At the opening convocation for this formation year, I indicated that I would devote my rector’s conferences this year to the spirituality of the priest seen through the prism of the rite of ordination. In the first conference I focused on the first appearance of the ordinand in that rite and, in particular, the presence required of a candidate for orders. Today I would like to consider the promises made by the priest at ordination, promises which begin with the same question: Do you resolve. Before I launch into the particularities of each of these resolutions however, I would like to reflect on the possibility of resolution in our contemporary culture.
Do you resolve? It is a powerful question, made all the more so perhaps by what we may sometimes perceive as the singular lack of resolution in our culture today. There can be little doubt that in western culture today we are confronted with an unprecedented number of possibilities. At a very mundane level we are challenged by the presence of 500 channels of satellite television, by 32 screens at the suburban multiplex, by a myriad of flavors at the Cold-Stone Creamery, by a plethora of entrees at the Cheesecake Factory. We live in a world of choice. The more choices the better, until of course the sheer number and variety of choices begins to stifle us. In that instance we find ourselves channel surfing, skipping from stadium to stadium at the multiplex, paralyzed by the sheer magnitude of deciding at the Cold Stone or the Cheesecake Factory. Number and variety of choice do not necessarily make for greater freedom in decision. On a more serious level, we might examine the cultural messages that we are inundated with from infancy. We live in a culture of self-determination and self-direction, or, at least that is what we are told. You can be anything you like, choose any path and if there are no desirable options, forge your own.
The culture of choice, the sheer openness of variety has led to a decided paralysis of many in our culture, particularly the young. Discernment has become the token of the times and decision making has become a perceived lack. Many of us are motivated today to “keep our options open”. Thus we fail to make serious commitments when the opportunity arises. Many today see not only the possibility, but the necessity to move from relationship to relationship, from one career choice to another, from place to place. Sociologists tell us that the guiding principle of the millennial generation is option and so many spend their lives metaphorically channel surfing, web browsing through life. Failure to focus and to settle on one thing becomes chronic and eventually crippling. It seems as though many today have so incorporated the message that they can do anything to the point that they literally attempt to do everything and inevitably end up doing nothing. We can even witness that here. In the modern seminary, there is a bit more discerning and a bit less deciding than might be desirable.
And thus into this morass of indecision and lack of focused energy comes the decisive questions of the ordination rite: Do you resolve?
Once we have collected the spiritual and mental energy to resolve anything we can now turn to the particularities of the resolutions, the promises to be made at ordination. I will begin by looking at the resolutions of the diaconate ordination because, of course, these are the foundations upon which the priestly resolutions are built. The diaconate is not abrogated by priesthood ordination, rather priesthood ordination expands upon the promises made at diaconate ordination. The latter nuances the former.
What resolutions does the man to be ordained a deacon make? Here are the questions from the rite.
Do you resolve to be consecrated for the Church’s ministry by the laying on of hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit?
The man to be ordained is first asked to state his intentions. The bishop’s question is a test of the ordinand’s interior freedom. Is he giving himself freely to the service of the Church? In our day and age the question of external compulsion to ordination is hardly tenable, but the question of internal freedom is paramount. How free are we to make the promises and to engage the act we are about to undertake?
Interior freedom means that I have prayerfully weighed the nature of my commitment for years. I understand, as much as is humanly possible the consequences of what I have done. I know what it means to accept the responsibility of the priesthood. I know what benefits it entails and how to incorporate those benefits into my life. I also know what losses ordination entails. I know those losses and I have, in a sense, mourned those losses. The most serious obstacles to perseverance in a vocation is the unanswered question. The consequential question that I have put aside must be answered. If it is not answered before, it will certainly seek to be answered later, perhaps years later, but it will be answered. The most frequent of these unanswered questions is: What would my life have been like if … We can fill in the blank as is appropriate to our particular situations. That question may be different for each of us, similar for many of us, but necessary for all of us to answer. The fundamental question need not be answered in fact, but must be answered to the point that we are satisfied and we can make a conscientious and meaningful free act in choosing to be consecrated for the Church’s ministry.
Deterrents to freedom are numerous, but here I shall focus on two. The first deterrent to freedom is hypocrisy. This is blatant. If I present myself for ordination with no intention of accepting the consequences of that choice then I am a liar and a fraud. This might be expressed grossly in terms my intentionality or the lack of intentionality to fulfill the promises made at ordination. For example, I present myself for ordination without the intention of living the promise of celibacy. There are numerous ways that persons rationalize this choice and none of them are valid. If you do not want to live the celibate life, if you cannot live a celibate life, do not present yourself for ordination. That is not to say that we can always anticipate what will happen after ordination, we cannot know. What we do know is what we intend and what we do not intend.
Another deterrent to freedom is a false understanding of the effects of the sacramental character of ordination. Ordination changes a man ontologically. The grace of ordination has the power to transform. Of this we are certain. This is the clear teaching of the Church. However, the fundamental character of a man does not necessarily change with ordination. Unrealistic expectations of the effects of ordination are detrimental to commitment of a free act. If my character is fundamentally flawed, if I am compelled by addiction to substances or to pornography, if I suffer from compulsive behaviors: these realities are not going to disappear as though the rite of ordination were some sort of magical character corrective. If I am using the priesthood to fix myself then I am abusing the priesthood and the Church. The question of sexuality looms large in the reality of individual personalities. Priesthood cannot be burdened with unrealistic expectations for correcting my perceived flaws.
Likewise, I think we should realize that no act is ever perfectly free. We are all bound by various motivations, some that we can identify and some that we cannot. That is not the question. The question is whether or not I know myself and whether I am trying to fool myself and others by my outward actions.
The resolve to be consecrated for the Church’s ministry is a grave resolution. It is only the first step, however. The second question the bishop asks the man to be ordained is this:
Do you resolve to hold fast to the mystery of faith with a clean conscience as the Apostle urges, and to proclaim this faith in word and deed according to the Gospel and the Church’s tradition?
Here we come to a distinct challenge, a challenge that effects in a very focused way the work of this seminary day-by-day. A resolution to hold fast to the mystery of faith implies that we know what the mystery of faith is. A serious challenge that confronts us today, in our generation of information, or perhaps mis-information is the distinction of what we think we know and what is true. Often we rely upon sources of information that may or may not be reliable. Here, I will mention specifically internet sources that claim to teach authentic catholic doctrine but really only present the (often not very well informed) theological opinions of its pundits. The mystery of faith is a profound reality, a reality rooted in the Tradition of the Church, it is also an inexhaustible reality. The very nature of a mystery is to be an inexhaustible but always beckoning reality. Mystery is not that which cannot be understood but rather that which is infinitely understandable. This desire to resolve to hold fast to mystery is ironic in that what we are holding fast to is the reality of an ever more profound, ever deeper, ever broader conversion of life and thought. Of course we must know facts, but we cannot live an authentic priesthood on an intellectual life pieced together from the discarded playing cards of Catholic trivia. An authentic Catholic intellectual life is a commitment to never stop learning, to never cease inquiring and finally to be profoundly humble in knowing what I do not know. A truly educated person is one who knows precisely how much he does not know. The intellectual formation in the seminary cannot, should not, give us all the answers we need. It must instill in our hearts and minds, holy hearts and clear minds, to use the expression of Blessed John Henry Newman, a desire to be forever pursuing the shifting perspectives and the theological integrity that comprise authentic Catholic thinking. When we resolve to hold fast to the mystery of faith we are promising to remain engaged throughout our lives with the object of our inquiry, the object of revelation, the object of Tradition, Jesus the Christ.
Do you resolve to keep for ever this commitment to remain celibate as a sign of your dedication to Christ the Lord for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven in the service of God and man?
Celibacy is, very obviously the key factor in so much of our vocational discernment. Whether or not it should be the focus of such intense scrutiny is another question. In the particular climate of the Church today, where the value, the possibility, even the morality of celibacy is under scrutiny, if not direct attack, this is a question the answer to which many present at the ordination rite will sit up and listen. What does it mean to resolve to remain celibate for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven? How does the Kingdom depend upon the celibate witness of the priest? The resolution is a strong one, by which we choose freely to commit ourselves totally, without compromise and without reserve to the service of God and man. Our commitment to a healthy celibate life is a sure sign for the world that it is still possible to devote one’s self to God with an undivided heart. I say a healthy celibacy because it is possible as we all know to live an unhealthy celibate life. An unhealthy celibacy is always expressed by a failure to live the resolution in the technical sense. Those of our brother priests who “fall” in this regard are to be treated with charity. But another way of failing to live this resolution is to choose a closed life, a life devoid of compassion and emotion. A cold a frigid celibacy is not an option, and a healthy commitment to celibacy means a calculated look at myself. A careful analysis of my sexuality, my motivations, my strengths and weakness is essential to making a real choice for celibate living. Any attempt to bracket my feelings or my desires, to not look at the question of sexual orientation in an honest way, to cut off others from intimacy and friendship because they may form a threat to my carefully concealed and jealously guarded sexual energies is not useful to maintaining a healthy celibacy of the sake of the Kingdom. Healthy celibacy looks inviting, it seeks intimacy in its true sense, it promotes authenticity and honest. It claims its own energies for interpersonal relationships with a clear eye, a warm heart and open arms. We cannot fear sexuality or lie about our sexual attractions and expect fear and dishonesty to not be a part of our priesthood. At a recent conference I attended for rectors and vocation directors, Cardinal George indicated that he believed that the first question a man needs to ask himself in preparing for priesthood is not whether he wants to be a priest, but whether he wants to be celibate. Celibacy cannot be conceived as an afterthought to priesthood, it is primary in the life of the man considering this vocation.
Do you resolve to maintain and deepen the spirit of prayer that is proper to your way of life and, in keeping with this spirit and what is required of you, to celebrate faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours with and for the People of God and indeed for the whole world?
Prayer is the cornerstone of our lives. Will you pray the Liturgy of the Hour? Some of our brothers who would never consider a technical transgression of the celibate commitment might take lightly the promise made in this resolution spoken before God and the Holy Church. We all know the sly attitudes that sometimes accompany any discussion of the promise made by the deacon or priest to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Such discourse undermines the seriousness of the promise made to God and His Church by the ordained minister. Rather than dwell on the possibility of failure, I think it is essential to focus on the reason for making the Liturgy of the Hours a priority in our life of faith and pursued discipleship. Our promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours is not to be taken lightly because it is nothing less than a promise to pray with and for the People of God and the whole world. How can an authentic priestly life exist without realizing these goals? How can realizing these goals not be connected to the public life of the Church, the means by which the Church in its wisdom has fixed for joining the life of prayer in each priest together in such a beautiful synthesis? The Liturgy of the Hours is the prayer of the whole Church. It is a fellowship of prayer. Its celebration unites the priest struggling with the pastoral needs of his Midwestern congregation with the faithful efforts of priests in India, Asia, Africa, indeed in every place where holy hands are lifted in the single prayer of the Church. It is a universal prayer and points to the universal concerns of all men and women no matter their ethnicity, race or cultural place in the world. Like the Eucharist, it is a unifying, a truly Catholic mechanism of the Holy Spirit to bring together the disparate threads of humanity into one garment of petition and intercession. What is the priest or deacon saying when he chooses to divorce himself from the weave of this garment? Likewise the Liturgy of the Hours, with its basis in the Psalter of Israel, unites our hearts and minds with those of our forefathers in faith, the Chosen People of God who maintained faith through the words of the psalms with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Praying daily the words of those psalms, steeped as they are in the very condition of humanity, its joys and hopes, its pain and tragedy, teaches us the essential lesson that in our time and place, we are not so very different from them, that the concerns of human beings striving to unite themselves to the Divine Reality are ahistorical, eternal, and permanent.
Do you resolve to conform your way of life always to the example of Christ, of whose Body and Blood you are a minister of the altar?
The response to this question posed by the bishop is slightly different from the others. It is: “I do with the help of God.” Again, it is a forceful question. Will you conform your life to the example of Christ? It is a serious question. What is the example of Christ?
It is an example of humility. Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word, the splendor of the Father’s love, the inheritor of heaven, the Son of God had the humility to be born in our likeness. This child, born in the most humble circumstances, born to impoverished, conquered people, was God himself. By virtue of who he was and is, Jesus had the right to claim the submission of men and angels. He did not, but rather submitted himself to the form of a slave for us. How can we resolve to follow the example of the lowly child of Bethlehem if we still hold tightly to vestiges of entitlement, just deserts and rank clericalism? If you wish to follow the example of Christ, become the servant of all and do that now. Do it here. We are not preparing ourselves for a life of ease and comfort here, much less of enjoying the gifts of privilege. We are preparing for slavery here, for endurance in joy for we know that there is no labor we cannot undertake with Christ that will conquer us, there is no humility we can endure that will not make us more in love with Him by drawing us closer to Him. Rather we seek service as our crown of fulfillment, the fulfillment of the resolve to conform our way of life to the example of Christ
The example of Christ is an example of ministry. Jesus did not shirk from immersing himself in the full experience of humanity. He looked at our crippled and leprous limbs. He embraced our fallenness. He sought our blindness. He confronted fully our demonic possession. He still does. Jesus ministered to those who were in need. He healed them. We are in turn called to be men of healing. So often our pride and self-will stands in our way. We cannot heal like Christ when we are continuously caught up in ideological controversies that mean nothing in the economy of charity. That is not to say that there are no principles worth fighting for and worth defending. There are. Sometimes however, what we think is central to the reality of Christ and his Church is really not. There is no theological principle worth defending when we hate our brothers and sisters in the process. There is no liturgical ideal worth promoting in which we cast suspicion and doubt on the reputations of others. The true example of Christ is that of healing and bridge building. We learn how to build bridges when we truly learn what is central to our faith and what is not. We learn healing with we reach out to the ideologically leprous brother that our false and sinful pride has taught us to disdain.
The example of Christ is the example of the passion. How many of us want to go to the cross? How many of us are willing to suffer indignity, misunderstanding, persecution for the sake of His Name? We say we are. We claim our willingness to go all the way. We say with the man in the Gospel: “Lord, I will follow you wherever you go!” We want to be heroes. We want to be saints. But let us be honest with one another. Who doesn’t have a bottom line? For many of our brothers that line is quite close to the surface. We know that a certain number of our men who leave seminaries each year do not persevere. What is the bottom line? Perhaps it is obedience. I choose not to go to this assignment. Perhaps it is celibacy. Perhaps it is the unanswered question I spoke about earlier. Perhaps it is comfort and happiness. Perhaps it is my family. Do we have a bottom line? If so, we are not conformed to the example of Christ who gave everything, everything brothers and sisters for us. That is the example to which we are called. Can you give it all? Can you bleed for the world? Can you endure shame? Can you die for the people, a people who may never understand or appreciate your sacrifice? Can you live without daily affirmation? Can you endure the nakedness of transparency? Are you truly resolved, are you resolving to conform your life to the example of Christ in his humility, his ministry and his passion. Are you, with the help of God?
In conclusion today I would like to speak a few words as pastor of this community, words I hope you will take in the spirit with which I offer them. First let me state that this is a good community. This is a healthy community. This is a formation community of which I can be justifiably proud. I believe that it is a community that is built on mutual trust. Brothers and sisters, we must trust one another and rely on one another. It is also built on honesty, integrity and transparency. Trust and transparency, the ability to share struggles and the honest handling of issues is essential to what we do. What I am about to say does not come from any issue or question or problem that I perceive as existing here. What I am about to say to a healthy community of faith comes from the conviction that I have that the effectiveness of the life of a seminary comes from clarity. As your rector and pastor, I want to be clear about two things. The first is the values that we must uphold in this seminary. As an arm of formation for the Catholic Church, we are anxious to uphold the interests of the Church first and foremost. The needs of the Church come first. That is a clear and central principle of the Catholic understanding of vocation. Second, clarity about our purpose here also means that I have the responsibility to point to a few principles that in a community of Christian living and a community of formation must be considered non-negotiable. By non-negotiable I am stating without hesitation and confidently that the serious infraction of these ideals means that the individual can no longer live here and be formed for ministry. I also want to give you concrete examples of what a serious infraction would entail. That is for the good of the Church, that is meeting the needs of the Church
The first of these principles is chastity. Living a chaste life here is non-negotiable. It must be. Failure to live a chaste life, whether that is through overt sexual activity, a seemingly incurable addiction to pornography, inappropriate humor, or the inability to deal with others in a sexually appropriate way either physically or verbally, is an infringement not only of Christian values but on the trust we must have in one another. Living a chaste life is not easy. Many here struggle with temptations and overcome them. It is a violent affront to those who struggle heroically to live the ideal of chastity when a person takes that ideal less than seriously. Transgressions against chastity that warrant a severing of the formation relationship include any physical gential activity, but would also include aggressive physical advances that are unwanted and going to establishments where casual sexual relationships are the order of the day.
A second principle that insures the good order of a house of formation is sobriety. While the use of alcohol is not regulated as in some other institutions, an incident of public drunkenness is unacceptable. Alcohol, if it is used, must be used responsibly. For some, because of their particular circumstances this applies in a more concrete way. Sobriety is the mark of a good priest and no priest should find his reputation damaged by the improper use of alcohol or any other substances. Likewise the use of any illegal substance is unacceptable. The priest needs good judgment and artificial means of compromising that judgment is behavior incompatible with the priestly state.
A third important principle of this community is charity toward others. Showing blatant disrespect to others through acts of physical or verbal abuse is unacceptable behavior that indicates a seminarian’s lack of ability to be formed for the priesthood.
Again, I mention these non-negotiable values and the behaviors that compromise these values for the sake of clarity. As we progress in our resolve to live the life of discipleship in the particular vocation of the priesthood, we are called to an increasing accountability for our actions.
The conference today has had a very serious tone. I know that. These are serious resolutions. These are powerful questions and I believe they stand at the heart of the spirituality of the priest. These resolutions do not originate with rite of ordination, it is necessary to begin to live these resolutions here and now, in the seminary. Our resolution needs to be firm and our purpose needs to be clear. We are not here to forestall the inevitability of the call of vocation, choosing to live our lives according to our distinct design until such time as we must make a permanent commitment. We are called to begin now conforming our lives to the expectations of the Church that we hope to serve. The years of formation cannot be reckoned as a kind of extended bachelor party, a time of revelry before the knot must finally be tied, a knot seemingly wrapped around the windpipes of our personality and freedom. The period of formation in the seminary is a time of testing and trying on, a time to prepare for what we must embrace so that by the time of ordination we slip into these resolutions with the ease of putting on an old pair of shoes, old loafers broken in by time and solid use. None of us should experience the life of the ordained minister as a jolt to who we are, rather we should spend our time here carefully crafting who we are into who we will be on the day of our ordinations. All of this comes at a price, the price of ephemeral freedoms and of doing our will. It comes at the price of temporal notions of happiness and fulfillment in pursuit of a deeper happiness, a more profound fulfillment. It comes at the price of sacrificing what I think is right and true and good for what the Holy Church authentically teaches as orthodox, solid, and real. In a word it comes as an act of authentic piety, being true to form, in the classical sense. Do you resolve? It is a serious question that we must ask ourselves now. Our resolution is not something we can accomplish on our own. Rather, we put ourselves into the hands of the Church, particularly its triumphant members, the holy saints who day and night intercede for us in the presence of the One Divine Father. We depend upon them and in particular as we approach the month of October, that most gracious lady, our advocate upon whom we cast all our care as we say: Hail Mary ...