Bishop OrdainingThe Appointed Place at the Appointed Time

Some things--earthquakes for instance--can change our lives forever without prior planning on our part. Other life-altering events do require some advance work--such as buying a lottery ticket and keeping fingers crossed--but make no demands beyond that initial outlay of capital. However, when we look at those life ceremonies that act as key markers in our own and our loved ones' lives, we find that preparation is both necessary and desirable.

Anyone who has planned a wedding knows what I'm talking about. The ceremony itself is a wonderful occasion. It is a time of great joy, summoning powerful recollections of the past life of the bride or groom, evoking equally powerful feelings of joy, and moving all involved to a hope-filled consideration of the future.

Emcee looking on

Awkward moments in ordinations tend to happen when someone who has been still for a while says to himself, "You know, I've got a feeling that I ought to be doing something right about now. I'm not sure what, but certainly something." Fatal words.

However, if truth be told, it is a rare wedding that does not cause at least one member of one of the families fondly to entertain visions of the couple eloping. As the happy day nears, the number of details to be decided and enacted upon grows exponentially, and "calm" is not always the watchword of the day.

Nonetheless, when the dawn of the day after proclaims that the coast is clear, those responsible for mailing invitations, booking church and hall, ordering meals, chauffeuring and stabling out-of-towners, and arranging and executing the wedding with all rites dutifully observed, can find reward in having contributed to the happiness of persons near and dear.

Such nuptial images readily come to mind in the months of late spring when the nesting habits of many a steeple-dwelling bird are disturbed by the pealing of celebratory chimes. However, June bells throughout the land ring out as well to herald ordinations of young men to the priesthood.

While decisions on limousines and bouquets rarely if ever are parts of the planning for ordinations, other details assemble in myriads to demand a place at the table.

For seven of the recent ordinations of the Jesuits' New Orleans Province, it has been my privilege to serve as the master of ceremonies for the ordination Mass.

However, lest anyone think that this task is more than flesh and blood can bear, let me hasten to note that the really heavy lifting is done by the Jesuit in charge of men in formation. Here I have been blessed, not seven times but seventy times seven times, to have worked with assistant for formation Fr. Paul Deutsch, SJ, and his predecessor in that position, Fr. John Armstrong, SJ.

It falls upon the assistant for formation to see to booking the church and the reception hall, to arranging catering, to distributing announcements and programs, to housing out-of-towners, and to every other onerous task imaginable. Under the capable direction of Armstrong and Deutsch, everything on either side of the ordination Mass has fallen into place. Here, images of wedding preparations are helpful. Florists, printers, caterers, and photographers all handle their tasks with professional aplomb; but someone must enlist and coordinate their services. This "someone" is the assistant for formation.

In God's hands

That leaves, then, the two hours (more or less--generally more) for the ordination Mass itself. And it is this matter that falls to the emcee. At all stages of planning, it is helpful for reality to speak a liberating word. An ordination is not the emcee's action; it is not that of the men to be ordained, not that of their families, nor even that of their brother Jesuits. The sacrament of ordination is an act of Christ the High Priest through the ministry of his Church, an act done in his name and by his power. Like any Mass, it is ultimately directed to the glory and honor of God the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. That context does relativize any other question about which one can become agitated.

As is the case with any other sacrament, ordination has specific liturgical norms that dictate the majority of what will happen. However, as is the case with any other sacrament, the ordination ritual contains legitimate options. Here is where candidates for ordination have their input. They select the Scripture readings to announce God's word as it pertains to their call as priests. Along with the person in charge of music, they decide on hymns to underscore the realities of the sacramental actions. They and their families choose those who will have special roles such as bringing up the gifts at the Offertory.

And, of course, the candidates focus more and more intently on their own spiritual preparation for ordination to the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

Even the clearest words in a ritual book always demand a certain translation into the square footage of any given church. In this work--often literally a matter of inches--invaluable assistance comes from two sources. The first is the ordaining bishop himself, who generally provides his own emcee, usually a priest or deacon who accompanies the bishop on his sacramental ministry. This emcee brings a wealth of experience into what makes for a prayerful ceremony and what points of the ritual the bishop stresses. The bishop's emcee also takes charge of everything in the Mass dealing with the bishop, leaving me, the candidates' emcee, to concentrate on getting them into the right place at the right time.

The second source of help and experience is those who work in the church where the ordinations will be celebrated: the pastor or chaplain and the sacristan. On more than one occasion, their awareness of such things as the finer points of distribution of Communion in that particular church has prevented chaos from rearing its ugly head. Their patience with me and other strangers descending on their church is impressive, and their handling of the inevitable last-minute needs is a safety net.

The most natural occurrence

For the average Catholic layperson (and average Catholic priest, for that matter) an ordination Mass has a number of singular features. Here the generous presence of assistant emcees from among my brother Jesuits has been invaluable. Whether in making sure that the incense is prepared without the church going up in flames, in ensuring that a flagon of chrism (the oil used in the ceremony) gets to and from the bishop without occasioning an environmental impact study, or in guiding up to 100 concelebrating priests to appointed places at appointed times, these men do yeoman duty in making an ordination look like the most natural occurrence in the world.

This list of thanks highlights the basic job of the emcee: to ensure that nothing keeps the ordination Mass from flowing smoothly and reverently.

Bishop's Mitre

At any given time before and during the ordination I may wonder how a relatively straightforward matter can take so many twists and turns and may even feel that an earthquake is the right metaphor for the proceedings.

Following the Church's rubrics for this sacrament prevents a lot of problems from ever happening. But beyond the official rubrics I've found two invariably true rules of thumb: "The laws of physics will always win out" and "When in doubt, do nothing." Under the first rule comes the task of making sure that no two bodies try to occupy the same space at the same time. In church sanctuaries as on highways, collisions are never a pretty sight; at least one eye of the emcee must always be estimating trajectories of candidates, servers, readers, and any object that any of them is carrying.

The second rule applies to any liturgical action, ordinations in particular. Awkward moments in ordinations tend to happen when someone who has been still for a while says to himself, "You know, I've got a feeling that I ought to be doing something right about now. I'm not sure what, but certainly something." Fatal words. On the contrary, if any person involved in the ordination forgets to come forward for the next part of the rite, then it's the emcee's job to approach that person with a reminder and possibly an assisting arm. With any luck, this movement will look like it's in the program, and matters will proceed apace.

While at any given time before and during the ordination I may wonder how a relatively straightforward matter can take so many twists and turns and may even feel that an earthquake is the right metaphor for the proceedings, I have found that when all is said and done, three considerations prevail.

First, I am reminded of my own ordination. I recall with gratitude those who calmed me with the consoling words, "Look, it's my job to make sure this goes smoothly. You just do nothing until I come and get you, and everything will be just fine." If my work as emcee repays part of the debt I owe these men, I am happy.

Second, at some time in the ordination (admittedly, toward the end), I rejoice that I have been able to offer such service to my brothers being ordained; for an ordination is a great event not only in their own and their families' lives but also in the life of the Society of Jesus and of the Church.

Moreover, I am edified by the presence of the Jesuit scholastics and novices who serve the Mass, and I rejoice at their receiving an "up close" sense of their own ordinations in future years.

And finally, I cannot help but be filled with hope for the Society and the Church. If pulling together the details of an ordination teaches me anything, it is that the Holy Spirit is active in the Church. Such consideration of the Spirit's ongoing presence gives renewed force to words that the bishop will speak to each of the men being ordained: "May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment."   *

Fr. Raymond Fitzgerald, SJ, teaches religion and Latin and serves as superior of the Jesuit community at Jesuit College Prep in Dallas. His ordination to the priesthood was in 1991.

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