About 10 years ago, I attended the Mass of Thanksgiving of a priest who was ordained for the Diocese of Orlando, Father Hector Vazquez Saad. It was a beautiful event, full of joy and possibility and grace. As the new priest stepped up to the ambo to begin his first homily, he took a deep breath and said, “Good morning. Who here today is nervous?” And he raised his hand and the crowd roared.
I thought of that moment when I read this account by Bishop Frank Caggiano, describing his first Mass:
Thirty-two years ago today I celebrated my First Mass at Saint Sylvester Church in the City Line section of Brooklyn. I remember the day as if it were yesterday. It was a beautiful Spring day, with a church filled with parishioners whom I came to know and serve during my pastoral year in the parish and friends from throughout my life. I can still remember walking down the center aisle, wondering to myself if I were dreaming, having prepared for the day for over eight years and suddenly it was upon me. It was an indescribable feeling that still comes over me when I realized how blest I am to be have been called to live and serve as an ordained minister of the High Priest.
I also learned a great lesson during the celebration of my First Mass that has influenced much of my priestly life. When the time came for me to pray the Preface of the Eucharistic Prayer, terror stuck when I reach out for the green ribbon that marked the page, only to have the ribbon slip out before I got to the page. I immediately froze and then desperately tried to find the page with no immediate success. I could feel the eyes of hundreds of people looking at me, wondering how well I was trained if I could not even find the right page for the prayer. Then I had an inspiration. I looked up, smiled and said to the congregation, “Sorry, but I am new at this!”. With a roar of laughter, the tension dissipated, I found the page, Mass continued and I learned the power of humility.I have since learned this same lesson over and over and again. I have come to realize that the people of God do not expect their priests to be perfect or never to make any mistakes. Rather, what they do expect, and deserve to have, are priests who are honest about their gifts and shortcomings, able to admit and laugh at their mistakes and who walk with them in humble faith.
After 32 years, I pray always to be such a priest, for there are many “ribbons” in life that should make us laugh and move on.
I’ve attended a few events like that, the First Mass of a new priest, and it’s always something wondrous. I’ve even had the privilege of serving as the deacon at a couple of them. During this season of sacraments — ordinations and confirmations and First Communions and weddings are popping up everywhere — I can’t help but marvel at the countless ways God makes himself present to us, and how these sacramental signs help to enrich and sanctify our lives. What a gift.
Grace is everywhere.