The next day I celebrated my Mass of Thanksgiving at the beautiful church in which I grew up, St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken. The opening hymn was a thundering rendition of “The Strife is Over,” which I had chosen because it is the hymn with which we always closed each academic year at seminary, all of us ready for summer vacation and singing with gusto, “The strife is o’er, the battle done, alleluia!” I explained this with a smile as I began the Mass; the strife and sacrifice of seminary has ended, but now I enter into a new type of sacrifice and battle as I begin to serve the people of God as a priest.
The church that had seemed so vast to me as a child was full of friends and family and brothers and sisters in Christ, including ten of my brother priests who had come to support me as I offered my first Mass. Our high school youth group participated with five teenagers who read the petitions after the homily, while the bread and wine were brought up by seven children from our parish school, wearing their school uniforms and bringing along a surprise basket of hand-drawn cards from all of the students, which was very touching! And finally, my parents brought up the beautiful wooden chalice and paten that I was going to use for the first time, which my dad and I had made together.
It was only at the start of the homily that my emotions got to me and I had a hard time spitting anything out for a few minutes, as I haltingly told everyone how thankful I was to be able to celebrate my first Mass there where I had been baptized, made my first confession, received my first Communion, and been confirmed. Leading the congregation in the Eucharistic Prayer, and holding the Body and Blood of our Lord in my hands at the consecration, was surreal: “Is this really happening to me?” I felt like Tiger Woods must have felt, when he won the Masters in ‘97 and put that Green Jacket on for the first time. I wouldn’t have traded it for a million dollars.
The other very emotional part for me was at the end. At a first Mass it is customary for the priest to give his mother the small hand cloth that was used to wipe the sacred oils from his hands at the ordination, and to give his father the small purple stole that was used to hear his first confession. As I gave the cloth to my mother, I explained its significance, and told her that her example of love, sacrifice, and prayer will always be the model that I will carry into my priesthood, and that even though the cloth may one day lose the scent of the sacred chrism, my love for her would never fade. And as I gave the stole to my father, I explained that he is the example of fatherhood that I will carry into my spiritual fatherhood as a priest; that he has taught me how to be a father. I had to cut both little speeches short because I knew that I’d start breaking up if I went too long.
After the Mass, we had a reception where I again had the opportunity to greet people and to give them individual blessings as a newly ordained priest. (No time for food, just like the night before!) The next day I was able to celebrate two of the Sunday Masses and say hi to most of the rest of the parish. And then my parents and sister and I high-tailed it to Edisto Island for a week-long vacation together, to finally relax from the hustle of ordination week. We enjoyed the beach, worked on a ridiculously difficult jigsaw puzzle, and played a lot of cards. But the coolest thing of all was being able to celebrate Mass together every day as a family, there in the beachhouse on a little makeshift altar, the four of us with all of the angels and saints in heaven!
And just two days later, I arrived here at St. Gregory the Great, where I have been serving for the last three weeks! And the adventure is just beginning…