After one Saturday Mass this fall, I witnessed a memorable moment in the seminary sacristy: a priest faculty member knelt before my friend, ordained mere months before, for a blessing. The new priest rested his hands on the older priest’s head and prayed. Then I too approached. “May I have your blessing, Father?”
Until I entered seminary, I had never knelt before a friend. That’s probably true for most folks. Now, I do it several times at the beginning of a new academic year. Men who were ordained priests the previous spring return to the seminary for another year or two of studies, and our relationship is at once the same and different. The sameness is simple: We share the same jokes, play the same sports, and discuss the same books. But what’s different is contained in the Catholic tradition of a first blessing.
Catholic faithful seek new priests for a blessing imparted through their hands because they were so recently anointed with the chrism oil of ordination. Sons bless their fathers, young men bless their college friends, and one-time parishioners bless their old pastors whom they first asked about seminary. Such moments are emotional for both parties.
But they are not merely emotional. These blessings demonstrate the fundamental change that takes place at a priestly ordination, and one I didn’t appreciate until seminary. A brother who knelt alongside me for years in Mass is now a father before whom I kneel. Why? The hands he places on my head are no longer his own. He is now an agent of God’s direct intervention in my life.
“When a priest extends his hand over us in blessing,” wrote Joseph Ratzinger, “we bow and stop for a moment, because we know that God’s finger, the finger of the love that moves the world, comes into closer contact with our lives for a moment.” Through a new priest’s hands, the hand of God reaches into my life.
To receive a friend’s priestly blessing at the beginning of a school year does not mean, of course, that he is no longer a friend. But something has changed. As I kneel before him, I acknowledge that God is now intervening in my life through his words and through his hands. I acknowledge that a brother has become a father.
This is part of the series called “The Human Being Fully Alive” found here.