“I’m going to be 17.”  

The last time I said that I was eagerly waiting to get my drivers license – and trying to decide which college to go to after finishing High School in a few months. It’s hard to believe, that length of time from birth to adulthood – is now that same length of time I’m reflecting on. Only this time, counting my life as a priest. 17 years on May 29th.

It doesn’t seem real to me. I mean I don’t think I’m old – and I remember thinking at some point in my pre-priest life (or even my early years of priesthood) whenever I would meet a priest who said he had been ordained around this length of time, I had this sense of “oh this guy’s experienced (a polite way of saying old)” Yet it kind of snuck up on me… Here it is, 17 years later. I don’t feel old – or well, that old. Often times I don’t feel “experienced.” Most definitely don’t feel like an expert.

Yesterday as is the custom in the Archdiocese of Newark on Memorial Day Weekend, we celebrated the ordinations to the priesthood for 10 men. It’s always a day of deep reflection for myself – and I would imagine every one of the hundreds of other priests there. How can we not get caught up in our own memories of our own ordination day…

…as we enter the great Basilica to the same processional chant from Psalm 43 “Go up to the altar of God, the God of our glandess and joy. Raise up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord”

…as we see the rows and rows of happy families and friends;

…as we see the men seated on that bottom step of the altar until they are called, and respond to that call;

…as we see them prostrate themselves on the floor in front of the altar, laying down their very lives to Christ, to His Church, to His people

…as we see the bishop lay his hands in that
gesture in which the priesthood has been shared from Jesus himself to us this very day, 2000+ years later

Those different moments are rich in significance and meaning. In these 17 years, I’ve tried to attend almost every priesthood ordination – not only because it’s a great day for the Church, our Archdiocese and to offer my own fraternal support to these new brother priests. But also to allow it to be a day of renewal once again for me and my priesthood. Something different usually hits me in a different way each year. One year, it was the joy of one of the new priests that was
just radiating from him throughout the entire Mass – it was infections. Another time, the prayer of ordination – the words just sounded so new that they hit me differently (or I heard them differently).

What really hit me today, as I prepare to mark my 17th anniversary was the promises that the men make right before their ordination. The “big” promise that most people might assume I’m talking about, of chastity, actually isn’t made at our priestly ordination. That happened a year earlier at my diaconate ordination.

The promises we make before our priestly ordination are more to the heart of our lives as priests:

Dear sons, before you enter the Order of the Priesthood, you must declare before the people your intention to undertake this office.
Do you resolve, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to discharge, without fail, the office of priesthood in the presbyteral rank, as worthy fellow workers with the Order of Bishops in caring for the Lord’s flock?
Do you resolve to exercise the ministry of the word worthily and wisely, preaching the Gospel and teaching the Catholic faith?
Do you resolve to celebrate faithfully and reverently, in accord with the Church’s tradition, the mysteries of Christ, especially the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the sacrament of Reconciliation, for the glory of God and the sanctification of the Christian people?
Do you resolve to implore with us God’s mercy upon the people entrusted to your care by observing the command to pray without ceasing?
Do you resolve to be united more closely every day to Christ the High Priest, who offered himself for us to the Father as a pure sacrifice, and with Him to consecrate yourselves to God for the salvation of all…

To some Catholics, those might not seem as big as the big promise. I know that was the case for me… earlier in my life, earlier in my priesthood, the promise of celibacy definitely seemed to be the most important one.

But today as I was listening to these expectations being asked and watching the men respond to them, it was almost an examination of conscience. Maybe that’s the Italian in me… I pretty quickly started recalling times where I failed in one way or another – that I wasn’t as prayerful; that the homily wasn’t as well prepared; that I wasn’t as reverent; that I wasn’t as attentive to God’s people… that I didn’t strive to unite myself more closely to Christ the High Priest. – like I said I would 17 years ago…

But in His loving Mercy, the Lord kind of quickly smacked me in the head as I listened to the men saying “I do” to each question… for the last promise, the response is I do, with the help of God. Yes, there have been more than enough failures I’ve made in my priesthood. But the failure that hits the most is when I’ve lost sight that all that I do, all that I offer, all that I am as a priest is with the help of God.

I can’t celebrate the Sacraments, bringing Jesus word; His Body and Blood; His Healing; His forgiveness; His Peace…

I can’t be an alter Christus – another Christ… stand in His person…

I can’t be a Father to His people…

I couldn’t do that incredibly painful funeral…

I couldn’t minister to that dying relative in the hospital…

I didn’t know what to say to that person in distress

I can’t do any of the things that I’ve been blessed, privileged, challenged and stretched to do these 17 years on my own. I DO [THEM], WITH THE HELP OF GOD.

So as I celebrate this my second “17th” I’m filled with gratitude to Almighty God for the gift of life; the gift of faith; the gift of priesthood… For the amazing patchwork of faces of the people of God from over the years where I’ve been able to share their very lives at some of the most extremes of their lives simply because I was His priest… For the day to day celebration of Mass where the ordinary is quite extraordinary.

And I promise, I resolve to live these and all the promises I made at both ordinations; the promises my parents and godparents made for me at my Baptism (and that I took responsibility for at my Confirmation); and the expectations the Lord continues to put on my heart day to day… as best I can… with all that I am…, remembering, most importantly to do so – with the help of God.