An unusual shabbat

I used to think that henceforth I would only ever go to a church service for weddings, funerals, or educational historical recreations. But I failed to consider one other case, and now add ordination to that list. My friend M (who can identify himself if he wants, or not) was ordained this weekend as a Roman Catholic priest, and I was pleased to accept his invitation to the ceremony.

I am in awe of M, who gave up another career to enter the seminary several years ago. I couldn't really see the other three new priests clearly, but I think he was not the only one of that approximate age. I'm not saying it isn't noteworthy to do something like this right out of college, but making a profound change later in life strikes a particular chord with me. So seeing M achieve this, and seeing the joy and solemnity and sacredness all mingled together in the room, was pretty special.

The service was held at St. Paul's, a huge cathedral in Oakland. (It surely seats several thousand, but I couldn't tell more specifically.) They had a diocese choir, which was able to fill the place, and brass and percussion and of course organ. The pulpit is large, and good thing -- I think there were at least 75 people involved in this service (though not all at once, mostly).

I am not fluent in the high-church Roman Catholic mass (Wikipedia helped some), but this appeared to be most of a mass with a substantial ceremony occupying the center portion. During the ordination ceremony Bishop Zubick (the local bishop) spoke individually (but publicly) to each of the new priests, adding a personal touch that showed that he knows them. (I understand that when he came to Pittsburgh he declined the usual bishoply residence and asked for an apartment at the seminary instead.) Two of the four are returning to their school in Rome for graduate studies in the fall; the other two (including M) begin local assignments in a couple weeks. These assignments were given out during the ceremony; I had assumed that the priests knew in advance where they were being sent, but it turned out they learned when we did. I guess it reinforces that pledge they had each made to serve the church and the bishop no matter what. (It didn't actually say "no matter what", but there were words of some gravity.)

The mechanics of running this service were interesting. It was very smooth, and while most religious services are not on this scale, there's stuff to learn here for people running smaller ones. I'm going to talk about that first, and then I'll go into the geeking (for those who are still reading :-) ).


There was prelude music on the organ, and the service started precisely at 10:00 with the opening song. (Which was, by the way, Hassler's Cantate Domino. Small world.)

The procession was very long (those 75-or-so people all had to walk up the center aisle by ones and twos), occupying the choral song, a brass piece (couldn't tell if it was timed for the entry of a particular "wave" of people), and another song. This last song (only) had the words and melody in the program for congregational singing. So even though the procession was long and long processions can be kind of boring, there was interesting stuff to listen to. (The procession was interesting to me because I was trying to puzzle out the meanings of the various insignia, stuff being carried, etc. There were even knights of Columbus in full regalia! But most people there were probably familiar with all that.)

While this was an unusual number of people to have on the pulpit, most Catholic masses (so far as I know) have several people up there, some of whom are assistants. Contrast this with the synagogue services I'm familiar with, where except for the torah service there is nobody there with the job of "assistant" -- you're playing some role in directly leading the service or you're not there. Anyway, I noticed those assistants doing various assistantly things that helped things flow smoothly, from standing next to steps to offer a hand if and only if a priest needed it (this was conveyed by eye contact, it appeared) to holding the bishop's staff when he wasn't using it to holding books (more on that in a moment) to doing things I couldn't quite see with ritual objects. Basically, there was always another pair of hands when needed -- a specific pair of hands; this stuff appeared to have been orchestrated -- and yet those extra bodies didn't impede the conduct of the service.

The readers read, and the cantor sang, from an elevated lectern off to one side. Most of the service was conducted from the pulpit proper, where there was no lectern. Instead of the bishop holding the book himself, there was always an assistant there to hold it for him in the right place, leaving his hands free.

The bishop sat when he addressed the new priests (including a sermon on the duties of the priesthood, all together about 20 minutes). I'm not sure I've seen a speaker sit before, but it worked fine -- in large part, I suspect, because there was no lectern impeding sight lines.

The program contained an outline of the order of the service, with melody and words for stuff the congregation is supposed to sing. It did not contain instructions for spoken congregational responses at various times; they assumed that people know this stuff. Which they do, if they've been to church more than a few times, and for newcomers, come back a couple more times and you'll have it. Does this cause occasional "oops" moments? Sure -- at one point the person next to me reached out to shake my hand and said "peace be upon you" and I said "uh, you too", which isn't the correct response, but she just shrugged. It was fine. Small mistakes from visitors/newcomers don't harm anyone; you don't have to program for every possible scenario. (I had not intended to participate in any of the ritual; I didn't say/sing congregational stuff, kneel, etc. But this I couldn't dodge.)

Along similar lines, there were never announcements of page numbers. You had a program; you could figure it out. (The program was 20 pages, not all of it liturgical stuff. That 20-page program was the only thing an attendee ever had to hold.)

The program did, however, contain instructions for when to stand, sit, kneel, and bow your head. Instructions about this were not given from the pulpit.

There was no attempt to enable people to follow along during the scriptural readings, which were short. We just sat and listened. (The readings, of course, were in English.) The program did include one-sentence summaries of each of the readings.

The ordination included a part where every priest laid hands on the head of each of the new priests. There was no (public) speaking during this and it took about 20 minutes. The choir, brass band, and organist filled this time with interesting music to pass the time without detracting from the ceremony. Even so, this would have been wearing for anybody who wasn't there for the ordination, which I assume is one reason they don't just add this to a Sunday-morning mass when the community would already be coming. Planners of bar/bat-mitzvah services, consecration of religious-school students, and confirmation services should take note. (I mean Jewish confirmation services, the only ones I have recent experience with.)

The choreography overall was very smooth and precise. I assume the parts that were specific to an ordination were well-rehearsed and that the others (e.g. bowing to the bishop before approach) are routine.

Geeking (observations and questions)

Many questions occurred to me during this service. Some I got answers to at the gathering later; the rest I'm trying to look up but feel free to educate me if you know. :-)

The readings and liturgy referred a few times to Jesus as the high priest of the church. I don't think I've heard that before. How does that work? Theologically, don't priests stand between the people and God, yet in Christianity Jesus is God? And historically, I would have expected this idea to come well after Jesus's time, but it's attributed to Paul.

There was also reference to Jesus being high priest "in the line of Malkhi-Tzedek". I'm pretty sure I've never heard that before. Malkhi-Tzedek is a minor actor in the book of Genesis; he is a Canaanite priest of God (yes, that's odd; no, there's not a lot of commentary on it) who blesses Avraham early in his days there. (Chapter 14 -- he's still Avram, not yet Avraham.) Malkhi-Tzedek is important in Christianity? Is there something particular about him, versus other priests mentioned in scripture? (Is it that he's not Jewish?) And I assume "in the line of" here means "in the tradition of" and that they're not suggesting ancestry?

There were two places where a long list of saints were individually petitioned. I wasn't the only person there with this question, and I heard M explain that the first batch is a fixed list of early saints and to that the leader of a service is free to add his own choices (which might, for example, include the local patron saint). Each of the new priests was allowed to add a few names to one of these lists.

One I've wondered about for a while but happened to remember here: the phrase "hosanna in the highest"... "hosanna"? If it's derived from the Hebrew "hoshia-na", it fits thematically but the grammar is odd, as that's an imperative verb. What's the etymology here? What does it mean in this context?

I saw a variety of styles of vestments and was trying to figure out if they encode some sort of status or are just local variation. Bishops are easy, and the one officiating had vestments with more color. Among the others (some priests, some deacons; don't know which were which) there were robes with one red stripe down the middle, ones with two reddish stripes, ones with two gold stripes, I think ones with one gold stripe (not sure), and ones with elaborately-ornamented collars in gold. M explained to me that some of this is just variation from priest to priest or because they don't have enough of any one style, but I didn't try to pump him for details. I did notice that the different styles seemed to designate groups that functioned together; for exmaple, in the procession all the gold-color priests came in together (right before or after the bishops, so maybe they were the highest rank?), all the one-red-stripe priests came in together, and so on.

There were knights of Columbus, which I hadn't seen before. (I mean, I know of the organization; I just didn't know they played a liturgical role.) I didn't see them do anything other than walk in at the beginning and walk out at the end. Are they an honor guard or what? I understand that they are not necessarily priests.

I'm sure I had more questions/observations, but this will do for tonight.