Twenty years ago, when Pope John Paul II was in his 10th year of his pontificate and Ronald Reagan was in his last term as President of the United States, me and my four classmates were ordained on Saturday, May 14th by Cardinal Keeler in the Cathedral of St. Patrick, Harrisburg, PA. After twelve years of seminary (including high school), I finally made it to the floor of the Cathedral. Just before being ordained, the deacons prostrate on the floor while the Bishop and congregation stand (during Eastertime) and chant the Litany of Saints. It is a very humbling and awesome experience to lay completely flat on the floor; a real sign of surrender to the Almighty Himself.
Just before the Litany, the Promise of Obedience takes place and the deacon places his hands inside the hands of the Bishop who looks at you, eyeball to eyeball, and asks "do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?" A poignant and graphic reminder of being a faithful servant. After the Litany, is the most important and significant part of ordination, the Laying on of Hands. The Bishop first imposes his hands on each of the ordinandi and this is done in complete silence. The imposition of hands and the subsequent formula of consecration are the valid matter and form of the sacrament. Then, in a gesture of sacerdotal fraternity, every priest present is invited to lay hands on the heads of the deacons about to become priests. Kneeling there, and feeling the weight of the Bishop's hands followed by the steady stream of priests from around the diocese, it is a very emotional part of the ceremony. The choir intones the ancient Veni Creator Spiritus while the priests express their sacerdotal solidarit. Since the time of the Apostles, deacons, priests and bishops have been ordained by the imposition of hands. That two millennia continuity is incredible.
Then the Bishop prays from the Roman Pontifical the necessary words to complete the sacrament and now the former deacons are full fledged priests. Now it is time to change from the liturgical dress of a deacon to a priest, meaning the stole which was worn diagonally across the chest is now hung straight down from the neck (Ordinary Form) or criss-crossed in front of the chest (Extraordinary Form). The Dalmatic is replaced by the Chasuble and thus the vestments of diaconate are switched for vestments of priesthood.
There is a custom in some countries, especially the United States, to have the priest's pastor or mentor help change his vestments from those of a deacon to that of a priest. I had the distinct honor and privilege of having Father Robert Levis vest me on my ordination day. While my pastor was present (Msgr. Wilfrid Nash), he deferred to Father Bob who literally saved my vocation and inspired me along with my late cousin (Fr. Stefan Katarzynski) and my late original pastor (Msgr. Ennis Connelly) when I was but a child. I was asked one week later to vest my classmate Father James Burdess of the Diocese of Allentown, PA. It is a great honor to vest a deacon or priest and I am so happy to have been able to do so at least once in my priesthood.
The Anointing with Chrism and Traditio Instrumentorum (handing of the chalice filled with wine and a paten with a host on it) come next. Pope Pius XII decreed in 1947 (Sacramentum Ordinis) that while an integral part of the ordination rite, the giving of the symbols of office (Book of Gospels for the Deacon; Chalice & Paten for the Priest; Miter & Crosier for Bishop) are not the constitutive elements (matter) of the sacrament. The imposition (laying on) of hands is valid matter. Nevertheless, having your hands anointed by the Bishop almost brought me to tears as you realized this is done to signify that these hands are CONSECRATED so they may be able to CONSECRATE bread & wine into the Precious Body & Blood, Soul & Divinity of Christ. Once a priest's hands are anointed, they can never be anointed again. It is permanent like his priesthood. That is why a priest gets the outside of his hands anointed when he receives Anointing of the Sick unlike the laity and religious who get their palms anointed. The priest's palms have already been anointed at his ordination. Hence, when a priest is in the hospital, the chaplain has to anoint the forehead and back of the hands. Everyone else gets anointed on the palms. When the priest gives his blessing for the first time to someone during his first year of priesthood, there is a pious custom of kissing the open hands (palms) by the person who was just blessed to show respect for that anointing which took place.
In the Extraordinary Form (TLM), the priest had his hands tied together with a linen cloth called a maniturgium. This only exposed his thumbs and forefingers after his palms were anointed. Then the Bishop had the priest touch the chalice and paten with his four fingers. This symbolized the importance of what was called the 'canonical digits,' i.e., the two fingers on each hand a priest needed to celebrate Mass. In the Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo), the fingers are not tied and the priest is handed the entire chalice and paten. However, many of us still used the maniturgium in that we wiped off the sacred chrism onto this linen and later presented it to our mother's at the First Mass the day after Ordination. Pious tradition was that when the mother of a priest died, she was to be buried with the maniturgium used at her son's ordination. Then, when she met St. Peter at the pearly gates, he would see the maniturgium and recognize she is the mother of a priest, and then got a first class escort to her heavenly reward. Poor dear old dad got nothing, except the bill for the reception after the First Mass. Today, many priests don't want their fathers left out, so when mom gets her maniturgium, dad often gets a small purple stole his son the priest used to hear his first confession.
When Cardinal Keeler handed me the Chalice & Paten, he said "Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to Him. Know what you are doing, imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord's cross." That phrase, KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING, had great importance since it implies that every priest must celebrate the holy and sacred mysteries of the altar digne, atténte ac devote (worthily, attentively and with devotion). In other words, the priest should always celebrate a REVERENT and PROPER Mass. As Fr. Z. always says: SAY THE BLACK, DO THE RED.
The last part of the rite is the Sign of Peace and of course, the newly ordained priest first gives this gesture to the Bishop and then all the priests present in the sanctuary, again as a sign of fraternal solidarity in Holy Orders. Then the Mass proceeded as usual with the Offertory and Preparation of the Gifts. Each one of the newly ordained got to say a part of the Eucharistic Prayer, usually number one, also known as the Roman Canon. The Ordination Mass is something every priest remembers fondly as would a bride and groom their own wedding ceremony.
I was fortunate that all three of my brothers and my mom & dad were alive and able to attend my ordination 20 years ago. My sister died as an infant in 1960 but the rest of us grew up together as a typical Sicilian-Polish family. Before I was ten years ordained, however, I would have to bury two younger brothers and then my father, all within a short amount of time. My ordination picture is the only group photo of my parents, my brothers and me. The two days a priest dreads most are the funerals of his mother and father. This is why it meant so much to me to have my classmate and best friend, Father Ken Brighenti, present for my dad's funeral as well as the funeral of my brothers Michael and Joseph. Fr. Ken and I have been friends since 1983 (that's 25 years) when we met at Holy Apostles' Seminary. He was ordained two weeks after me on May 28th for the diocese of Metuchen, NJ. This allowed him to be Deacon not just at my First Mass, but also at my ordination since we had to transitional deacons available. After ordination, I made another good friendship with a priest, Fr. Dennis Dalessandro, who like myself, originally was born and raised in the Erie Diocese. Later, we separately transferred to the Diocese of Harrisburg. Fr. Dennis was ordained 25 years ago this past April 9th (his classmate is our own Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Harrisburg).
The First Mass of a Priest usually takes place the following day of his ordination (if on a Saturday) and normally in his home parish where he grew up. Mine took place at Blessed Sacrament in Erie. After eight years of parochial school I entered High School Seminary in 1976 which fortunately for me, was still in the city of Erie, albeit the other end of town. Priest friends from the Erie Diocese and the Harrisburg Diocese came as well did many seminarians and tons of relatives and neighbors. My dad invited everyone who rode the regular bus route with him when he used to be an employee at General Electric. He was so proud to have a son become a priest that he would talk about it every day on the bus all the time I was in high school and college seminaries. My mom invited several people from the Catholic hospital where she worked for 40 years as the head nurse of the Emergency Room and Trauma Center.
Traditionally, a priest's chalice is given to him from his parents. Mine had my grandmother's diamond embedded in it since she passed away while I was still in seminary. Every time I use that chalice I think of grandma and my mom & dad. I also inherited the chalice of my deceased cousin on my mother's side of the family. Father Steve Katarzynski was a pastor of a small parish in the boondocks of the Erie Diocese. He was forty-five years older than me but he visited our home every month and my dad gave him an Italian haircut in the basement each time. His love and devotion to the priesthood, along with that of Father Levis and my first pastor, Monsignor Connelly, inspired me to become a priest.
Usually a newly ordained priest invites a guest to preach at his First Mass. This is a great honor and I had the pleasure of preaching at the First Mass of a dear childhood friend, Fr. Daniel Senger, OFM. We attended Blessed Sacrament grade school and high school seminary together and had been friends since the third grade. When he asked me to preach his First Mass (which was about five years after mine), I was almost speechless. I had a Jesuit (a good one, though), Father Gerard Steckler, SJ, preach my First Mass. He taught at Gannon University with Father Levis (who vested me). I also had a 'second' First Mass when I celebrated the first time at the parish where I served as a Deacon in the Diocese of Harrisburg, St. Gregory the Great, Lebanon, PA. Fr. David O'Connell, CM, the current President of Catholic University of America, and my former Canon Law professor, preached at that Mass.
After being ordained and celebrating your First Mass, the newly ordained is busy going to his classmates' and friends' ordinations and First Masses in other parishes and dioceses. Then, within a few weeks or at least by the end of the month, comes the FIRST PARISH ASSIGNMENT. Priesthood put into practice and usually a period of baptism by fire which we can explain later.
Forgive the lengthy reminiscences, but twenty years of priesthood brings back plenty of memories and in a time where morale is low, scandals and diocesan politics have discouraged many, it is vital for us priests to remember that special day we became an ALTER CHRISTUS so we could act IN PERSONA CHRISTI. None of us deserve this but God chooses the foolish to confound the wise and uses the weak to conquer the strong. Many of us priests had Psalm 110 sung at ordination and/or First Mass: tu es sacerdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchisedech (you are a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech)
Please remember me in your prayers on May 14th and Fr. Ken Brighenti, my friend, classmate and co-author, on his 20th Jubilee Day, May 28th. I am very grateful for all the wonderful priest and deacon friends I have made these past two decades and I thank God for the love and faith my parents gave me which led me to the priesthood in the first place. I also thank the Lord for the wonderful laity He has allowed to enter my life. Some have become like family to me over these past score (20 yrs. for you non-Lincoln scholars). So while my biological family has decreased in time, my spiritual family keeps increasing. God is good.