First Mass Print
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Sunday, 31 July 2011

“The sacraments,” said Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “are a kind of contact with God himself. They show that this faith is not a purely spiritual thing, but one that involves community and creates community.” Of the seven sacraments, priestly ordination – and the subsequent first Mass – involves and creates community like no other. Faithful from far and wide across a diocese, some of whom never even having met the ordinandi, come together as contact with God is made: by God’s power individual men are made priests of Jesus Christ forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

I experienced this moving spiritual dynamic recently when four men in my own diocese celebrated their “marriage” to their bride, the Church. Priestly ordination is the ultimate challenge to secularism’s myopic worldliness: the complete gift of self to an invisible reality that lies beyond the verification of empirical science. The hundreds of faithful who gather at the ordination liturgy and the first Mass come to support the new priests’ commitment to the Transcendent. In the celebration of this sacrament we see firsthand that the Church – contrary to media reports, condemnations by pundits, and even her own self-inflicted wounds – is still alive and committed to the Lord with authentic faith, hope, and love.

The sheer number of Catholics who pack cathedrals and churches for ordination and first Mass proves that the priesthood is still esteemed, even after a decade of public scrutiny and controversy. The evident joy and approbation that gleam from the faces of the faithful as they lean over for closer views is matched by the smiles on the faces of the new priests, who are supported by dozens of concelebrating priests and fellow seminarians. This combined witness presents the priesthood as a great gift, one not given for the individual but for the good and salvation of all.

The nature and mission of the priesthood is expressed in the ordination rite and prayers, but it is the following day, when the novus ordinatus offers his first Mass, that the priesthood appears as a gift to the whole Church. This year the first Mass I attended fell on Corpus Christi Sunday, the annual celebration of Christ’s real and continued presence with us in the Eucharist. Offering the Eucharistic sacrifice, according to the Second Vatican Council, is the “principal function” of priests because by it “the work of our redemption is continually carried out.” The Eucharist is the summit and source of the priest’s mission of preaching the Gospel because it brings about primary contact with Christ, the goal of all preaching.

The new priest said the words of institution and elevated the sacred species for the first time. One day earlier, this man did not possess the power to confect the Eucharist. Now by the grace of his ordination he stands in persona Christi; he now possesses this most sublime power not because of himself, but because of Christ acting through him, a chosen vessel in His Church. The mystery of the Eucharist is inherently tied to the mystery of the priesthood, the divinely appointed means of the sanctification of the People of God.

After the ordination liturgy and the first Mass comes a uniquely Catholic custom: the reception of the new priest’s first blessing. Long lines of faithful again attest to the holy aura of the priesthood. But the greatest witness to the love of the priesthood came at the end of the first Mass from the church’s pastor. After Mass, he invited the faithful to a reception where they might “partake of centuries of Catholic tradition.” With that, he walked over to the new priest, knelt down, and received the first blessing himself. The humbling act of an older man kneeling at the feet of one younger speaks more profoundly than any homily on the meaning of the priestly blessing.

Pope Benedict XVI recently said that “the place where the Church is actually experienced most of all as Church is the liturgy.” All too often human sinfulness and modern media remind us of a painful truth: the Church on earth is the fellowship of sinners being redeemed, not saints being exalted. We can lose hope at falling Mass attendance, pathetic catechesis, and apathetic believers. The ordination of new priests and the Mass that they were ordained to offer remind us that Christ is still the head of His Church, that the goal of the Church lies beyond this world, that genuine Catholic fellowship is rooted in the sacraments, and that the Eucharist is truly the summit and source of Catholic life.

The faithful and the majority of priests may be greying, but with each priestly ordination we remember that Catholic vitality comes not from age or numbers, but from complete and authentic commitment to the Lord. From this commitment, this contact with God, true Catholic community is indeed re-created and lived.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is Adjunct Professor of Theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.
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