Ordination day is usually a standing-room-only event at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. Family members and friends of the ordinandi show up hours early to snag a seat, and the side aisles are filled with latecomers craning their necks to see above the crowd.

Fr. Justin Weber (from left), Fr. Patrick Magnor, Fr. John Hemsing, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, Fr. Luke Strand, Fr. Carlos Londono and Fr. Edward Sanchez after the May 16 ordination. (Photo courtesy of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary)

But as with so many other important moments of 2020, this year’s Rite of Ordination on Saturday, May 16, looked a bit different than usual — and for the rest of their lives as priests, Fr. Justin Weber, Fr. Edward Sanchez, Fr. Carlos Londono and Fr. Patrick Magnor will be able to tell the story of being ordained in the midst of a global pandemic.

“Under normal circumstances, this day would belong to your parents, family, friends and priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” said Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki in his homily, addressing the ordinandi. “They would be here in full force, sharing in the joy of your priesthood.”

Instead of the usual crowds of people, the congregation was sparse, limited to just 10 invited guests for each of the four men to be ordained. The interlocking chairs that usually form the “pews” of the Cathedral were removed in favor of more portable seats that could be placed at an appropriate distance from one another to sequester attendees not of the same household. Before the beginning of the liturgy, Kim Mandelkow, director of the Archdiocesan Office for Worship, took to the microphone to offer some instructions for social distancing: no physical contact during the Sign of Peace, Eucharist under only one form and no Communion line.

“I realize you could have delayed your ordination. But instead you chose to be ordained priests on the established date, doing so in the midst of personal sacrifice,” said Archbishop Listecki. “Confronted by the challenges of this pandemic, you have made it clear by your decision that the day truly belongs to Christ and His Church.”

The public was still able to share in the liturgy through digital means, as the Mass was livestreamed on the Cathedral’s YouTube page. By the following morning, the 96-minute video had been viewed more than 1,600 times.

The ordinandi had been given the option to reschedule the ordination, said Fr. John Hemsing, rector of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary. “Each man said to me he would do whatever the archbishop felt was appropriate,” said Fr. Hemsing, speaking with the Catholic Herald several days before the ordination.

Ultimately, he said, the archbishop decided to allow the soon-to-be-ordained priests to make the final choice themselves. After more discussion, the men decided as a group to go ahead with the ordination as planned.

With the future so uncertain, they did not want to risk having to postpone it a second time, said Fr. Hemsing.

“It’s going to be a little strange — we’re so used to seeing large crowds at these celebrations because it really is such a joyful event for the local church,” said Fr. Hemsing. “But it’s still going to be a wonderful celebration, and the Lord will be praised in these men who are going to serve the Lord and the Church as priests.”

In his homily, Archbishop Listecki expressed admiration for the mens’ decision, saying that it communicated perfectly the self-sacrificial attitude required of a shepherd.

“For me as your ordinary, it is truly admirable that your ordination is born through your personal sacrifice for the good of the Church,” he said. “Jesus promised that he would give His Church pastors, shepherds to lead his people. ‘I will give you shepherds after my own heart,’ says Jeremiah. In his pastoral exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, John Paul II states: ‘The Lord’s promise calls forth from the heart of the Church a prayer, that is a confident and burning petition in the love of the Father who, just as he has sent Jesus the good shepherd, the apostles, their successors and a countless host of priests, will continue to show to the people of today his faithfulness, his goodness.’”

“My brothers,” he continued. “You’re the answer to prayers.”

The archbishop went on to speak frankly about the magnitude of the task the men have been called to take up as priests.

“In our world, we need shepherds to be brave, to stand with those who have been neglected, who have been forgotten by our society, to be a voice for the voiceless, from the child in the womb to the poor and those who in the last days of their life are denied dignity. God does not abandon them and we cannot forget them.”

Furthermore, said the archbishop, “the shepherd needs to challenge the attacks leveled against the Church by atheists, agnosticism, but most of all, indifferentism.”

“We can’t live successfully denying God, ignoring God, or worse, not caring about God. We must proclaim the Gospel even when our words are rejected.”

He also spoke of the profound relationship the new priests would form with those they have been called to serve, but reminded them that the lifeblood of this connection is the priest’s own relationship to Christ.

“The good shepherd knows his sheep and he knows them because he knows the Lord. The depth of a priest’s relationship with Jesus gives him an ability to guide and direct the lives of those under his care.”

Later in the Mass, at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the archbishop expressed regret that the parents of the new priests could not offer the gifts as they traditionally do during ordination.

“I always considered that a very treasured moment because I was able to say, ‘Here is your son, who is also the gift,’” he said. “I want to thank you for that gift. To the Magnors, to the Sanchezes, to the Webers, to the Londonos, who are watching us livestreamed (from Colombia), thank you for your gift. These, your sons, are our priests, and Holy Mother Church welcomes them with great joy.”