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Friday, June 27, 2008

Cue the Deluge, or My First Mass

I would guess that for most Jesuits, given our long formation period, ordination itself is not the source of incredible anxiety. It may seem impious to say but, though it may be one of the most important days of your life, when it comes to the ceremony you just have to get through it. It's afterwards that the change really begins. And the greatest source of anxiety for me, once the ordination mass was done: my first mass. Sure, I'd practiced it numerous times, but this time it was with a whole congregation--for real.

I'd imagined what it might be like and woke to find things already a little different than I'd imagined. Grey skies. I hadn't thought much about the weather, but of course my imagination had supplied a nice sunny day. Then there was thunder. Then lightning. Then pouring down rain.

Now, in New Orleans such storms are usually quite brief. And, even when brief, the streets can fill up with a good bit of water. But this morning the rain just kept coming, and coming. Was God having second thoughts about the previous day? Had my ordination been the catalyst for the next great flood? In no time, there was a foot of water between me and my first mass.

Forget the time of prayerful meditation before my first mass. Suddenly, I was on the phone trying to ensure that my family was going to be able to get there. And did I mention that my mother is terrified of thunderstorms? At one point, evidently, my mother threatened to stay where she was. My friend Bob, ever the sensitive one, told her that she was going to be at that mass, even if he had to carry her there!

I had to wait for a truck to come get me. The water was so high, it was risky even with a car. I had planned to be there forty-five minutes in advance. I arrived with only ten minutes to spare. I checked to see if my family was there. All were, save my brother and his family who hadn't stayed on campus and were stranded at his hotel. Indeed, I was surprised and moved by the number of people that did make it despite the weather. And sorry for those that didn't. I got dressed, took a little time to collect myself, thanked God that I had asked my Jesuit brother, Fr. Steve Sauer to be there to help me out (and calm me down), and got in the procession. And, of course, as we were ready to begin, the sun came out.

In my opening remarks, I pointed out that the Scripture verse on my ordination card is from Jeremiah. Many of you will already know what it is. It begins: "You duped me Lord, and I let myself be duped." And, it seems, I told the congregation, that he's done it again!

Of course, I was nervous. And Steve, thankfully, prevented me from skipping over at least one part of the mass. And though I was shaking when I started, the jitters soon left as I stood to proclaim the Gospel, and followed that with my homily. I begin my homily by noting that in the previous days I had been speaking to my niece and nephews about the fact that as a teacher, one can't help but have favorites among his students, and went on to speak about how the first reading for that day seemed to indicate that God had his favorites too in the people of Israel, his "treasured possession." Then I went on to suggest, however, that this does not say as much about God as it does about us as human beings, that we have a need to know that we are specially loved by some and, indeed, specially loved by God, so that we can love not only those who are our favorites, but strangers too, and even our enemies. To illustrate this I recalled one of my earliest memories, a day when my parents had taken in a family about whom they had reservations, after they had suffered a house fire. While not exactly "enemies," this family was not likely to have been guests in our house under other circumstances. It's an early lesson in taking care of others that I have never forgotten.

My niece and nephews were thrilled to have been included my homily. And I was thrilled to have them included in the mass. Two of my nephews served the mass, and my other nephew and my niece brought up the gifts. The photo above shows all five of us together. It was also wonderful to celebrate mass for my family and so many of my friends both from New Orleans and elsewhere. Since it was Father's day, I took the opportunity to recognize both my parents, my story in my homily illustrating what I had received from them. And I also presented the towel with which I wiped the oil from my hands during the ordination to my mother, a wonderful tradition which honors the mother of a priest and grants, according to some, a free ticket into heaven!

Then there was cake, generously provided by the members of the community, and time to celebrate more with my friends. It was a day which I was unlikely to forget anyway, but now even more so after the challenges of the morning! We exited the chapel to find a beautiful day!