On May 14, 1975, my life changed radically with the simple act of the imposition of hands for a few brief seconds by John Patrick Cardinal Cody the Archbishop of Chicago. I processed out of the Chapel of Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary with my 37 classmates as an ordained priest for the Roman Catholic Church.
I had to face the reality of the responsibility of the priestly office. I imagine in some sense it’s like a couple on their wedding day walking into church engaged but single and now emerging husband and wife, tied to each other in a commitment made before God.
It takes time to assimilate what happens in an act of commitment. In my case, I had prepared for this moment of ordination for 12 years (minor seminary, college and theology). One would think that 12 years would be a sufficient time for a young man to be ready to integrate all understanding of priestly life.
In the years of seminary training, in addition to one’s academic training, a young man is subjected to a formation program. This formation program is essential in the development of the man who will one day be a priest.
It focuses on the integration of the human, psychological, intellectual and spiritual dimensions of the person. This assists the seminarian in addressing the questions that emerge in his own life and those posed by the culture he must engage. But the seminarian does so in transition as he progresses from year to year. It is not until the act of ordination that one truly begins to live it.
Although a priest is assigned to serve a particular parish, he is really ordained for the whole church. The collar becomes an open invitation for anyone who is curious about the church, who wants to share his or her experiences or just needs advice.
There is an immediate connection to the collar and one understands that he stands on the shoulders of all who have gone before them, for best or worst. There were countless occasions in my 38 years as a priest, be they in airport terminals, on trains or in waiting areas, that conversations about religion, about a favorite priest or something happening with a family member or friend turned a perfect stranger into an immediate friend.
I have come to appreciate that the priesthood is truly a gift, not only as a vocation in my life but to the universal church.
Blessed John Paul II, in “Pastores Dabo Vobis” (“I Will Give Them Pastors”), stated: “Without priests, the church would not be able to live that fundamental obedience which is at the very heart of her existence and her mission in history, an obedience in response to the command of Christ: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’ (Mt 28:19) and ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (Lk 22:19; cf. I Cor 11:24), i.e., an obedience to the command to announce the Gospel and to renew daily the sacrifice of the giving of his body and the shedding of his blood for the life of the world.”
Despite the terrible incidents of clergy sexual abuse which have scarred our history, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has a proud priestly tradition of dedicated men who have profoundly influenced the shaping of the church, community and individual lives.
I love to hear the stories that our parishioners tell of their former pastors or associates. Many speak with such admiration for their personal accomplishments. The histories of our parishes are replete with stories of the characters that occupied the positions of pastor.
On May 18, four young men will be ordained for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee: Patrick Burns, Phil Schumaker, John Paul Mitchell and Arulanathan Ponnaiyan.
They represent the growing internationalization of the priesthood. These are seminarians influenced by the papacy of John Paul II. These are children of the New Evangelization.
The four men were in the first year of theology when I arrived as the new archbishop. I have memories of my first encounters with them. Patrick Burns and Phil Schumaker accompanied me to an Admirals hockey game when I was invited to ceremonially “drop the puck.” They, along with now-Fr. Ryan Pruess, arrived at my door and they looked like shiny new pennies, well-scrubbed, wearing white shirts, sweaters and ties.
I asked them if this is how they normally dress to attend a hockey game. Sheepishly, they told me that their rector, Fr. Donald Hying, told them they must dress appropriately to accompany the archbishop.
It didn’t stop us from cheering like maniacs. Patrick and Phil have acted as my master of ceremonies for various archdiocesan events. John Paul Mitchell accompanied the Milwaukee delegation and me for the “ad limina” visit to Pope Benedict XVI. He has been deacon for my Masses celebrated in Rome. I was fortunate to have visited the region of India that Arulanathan Ponnaiyan is from.
Arul had never experienced the cold and snow before coming to study for the priesthood in Milwaukee. He arrived in January. In below zero temperature, he went out on the front lawn of the seminary without coat, hat or gloves and started to play and make snowballs from the newly fallen snow. Not realizing the effects of the cold and snow, his hands started freezing and his ears were in danger of frostbite. Needless to say this Indian has adjusted and now has become a true Wisconsinite with hat, scarf, coat and gloves. Perhaps ice fishing is next for him?
The brief act of the imposition of hands will forever change their lives. They will be priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and,, as their archbishop, I will be forever grateful to God for their vocations.