No! (LOL). If I could explain it, it wouldn’t be what it is! Seriously, “ontological change” is very meaningful in the context of St. Thomas Aquinas’ medieval theological synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology, a stunning intellectual achievement for both his time and, to some degree, ours.
But once we move out of the Thomistic formulation of questions and the meaning of words in his system, we can find it more than difficult to explain what he meant then, and what it means for us now. Terms like “ontological change” and “Transubstantiation” need updating for the 21st century. Jesuit Bernard Lonergan’s work is a great place to start with that task. Yet, I fear most will find Lonergan quite deep and difficult. One Jesuit once said to me, “Mugs! Lonergan? Life is just too short!”
So, what does the idea of “ontological change” try to express? The catechism states that ordination “confers an indelible spiritual character” which “cannot be “repeated or conferred temporarily” (CCC#1583). “The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently” (CCC#1583). Ordination is done once and for all as are Baptism and Confirmation. Holy Orders places one in another position (i.e., order or group) in the community, not a better or more privileged place, but a place from which one is called to spend one’s life exclusively in service of the people of God.
Let me try and get at the deeper and more mysterious meanings of priesthood the idea of “ontological change” aims to reveal. All of us who have been graced to serve the people of God as priests know there is often much more going on in a pastoral situation than we can understand or for which we can take credit. Someone comes up after a homily and tells you that your words were just what they needed to hear. And you realize you don’t think you said what they heard… but, hey the Holy Spirit works in ways wonderful and wacky.
A story may help. When I was a Jesuit scholastic, in my 11th year of preparing for ordained priesthood (Why do Jesuits study for so many years? Because we need it!), I was leading a parish youth group in confirmation preparation at St Pat’s on Blue Hill and Dudley Avenues in the Roxbury section of Boston. The agenda for the night was having the group make a poster with symbols of all the sacraments. The kids came up with a waterfall for baptism, bread and wine (and pizza and Pepsi) for Eucharist, an ambulance with flashing lights in the form of a cross for the sacrament of the sick, etc. Lots of fun and ingenuity. They really got stuck when it came to Holy Orders. They looked at me, and I said, “Nope. This is your project. Put what you think being a priest means.” Little 13 year old Egiberto piped up and said, “Draw an ear!” We all looked at him like he was a little crazy (which he often was in a harmless 13 year old way). “What do you mean an ear? Why an Ear?” we all asked. Egiberto replied, “Because priests listen.” I’ve never forgotten that moment. I think God was trying to teach me something that night. As Sharon Parks-Daloz taught in her pastoral ministry course, “God gave us two ears and one mouth. We should use these gifts in the proportion given.”
Getting people like me to shut up and listen is quite a change, ontological or whatever you want to call it. Whatever happens on the day of ordination, I always remember what we were told by a wise, old Jesuit: “If you’re not a priest the day before ordination, you won’t be the day after.” Ordination recognizes and brings to fruition a process that has been going on for some time in a person’s life. That growth in listening to God and the people of God, while trying to facilitate conversations between God and people, continues all the days of a priest’s life.