Paulist seminarian Tom Gibbons reflects on his formation experience and his life as a seminarian right now. Along the way, some questions will be will be answered, and a lot more will come up.
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Oncology and Ontology
“No one ever wants cancer … but if you have to have cancer, THIS is the one you want.”
Thus pronounced my ear, nose, and throat doctor four days after the surgery that removed my thyroid. Before the surgery, I was told that there was a 5-10% chance that my inflamed thyroid was cancerous. My reaction was somewhat of an exhale. After all, 5-10% is a good number. It’s not ZERO, but it’s a good number.
This was the cosmic equivalent of game show host Jim Perry turning over the Queen of Diamonds on Card Sharks, and all I had to do was shout, “Lower!” Yet when the Game Show host Fate turned over that next card, it turned out to be the King of Spades. I was one of that 5-10%.
And even though my doctor was telling me that this was the “good” kind of cancer, whenever you hear the “C word” associated with yourself, it’s pretty hard for your brain not to turn to mush. Even though this was the good kind, the hyper-treatable kind, the “you just need to jump through a couple of more hoops and your life will go back to normal” kind, it’s still … cancer.
A few months ago I expected that becoming a priest was going to be the biggest change in my “person”; “cancer survivor” was not on the list of identities I expected to assume. Of course the “survivor” part was very, very important, but I did not realize that the changes I would be experiencing would be oncological as well as ontological. And if you’re not familiar with the term “ontological change,” let me explain. As best as I can anyway, because I still think that the idea is a little weird.
As defined by thefreedictionary.com, the word ontology means, “Of or relating to essence or the nature of being.” It’s a term used in meta-physics in order to describe the what of what makes a thing what it is. In the Catholic tradition there is an understanding that at ordination, the person who becomes a priest is now ontologically different. There is a change in his being.
That understanding has always sounded a little too Lord of the Rings for my tastes. It perpetuates the idea of the priest as one of the “magic, special people” and — albeit unintentionally — it often results in a double disservice for everyone in the Church. The first is that many people who are not priests can be tempted to inappropriately view the priest as the “holy person”; I’ve seen this result in many lay (non-priest) people taking themselves off of the hook for pursuing their own Christian journey on the one hand or denying their own holiness on the other. The second disservice can often be for priests themselves. Instead of being content to just say that different people have different roles, there is a subtle inference that priests are not just, you know, people. Human beings capable of the same holiness and hypocrisy as the next person. Human beings who are capable of channeling the love of God. And human beings who are capable of covering up for the crimes of others.
Of course after having received a cancer diagnosis, the idea of being changed into a person who is exempt from the dynamics of humanity doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world. Even though as of this writing, I have finished my treatments and have been pretty much given the “all clear,” there is a part of me that misses the ignorance that comes with not knowing what it’s like to be sick. But this experience with cancer reminded me that all of life is change, ontological and otherwise.
What we are changes with each flip of the card in all of our lives, regardless of life pursuits. The importance of those “cosmic card flips” lies in the way we interiorize them so that they affect the way in which we relate to the others around us, to ourselves, and (yes) even to God. All I know right now is that if I ever forget how lucky I was to have access to superior health care and a loving and supportive community — and by default how unlucky many others are in this regard — all of this was a fantastic waste of time.
It was not until the morning of my ordination that I finally heard a definition of the ontological change with which I felt comfortable. It came from a Paulist who had been ordained for 25 years. “Here’s the deal with the ontological change: You stay the same, and everyone else around you behaves differently.” Writing this post two-and-a-half months after my actual ordination, I have to say that that sounds about right. But when I reflect on both the holiness and hypocrisy that lay within my soul, the part of me that still finds ignorance of some of the harsher elements of life the easier path to follow, I do pray that I at least do some changing too … ontologically or otherwise.