Any properly catechized Catholic will tell you there are seven sacraments. I’m thinking of starting a movement for the Church to recognize an eighth (or at least, perhaps, a “Seven.A”)—one called parenthood.
The notion occurred to me last week, when we were in California to celebrate our son Chris’ ordination to the diaconate. At some point, the conversation turned to the special qualities of the sacrament of Holy Orders—including the fact that it’s one of three (along with Baptism and Confirmation) that’s said to confer an indelible mark on the recipient.
Great word, indelible:
adj. 1. Impossible to remove, erase, or wash away; permanent.
The perfect word, I realized, to describe the bond between parent and child, father and son. And it is a sacramental bond, in my experience—a physical sign, an often-corporeal action, that confers grace.
This “eighth sacrament” blessed me in an extraordinary way last Thursday evening, shortly after we arrived in Berkeley, and connected with Chris and his Jesuit community for daily Mass. As is the custom in our family, we joined hands at the ‘Our Father’ – Chris and I. And in that simple action, I was instantaneously transported back some 32 years in time …to when my then-infant son first wrapped his tiny hand around my index finger.
I knew in that long-ago moment that Chris had introduced me to a whole new dimension of love—a lesson that would only deepen with the birth of each new child in our family. I’d read about unconditional love, of course, and might have even considered myself capable of it prior to becoming a parent. But until these bearers-of-grace came into my life, I don’t think I really understood the concept in any substantial way.
Indeed, it may be the most profound gift parents receive from their children – this insight into how God loves. When you meet your child for the first time, you know the relationship is not performance-based. So, too, with the Holy One: We need do nothing… we can do nothing…to earn God’s love. It’s already there, from the very first glance or touch or smile. This is precisely what it means to be a child of God.
As they grow older, our children often find other ways—both simple and spectacular—to channel additional graces into our lives. I can now report that ‘ordination’ ranks right up there as among the most intense and memorable of such opportunities. I was blessed to be there last weekend in more ways than I can count…but the moment I was touched most indelibly came during Mass on Sunday morning – Chris’ first opportunity to preach as a deacon.
He chose to focus on a familiar theme, drawing from the words of St. Paul to Timothy: ‘You know from whom you learned it.’
‘It’s worth noting that, for most of us, this business of learning about God is a family affair,’ Chris said. ‘Even now, I can look around this room, and I see my first evangelists, my Godfather, my baptizers, my models of Christian joy, my community of love and acceptance…
‘We all have these stories. We have all received from someone who received from someone who received from someone. Which is the deeper truth in the end…None of us can stand up here in the middle of church and insist that we don’t owe anyone anything. We all have depended on the testimony of others in a vast web that reaches back all the way to the time of Jesus and beyond…
‘Today, I invite you all to join me as those who joyfully recognize our bankruptcy – our fundamental and total indebtedness. Whether in prayer or in conversation, I invite you to return to those faces, human and divine, who have preached to us the Good News of salvation. And I humbly suggest that you turn to them and say what I say here now to you: Thank you.’
And so I found myself being blessed once again – by a son, ministering to his father. I knew, as I heard Chris’ words, that it was definitely going to leave a mark on my heart. An indelible mark.