The liturgy began unceremoniously, catching me off guard. One minute we were in the sacristy, the next we had processed in and begun. It was strange without any opening hymn or noise from the congregation. As I approached my seat, I realized that several people had not noticed us enter. I gave my best “Hey, we’re going!” look, which was met with a bit of surprise. The ordination was under way.
My classmates and I were finishing our Holy Land pilgrimage in March when we began to hear about the pandemic and travel restrictions. As Jerusalem began to empty out, we were one of the few groups remaining. In one sense we were grateful to be able to visit the uncrowded Holy Sepulchre every day. Yet we soon became anxious to return home. Finally, after a rerouting, a missed flight and a late-night bus ride, we arrived at Mundelein. Most seminarians had left campus already, though, and we soon followed suit.
I returned to stay at our diocesan seminary, St. Pius X, in Dubuque. There, we joined our brothers in minor seminary and finished our classes online. Soon, however, we began to wonder what diaconate ordination would look like with the COVID-19 restrictions. Would we be ordained on time? Could we invite people? Where would we hold the liturgy? Even more, I thought to myself, Wow, procrastinating on sending out ordination invitations might be paying off!
Gratefully, Archbishop Michael Jackels and our vocations director met with us. We talked through various scenarios, but, ultimately, we were given responsibility to reach a decision. My classmates and I agreed that being ordained on time, whatever it looked like, would be preferable. We decided that individual ordinations would take place over the course of a week, one per day, at the cathedral, with 10 people maximum present. In total, almost a novena of ordinations!
There was little planning to do, as the liturgies would be standardized and austere. I was able to divvy up the 10 people fairly easily; I know it was more difficult for those with larger families. I got on social media to announce that I would be ordained on May 20 and that it would be livestreamed. Many people reached out and some expressed their regret that it would be a subdued affair due to the restrictions. I was not very concerned about this; rather, I was grateful to be ordained on time. Also, I anticipated that priesthood ordination next year would look a little more normal.
The week came and my classmate Jake Dunne was to be ordained deacon first. Unable to attend in person, we tuned in to the livestream in the basement. There he was! It was a joyful experience to watch the ordination. Meanwhile, I was keeping a mental list, OK, what do I need to remember for tomorrow?
It was difficult to wait all day to be ordained in the evening, but I took the day normally. I prayed early and had a Holy Hour full of consolation. I came back to the chapel in the afternoon to pray to Mary, the Holy Spirit and St. Francis de Sales, one of my favorite saints. Suddenly, it was time to go to the cathedral.
I gathered with my family and the few others for a small supper before the ordination. We distanced ourselves and ate Jimmy Johns in the cathedral hall. I had suggested Taco Bell (yum!), but that was shot down for inexplicable reasons. Someone likened this subdued ordination to priests in Russia being ordained underground during the Communist era. As I ate my ham and swiss sandwich, I did not feel particularly akin to those who had given so much more.
The liturgy began without ceremony. My brother and sister-in-law read the Scriptures. I had joked with my dad that he would have to cantor, but I asked another seminarian instead. Overall, the liturgy proceeded quickly, and it came time for the ordination. I was elected and made the promise of obedience.
Soon enough I was “hitting the marble” (or in my case, the carpet), lying down for the Litany of the Saints. It was a beautiful moment as the company of saints was invited into the liturgy. Unexpectedly, my arms fell asleep and I realized that I should have practiced lying prone beforehand. Next was the laying on of hands, and I felt the warmth of the Holy Spirit as the archbishop brought his hands down. The prayer of consecration flew by and soon enough I was a deacon. Standing, I went over to be vested in stole and dalmatic by, a priest I had known since high school. I then received the Book of Gospels and heard these important words: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
A little bit uncertainly, I proceeded with the liturgy, preparing the altar and assisting during the Eucharistic Prayer. There was a lot to think about between the Mass parts, wearing a bulky dalmatic and operating a face mask and hand sanitizer. It was a blessing to give Communion to my family as I saw the joy upon their faces. Soon enough, I declared, “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord” and we were done. We had some cookies in celebration.
The next day, I led Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and did Benediction for the seminarians. I was deacon for daily Mass and gave a real barn burner of a homily, I’m sure. That weekend, I returned to my home parish to assist at the Mass, which was livestreamed. It was the feast of the Ascension and I was grateful to be with my home parish, though mostly virtually.
I was able to be at my summer assignment, St. Francis in Marshalltown, for 10 weeks. Certainly, I was blessed to assist at Mass, lead Benediction and preach. I had seven baptisms, all of whom were girls, and all in Spanish! An unexpected grace was proclaiming the Gospel reading at Mass, which feels different — weightier — than proclaiming the other readings. It was difficult with the continued COVID-19 restrictions to be unable to meet many people in person. Yet, I was very grateful to minister as a deacon, an ordained servant of Christ.
I am continually grateful for how things played out over the past few months with ordination and my summer assignment. The greatest challenge was to continually wait to see what conditions would be like week after week. I was able to approach these changes with a peaceful heart, a grace of the Holy Spirit. It was a blessing to be ordained for the service of the Church, and I look forward with excitement and hope for priesthood ordination. Sometimes, God works with grand gestures and ceremony. Other times, he is more subdued, and we may not recognize that his work has begun. In either case, we trust in his grace and know that he calls us into service.
This article originally ran in the Fall 2020/Winter 2021 issue of the seminarian-produced BRIDGE magazine. The full magazine can be viewed here.