We have had three separate ordinations this month — two men were ordained deacons and one a priest. It’s quite unusual for January.
One of the moments that always strikes people most powerfully is just after the prayer of ordination, when the new deacon or priest is clothed with his new vestments for the first time.There is a natural human pride in seeing someone finally ‘make it’ to the end of a long journey (and the beginning of another one). But there is something deeper too: The recognition that the ‘office’ of being an ordained minister matters more than the gifts or personality of the individual, that the gift of ordination is much more than what the person deserves in his own right.
Father Dermot Power, a friend and colleague here at the seminary where I work, is often saying that part of the poverty of being a priest, the asceticism, is this anonymity. In quite a touching and telling way, most Catholics know that in a moment of crisis ‘any priest will do’ — as long as he can hear my confession, or come to the hospital at three o’clock in the morning, or celebrate the baptism of my child.
There is no disrespect or lack of love here, and Catholics have a huge well of affection for the priests that they know. It’s simply that the treasure of sacramental ordination is more important than the earthenware vessel that carries it. Or put another way, as von Balthasar said, priests are pygmies in giants’ clothing.
It’s very humbling, as a priest, to be reminded of the enormity of the gift of ordination, and to be reminded that the gifts we share as priests with others — especially the sacraments that we minister — are far beyond what we have to give through our natural abilities.
Of course this doesn’t mean that there is no dignity associated simply with being human, or with the grace of being a Christian. It simply highlights the particular grace that comes with ordination, for which we can all be grateful – whether ordained or not.