Pavel Chichikov is the Poetry Editor of Catholic Exchange.
Last week I photographed the ordination of nine young priests. The giant Basilica here in Washington, D.C., was filled with color, light, music – and thousands of well-wishers and family. It was a magnificent gift of visual images for a photographer.
I saw the outer ceremony – the laying on of hands, the solemn promises of obedience for life, the anointing of the new priests’ hands with balsam and oil of the sacred chrism. It was the ancient sacred rite, one of those rites which one of the new members of the order of the priesthood alluded to as “the beauty of the Church.”
But it was the private, inner, spiritual ceremony of the young men that seemed most important. One of them, Zygmunt Kurzawinski from Warsaw, said: “I’m filled with awe. The beauty of this gift takes my breath away.”
Father Zygmunt Kurzawinski is 26 years old, an age at which words like awe are often reserved for girl friends, music, and automobiles. But there’s nothing attenuated or otherworldly about him. He’s filled with energy and enthusiasm.
“I have such joy in me now,” he says. “How can we comprehend the gift which is given into our hands? What gift? The gift of love, of mercy, of forgiveness, of happiness.”
It was almost as if, under the domes and the mosaics of the Basilica, he was basking in sunlight and growing before my eyes, and the sunlight was Christ.
Zygmunt Kurzawinski had intimations of wanting to be a priest when he was a small child, but he experienced his first mature thoughts of desire for the priesthood during the Pope’s visit to Czestochowa in 1991.
“When I was a teen-ager,” he tells me, “I encountered Jesus Christ and His total love for my family and me. Then, at the age of 19, I decided to answer the will of God.”
Without being specific, he mentions “problems” at that time – with his parents’ marriage, and perhaps also the normal problems of young people as they grow toward adulthood. He says, “The call to lead the Christian life in the present world is so hard to answer.”
As we all know.
For Zygmunt Kurzawinski, it was the Neocatechumenal Way that helped him to the rediscovery of Baptism and the other sacraments and which “pulled [him] toward Christ.”
“I encountered Christ, who is present in the sacraments. I felt the need to serve the people of God – with all their sufferings, problems, difficulties. I received the love of God. How could I not offer my life to the Lord?”
“You can go out from this Basilica and see people whose faces are sad, bitter. The looks on their faces express their innermost being.
“There is a sadness that is caused by many difficulties and problems. People live through these for years. Christ frees us from this burden. So priesthood means the gift of bringing this experience of Christ to these people.”
Then Christ, I thought as listened to Father Zygmunt, is not just a name in a book, or a legend, or a theory in theology. Christ is the “experience” of a living Person, just as an encounter with a human being is a living experience. Only in the case of Christ, the experience is always one of “love, mercy, forgiveness, happiness.” Meeting a witness to Christ should also be an experience of Christ’s light of love.
“Christ tells you to love, to go out of yourself,” says Zygmunt Kurzawinski. “The world says keep everything for yourself – if you have to step on someone, don’t worry about it. Elevate your own ego. Christ says love the other person, and you will be happy. That’s amazing! I have such joy in me now.”
Is there an inner ordination, as well as an outer one? Father Zygmunt asks:
“When you’re willing to give your blood for Christ, where does this come from? From your experience. Where does this experience of Christ come from? It comes from growing in faith, supported by priests, people who live this witness. Someone who is attached to Christ becomes a light to the world. This is what people are looking for. Someone who is able to live his life in the dimension of heaven.”
So perhaps, as the new priest takes a formal, public vow to give himself to the Church, he also takes an inner vow, which is to give himself both to Christ and to the light that Christ has kindled in him. This light is not for him alone. It is a reaching flame that he can pass on to others so that they too can be illuminated by this reliable and glorious love.
Is this abundant light what we want from priests? Yes, of course. We want it because we need them to pass the light on to us, as we will pass it on to everyone we meet. That is the true evangelization. As the light grows, the dimension of heaven grows too, spreading around us and enfolding everyone we meet in its glory, now and forever.