I THOUGHT it was just me.
However, upon discussing it with my fellow friars over lunch – and even other students from different religious orders at the theological college – it turns out we have all had the same experience.
Upon meeting for the first time, wherever the location and whatever the occasion, my conversation with a fellow Catholic will go something like this:
Them: “Which order do you belong to?”
Me: “The Dominicans – the Order of Preachers.”
Them: “Ohhhh … and how long have you got to go?”
Them: “Until you’re ordained?”
I here interrupt the regular flow of conversation so as to launch with premeditated eloquence into what I want to say to those who pose this question – rather than what I actually say at the time.
You see, contrary to the premise that seems to underlie the query, ordination is not seen by us as some sort of vocational singularity from which our entire existence as religious is derived.
We have, after all, already sworn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
I can assure you that we do not take them lightly.
Nor is the living of those vows generally accompanied by a rendition of the chorus from The Lion King: “Hakuna Matata – it means no worries for the rest of your days!”
Trying to be poor, chaste and obedient generally takes a bit of effort, even with God’s grace.
And so it was at first particularly disconcerting to find that, whenever I initially mentioned to people (some time ago now) that I had made first profession – that I had knelt down before the provincial, placed my hands within his and upon the Constitutions of the Order, and sworn vows – their immediate question was still the same.
‘How long have you got to go?’
When discussing my befuddlement and occasional irked-ness at this repeated enquiry with an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, a fellow student at the theological college, he smiled – having undergone similar experiences – shook his head and summed up the entire situation with one pithy phrase: “Nobody cares”.
While it is true that the Church is in need of ordained priests – particularly in this part of the world – and that I can sympathize with the seeming appropriateness of any question that delves into the details of how long it might be until, God willing, I am able to administer a sacrament, I think that in our helter-skelter rush to focus on ordination we might be overlooking the inherent beauty of religious life.
After all, where would the Church be if not for the thousands of men and women who, over the centuries, joined religious orders and evangelized the world?
Those who swore vows and went forth to teach the poor about our God who was rich in divinity but became poor for our sake?
Those who felt such a burning love for the Truth – for Him who is, ‘The Way the Truth and the Life’ (John 14:6) – that they dedicated their vowed lives to drawing as many people as possible to knowledge and love of that same truth?
Those who, for love of Our Suffering Lord, spent lives cloistered in prayer for our suffering world?
Those who consecrated their lives to God and cared for the sick in whom they believed the crucified Christ to reside?
Those who committed themselves to poverty, chastity and obedience as part of their call to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit prisoners in accordance with the mandate of Jesus Himself? (Matthew 25:35-40)
Where would the Church be without all those countless religious men and women who spread the light of the Gospel as it was refracted through the particular prism of their specific charism?
Above and beyond their undoubtedly remarkable accomplishments, however, it was who they were as professed religious that was truly significant.
All those countless consecrated served – and continue to serve – as the most potent eschatological sign that there can be: a sign that there will come a time when, ‘people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; for they will be like the angels in heaven.’ (Matthew 22:30)
Now, I am the first to admit that – at least for the moment – there is very little resemblance between myself and an angel.
If I were in any doubt as to this state of affairs, the lived experience of community life would quickly teach me otherwise.
During our novitiate there was one friar – coincidentally the man who taught us classes on the evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity and obedience) – who, if ever he needed a favour or wished to show his appreciation for some completed task, would say, ‘Thank you – you are an angel.’
This invariably brought the other novices out in howling laughter – “We live with that guy”, they thought, “and an angel he ain’t.”
In fact, it became a running joke throughout the novitiate.
If on the sporting field a booted-foot happened to stray into the shin of some other unsuspecting novice, the response was usually a variation upon the theme of, ‘You are an angel!’
The exclamation mark is necessary.
You can imagine the facial expression and tone of voice for yourself.
Yet, humour aside, perhaps we ought to stoke our sense of the supra-angelic aspirations which our faith prompts.
We are all called, after all, “to be perfect, just as Our Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
This, of course, is held in creative tension with the profoundly argued point of Father Michael Casey– one of the Trappist Monks of Tarrawarra – that the inner spiritual conflict which we experience within ourselves, “means that we remain permanently imperfect and we will pass into eternity imperfect; our only hope is to rely on the mercy of God”.
Which is another way of stating what the Council of Carthage dogmatically proclaimed in AD 418 – saints remain sinners who need to ask forgiveness of God.
Despite this reality, perhaps we ought to renew our appreciation of the idea that it is possible to aspire to a state of perfection and that, within our faith, perhaps the ultimate expression of that aspiration – of that desire – is to profess vows within an order of the Catholic Church.
Asking consecrated religious when they are going to be ordained seems to miss the point of what we are really on about.
This is not to say that ordination is unimportant: all the students in the priory fervently wish to be ordained – in God’s good time – as we believe that such is the life we have been called to lead.
Yet we believe we are called to do it as professed men; and profession pre-dates ordination by many years.
Moreover, the manner in which a life of consecrated poverty, chastity and obedience is lived does not change in any essential way post-ordination.
While I am tentative to draw the tenuous link, I suspect part of the reason for the decline in religious life in certain parts of the world over the last few decades might be related to the fact that we have lost a true appreciation of the beauty that consecrated life represents; its evocation of the “dearest freshness deep down things”, as the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote.
After all, asking when someone is to be ordained is a very temporally-focused question and even a rather utilitarian one.
I suspect what people are really asking is, “When will you be able to take over a parish and start being useful.”
Because, in light of the eternity which we spend rather a lot of time contemplating, the years to pass before ordination and our individual and collective utility are not particularly pressing concerns.
Nor ought they be.
Our seeming oversight of the splendid jewel that is consecrated life might even have something to do with what Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher has described, in a related context, as the “middle-classification of society”.
The phenomenon which bears within itself the inherent assumption that everybody should go to university, because time so spent would provide them with an inestimably valuable piece of paper, and possession of that document would serve as evidence that they are useful.
Perhaps that twisted notion has permeated our feeling for the faith and we have unwittingly accepted the idea that a religious is only ‘useful’ if ordained, because then the individual concerned will be able to dispense the sacraments.
Like a vending machine.
All of which, it almost goes without saying, is nonsense.
Our principle purpose as religious – as it is with everybody else – is simply to be.
Perhaps the most poignant articulation of this idea is still to be found in the words of our friend from the Society of Jesus: “What I do is me, for that I came”.
To be who we are may sound tautological, but it is not as simple or easy as it initially appears.
As religious, we are living embodiments of that theological virtue that is so affectingly described in the Letter to the Hebrews: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
As religious – as consecrated men and women – what we principally are is a sign.
A sign pointing beyond ourselves to the one who loved us and gave Himself for us. (Galatians 2:20)
A sign of the life so much greater than this one; our true life and our true home. (Philippians 3:20)
A sign that God continues to “so love the world” that there are men and women of faith who are willing to give their lives to Him and for Him, just as He once gave His only-begotten Son. (John 3:16)
“We are fools for Christ”. (1 Corinthians 4:10)
We are living signs, hopefully, of the love of God that sustains all things in being and in response to which we have each surrendered our own being through profession.
Perhaps it does not seem very practical.
But it is undoubtedly beautiful.