I’m going to break a rule and so must ask for your forgiveness in advance. I’m doing what I should not. I am making this all about… me. To do this, I need to describe what I once learned. And, what I have more recently come to appreciate.
Where were you and what were you doing exactly 1 year ago today? I myself have no idea.
Where were you and what were you doing 5 years ago, this very minute? I could not answer that.
Where were you and what were you doing 17 years ago, this exact second? I know and I can tell you about it in great detail.
My twenty year path toward eventually applying for the diaconate was a long and winding one, though unlike many others, there were no dramatic or even mildly interesting moments. No shocking flashes of light. I fell off no horse. There were no blinking neon signs pointing my way forward. No, my story is more about a gentle, but persistent whisper. One I sometimes strained to hear and often worked hard to ignore. My story is a more common variety; I sought signs but dismissed nearly every one that I encountered.
I entered the diaconate program with a great and joyful anticipation.
Along the way, the Boston Globe Spotlight team published a report chronicling the unthinkable. Horrible acts. Regrettable lies. We saw angry protesters holding up foreboding signs telling us just what they thought of our Church. Those were not the signs I had been looking for.
I remember standing inside of Williams Hall at the Seminary in Brighton with my classmates and teachers that night. We huddled close together, in shock, wondering if any of what we had read earlier that day in the paper was true. It was a shockwave that altered our course as companions in a common endeavor. It shook our core. But it made us closer.
During those days of study and discernment, I became increasingly comfortable with the theology, the writing, the talking, the thinking, the mulling and the praying. It was the liturgical role that gave me pause. We took a class on that and the professor detailed all the various things we were to do when we were on or around the altar and despite my feverish note-taking, it all seemed overly complex and horribly bewildering to me. Then, one week before our ordination, my classmate pulled a name out of a hat to pick who would serve on the altar with the Cardinal for the actual ordination. Against every hope I held, the name on that piece of paper was mine.
“Now this is no ordinary Mass”, said the master of ceremonies during our rehearsal a few days before. He then proceeded to rattle off the various flourishes and unique gestures of the upcoming ceremony and I could not take notes fast enough to capture all of the detail. In the 48 hours leading up to that moment, all I could think about were things like: “How exactly do I incense the altar?” and “Where again does the Cardinal like the book placed?” I was focusing on these details. I was worried I would ruin the entire affair. I was hyperventilating about the fact that all of my friends and family would be there to witness my guaranteed epic and grand scale failure.
I should have been thinking about other things, but I was thinking about this. I was thinking about me.
Just before the official ordination Mass was to begin, all candidates were invited into a small chapel situated just to the left of the main altar in the Cathedral. I had never been in there before. We sat in silence and prayed. I prayed for peace. That I would not fail. That I could get through this horrible thing. 17 years ago… right this very second… I sat in that chapel and my heart was pounding.
My path to that point, filled with a gentle but persistent whisper and a lingering desire for a more pronounced, interesting and maybe even dramatic shove from above surrounded me in that moment much the same way that a snake strangles its prey.
I began to hear faint nearby noises and knew that something or someone was moving in front of me, but I kept my eyes shut and my focus on what was to come. Could I do this? Would I royally mess up?
Looking back, I now think of what happened next as pronounced… interesting… maybe even dramatic. I felt the presence of Jesus. As though he was looking right at me. As though he was standing in my midst. I could feel the warmth of another coming toward my face. I opened my eyes. And I saw before me, Cardinal Sean holding a monstrance with the Eucharist. Jesus was right in front of me.
And it became abundantly clear. This was not at all about me. I felt embarrassed. I felt great relief. Suddenly, the idea of making a huge mistake serving on the altar seemed funny to me. Fitting even. I felt the bindings released, a weight lifted up off of my back. It was a breath of cool air into my craving lungs. What a gift that was. All this… all this… had everything thing to do with Christ. It had nothing to do with me – a tiny, minuscule speck. Amen.
Later that morning, during the ordination, I stood ready to remove the zucchetto, that is the Cardinal’s red skullcap, at the exact, precise moment in the liturgy only to make my move forward, thrusting toward the man with my open and grasping hand… and then having a burly, short and serious-spirited clergyman shout forcefully in my direction: “No, not yet!” I retreated to then subsequently witness the stout man remove the zucchetto at the precise and proper time. Later that day, when I was back with my friends and family, thinking that perhaps from afar no one had noticed my gaffe, I was informed that my PBR – as they called it – was, in fact, very much noticed. PBR. Premature beanie removal.
That’s what I once learned.
What have I come to more recently appreciate?
Just this. That the message of “it’s not about me” is perhaps the greatest single lesson there is. It’s the very one that Jesus taught his disciples in the Gospel for tomorrow.
The abuse crisis in the Catholic Church shook our very foundation. And, it shook the trust of all those within or observing our Church. The pillars of our great institution had been fractured. So too with corporations, the entertainment industry, scouting, government, charities, and education. Our institutions have failed us and so we look elsewhere for leadership, guidance, meaning and authority.
I’ve learned there is great pressure to be authoritative once you become ordained. In part, it is ego. In part, it is not wanting to let people down. You don’t want to openly reveal that you are a work in process, not yet arrived, still quite flawed. This happens in most places where someone is deemed ‘in charge’. It’s the classic authority model.
But I wonder how Peter felt when he was given the keys to the kingdom, named the first leader of our Church. You know, Peter… the one who would subsequently mess up, put his own flaws on glorious display, deny ever even knowing his friend… his savior. I am going to assume that when the time came to actually take those keys, to lead, that he did so with great humility… having once stood face to face with Christ, having understood the suffering of his passion, having witnessed the miracle of the Resurrection. I believe that this flawed man was a man greatly humbled by experience, wisdom and grace.
And I have come to appreciate that we are all here as part of an accompaniment model, not an authority model. That anyone who seeks to serve must do so with humility. That is… all of us… the flawed and fractured things that we are.
It’s not about us. It’s never about us. And what a gift that is.