When I was a boy, my favorite day of the year was a toss-up between Christmas and the first day of school. In high school and college, it was definitely the last day of school. While toiling in the business world, it was the first day of vacation. Since becoming a Jesuit, I have a new favorite day: ordination day. I attended my first ordination after making an eight-day retreat as part of my discernment to enter the Society of Jesus. I had already decided to enter. But if I hadn’t, the sight of a Jesuit ordination would have clinched the deal. The procession, the music, the chanting of the Litany of the Saints, the imposition of hands, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, the congratulations and smiles and laughter and first blessings afterwardswere all, on their own, deeply moving. Taken together, they were nearly overwhelming.
So each year I also look forward to the day in mid-June when my Jesuit province gathers to celebrate ordinations in New England. But it’s not just the Mass that I enjoy. I also look forward to attending the rehearsal the night before (whether or not I’m part of the Mass the next day). There you see not only the excited ordinandi but also newer Jesuits pressed into service for the next day, to serve as acolytes, candle bearers and ushers. And while some have had experience as altar boys, others are less knowledgeable. (I was clueless about matters liturgical when I entered the novitiate.) This year one novice was asked by the master of ceremonies to pay particular attention to the thurible and the boat, and he nodded sagely in response. Afterward he said, Of course, I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.
Now that I’ve been a Jesuit for over 15 years, I attend the ordinations of men I first met when they were brand-new novices. One sees, in a sense, the seeds of their training come to fruition at ordination. (Yes, some Jesuits still happily choose to be brothers, and, yes, Jesuit formation technically isn’t completed until after ordination, but you know what I mean.)
When I see them during the ordination Mass, I remember first meeting them at Jesuit vocation functions, hearing their tales about their first time working with the poor, as well as snatches of conversations along the waysometimes funny stories about nutty Jesuits in their community, sometimes more important stories about joys and sorrows in their lives. All these things I recall when I see them kneeling before the bishop, as if he were consecrating to the priesthood all the stories from their lives.
This year was a special year for me and, more important, for two Jesuit friends. One of my closest friends, George, a prison chaplain whom I have known since our novitiate days, was ordained with another friend, John, who will now be our province’s new vocation director.
When George entered the Jesuits, he decided to become a brother, but during the intervening years as a prison chaplain, he found the inmates asking him to hear their confessions and celebrate Mass for them. In this way my friend, over time, discovered his vocation to be a priest. It was called out of him by the people of God.
As happens every year, I teared up during the Litany of the Saints and during the imposition of hands, this time by Archbishop Sean Patrick O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., of Boston. But unlike other years, I was asked, along with another friend, to vest one of the new priests in the stole and chasuble. As I did this, I thought of all the times George and I had shared together as Jesuits over the yearscleaning the novitiate on Saturday mornings, commiserating over yet another difficult philosophy or theology course, writing to each other while working overseas (he in Brazil, I in Kenya), and even working together in the prisonall the while dreaming about doing great things for God. And when the Mass was over, on a sunny day in Boston, I knelt down and received a blessing from my old friend.
I’m already looking forward to next June.