As I progress through my final year of formation for the priesthood at seminary, I've had a few people ask, "What is it like to anticipate being 'on the other side' of the sacraments?"

I used to wonder the same thing. Until recently, most Catholics experienced the sacraments as a two-sided situation: the priest administered them and the laity received them - or, at least, it often looked that way.

But as I've gone through formation, as I've studied theology and especially since being ordained a transitional deacon, I have come to realize that these spiritual events involve more perspectives.

Take the Mass, for example: Many people who remember the days before the 1960s' Second Vatican Council speak about the Mass as something the priest "said" and the people "heard."

This was never my experience; those days are only a vague memory even for my mother. Nevertheless, I remember as a child (even growing up with lay lectors and eucharistic ministers) thinking there were only two ways to experience the Mass: as a priest on one side of the altar, and as everyone else on the other side. I had some concept that this was an event I was obliged to attend.

When I was allowed to begin receiving communion, that shifted my perspective a bit. The Mass came to be something like the doctor's or the dentist's office: I didn't like going, but I could tell that it was somehow "good for me" and necessary.

As I got older, the Mass took on new dimensions for me. During my time working with the homeless and imprisoned in Philadelphia, the Mass became a "pit stop" of sorts. I began to notice feeling a need for the Mass.

My work would progress differently on days when I could attend Mass: I had more patience; it was more natural to pray throughout the day; my day felt like a collaborative effort with the Lord.

It wasn't until I took a class at Mundelein Seminary on "the Church and the Eucharist" that I was able to understand why.

Theologically, we do speak of the Mass as a sacrifice, a mystical re-presentation of Christ's self-offering on the cross. Only as an adult has that come to be important to me: as I have come to love others with an adult love, to want the best for those I love, to want to work for their good and yet realize how much is beyond my power to give them.

It's only on the other side of such experiences that the ability to bring my love, my life, my hopes for good, my weakness and failures into some kind of union with Christ's self-sacrifice and victory has presented itself as the solution, the way to satisfy my deepest longings.

I came to this realization just in time to be ordained a transitional deacon and placed on the other side of the altar. Now, I can look out - especially at Masses with older people - and see in their faces that I have only come to a realization that many of my fellow disciples have understood for quite some time already.

There I am, right in the middle of it, assisting with the offertory, witnessing the consecration like St. John at the foot of the cross and acting as a "go-between" to help all present join their lives to this redeeming and sanctifying mystery.

I now have the responsibility of dismissing the congregation or insisting that we all now "go in the peace of Christ" to spread the fruits of this renewed union with Christ and each other to all those who either could not or would not join us.

None of this will pass away when I am ordained a priest. I will still be just as much on the receiving end of this sacrament as everyone else. What will be added is the ability and obligation to make this sacramental union of the people of God with their Lord go from possibility to actuality.

From that perspective, I will be able to see the longing for this union on the faces of my people and know that I stand in a position to help satisfy their longing and my own.

(Jay Atherton is studying for the priesthood for the Albany Diocese at Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill.)