By Mark Hatch
The journey to priesthood is long, rich, challenging, and if it be God’s will, ultimately it leads to ordination. Over many years and even decades, a process of discernment, testing, study, practice, and examination leads one to the moment and to the experience of apostolic succession – the laying on of hands, as practiced for more than 2000 years. But what happens, and what does it feel like, when that mystical and ontological experience is interrupted, or at least challenged, by a global pandemic? What is new ministry like at a time like this?
The Rev. Dale Van Wormer, a 27-year-old graduate of Nashotah House, found himself directly in the eye of the storm. Details of his ordination changed rapidly as the coronavirus crisis escalated. Van Wormer explained, “Governor Cuomo announced that by the evening of Sunday, March 22 the minimum of ten people order was meant to take effect, and we were also anticipating a shelter-in-place order like New York City and New Jersey had. Bishop Love called me on Friday the 20th to let me know we had to move quickly!”
What had originally been scheduled as a large, celebratory Mass on March 29 was quickly moved up to avoid the potential lockdown order. The site was shifted from one of the parishes Van Wormer serves, in the small town of Unadilla, New York, to the diocesan cathedral in Albany. An ambitious music program, featuring a choir from Hartwick College in nearby Oneonta, had to be scrapped when the college shut down and sent all its students home.
By the time of the March 22 ordination date at the cathedral, there were but eight or so persons present for the solemn ceremony: Bishop of Albany William H. Love, the dean of the cathedral, the cathedral organist, a presenting priest, the ordinand, and some immediate family. “We had planned so much stuff”, said Van Wormer, including the great gift of a college choir, friends and family from near and far, and a local celebration at the small and now-stabilizing shared ministry where Van Wormer currently serves in New York (St. Mathew’s in Unadilla and St. Paul’s in Sidney). “We did all this planning, and it almost felt too perfect,” he reflects.
Still, with the help of cathedral staff and the small gathering, the ordination took place on March 22, with the traditional apostolic laying on of hands and physical anointing by Bishop Love, and with two others placing their hands on the ordinand’s shoulder. Van Wormer noted that, by moving the ordination date, the Mass actually fell on the feast day of James DeKoven, a prominent 19th-century priest who taught at Nashotah House. Van Wormer found the coincidence moving and meaningful because he shares DeKoven’s passion for sacred ritual and the sacramental life.
“It felt so strange to be in this beautiful, grand cathedral with only seven or eight of us”, he reflected, “but Bishop Love reminded me that even if there are only few of us in person, there are countless saints that are surrounding us; a great ‘cloud of witnesses’ are here. The church needs more priests. At every Mass there is grace.”
His first Mass as a priest was streamed online, and he said it “definitely felt weird to say your first Mass to just my two deacons and a camera.” Van Wormer also spoke movingly of some gentle support and advice he had been given by a British friend and fellow priest, the Rev. Nicholas Johnson, who said to him, “Take a moment, even a moment of silence (as you are celebrating Mass), to just realize what is happening with your ministry now; through your hands, Jesus is becoming really and truly present.” Van Wormer said that despite the small congregation, “I could feel the power… I could see my reflection in the chalice.” He told his parishioners, “This Mass is still being offered on your behalf.”
Van Wormer sees opportunity for spiritual reflection among his parishioners in the uncharted territory of virtual worship and online services. Though no one can be physically present to receive the Eucharist, “this is a time for people to take a moment” to feel their yearning and longing, and to see where that might lead them in their life of faith. I hope and believe this delay will give people an appreciation of the Eucharist, and of presenting ourselves, our souls, and our bodies before the Lord.”
It’s not an ordinary time, but God abides with us, in His truth and in the saving mystery of the sacraments.
The Rev. Mark Hatch is a retired priest of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts