Here is the opening convocation talk for the new formation year
Good afternoon. It is my great joy and my humble privilege to welcome you to this new formation year at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology. It promises to be a blessed year, a year filled with the grace of discovery and the joy of uncovering a deeper relationship with Christ, for that is why we are here. In the midst of fulfilling responsibilities, assignments, giving and receiving evaluation, responding to the multitude of obligations that will confront us, even as we leave this makeshift conference room today, we must be clear that our purpose here is singular, to draw closer to Christ in His mysteries, to find our way in the middle of destruction, construction and reconstruction, whether we understand that literally or spiritually or metaphorically, to find our way to Christ, to His side, to His peace, His heart.
And so welcome to this year. One of the great privileges of being the rector is having the opportunity to see the fruition of our handiwork here on the Hill, to witness each year the joy of candidates and families and parishes as they celebrate the awesome rites of ordination. Ordinations are wonderful events. This past summer, I had the joy of being in Memphis, in Mexico, here at Saint Meinrad and almost in Little Rock to see our brothers, men like yourselves, who have struggled and questioned, prayed and considered and reconsidered their call, and finally given way to the will of God and presented themselves as priests to His holy Church. Witnessing an ordination is awesome, but no matter how often I attend, I am struck by the words and the gestures of the rite. And so, this year in my rector’s conferences, I would like to focus on the Rite of Ordination as a way of bringing greater clarity to the work we do in these halls. Contained within the rite is our clearest insight into the spirituality of the priest. As I go about from place to place speaking about the priesthood, I am often asked to clarify a question: What is the spirituality of the diocesan priest? It is a complex question, but one which does, in fact, have an answer. The spirituality of the diocesan priest, like that of any vocation in the Church, can be discovered through the means by which the office is made. For example, the spirituality of marriage is found in the vows the couple takes. The spirituality of religious life is discovered in the apostolic character of the vows of the community. And the spirituality of the diocesan priest is found in the Rite of Ordination itself. What does that rite say? What does it tell us about the priest? Where does the spiritual reality of the priest begin?
Is it in a set of ideals and ideas? Is it between the pages of a book? Is it found in the magisterial teaching of the Church? All of these, certainly. But I would like to propose that the spirituality of the priest begins in an even more fundamental place: in media res. In the middle of things. An appropriation of the reality of the priesthood begins with a square looking in the eye of reality. What is true about the world in which we live? What is true about the cultural and social mechanisms in which we find ourselves enmeshed? What is true about ourselves, our hearts, our minds, our personalities and dispositions? Priesthood begins with a realistic look at what is there and here.
What do we have to negotiate? The realities of the contemporary Church and contemporary society are not unknown to us; they confront us daily, even here. We witness even in the seminary the increasing globalization of the Church. It is not a question as to whether or not we are going to accept the international character of Catholicism. That character is among us: in parishes that speak many languages, in dioceses that embrace many cultures, in seminaries that incorporate many ethnic realities. Look around and see the Catholic Church in a quilt of global opportunity. The question is not whether we see the Catholic Church, but how we the Church as Catholic and take advantage of the opportunities that this global reality affords us.
The reality of the Church today is the reality of generational tensions. Younger and older Catholics, younger and older priests, are frequently at odds as to how the pastoral ministry of the Church is to be carried forward. We see this in battles over theology, parochial identity and governance. Even the very heart of the Church’s reality—the liturgy—is not immune to these strivings. And yet the Church is One. One of the greatest challenges we face in seminary formation today is initiating young priests into established presbyterates. Priests today cannot go it alone. They need each other. In this need, mutual respect and the ability to work together between generations are essential. Our newly ordained priests must be bridge builders within presbyterates and not the cause of further division. The presbyteral house divided against itself cannot stand, not in this day and age. Older and younger priests must learn to support one another and enhance one another’s ministries with intentionality and charity. This is a reality of the Church.
Another reality of the Church, a reality that we cannot help but face, is the lasting effect of sexual abuse by members of the clergy and the desire by others to cover up the misdeeds of fellow priests. The abuse crisis has beaten the Church down. This summer, I had the privilege of offering a retreat to a diocese in Ireland. These priests, faithful men, courageous men, hardworking men, have almost lost hope. The crisis of abuse perpetuated by their brother priests and the ensuing scandal of cover-up has sapped their morale. How can the spirit of priests and presbyterates be rebuilt in the aftermath of this crisis? The miraculous thing to me is that our good and holy people have, for the most part, not lost hope or faith. They still love and respect their priests. Perhaps in their spirit of reconciliation we can find ways of rebuilding the hope and faith of our presbyterates, but we cannot turn our backs on these questions, these crucial issues. They are realities that confront the priesthood in a serious way today.
Added to these realities we might include a host of other issues, such as the ideological divide in our Church, the breakdown of family and community life, or the continual assault on the very nature of the human person through the promotion of so-called philosophies of freedom and choice. There is no freedom for any when the lives of the most vulnerable members of a society are under attack. There is no livelihood of choice when life itself is the victim of misguided ideas of choice and liberty.
And to these social realities we might add more personal challenges, the very core of personhood, the rise of individualism and its attendant ills, the breakdown of what seems to be even the possibility of lasting, monogamous relationships by the appropriation of false senses of sexuality, the offensive crisis of pornography and its denigration of the human personality, and the rise of a culture of utility, a false utility that corrupts the fundamental dignity of the human person.
All of these realities are significant, all meaningful, but even deeper to the spirituality of the priest is the raw material that comes from his own in media res. Who are we in this room today, those who are priests and those who aspire to the priesthood?
We are sons and brothers. We are friends and colleagues. We come here from small towns and big cities, from places near and places not so near. We come speaking many languages. We come filled with conflicting emotions and motivations. We come as unique men, men with distinctive dispositions, particular peculiarities and possibly problematic perceptions. We come all for the singular intention of serving God and we are called to be present to that reality in a focused way.
We come full of doubt and, by being present to the work of formation here, God resolves that doubt.
We come filled with anxieties about our past and, through the work that is done here, that past, even its most sinful elements, becomes the food for a bright future serving God through our woundedness and sins forgiven.
We come, some extraordinary but mostly ordinary and, through our labor here, we learn that God transfigures the mundaneness even the mendacity of our daily living, as surely as Christ was transfigured on the mountaintop in the presence of His disciples.
We come, we are here. We have taken the first definitive step in finding out what God has in store for us. We come in a whirlwind of disparate realities.
And we unite all of these disparate realities, those that we all must confront and those that are intensely personal, we unite them all in the common language of formation and eventually, by God’s will, in the Rite of Ordination. We find in that rite and the comparison of that rite with where we have been our raison d’être, our destiny and our purpose for living.
Let us now turn to the particularities of the rite.
The Rite of Ordination begins with the calling of the candidate. What is the nature of this call?
It is a call by the Holy Church to the core, to the intensely beating heart of the Church. In many ordinations, the candidate enters and is seated with his family. This is a palpable reminder to us that every man is called from some particular circumstance. We come from somewhere. We have a background and a past. We have a family of origin, with all of its attendant blessings and challenges. We are called from the very heart of the Church, the domestic Church, to serve the Universal Church. That Universal Church calls us. It calls us in the name of all of those present in the building, but more, it calls us on behalf of the millions of nameless faces throughout the world who have heard the message of the Gospel, who have witnessed firsthand the presence of God in the sacrifice of the Mass and cry out for priests to serve at their altars.
It calls us by name, by our own personhood, in spite of ourselves, on behalf of the Church militant, those struggling throughout the world to overcome prejudice and violence inflicted upon them because of the Name of Jesus. That call comes from the millions of hungry and thirsty souls who need God in their lives, need him essentially, desperately, but have no words to use to call upon Him and thus have turned to the worship of false gods and the consumption of food that cannot satisfy. That call comes from the praying souls who are weighed down by the burdens of economic hardship, racial discrimination, sickness, violence. That call comes from the hearts of those who have suffered abuse, even at the hands of priests. It is a call for a radical change, a new reality where holiness is meaningful. And who is to be the catalyst for that change but the man who is called? It is a call to responsibility and not to privilege.
That call comes from a Church that needs holy priests, deserves holy priests. It is a Church that never loses faith, even when their ministers have broken faith with them. That call comes from a resilient Church, an ever-hopeful Church. It is a clear call that requires a clear response.
And the response of the candidate for ordination is a single word: Present. The word “present” is a translation of the expression adsum in Latin. It inaugurates the public ministry of the deacon or priest. Present. The word implies so much.
In Latin, the expression translates literally as “I am toward.” Of course, it is incomplete grammatically. I am toward what? And this is precisely the point. I am toward everything. I open myself to everything. I present myself for what comes.
I am toward the realities of life, the awesome realties, the harsh realities and I do not shy away from the rawness of the human experience.
I am toward expressing myself as myself, of appropriately sharing my weakness and vulnerability so that the Body of Christ might be built up.
I am toward the possibility, the very real possibility, of pouring out my life as a libation for the cause of our faith, for the preaching of the Gospel, for the enrichment of God’s holy people.
This “towardness” is a promise to be present. It is a promise to be present when we are needed, in all circumstances, at all times.
Here we are in the sickroom of a 5- year-old boy in the last stages of a cancer that will, within minutes, claim his too-young life. The misery in the eyes of his parents as he arches his body upward in a furious attempt to draw one last breath is heartrending. Here you stand, reciting prayers they cannot hear, using the words of the Church that gives comfort though they cannot decipher their syllables. You are present and, by your presence, the Church in its countless multitudes, by your presence, the saints, by your presence, those countless other suffering souls who long to die with dignity. Those parents will never remember what you said, but they will remember that you were there, that the priest was there when their little angel went back to God.
And here we are in the reconciliation room, where you come week after week in frustration that so few avail themselves of the sacrament of penance. As you sit there in the semi-darkness trying to make out the words of the breviary, your anger at the indifference of others to God’s offer of forgiveness mounts, your soul seethes, simmers with resentment and, as you are about to give up and go back to the rectory, the door opens, a rustling is heard, someone coughs and kneels on the other side. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” the hoarse, disembodied voice begins. “It has been 20 years since my last confession and, Father,” he says in tear-choked words. “I don’t know where to start.” But somehow the words pour out for almost one hour, the story of a soul torn apart, not even by serious sins, but by the conflagration wrought by small sparks that have ignited the soul’s straw and burned at it until its charred remnants find no fit habitation for God. And the confession ends, and there is reconciliation, and a new life has begun, because, in the midst of your own frustrations, you were present.
And here we are in the yard of the grade school, as the third graders are lining up to prepare for the May crowning. You have so much to do. The bishop is coming for Confirmation that weekend. Your homily still isn’t finished for the five other Masses you will have to say. The principal of the school is holding things up, probably to spite you. You have a good mind to go back into your air-conditioned office and pour yourself a little refreshment, just to get you through the rest of the afternoon. They are all lined up. They are dressed in their little white outfits and each child clutches a bouquet of flowers from the florist, proudly holding them up before red beaming faces. Parents are fawning over their little darlings, snapping endless photographs on their digital cameras or phones. You realize how much you really hate children. Then you feel a tug at your jacket. It is one of the little boys; you think his name might be Ernest. He beckons you with his hand to lean down. He wants to tell you a secret. Down you go and into your ear he solemnly says these words: “Help me, Father. My mom said we couldn’t afford no flowers and all the other kids have some. Help me,” he pleads again. Now you are on it in a flash, and you walk quickly to the rectory offices and snatch a flower arrangement off the desk in your office. Back in three seconds, Ernest (you think that is his name) takes his place with his classmates, his tears turned to beaming joy and your irritations are drowned in the privilege of having been present.
It is prescient that the first word spoken by the soon-to-be-ordained is present. This may well be the very foundation of our priesthood. The priest must, first and foremost, be present, to the work of the altar, the celebration of the sacraments, the responsibility to pray. All of these, certainly, but also to the slighter moments, the moments when words and ritual fail. In the hospital emergency room, in the nursing home, in the living rooms of those beset by domestic strife, in the kitchens, in the backyards, on the playgrounds, in the classrooms, in the confessional, on the telephone. We are called to be present to the reality of the lives of those we serve, in formal ways and in informal ways. The priest must be present because his presence is more than that of a mere human. He comes to situations great and small as more than himself. He brings God to bear on the circumstances of life. His presence, even his silent presence, assures those in the throes of life’s triumphs and tragedies that God is with them, that God has not abandoned them.
Of course, the adsum, spoken in a public way at ordination, has to begin somewhere. I say that it must begin somewhere because, within the social order we inhabit, presence to the greater reality, the more profound ideal, cannot be taken for granted. The great vision of the Catholic world order is a vision of unity. It is a vision of community, of a sense of belonging that forms the Body of Christ, the ecclesia. Yet, today we live in a world in which the values of individualism and isolation are put forward as viable ways of living. Individualism teaches us that truth is relevant to the situation in which the person finds himself. Individualism insinuates a sense of entitlement to the benefits of life in proportionate to the perceived sacrifices made. In the ordained state, this takes the form of rank clericalism.
Individualism inculcates a forlornness of spirit, a torpor, a malaise, that promotes a paucity of service, a lack of care for the omnipresent others.
Individualism tends toward a nascent narcissism, the presenting symptom of the contemporary disease of isolation.
Individualism conjures within our minds myths of personal divinity, personal ecclesial realities and, eventually, the temptation to forget God. It perpetuates the fundamental lie of the original sin that we alone control our density and, in our will to power, the destinies of others.
The philosophy of individualism promotes itself as the only meaningful philosophy for modern men and women to pursue, but to what end? Is the average man or woman today, steeped in the philosophy of self-governance and relativity, more satisfied? Are we happier today than our ancestors who, if we are to believe the prophets of modernism, in their ignorance promoted the common good, common law and common sense? Doesn’t even the most enlightened modern practitioner of solipsism yearn to belong to something?
The Nietzchean experiment has failed disastrously, in nuclear proportions.
Certainly, Pope John Paul thought so. In Veritatis Splendor, the pope wrote “Taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature.”
Certainly, modern prophets like G. K .Chesterton thought so, when he claimed that the culture of his day was “random and scrappy…as if boys had broken up a stained glass window and made the scraps into (rose-colored) spectacles” (The Thing, Chapter 3).
Certainly, the soon-to-be-beatified Cardinal Newman thought so, when he claimed that “gloom is no Christian temper,” and the condition of modern man is indeed gloomy. (Parochial and Plain Sermons, 5)
Individualism strikes at the very core of the human person, leaving us isolated, the obverse of adsum.
Postmodernism and its related philosophies of isolation are a dead end, because they do not conform to the deepest, most primeval yearnings of the human heart. God has created us for Himself and for Himself in one another. God has created us for community. God has made us to belong together. God has called us to a deeper communion in Christ, in the radical intervention of God in the event of the Incarnation. How do we express that deepest desire of the heart, our longing, our spiritual hunger for unity, but in our ability to stand in the midst of the assembly and boldly claim that we are present.
Pope John Paul II again stated that the enterprise of our work here, the task of theology, has as its heart the community of the Church. “By its very nature and procedures, authentic theology can flourish and develop only through a committed and responsible participation in and ‘belonging’ to the Church as a ‘community of faith’” (Veritatis Splendor, 109).
Pope Benedict has also remarked that being a Christian is to “accept the impossibility of autonomy and the weakness of one’s own resources” (Introduction to Christianity, 265).
Chesterton says again in The Thing that: “The problem on an enduring ethic and culture consists in finding an arrangement of the pieces by which they remain related, as do the stones arranged in an arch. And I know only one scheme that has this proved its solidity, bestriding lands and ages with its gigantic arches, and carrying everywhere the high river of baptism upon an aqueduct of Rome.”
Presence, therefore, is not the responsibility of the ordained alone, although they express it in a very focused way. Presence does not begin at ordination, although it is confirmed in the rite in a particular way. Presence is at the heart of discipleship. It is, in the words of Fr. Fergus Kerr: “something that is central to the Church, for in saying that the people has priority over the individual, that salvation is communitarian, one is pointing in the end to the experience which the New Testament writings describe as koinonia, and philadelphia.” (Fergus Kerr, “Christian Brotherhood and Ecclesiology” in New Blackfriars, 51).
Presence, that is the very constitutive action of the Church, begins here and now. The seminary is a place where that desire to be present and the ability to be present will be tested and tried. This year we will encounter countless opportunities to be present. Yes, we must go to chapel and class. We must attend conferences and lectures. Those things are taken for granted at any institution of higher learning. The presence we practice here is more subtle, more profound. Here we will learn, we must learn, to attend to the silent signals, the secret syllabations of our brothers and sisters around us. Here we must learn to respond to the needs of our sisters and brothers who are in trouble. Here we must learn to listen to doubts and frustrations, as well as accomplishments and deserved pride. Every year, I say that the first task of the seminarian, the first instance of formation, is to be here. You must be here, not only in body but in mind and, most importantly, in spirit. Your soul must be here, not because this is the place to be, but because you are here. Your soul must always be where you are. The ability to be here, to be present here, will be the sign of your ability to be there, in those as-yet-unnamed parishes that will eventually comprise the circumference of your pastoral influence.
How does this presence to the life of this community of faith, this first assignment, if you will, manifest itself?
It manifests itself, first and foremost, in prayer. A presence to God in prayer and a presence to one another in supporting each other’s prayer is the key to success in prayer. God wants our attention because God has something to say to us in prayer. To be present to God in prayer is the prerequisite for authentic discernment. Presence to God in prayer is inculcated not in a flood of words but through the cultivation of silence, of finding that secret room within ourselves where heart speaks to heart in the divine cadence of affirmation. Being present in prayer means also being in the public life of the Church’s prayer, not because it is always convenient, much less because it is ephemerally rewarding, but because it is necessary to worship. All we have to do is worship. Worship is our only proper attitude, whether we are in the chapel, the dining room, the classroom or our private rooms. In worship, we become more than our selfishness, more than our self seeking self, we become One with the others, the good, the bad, the indifferent and the pious. We become the Body of Christ. Presence to God in private prayer and in worship identifies us. And so I ask you, this year, consider prayer your first choice. In a particular way, consider prayer your first choice in engaging your fellow seminarians. Ask your brothers to pray with you. Make prayer the heart of this seminary.
This presence is also manifested in our ability to pay attention to the intellectual formation we receive here. Go to class, study, prepare and read. Why should we do this? Because they are ends in themselves? Perhaps some of you are programmed in that way and, certainly in the academic sphere, we should never discount the value of a little male rivalry as a gauge of success. Presence to intellectual formation is something more, however. It is listening to the intellectual Tradition of the Church, a Tradition that you are going to be asked to pass on in your own time to others. In a social order in which the relativism of veracity is the order of the day, people are hungry, no, starving, for the Truth. They want Truth that will satisfy. The intellectual Tradition of the Church, its history, the spiritual traditions, the historical interpretation of Scripture, these give life to lifeless minds because they speak not of that which is passing, a surfeit of which the peripatetic pilgrims of this world already possess in plethora. We want eternal Truth, and your ability to satisfy that hunger, that starvation, is a result of your intellectual labors here, your reading, your study, your conversation with others. Our own searching for that eternal Truth unites us to all of those others, the Church triumphant who have sought for Truth and found it in the presence of Truth itself. And so I ask you, work diligently at your studies, assist one another. Connect your studies to the life of Christ being nourished within you.
This presence is further tested in our response to the real needs of those whom you will serve. This talent for presence will be tested and tried in your ability to be present to one another. I hear all too often that the seminary is not the real world. My brothers and sisters, it is all too real. Here all of us struggle with real problems, fight real demons and carry real burdens. All of the ills that stalk the world like skeletal sentinels “out there” are also “in here.” The woundedness of childhoods ill spent is in here. The residual ache of being different and outcast is in here. The anxiety of fitting in is in here. The guilt of misappropriated sexuality is in here. The shame of past sin is in here. The plague of addiction is in here. The disease of self-doubt is in here. The aridity of spiritual energy is in here. Everything is in here, within these walls and within these hearts. We have our chance now to uncover these hidden realities through our compassion for one another, our ability to share the hurts and pains that inflict each one of us and so unite ourselves to the suffering of Christ. And so I ask you to consider that your first assignment as aspiring priests is to minister here, and there can be no question of the opportunity to do so.
This presence is not easy. It takes all you have, physically, psychically, spiritually. And what will you get in return? You will gain the notoriety of discipleship, the cultivation of a public personality. You will gain the responsibility of demonstrating by your presence that a life in Christ is not only possible and desirable, but necessary. Further, you will get a pledge that we, the faculty, the staff and the administration, will be present to you. We pledge to acknowledge and honor the work you do here, the struggles, the heartaches, the triumphs and the failures. We will try with all our might to do this diligently and confidently in the Lord, because it is our vocation to be present to you. We also pledge to respect you, to treat you as adults and to honor the gift of vocation that is within you.
By God’s grace in this great sympathetic symphony of presence, this seminary can become what it most fundamentally should be: a place of evangelization, of conversion, a school of discipleship. The seminary is a place where the intricacies of salvation are worked out. Where love is the governing principle. We have taught you nothing here if we have not taught you love, the love of God, the love of one another. So in the words of St. John: “Let us love in deed and in truth and not merely talk about it.” (I John 3:18). God’s love wants to take possession of us here, encourage us here, provoke us to more heroic and reckless acts of holiness here. God wants to be omnipresent here and thus teach us what adsum really means. This can only happen, however, if the seminary is a place of integrity, if we live here with integrity. We must be people of integrity who live completely and without compromise what we claim to be. We must be people who strive to rid ourselves of the vestiges of mistrust, of secretiveness, of false senses of confidentiality. We must be a community that holds each other responsible. It is no act of spiritual heroism to know the serious sin of another and not exercise the necessary fraternal correction. We protect no one when we allow others to persist in living lives that are false and hypocritical when the Holy Church will suffer as a consequence. Integrity means creating a community of increasing transparency. The concerns about internal and external forums dissipate when I am living an authentic life in the grace of Christ. And the grace of Christ is sufficient. It is sufficient indeed.
The response of the soon-to-be-ordained priest is an affirmation that his presence leads to something. It leads to the forging of bonds in the Body of Christ. It is the sense of the reality of the Oneness that unites those present to the divine reality. It is the unity of the Church. Presence is the means by which we create that unity of which St. Ignatius spoke in his letter to the Church of Magnesia: Our presence to one another leads us to express “one petition, one prayer, one mind, one hope in love and one holy joy…one temple of God, one altar, one Jesus Christ who came forth from the one Father” (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Magnesians). This we do in full confidence that our initiatives will not be unmet by those countless intercessors who, day by day, stand before the throne of that one Father, the saints and, in particular, Our Lady, that most gracious of petitioners upon whom we cast all our cares, as we say:
Hail Holy Queen …