I can’t think of any occurrences that signal hope for the future of the Church like the ordination of new priests.
Baptisms are necessary, of course, but baptisms are so frequently simply cultural events, “the thing to do,” or just to keep the peace with grandparents. First Communion is special indeed, but it, too, is more of a thing that happens as a child ages rather than a new commitment. Confirmation is little more than the Catholic graduation ceremony for so many who have not adopted the faith as their own but are being confirmed because mom and dad said so. Catholic marriages far-too-frequently include contraception and divorce to be a sure sign of much of anything. Holy Orders is different. You don’t happen into ordination. It’s not just a thing you do as a cultural Catholic, or a thing the Church does for you because you went through a few awkward but painless preparatory classes.
Seminary is at least six years long. It is an incredibly intense whole-person formation program. It is a time when the seminarian is testing himself and being tested, with both sides constantly evaluating whether the seminarian is still future-priest material. The scrutiny can be maddening at times, very welcomed at times, but always in the plan of God and thus always with a view toward the greater good of the individual seminarian and the Church.
And the men getting ordained these days are especially interesting cases because of the recent history of American Catholicism. A man ordained these days entered seminary well after the sex abuse scandal was in full swing. He endured the Apostolic Visitation of the seminaries in the first few years of his formation. He has no illusions about priestly prestige awaiting him upon ordination.
The process of getting into seminary included significant questioning and examination and psychological evaluations on the part of the diocese. Who knows what pressure may have been exerted by friends and family.
And yet he persevered, listening to what he believed was the “still, small voice” of God, beckoning him to something greater, and very much worth all the pain and difficulty.
Once in seminary he had to survive in one of the most rigorous academic programs the Church can muster, but academic achievement was only a fraction of what seminary expected of him. He had to learn to take care of himself physically, frequently being told he needed to exercise more and eat better. He was expected not only to assist at Mass daily, but to develop the habit of praying the liturgy of the hours, a rosary, perhaps a chaplet, and to make a daily holy hour. None of these, apart from daily Mass, were seen as absolute requirements, but failure to develop the habit for at least some of them was noticed. He was expected to develop social graces and an easy manner of conversation with anyone. He was expected to curb his vices, excising the abjectly immoral ones entirely, while developing the ability to moderate eating, drinking, smoking, watching T.V., playing video games, and partaking in other recreational activities prudently. And he was somehow supposed to acquire administrative and organizational skills, while also learning all the rubrics, rituals, details, and nuances of how and when to actually perform the sacramental functions of a priest.
The man being ordained these days has no illusions about a cushy life and positions of prestige. He will be loved by many, but automatically suspect to so many others. He usually will be one of two or three priests responsible for two or more churches, in demand to attend women’s club meetings, pastoral council meetings, religious education classes, parishoner events, diocesan events, spend countless hours in the confessional, schedule hours on end of spiritual direction, marriage preparation and counseling, funeral planning and preparation, write homilies, respond to emergency sick calls, take Communion to shut-ins, visit the prison, the hospital, the retirement community, and whatever personal social time he can muster—because priests need to unwind with friends, too. Somewhere in there he has to get in his own absolutely essential personal prayer time, because if he isn’t communicating personally with God and listening to what God is saying, he has nothing worth saying to God’s people.
But the most important thing he will do is offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Without the priesthood we have no Eucharist, and without the Eucharist, the “source and summit of the Christian life,” we lose our most intimate and real relationship with the Jesus Christ, the bridegroom of our souls.
New priests means a future with the Eucharist. New priests are made at ordinations. Ordinations are the culmination of the seminary process that, were it not for the seminarian’s intense love of God’s Church (that includes you and me) engendered by the grace of God and the prayers of the Blessed Mother, no one but the most masochistic of souls willingly would endure.
But it is a good thing seminary is so incredibly difficult. Seminary can be an incredibly gratifying time for a man who has responded to the call. The people of God are incredibly, massively, ridiculously generous, and they love their seminarians, whether the seminarian deserves it or not. Gifts, invitations to dinner, smiles and kind words, effusive thanks for responding to the call, being held up as some sort of model Catholic, mothers who bring their sons to meet the seminarian in the hope that their sons will be Just Like Him, being regarded as an expert on matters Catholic, and the incredible fraternity that develops within the community of seminarians. It can become a very comfortable life. So much so that the seminarian may not want to leave it when the time comes. But leave it he must, and he must not, once ordained, have an unhealthy desire to be back living the life he had at the seminary—the call is to the priesthood, not to the seminary. So it is important for those responsible for the formation of the next generation of priests to train them well—so well that they only desire to be priests, not seminarians, and are as well prepared as they can be for the hard life of a priest in this day and age.
St. Paul may have been a bishop (we may not think of him in those terms much, but he was a bishop), but he could just as well have been a simple priest or a seminarian when he said that if Christ had not been raised from the dead the “we are the most pitiable of men.”
But Christ has been raised from the dead, seminary does end, new priests are ordained, and thus the Church in her essential sacramental life shall live on.