|Detail from Caravaggio's Conversion of St. Paul|
Before a man is ordained to the priesthood, he is first ordained as a deacon. It is on the day of his diaconal ordination that a man makes the promise of obedience to his bishop and the promise to remain celibate for the sake of the Kingdom. It is from that day onward that he is bound to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and is given the charge of proclaiming and preaching the Gospel. For me, that ordination as a deacon took place fifteen years ago this morning on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.
While most priests probably place a higher emphasis on their priestly ordination date, my diaconal anniversary always has been fairly important to me. In fact, the morning of my diaconal ordination, I was a nervous wreck! I knew that when I arrived at the cathedral and prostrated myself on the ground during the ordination rite, I was putting my whole life--my entire future--on the line. I was called to lay down everything. That prostration, for me, was an act of faith--a voluntary offering of my life. It was an act of dying to myself in the hope that Christ would raise up something much better than what I had offered.
It is natural, I think, on an anniversary such as this to examine life and to prostrate back on the floor. It is an opportunity to recall that day fifiteen years ago when in my youth I offered confidently to God my body and my will. It is a moment to recall with gratitude how I was given on that day the Book of the Holy Gospels and commanded to preach the Word. It is definitely a moment to repent. The anniversary of both my diaconal and priesthood ordinations always stir within me sorrow for the countless times when I have failed to live up completely to the call to die entirely to self and to live only for Christ. And, these days stir up in me an enormous gratitude for the great gift that Christ has given to me through no merit of my own.
I am particularly grateful that my diaconal ordination anniversary always coincides with the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. This coincidence of dates binds me closer to St. Paul and always holds out for me the hope of deeper convesion of life. On the day when we yearly commemorate his falling to the ground and becoming a new man in Christ, I am given the opportunity to return also in my heart and mind to the ground and renew my offering to Christ, trusting in His grace to make all things new.
When we have a fall, we never seem to recover fully. The injuries that we receive from a fall always seem to linger. That sprained ankle has never been quite the same. Or, when we fall into sin we experience the effects of those sins for a long time to come. Similarly, St. Paul fell to the ground and he was never the same. He fell in with Christ on that day and became part of the new creation. He wasn't the same. He was better.
When St. Paul got up off the ground on the morning of his conversion, his life became infinitely better. On the anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate, I recall that whatever I laid down that morning was a pittance compared to what Christ has given me in return. Sometimes, people say, "priests give up so much," but that is completely false. We lay down our life and Christ gives us something entirely better. And this is true also for every Christian. The more we offer to Christ, the more he raises up something better.
Today's feast is a gift that enables us to go into the ground with Christ and St. Paul, trusting that we who enter into a death like Christ's shall surely also enter into a like resurrection.