Whenever I celebrate a wedding, I look into the eyes of the married couples attending the ceremony and I know their minds are floating back to the day they stood at the altar pledging their love and commitment in the sacrament of marriage.
It’s natural to reflect on significant moments in our lives and revisit them when others make similar commitments.
On the day of ordination to the priesthood, there will be a number of the good fathers present who will think back to the day of their ordination and the commitment they made to Christ and his church.
I use the image of marriage because, in one sense, the intensity of the commitment is somewhat similar. In fact, a number of theologians have put forth the image of a young man’s commitment to the church as the bridegroom to the bride.
If the priest is ordained “in persona Christi” (in the person of Christ), it is Jesus who is referred to as the bridegroom to his bride, the church.
“As a mystery, the church is essentially related to Jesus Christ. She is his fullness, his body, his spouse. She is the ‘sign’ and living ‘memorial’ of his permanent presence and activity in our midst and our behalf. The priest finds the full truth of his identity in being a derivation, a specific participation in and continuation of Christ himself, the one high priest of the new and eternal covenant.
“The priest is a living and transparent image of Christ the priest. The priesthood of Christ, the expression of his absolute ‘newness’ in salvation history, constitutes the one source and essential model of the priesthood shared by all Christians and the priest in particular. Reference to Christ is thus the absolutely necessary key for understanding the reality of priesthood.” (John Paul II Pastores Dabo Vobis #12)
I have lived my life as one married to the church. I am not embarrassed by that image, although I admit there are those that find the image archaic.
In the attempt to define everything in terms of ministry, we diminish the ontological aspect of the priesthood, which means there was something which transformed our very being when ordination occurred. At the heart of “sacrament,” is a transformative element.
Once ordained as a priest, one is a “priest” 24/7 and once you are married, you are a husband, wife, father, mother 24/7. When explaining the various symbols associated with a bishop to our Catholic school children, I take my ring and ask them who wears a ring in their family. Without hesitancy, they shout, “My mom and dad!”
I ask, “Why?” and many shout back, “Because they’re married!”
“Right!” I say, “And this ring is a symbol that I am married also to you, the ‘church.’” The response by the children is usually “eeck.” Not very good for my ego.
However, they get the point we belong to one another.
One young priest told me what keeps him motivated is the image of his marriage to the church. As a husband and father, he would strive to provide the best for his wife and family, and as a priest, he strives to provide the best for his wife, the church and his family, the children of God, entrusted to his care.
In a couple of days, there will be six new bridegrooms who will be ordained to serve the church. Three will be native to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and three will come from foreign lands, but all six will be ours: Gideon Kamwina Buya, John Spencer Gibson, Peter Patrick Wamugi Kimani, Justin Lawrence Lopina, Nathaniel Joseph Miniatt and Jose Mario Nieto Restrepo.
Perhaps you have followed their stories in the Catholic Herald over the last few weeks. Each one of these men has traveled a unique journey through which God has called them to his altar.
They will preach, calling upon their experiences and touching the lives of their parishioners through the Gospel.
“Through the sacrament of Holy Orders priests share in the universal dimensions of the mission that Christ entrusted to the apostles. The spiritual gift they have received in ordination prepares them, not for a limited and restricted mission, ‘but for the fullest in fact the universal mission of salvation’ to the end of the earth prepared in spirit to preach the Gospel everywhere” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1565).
There will be a honeymoon period for the bridegrooms, who will experience everything new to the priestly relationship — their first Mass, their first confession and their first anointing.
They’ll have to adjust to being referred as “Father” and learning all about the history of their new families in their pastoral assignments. However, they’ll have the support of fellow priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
This priesthood has a rich tradition of pastoral expertise building the communities of our parishes, fashioning our families of faith. These new priests will transition and grow in their love for their new bride, the church, and within what will seem a short period of time for them will join the other good “Fathers” next year remembering the moment when they, as bridegrooms, embraced their bride, the church, and their lives were changed forever.