My first date with the sweet, wild woman who eventually married me was as follows: We drove two hundred miles from Boston, at speeds exceeding the speed limit, because as usual we started late, and also because someone forgot her dress, which entailed retrieving it again at shocking rates of speed, and we screeched to a stop three hours later at a taxi stand in New York City, beneath a sign that said no parking at any time , and we sprinted, yes, sprinted, to a church, one of us making shockingly loud noises with her high heels on the pavement, and arrived breathless at the ordination at the exact moment that the subject of the ordination, my friend Tom, was sprawled facedown on the cold stone floor of the aisle of the church, as everyone in the church chanted the Litany of the Saints.
Technically we were just in time for the actual moment of ordination, the Laying on of Hands, when the bishop cups the candidate’s head like a coconut and prays silently that the Holy Spirit will infuse this man with the joy of the Lord’s work and the humility necessary to achieve it, with courage against duress and with unrelenting faith in the mercy of the One upon us all; but we had, to my dismay, missed a lot of the cool parts of the ordination already, parts I knew about because my friend Tom had told me about them with high glee and anticipation: the gathering of the candidates on the steps of the church, and the last hurried cigarette before becoming a priest for the rest of your life, and afterward too; the Calling of the Candidates after opening prayers, during which the bishop basically takes attendance and makes sure no man slept in late or got married the night before or bagged out altogether so as not to miss the Knicks game; the Presentation and Inquiry, during which the bishop (who, as you see, does all the work during an ordination) asks for some witness that the men before him are worthy of the rare and astounding sacrament they are about to receive; the Acceptance, during which the bishop, probably sweating a little by now, as it was a wicked hot day, says OK, we will accept these men as candidates for the priesthood, which usually gets a roar of applause from the relieved parents and family members and former girlfriends in attendance; the Promise of Obedience, during which the bishop holds hands with each candidate and looks him grimly in the eye and essentially makes it clear that while yes, an informed conscience is the final moral arbiter according to the canon laws of Our Mother the Church, he, the bishop, is the ward boss of record, and don’t you forget it, at which point the candidate, if he is wise, says something like I do so swear .
My friend Tom, with whom I had gone to school since we were six, said he was going to say I do so declare! in honor of the words we had to write on so many examination papers at St. John Vianney grade school, but I don’t know if he did.
My date at the ordination by now had caught her breath and was curious which of the prostrate ordinands was my friend Tom, whom she had never met, and I pointed him out. Tom was easily identifiable by his sort-of-mohawk haircut, which he had adopted for reasons that elude me. It was rare then and now to see a candidate for the priesthood with a mohawk, but I remember with a smile Tom’s reply to people who questioned his sanity: At least it’s not a mullet, for God’s sake ,which was true.
Just then the Chanting of the Litany concluded and the ordinands stood up and I caught Tom’s eye and he grinned and said Hey man and then he went back to being ordained, although not before casting an appraising eye over my date, whom he had never met. We talked about that glance after his ordination and I said courteously that if he stared at her again like that I would shave his mohawk with a butter knife, and he said Aw, think of it this way, she is the very last stunning woman I saw as a bachelor before swearing to God and man that I would be a temple of the Lord forever , which is a good point.
Then came the Laying on of Hands, which made many among the congregation smile, for you hardly ever see a bishop clutching a mohawk, but after the general amusement there were, I have to say, a few moments of haunting silence and emotional power, during which I sensed for the first time the incredibly deep throbbing holiness of the ancient ritual. After the bishop laid his hands on the heads of the ordinands, every other priest in attendance did so also, in total silence, and I confess that I nearly wept, it was so sweet and sad and joyous all at once.
You saw, for an instant, The Priesthood, in all its muddled glory: mere men, of all shapes and sizes and haircuts, fat and thin, short and tall, pink and brown and white, bald and hirsute, lined up along the rail, the older ones reaching with real tenderness and reverence to cup the faces of the younger ones, and praying from the bottoms of their hearts for these men, that they not fail their vows, or lose their faith, or be possessed by greed and avarice, but rather serve the faithful with every iota of their beings, and bring the revolutionary message of the Christ to every corner of the world, and finally be taken back home to the light of the Lord, who would be well pleased with his servant and reward him with a place in the front rank of the Elect.
One of the many reasons I think I fell in love with the woman who would eventually be my wife was that when I turned to whisper something of my feelings at that moment I found her sobbing silently. Of course I did not have a handkerchief to offer, being an idiot, but she used the shoulder of my suit jacket, a gesture that still seems to me unutterably sexy.
After the Laying on of Hands comes the Vesting, during which the new priest, no longer an ordinand, removes the stole he has been wearing, which is a deacon’s stole, and is handed both a new stole, which is a priest’s stole, and a chasuble, which is the clothlike cloak, like a poncho, that a priest wears when he is in full battle rattle, as my friend Tom later called his new regalia. This too was a sweet moment, because the older priests helped the younger priests into their new battle rattle and there was a lot of laughing and chaffing on both sides about fit and drapery and such.
Then there was the Anointing of the Hands with oil, after which each new pair of hands was wrapped in pristine cloth for a moment, and then all the new priests and the older priests and the bishop celebrated Mass together. The new priests all made a point of administering the consecrated bread and wine to the congregation, and of course each family member and friend and former girlfriend of the new priest went to his or her own boy for Communion, which made me nearly weep again, for you never saw mothers so thrilled and bereft, or fathers so proud and trying not to think of grandchildren, or former girlfriends so confused and moved.
After Communion I thought that was the end of all the possible cool parts of an ordination, but how wrong I was, for the very last part, it turns out, is that the bishop now kneels down, and each of the new priests one by one cups his head, and asks for blessings on his ward boss, which seems like a very fair and equitable state of affairs to me, for we are all muddles in search of miracles, no matter what hat we wear.
Then the new priests lined up together on the altar steps and they all blessed the congregation together at once, which was sweet and funny, as they were by no means in sync, and there was a roar of applause and lots of camera flashes, and that was the end of the ordination. As the new priests filed down the aisle following the bishop, they extended their hands to the congregation, and more than a few of them stopped for a moment to hug their mothers, who were weeping copiously.
There was a reception after that in the church basement, and then there were lots of dinner parties and such for the new priests, but the woman who would eventually be my wife and I had to hit the road, so we went down to the basement to see Tom, who was glowing. His mom and his sister and his aunt were there, and while they fawned over the woman who would eventually be my wife, Tom and I had a moment to talk about his dad, who had died young, and who would have been awfully proud. He would have hated the mohawk something fierce, said Tom, but he would have been awfully happy. In fact, he is awfully happy. One great thing about being a priest is that you can use the present tense with authority when you talk about stuff like that, you know what I mean?
I said I did know what he meant, and he offered to celebrate my wedding to the woman who would eventually be my wife when and if she lost her mind and acceded to my proposal, and I report with great pleasure that this actually came to pass, two years later, in Oregon, on the most beautiful May afternoon you ever saw.
Brian Doyle is editor of Portland magazine.