Well the title introducing this first edition of my five-part series is a bit misleading. While the Sacrament of Holy Orders for my presbyterate was celebrated on January 3rd, 1993, I believe a sacramental moment celebrates both what has been happening in one's life -- an affirmation of a process already underway; and it also serves as a road map for the future -- a challenge! In some ways I was ordained a priest long before that date in early 1993 -- yet in some ways, I am still hoping that the fullness of this ordination will finally take hold as I journey well into 2007! And yet, the memory of that day is always a source of great joy!
I remember quite clearly when Abbot Benjamin Mackin, O. Praem. traveled to Chicago to visit Father James -- then Frater Seamus -- Neilson and me with one agenda item: he had his calendar in hand and he wanted to book the dates for our deaconate and priestly ordinations. As we both offered dates that corresponded to the pending fulfillment of our academic obligations, he simply closed his book and said, "Ok, it's all in order; I'll take care of this and get back to you." I was surprised at how easy this process seemed to be. It was so easy, in fact, that I stopped him in his tracks as I began to ask all sorts of questions. This was not a brilliant idea, I discovered, because he now began to have second thoughts about my hopes to be ordained on Epiphany. His concern was the unpredictable weather in Northern Wisconsin.
Given 400 people from Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin would be travelling to DePere for the Ordination and then a week later to Antigo for the Mass of Thanksgiving, Abbot Mackin had legitimate concerns about travel. I seemed to have put him at ease, however, when I suggested that all would be well; after all, I suggested that only two people really needed to be there in the first place: the Bishop to perform the sacred deed, and Jerry Turba to get some shots of the occasion. I guess I began to eat my words when an ice storm hit Green Bay on January 3rd, 1993! My cocky nature does not always serve me well; I realized back then that it's true, "it's not nice to fool with Mother Nature!"
Despite the terrible weather that morning, I was shocked and humbled as I processed with my Norbertine brothers into the beautiful Abbey Church while singing, "O Come, All Ye Faithful." It appeared as though all of the invitees were there. Given the ordination date was in the heart of the Christmas season, all of the songs at the Mass were basically Christmas carols; as such, the church echoed loudly with beautiful harmonious voices.
The liturgy was simply wonderful; the musicians were terrific and Bishop Banks preached a beautiful homily and he presided with dignity and grace as he is known for doing. At first, I simply assumed that Bishop Bob Morneau would ordain me. After all, he ordained me a deacon five months earlier and he had become a good friend given his previous residency at the abbey as an honorary member of our community. I would have loved to have been ordained by Bishop Morneau once again. However, Bishop Banks was new to our diocese at that time and I was his first Norbertine ordination; at first I felt a bit disappointed that I would be ordained by a man who did not really know me: we met only once at that point. But he did a fantastic job and one would assume we had known each other for years given how personal his approach seemed to be. To this day, I have great respect and admiration for Bishop Banks. I'm not sure if he really knows what a blessing he has been to my family -- and to me, personally. Obviously I should take the moment to share those sentiments with him.
After the day's events, I would journey back to Chicago for more classes. The task of that week was to prepare for the Mass of Thanksgiving in Antigo on the following Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Guess what? The entire ensemble journeyed to the northwoods for that celebration as well. Perhaps there was an added incentive for so many people to journey to Antigo: the Menominee Casino! Several friends -- Norbertines included, I hear -- made their way to the casino before and after my "First Mass." While many of the guests stayed overnight at the Cutlass, I was a bit embarrassed yet also curious to discover whether or not my guests were aware of the "Fantasy Suites" that were added to what was Antigo's finest hotel back then. Trust me, the place has slid downhill ever since the 'Arabian Nights,' 'Northern Igloo,' and 'Lover's Lane' fantasy suites were added. I must admit, I was tempted to see who -- if anyone -- occupied those spaces! I guess that is meant to remain a mystery!
My mom and dad were very generous in hosting nearly 400 guests for the Mass, reception and dinner. Mom spoke eloquently at the reception (she should be my ghost-writer!); Father Conrad preached provocatively at the homily, as always. It was wonderful also to be in the parish church that was so instrumental in fostering spiritual guidance in my Catholic upbringing. Granted, I have been at that altar many times before! Several times, some of my friends and I would 'play priest' just as so many young Catholic kids do. But this time it was for real; this time there were spectators, also! And, you know, it seemed somewhat lonely this time. In fact, it is often a lonely experience. You see, when you are at Mass in attendance in the congregation, you are one of many -- focused on the minister-of-the-moment: the priest, the cantor, the reader, the communion minister... ... But when you are at that altar, looking out upon a 500 person congregation who is looking at you as at Old Saint Joe's, that can be a bit overwhelming at times. And yet it is also an honored privilege to serve so many.
Over these past 14 years, I've served at so many different altars, preached in so many congregations. Each of the places has its own unique feel, its own personal character. And yet what unifies us in Jesus Christ is a common faith, a common hope, a common mission -- yesterday, today, forever. Shortly before my ordination on January 3rd, I received a letter from the Abbot that I cherish to this day. The Abbot and I did not always get along; we certainly were not buddies. Nevertheless, I'm not sure that I have ever appreciated a note as much as I do his letter to me on ordination day. Now after his passing, his words are even more cherished as I read his prophetic affirmation and challenge:
3 January 1993
Reverend James Thomas Baraniak, O. Praem.
Saint Norbert Abbey
1016 North Broadway
DePere, WI 54115
Dear Father James,
That sounds very well! Congratulations on your Ordination to the Priesthood. This is the day when your life changes radically, in the sense of being rooted forever in the Priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I realize this has been your lifetime goal, but the goal is just now the beginning. You have no idea of what lays ahead and the Lord keeps all that He will ask of you hidden. Bit by bit He will reveal the extraordinary joys, the Crosses, the mystery of how you will be led into so many lives. Sometimes you will only pass through lives, leaving a sacred touch or word. Sometimes you will become one with other lives and walk many miles with them. So much of it will illicit wonder, especially as you forgive sin, baptize children and adults into Christ, preside at each unique marriage, comfort the sick and dying with oil and words which, while they will have your tones, actually will be impregnated with the Holy Spirit.
May your priesthood be long and fruitful, satisfying to you and always a source of inexpressible joy.
Welcome to the Order of Priest. Your fraternity with the Community and the People of God only continues to deepen. I repeat how deeply touching your kindness was on December 16th. I thought then that indeed you are entirely ready for Priesthood. Continue to reach out to all with the Lord's own compassion.
Again, congratulations and God love and keep you always.
In His Epiphany,
+ Benjamin T. Mackin, O. Praem.
The goal is just the beginning! 3 January 1993 was a hinge moment in my life thanks to the prayers, ritual, song and affirmation of so many. As "Milestone V" offered here in this series, that sacred day is remembered each and every day -- reminding me that it's all about ministry, not majesty, for: "God's flock is in your midst; give it a shepherd's care!"
Father James Baraniak, O. Praem.