I may have felt a little nervous on the morning of my ordination but the next morning, I was in a PANIC. After all, during the ordination service I didn’t really have to do a lot. Stand up. Sit down. Stand up. Kneel. Say “Yes” a few times. Go out to Kennedy’s for a steak with the folks afterwards. I have done all of those things before. (Actually, MOST of those things, but let’s not quibble.) But the next day? There was a Mass that I had to celebrate, which meant that I had to do… stuff. LITURGY stuff to be exact.
As my Paulist brothers will tell you, liturgy is not one of those things that makes me one of Jesus’ special little snowflakes. Actually, any kind of organized movement on my behalf does not end well; most Macarenas and Electric Slides I have participated in have usually resulted in some kind of injury to myself or others. But twenty-four hours into my priesthood I was going to have to display organized movements in front of 300 people. No pressure.
The fact that I had Roman Missal to lead me in this endeavor was no comfort. I had not seen a piece of literature with so many twists and turns since the Choose Your Own Adventure series we read as kids… except if you land on the wrong page of THIS book, instead of getting eaten by an alligator you run the risk of committing a mortal sin. No pressure.
So concerned was I about celebrating my first Mass that I spent a big chunk of my priestly retreat holed up in a chapel with just me and my retreat director in which we went over the Mass and the new Roman Missal… and went over the Mass and the new Roman Missal… and went over the Mass and the new Roman Missal. It was like the “Danger Room” in X-Men. As for getting the page numbers right, had you invested in Post-It Notes stock this past April you were probably able to take a very nice vacation in June.
As you might have guessed, the liturgical aspect of priesthood was not a major motivator in my deciding to become a man of the cloth. Forgetting exactly who said this, I have often identified with the (supposed) high-ranking member of the episcopate who once said, “I love the Eucharist, but I hate liturgy.” I guess I had too many experiences of church over the years where the efforts of many towards the ideal of solemnity often unconsciously (and sometimes intentionally) kicked the idea of celebration to the side. The idea of a community gathering together was often sidelined in favor of an individual devotion that made few challenges on the believer (beyond voting in favor of some cookie-cutter issues).
The one comfort I had going into this endeavor, however, was that I was not going to be celebrating my First Mass alone. I had two of my best friends in the community as the principal con-celebrants helping me out. (I figured that if I was going to be “riding a bike” for the first time in front of 300 people, I wanted the best possible training wheels standing available.) Of course it was a comfort to have friends and family sitting in the pews. But in addition to all of that, I was very fortunate indeed to have yet another community present, a community that has expanded my notion of what it means to be church over the years.
Of the many wonderful gifts I received for my ordination, one of the best was the gift of the St. Thomas More Gospel Choir making the long trek from Washington, DC to sing at my First Mass. I have been privileged to have been a part of a few African-American church communities during the past decade that have placed a heavy focus on the power of Gospel music and the power of church community. The music is meant to reflect the ideal of celebration. The sign-of-peace lasts ten minutes because everyone needs to greet one another. And there is an overwhelming sense that we are all in this together.
From the moment the St. Thomas More Choir processed down the aisle singing a revved-up version of Lead Me, Guide Me, the friends, family, and usual congregants of St. Peter’s were immersed in a sense of celebration… and I was immersed in a sense that no matter what challenges this new life might bring, we were all in this together. By the time the Gloria was finished, with two of my best friends standing next to me, and with an ocean of friends and family in the congregation, the thought came across my mind, “I got this.”
And after it was all over, I thought to myself that the whole liturgy had been even better than Disneyland.