Jason Byassee: A blessing, father

Catholic ordination grants the power to bless, courtesy of the communion of the saints

A friend of mine was ordained in the Catholic Church recently. I and several more of his Methodist friends were there, including his doctoral dissertation director, Geoffrey Wainwright. Most of us hugged and congratulated Father John David Ramsey. But Wainwright, twice John David’s age and with more wisdom and holiness than all of us combined, did something different.

As John David extended his arms for a hug or handshake, Wainwright bowed deeply and said, “A blessing, father.” John David placed his hands on his elder’s shoulders and blessed a man who had taught him much of what he knows about theology.

Say what you want about the Catholics. But they do ordinations right. Maybe because it’s the closest analogue to a wedding that the ordinand will know (the invitation was at the behest of his mother, like a wedding invitation). Maybe because such ordinations don’t happen often enough. I couldn’t help but contrast it with my own ordination, which felt like a high school graduation. Each of us was shooed off the stage as fast as possible, with the bishop reading my name from a card instructing him how to pronounce “Byassee” for the first time in his life. At John David’s ordination it seemed every priest in the southeastern United States processed down the aisle with him. A dozen or more were recognized for their particular contributions to his formation. The enormous Renaissance-style Cathedral in Richmond was full an hour before the liturgy started. And the line to receive a blessing from the newly-minted father wrapped around the block. The standing ovation after the bishop laid hands on him went on so that my hands hurt.

I was especially impressed with the Catholic practice of priests giving and receiving blessing. John David’s ordination conveyed on him a power to transmit blessing that he didn’t have before the ordination. It is a power sufficient for a septagenarian to kneel in search of it. And it’s one that he will convey to others throughout what we hope, God grant it, will be a long and fruitful ministry.

Maybe that power of blessing has something to do with a Catholic view of sainthood. The most moving part of the liturgy for me was a litany of the saints, one I gather is not uncommon in celebratory liturgies in Catholic parishes, but which we Methodists obviously don’t sing. The cantor sings a long list of saints, and asks each, by name, to “pray for us.” The congregation intones in the background a response in the same words before closing each stanza singing slowly, plaintively, “all you holy men and women pray for us.” There was something hauntingly beautiful about it, especially in hearing names of people whose work I’ve studied (Augustine, Elizabeth, Wenceslaus) here addressed, and not merely dissected. The point is unmistakable. The saints are alive and can even be moved to intercede for us. It makes good sense, even to this Protestant. In Christian thought death is not the end, and presumably those closer to God than the rest of us (ie saints) are not so self-absorbed after their death as to be deaf to our prayer requests.

The blessings John David doled out that day were not his own. If they were he could have given them before. They were the church’s -- granted to him with great responsibility and also hope, that he would take, bless, break and give them out to countless others. Wainwright should not have been the only one bowing. But perhaps it took a crown of wisdom such as his to see the One whose presence he was newly in.