By Fr. San Mai, SJ
May 11, 2021 — There’s an adage among Jesuits being formed for priesthood that says, “Doing ministry prior to ordination is like doing ministry with your hands tied behind your back.” This is not to diminish the many people—not ordained to the priesthood—who are engaged every day in life-giving and essential ministry in the Church and the world at large. Rather, for someone like me who has a vocation to ordained priestly ministry, you are a bit hamstrung because you cannot fully administer the sacraments of the Church until you are ordained.
So, when I arrived last summer, after a decade of preparation, for my first post-ordination assignment as the associate pastor of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parish (St. Al’s) in Spokane, I was raring to go. I was excited to administer the sacraments to real people rather than learn how to do so by baptizing baby dolls or hearing mock confessions from my Jesuit brothers. I knew priestly ministry would be different and constrained in this time of pandemic, but I did not fully realize how tied my hands would be.
As part of my preparation for the priesthood, I took a class, in the fall of 2018, on how to preside at Masses. The world was different then and the necessity of learning how to preside virtually was unimaginable. Fast-forward to the summer of 2020, and my first Mass at St. Aloysius was on Facebook and YouTube. If you have been to St. Al’s, you know it is a magnificent, grand church that easily seats a thousand people. Imagine standing alone on the altar of this cavernous space, staring at a camera, not knowing who is on the other side. When Mass concluded, one of my Jesuit brothers asked, “Why did you recite all of the people’s responses?” I replied, “Because I don’t have a sense of the timing and pacing when there is no interaction with other people.” He nodded and smiled.
One of my responsibilities as the associate pastor is to work with families to plan funerals for their beloved deceased. Inevitably, one of the first questions the families ask is: “How many people can attend the funeral?” It pains me every time to tell them: “Per the governor’s mandate, we can allow only 30 people for funerals and weddings.” My hands are truly tied because we have to follow the law. Immediately, I see the disappointment on their faces and imagine that inside their heads, the families are doing the internal arithmetic to determine who they can invite and who will, sadly, be turned away. I know this feeling well because for my ordination last summer, I was allowed to invite exactly 15 people.
Fortunately, St. Al’s is now more open with limited in-person Masses. But even this experience has its limitations. Since the pandemic, we no longer process in at the beginning of Mass nor do we recess out at the end. This has made it harder for me to greet parishioners. I have been intentional about greeting parishioners after every Mass but without coffee and donuts, many of them do not linger to socialize like they used to. Yet so many parishioners have been extremely gracious in welcoming me to St. Al’s by introducing themselves and assuring me they would invite me over for coffee after the pandemic. Their kindness has been consoling, but I must confess that I don’t know what these parishioners look like. I have never been good at remembering names, but it is so much harder to associate a name with a face when all I can see is the upper half of each parishioner’s face.
The hardest part of priesthood thus far is how challenging it is to get to know my parishioners, and for them to know me. Getting to know the parishioners is what I most looked forward to, and my fellow ordained brothers tell me this is one of the most consoling and important aspects of being a priest. The efficiency and convenience of technologies like Zoom and FaceTime could never surpass the warmth and intimacy of a face-to-face conversation.
In these days of pandemic, most of us are hungry for real human connections that are not mediated by technology and distance. Truth be told, even though I can now celebrate the sacraments, in many ways my hands were less tied before I was ordained. In pre-pandemic times, I was able to accompany the good people of God in a much more intimate way by seeing their unmasked faces, holding their hands, talking to them without the awkwardness of social distancing and receiving their warm hugs.
In October, while waiting for the green to clear at my favorite public golf course in Spokane, I lamented to Jesus about how these first few months of priesthood were far from what I had hoped for. As I stared across the lush expanse of the fairway, I heard the gentle yet firm voice of Jesus say to me, “Stay with the grace.” These words have informed much of my prayer life these past few months. What I heard was a clear invitation to surrender my need to be in control and to acknowledge my dependence on God. This pandemic has resulted in all of us having to involuntarily surrender our best-laid plans for graduations, vacations, family gatherings, weddings, holidays and more.
In his poem “To a Mouse,” Robert Burns astutely points out, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Just as I had to surrender my hopes for a grand ordination with hundreds of Jesuit brothers, family members and friends by my side, I am learning to surrender my expectations and ideals about my first year as a priest. In letting go of my expectations, I have found freedom in surrender. Despite the limitations I face as a priest during this pandemic, there has been tremendous grace. God continues to accompany all of us in these times of chaos and suffering.
One of the most joyful days of my priesthood was spent playing on the monkey bars with the kids from the St. Al’s parish grade school. I see the infinite mercy of God and the goodness of people when I am humbled to receive their confession. When parishioners come to me to receive Communion, I can see the gratitude in their eyes which no mask can hide. When I baptize babies, God reminds me that amidst the deaths of so many sisters and brothers, God continues to create life. I love being a priest. I am grateful to be a priest. This is exactly where God wants me to be right now.
I am filled with hope that my second year of priesthood will be closer to “normal” as more people are able to receive the vaccine. I am hopeful more parishioners will return to Mass. I am hopeful we can hug our family and friends again. Whatever may come, I place my trust in God through these words: “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—oracle of the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Fr. San Mai, SJ, is associate pastor of St. Aloysius Parish in Spokane, Washington.