A few years ago we met Robert Steele. Robert was, at the time, chairman of the parish council at Te Atatu Peninsula parish, north of Auckland, where Sue and I would attend Mass about once a month, on our way up to Parakai to see Eddie and Eveline.
We became quite fond of Robert and one day he said he would like to get to know us a bit. The end result was that he came down, one day, to Pukekohe (a long trip!) to visit our Wednesday evening Rosary group.
In the course of coming to know Robert, he told us that he had been a seminary student some twenty-plus years before, and, after working in the hotel industry or that time, had decided to seek to go on to finish and become a priest - would we pray for him.
Yesterday we went to his ordination.
This is the second priestly ordination Sue and I have attended. In it, the bishop, in speaking to the ordinand, asks, "Do you promise to obey me, and all my successors?"
There is much else in the ordination ritual that is jarring to modern sensibilities:
- the ordinand prostrates himself - face flat on the floor, arms extended before himself. He has made himself what Aristotle describes the slave as being: a 'living tool.'
- The ordinand's wrists are symbolically bound together with a cloth: "When thou wast young, thou girdest thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not." (John 21:18)
- The ordinand places his hands between the bishop's hands - very mediaeval - this is 'homage.' "I am your 'man' - homme - my hands are now your hands." Indeed, this is the origin of the western custom of raising joined hands in prayer.
Our society is dying for lack of authority.
Authority is not power. Power is useless without authority, for it does not know where to apply itself. Only authority - the legitimacy of command and of instruction - can direct power. And with authority, power is not often needed.
Once it was not very necessary to take care to lock one's front door. The voice of authority was received by men that said that stealing was wrong. In the case where this voice was flaunted, power had no uncertainty in its application. Now we install expensive alarm systems in our houses - and know even then that, if we have a break-in, the power, if it apprehends anyone, will be itself tied in knots for no one knows whether I have a right to my property, nor whether it is right to restrain and punish the one who attacks it.
Once it was not controversial to forbid abortion. The voice of authority was received by men that said that it was wrong to kill the innocent. When it did happen, power knew where to direct its force.
Once it was not necessary to argue about what constituted marriage, nor about its importance for society. Those who sought to ignore it by living together without marriage were deprived of social approval and of legal support - for all accepted the authority that said that adultery was wrong. In case of divorce, the partner who wished to defend the marriage had the support of power, because power knew where and how to apply its sanction.
Father Robert has accepted authority. He has accepted the authority of Jesus Christ, as exercised through Bishop Pat Dunn of Auckland. He has submitted himself to that authority and will know how and why to act - as a priest, as a pastor, as a judge. He is not confused. He has bound himself by unbreakable chains of his own forging to the foot of the Cross. By that binding, he is a free man.