Thirteen of us, young men, mid-twenties and a few older, lay on the cold marble floor in the sanctuary of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, N.Y. The ceremony of ordination concluded eight years of study that prepared us for the priesthood. The choir in chant called on every saint that ever lived, and some that didn’t to “pray for us” and the angels “to intercede for us”. We all needed a lot of help to do what we were going to do. All those who ever were saintly in life would have our backs. We were not alone. Priests from within a hundred miles came and laid their hands on our heads as a sign that the Holy Spirit would guide us in some way to do a good job. One by one they came. Some pressed hard to ensure that the Spirit was there. Others not so hard. The Spirit smelled, some times like Aqua Velva, and others like he needed a bath. It had boney fingers and stubby ones. I learned that it takes all kinds to make up a Spirit. The choir struck up the 9th century hymn, Veni Sancte Spiritus, “Come Holy Spirit”. Finally we participated in our first mass with all those priests, and Bishop Edward Maginn as chief priest.
We were proud of the journey through the years in the seminary. The church was different from the time we first began to study. The second Vatican Council had occurred . Pope John 23rd had opened the doors to the fresh currents that flowed into religious circles- the use of the vernacular in rites and ceremonies instead of Latin, increased tolerance for other religions, active participation of the congregation in liturgy and parish governance, lifestyle changes for priests and religious. Perhaps a softening stand on contraception. This group of newly ordained became the vanguard to initiate the changes on the local level. We had nothing to do with the changes that were handed down. We looked forward to those in leadership positions to guide us.
Little did we know about the politics of change. We did not appreciate the depths of the old roots. Like playing follow the leader, we accepted celibacy as part of the terms of our service. “Promitto” “I promise” we responded when asked in Latin if we would be faithful and obedient to the Bishop and his successors.
Why wouldn’t we accept celibacy? We all had lifelong schooling that taught this as an excellent way to serve God. We had anticipated this commitment, had warded off temptations to abandon the pursuit of the priesthood, and here we were. There were many talks given about the value of celibacy in order to dedicate oneself to God’s work.
The first conversation I had with a spiritual director in minor seminary- the first two years in college after high school- I was asked “ Why don’t you want to get married?” My programmed response was “Because I want to be a priest and do God’s work.” I was so sure at the time. The director then said “ Wouldn’t you like to have a nice house in the suburbs...wife...kids… barbecuing on the patio?” I guess he didn’t know much about my small city background far from the suburbs. Our family of seven lived in a two story brick house in a residential neighborhood, with a small fenced in yard. I never dreamed about the suburbs. I had never been there. We only had a family car for the last three years of my high school career. Besides, that lifestyle did not fit in with the life of poverty that Jesus led. “No…,” I responded, “I hadn’t really thought much about that.” “It can be a great life,” he suggested. I thought..If that’s so great, why aren’t you there?... and then said “I would rather be a priest.” With this answer, I was cleared to go on. “You will do okay,” as he affirmed my desire.
Through the eight years of study, I managed to stay focused on my goal. Shortly before the eighth year began, I was called into the office of one of the priests at the Theological College in Washington, D.C. where I had been studying, for what was known as a “canonical examination”. This was an interview to determine my general thoughts and intentions about being a priest, and about celibacy in particular. The Church was in a state of flux. Vatican 2 had raised hopes for change in so many areas of church practice. The law of celibacy for priests was different. An effort was made by officials to assure that no one was entering the priesthood under the delusion or condition that the law would be changed. I honestly assured the examiner that my acceptance of celibacy was unconditional, and I was ready for the commitment.
Within a few months, I was ordained a deacon, and a year later, I spoke the word “Promitto” as Bishop Maginn held my hands within his in the ceremony of ordination.
“Veni Sancte Spiritus” echoed in my mind,
Come father of the poor, come giver of gifts, come light of heartsThe spirit descended and I was ready.
The best Comforter, delightful guest of the mind, sweet relief.