Recently I flew to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to attend the ordination, my first ever, of Timothy J. Smith.
I met Father Tim, now 36, several years ago when he e-mailed me about a radio piece I’d done about my little brother’s punk band. Tim was a fan. We began a correspondence that flowered when we met in person in St Paul when I was on tour with my first book.
In 2009, he converted.
And now, at 11 a.m. on June 2, 2017, along with five other men, he was being ordained a Catholic priest at St. Joseph Cathedral.
One Sioux Falls resident described the annual ordination as the hottest ticket in town. I proudly presented my gold stub and squeezed into the pew reserved for Tim’s friends.
Back in LA, our own candidates were preparing to be ordained the next day. As anyone who attended knows, the Church pulls out all the stops. We had the Bishop with miter and crozier, every priest in the diocese, nuns in full habit, deacons, seminarians, the Knights of Columbus with swords and purple plumed hats, candles and incense galore, a choir section with horns.
The antiphon set the tone: “I call you friends, says the Lord, for I have made known to you all that the Father has told me” (John 15:15).
In his homily, the Most Reverend Paul J. Swain, Bishop of Sioux Falls, emphasized that the priesthood is for men who are mature. There can be no game-playing. We deal with serious matters. Our actions have grave consequences.
That the ordination to the priesthood is serious business was never in doubt. We had the Election of the Candidates, the Promise of the Elect, and the Promise of Obedience.
We had the Litany of Supplication, the candidates prostrated themselves as a sign of their humility before the duty they were about to undertake.
We stood for many long minutes in silence for the Laying on of Hands. Each candidate knelt to be blessed first by the Bishop. Then every priest in the diocese slowly processed by each candidate, placed their hands on his head, and bestowed a blessing.
After the Prayer of Ordination, each new priest was vested with stole and chasuble. The Bishop anointed their hands with the Sacred Chrism, then, as they knelt before him, “handed over” the bread and wine.
Last, the Bishop, again followed by every priest in the diocese, bestowed the Fraternal Kiss upon the newly ordained. John laid his head on Christ’s breast at the Last Supper in much the same manner. It was thrilling to contemplate that the hands with which these men were being blessed had in turn been blessed and so on going back in an unbroken 2000-year line of succession to the hands that had blessed Peter.
What was happening on the altar, it seemed to me, was the heavenly counterpart of the bond forged in war. While the soldier pledges to lay down his life for his brother soldiers, and the country or ideology he serves, the priest pledges to lay down his or life for his brothers in the priesthood but for all men, all women, all children, everywhere. This uprooting of the distinction between friend and enemy lies at the heart of our faith.
So does the upending of the master-servant relationship. No worldly general kneels before his foot soldiers. But the Sacrament was consummated when, just before the Dismissal, the Bishop knelt and received the blessing of the young priests he had just ordained.
Out in the parking lot afterwards, each new priest had a booth where family and friends could line up and receive a blessing. There were pulled pork sandwiches and potato salad in the church auditorium, and later, a second, smaller reception at Our Lady of Guadalupe. There, I was introduced to smokies (smoked sausages in sauce), frog’s eye salad (round pasta, miniature marshmallows and mandarin oranges), and Tim’s parents Carl and Iris from Windom, Minnesota. Iris brought tinted home-made mints in the shape of crosses, roses and tiny white Bibles.
I had witnessed the highest possible consecration of the universal fraternity of men.
But flying back the next morning, what stuck in my mind was the night before the ordination.
Tim had arranged for me to stay with his dear friends Tim and Julie Dickes. We’d called and prevailed upon him to stop by for fifteen minutes.
As we schmoozed in the kitchen suddenly there he was, radiating joy, poised to embark on a lifelong round of baptisms, marriages, funerals, anointings, reconciliations and Masses. A life, as every follower of Christ knows, of exultant highs, dark nights, continual maturing, perpetual pruning.
“It’s hard to believe that when we first met, you weren’t even Catholic yet!” I told him.
“I couldn’t be…sanctified before I came to Christ,” Tim replied. “That first time I went to Confession and my sins were forgiven,” he smiled broadly and flexed his young shoulders. “I could breathe. I could live.”