even us priests - of why we continue, despite everything - priesthood brings joy.
Anonymous | 6/11/2009 - 11:09pm
Fr James this is beautiful! Thank you for everything you do, thankyou for your light, your joy, your honesty. I am very grateful for your gift, this great "secret" you share with all of us! All you write makes me aware of the deep humanity of who we are called to be as Christians, of the mystery we are all invited to enter deeper into! Thankyou!
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 5:06pm
Happy Anniversary, Fr. Martin!  Thank you for your service to Christ and His Church.  Ad multos annos!
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 5:02pm
Happy anniversary Fr Martin.I read your book about  life with the saints and you write very well about the nitty gritty life of a Priest .I also like the sense of calm you show on your television appearances.One little critique of both your book and this little offering.One learns much about your identity as a Jesuit and you speak of the Church and your keen sense of membership in the communion is beautiful but the word Jesus is missing.It would be nice to see a Jesuit gush for Him the way they do for Presidents and rock stars.Remember the name of a Jesuit comes from the frequency with which Ignatius and his pals used the name of the Lord and sometimes we all need to be reminded of the Nazerene and not simply of God.  Jesu was always on their lips ,and their letters place him as the magnet to which all other elements are like filings drawn to it.Gripe over!!God bless you and keep you on the path to holiness 
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 4:01pm
Thank you for this reflection and appreciation of " all is grace." I can identify with the first two points and in appreciating - but perhaps not reveling -in baptisms.  What did always move me as a priest and continues to move me is the distribution of the Eucharist.  Each of those faces, pairs of hands, eyes filed with whatever as folks receive and affirm again that they are the "Body of Christ" brings me into a state of awe. I no longer formally celebrate the Eucharist since I married - and I feel that my marriage and parenthood has only increased my sense of priesthood in its vulnerbility, sacrifice, availability, and the theological virtues - but I am yet a priest and the tear-stained memories of the Litany wafting over my head and that cold Cathdral floor of 36 years ago, flood my soul with great gratitude. The only sadness is that is that I can no longer formally participate in that to which I also believe I was called, but I leave all of that in God's hands to sort out in eternity and I am grateful for being a priest, being married, being a parent, and attempting to live the essence of priesthood without the accidents. i am very active in some other dimensions of "priesthood" and have moved past any bitterness  into gratitude, but surely always feel the "loss" even with the incredible "gains." As the old wedding charge said, "the rest is in the hands of God."
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 1:15pm
As a seminarian and candidate for Holy Orders, I find myself thanking you again for your written gifts. Good Company was helpful to me, and to my wife (we're Anglicans), to make the transition from corporate career to answering a call to priesthood.  Now,  God willing and the people consenting, as I look forward to ordination to the transitional diaconate this fall and to ordination as priest this time next year, I again recognize parts of my story in your words and offer your words to those I love to help  understand part of the journey. Thank you!
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 11:58am
GOD BLESS THE WORLD Mighty God, Father of all, Compassionate God, Mother of all, bless every person I have met, every face I have seen, every voice I have heard, especially those most dear; bless every city, town, and street I have known, bless every sight I have seen, every sound I have heard, every object I have touched. In some mysterious way these have all fashioned my life; all that I am, I have received. Graet God, bless the world. ++++++++++++++++++++++++ Fr. Jim, Thank you. You have touched many. GREAT GOD, BLESS THE WORLD!
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 11:55am
Cool!  Congratulations!
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 11:51am
Happy Anniversary, Fr. Jim! Your vocation is a blessing to all of us!
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 11:38am
Congratulations, Father Martin!  What a beautiful reflection.
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 11:29am
Dear Fr. Jim, You are very dear to many of us!  Congratulations and Happy Celebrations  this day for the vocation God has blessed you with. I greatly enjoyed meeting you at St. Mary's in Scituate, MA last summer. While signing my already read and treasured MY LIFE W/ THE SAINTS, you asked me to pray for you. W/out a pause, I shot out. "ALWAYS!" as if God were speaking on my behalf.  Here's a poem Jack Morris, SJ (our much loved founding spirit of the JVC) composed upon his own ordination and now published in HEARTS ON FIRE, PRAYING W/ THE JESUITS .  It's a beautiful expression of the Christlike/Ignatian way of love that sees all things as happy beatitude,  andI hope it  makes a fitting tribute to the blessings of this day/this life for you. (poem to follow in next post) Gini Parker FJV, Seattle 72-73
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 12:32pm
Thank you for a beautiful reflection that brought tears to my eyes. In the last couple of years, since I truly fell in love with my Catholic faith and began, tentatively, to try to live something resembling a devout life, I have gained great appreciation for the priests in my life. I think in particular of a very special Jesuit, my spiritual director and friend, now retired, who celebrated his 87th birthday earlier this week and is still dispensing love, wisdom, and the occasional frank admonishment to me and many others. So for you-happy ordination anniversary, and thank you for taking the time to reflect on the Big Three sacraments for most laypeople-the ones that are the most available to us, under threat of becoming ordinary, and yet the most accessible sources of God's grace.
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 10:44am
Your joy leaps off the page for all of us to share!  Thank you. Happy Anniversary! 
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 6:43am
Today I honor Deacon Todd Strange from the Archdiocese of Seattle, being ordained to the priesthood this Saturday, whom I have helped pray through seminary... a very holy man... this next-to-last night, knowing somewhat what he must be facing, having faced an in-kind situation (for a woman) these five years ago.  The adversary is hard at work, yet God has always prevailed in my life and his-and if He is again willing, this work of faith and LOVE will triumph as we both envision!  My God, protect this kind and gentle man who loves You so!  Let him be Christ so perfectly to us we are enkindled and inspired by the Holy Spirit to ever-higher gifts of LOVE to each other and even more devotion to Mother Church so we become more and more obedient servants who are grateful for the gift that perfect obedience brings... with understanding, knowledge, and wisdom bursting from his lips.  Thank you, dear Lord. 
Anonymous | 6/12/2009 - 12:52am
This is an absolutely beautiful reflection. Thanks for sharing it with us. God Bless you and happy anniversary!