A few weeks ago, our parish celebrated the ordination of one of our own: a local son who had grown up in the congregation, attended the parish school, and stayed close to our church throughout his years at seminary. It was a joyful celebration to see him preside over the liturgy, with his family beaming in the front row, bursting with pride.
The moment that surprised me, though, came during the Eucharistic Prayer. Suddenly this new priest was surrounded at the altar by rows of the men who were now his peers: our pastor and associate, teachers and mentors from seminary, priests from around the diocese. As his bright eyes and eager voice began the prayer, I looked around at the circle of men whose presence supported him in his vocation and shared in his joy. Their hands – some weathered and weak, some young and strong – stretched out with his own over the gifts of bread and wine. Their voices – some soft and shaking, some bold and confident – wove together during the prayers of consecration.
And I realized that although I had never before been part of a similar celebration at a priest’s “first Mass,” this scene was intimately familiar. The circle of men on the altar, young and old, looked just like the circles of women, young and old, with whom I had shared living rooms and backyard patios. It looked just like a baby shower.
Admittedly, there were no presents with pink and blue bows. No cutesy games, no glasses of sugary punch, no oohs and aahs over tiny outfits. But there was one person whose new vocation was the center of attention and celebration. There was a group of close friends and mentors gathered to share in the joy. There was the wisdom of generations, years of experience in this same vocation, whose very presence promised support for the journey. There was a passing of a torch, a reaffirmation of the goodness of this work of love. There was blessing and hope.
Rites of passage are profound times of transition. Although much of their demands and emotional weight are carried by the individual alone, they are still moments when we need to be surrounded by those who have gone before us. We need their voices to carry the song and the prayer when our own falters. We need their footsteps to follow until our stride becomes confident enough to walk the path ahead. We need their wisdom to calm our fears, to guide our first fumblings in our new role. We need their physical presence affirming our decision, strengthening our weakness, reminding us that we are not alone.
The proud smiles of the priests gathered round that altar reminded me of the delighted but knowing expressions of the mothers, aunts, and grandmothers gathered around a new mother at a baby shower. They rejoice that another generation is now embarking on the adventure of their own life’s work, all the while recognizing that the journey will bring many challenges. Like seasoned pastors, they know the demands of this vocation are many – and often impossible to predict at the happy outset of the path. But they also know the depths of the commitment, the capacity for growth, the inner strength that will be discovered as this young person begins anew the ancient task that lies before them.
The circles that surround us become the blessing of knowing that we are never alone in our vocations. The shape of their strength – whether around an altar or around a wedding dance floor, around a new graduate or around a mother-to-be – remind us of the presence of God in the companions whose care and love helped bring us this far and promise to remain with us in the chapter to come.