Thursday, June 16, 2016
An Open Letter to Seminarians
It's the Same Base
One of the greatest struggles I had as young man was wrestling with the equally noble calls to marriage and priesthood, knowing that I would have to choose one. I was confused because I felt such a draw to be a good husband and dad. I knew I could do it and could not figure out why I would have these charisms yet have no outlet to express them. I took this to the leader of retreat once, a man who had been a seminary rector before becoming a bishop. Honestly, I was hoping he would tell me it was a sign that I was not called to priesthood. His answer was that if I wouldn't make a good husband and a good dad, I wouldn't be a good priest. He told me that the base of virtue was identical. The love I would have for a spouse was now the love I was to have for the Church. The love I was to have for my children would be the love I would have for those to whom I was assigned to serve.
The seminary is not a place to run if one cannot form relationships with others. It isn't a place to hide if I am too socially awkward to date. As a priest, you will be called to form actual familial bonds. Doubt this? Jesus reveals Himself as Son, the 1st Person of the Trinity as Father, and we are referred to as brothers and sisters, adopted sons and daughters of God. These are not hallmark sentiments but base realities. Churches are not businesses that offer holy merchandise. The Church is the Body of Christ; it is a relational entity. Whatever virtues and qualities are necessary for the forging of relational bonds need to be cultivated in the seminary.
This is why your sexuality must be chastely ordered to your call. We believe that the physical aspects of human sexuality are ordered to procreation and union within the sacrament of marriage. As the Church asks us to be celibate so as to be living witnesses of the union that lies ahead, our sexuality is to be so ordered to that end. This does not mean that one develops or nurtures an anti-social or cold and distant personality. The people of God aren't potential seducers awaiting to bring you down. They are the children you are called to nurture and protect. Our spouse is the Church. This isn't to express the tawdry in sexualizing our ministry. Quite the opposite...our minstry is called to bear new life and unify, but to a greater end.
As with a human spouse, that part of our life belongs to our spouse, it is not a toy to play with. While our spouse wishes us to not use our physical sexuality, the love that creates and unifies is very much asked for and is expressed in the fidelity and execution of the duties of our calling. Our actions of creation and unification come through the sacraments of which we are servants. Our unification comes through the offering of the Mass, the extension of Absolution, and the Preparing of the Soul through Viaticum. To do this effectively calls for a freedom of movement by which we can serve.
To Serve, not to be Served
The word serve is the heart of the priesthood. Recall when the apostles were bickering among themselves as to who was the greatest among them, Jesus tells them that ambition and power were to have no place in His Church; that His Church would be modeled after Him who 'came to serve, not to be served and to give His life as ransom for the many.' The seminary isn't there to train you how to wield power. Your assignments are not going to be appointments as heads of state. Your assignments are not about a new group of people to serve you, but a group of people whom you are called to serve.
In this, the desire to serve and the joy of knowing you are doing God's will must carry you. You are now in an arena where your efforts are given grades and kudos. You get A's for doing good, and lesser grades for doing lesser. Those days will pass.. Many times you will get thanked and appreciated for what you are doing. Many times though you will glared at, taken advantage of, and forgotten by those you serve. If being served is your aim, it will be a tedious life for you. However, when I say your relation with those you serve is very much akin to parent/child relationship, the same thing can be said about the role of parents. Sometimes your children will love and appreciate what you do, sometimes they will take it for granted, and sometimes they will resent you for serving them correctly.
Being a pastor of souls is like being a parent. That means, my brother, that the way we father can do great good or great harm to the parishes we serve. Think of the dynamic of a family in which the dad is angry and the kids live in fear of being yelled at, humiliated, or abused. Think of the family dynamic where the dad is neglectful or self centered. Think of the family in which the dad provides and protects to the best of his abilities. A man would not love his family will be a priest who will not love his flock. We are called father for a reason.. It is the role we play. As God holds accountable dads in whom he places the care of children, so are we as priests held accountable for what we do with His children. The more you are willing to serve, sacrifice, and suffer, the better you mimic the Good Shepherd.
Service is about the cultivation of the theological virtue of love. Being a virtue, it has to be an intentionally cultivated discipline. Being a theological virtue, it can only be cultivated by God's grace, especially through the sacraments. Making a regular habit of Mass, confession, and Adoration will be to your betterment. However, the grace of orders does not magically make you learn how to love; it must be discipline you actively cultivate now. To be the servant you will be called to be, the virtue of love must be your defining trait.
There is Already a Messiah
Only Jesus can rightfully claim the title of Messiah. He is THE anointed one; while we are definitely anointed with Chrism upon our ordination, we only serve at the pleasure of THE Messiah. It is Jesus that saves, we participate in His work.
I say this because we can sometimes get the notion that our job is to save Holy Mother Church from herself. We can get this way because we know that there are problems, even some serious problems out there. We know that others who had the shepherding role fell short and left bad things in their wake. Having been exposed to what the Church teaches, we can get zealous for the truth to come raging back in all its glory. We are aware of the liturgical abuses. We are aware of the compromises. Knowing this can instill a healthy dose of righteous indignation. However, the human frailty of the the church has always been with us. Only Christ Himself possesses the wherewithal to redeem such an entity.
Use Wisely Your Opportunity and Time
Hence it is important that we unite ourselves with the Messiah. You have several duties within the seminary, while you still have the luxury of time, to do so that when your time comes to work the fields of the Lord you will be effective in doing so. We cannot want to be a messiah and follow a messiah at the same time.
1) Study and study hard. Seminary isn't a series of hoops and obstacles to jump through on the way to a coronation. You owe it the people of God to soak in as much church teaching as possible. The people of God can ill afford anymore poseurs who say 'the Church teaches' without knowing what the Church actually teaches. Your flocks will not need to know your spin on the truth...they will need to know the truth. You are not there to get grades and honors. You are in the seminary to learn so that you may correctly teach the truth.
2) Pray and pray hard. You will have to be a man of prayer if you are to execute you job as a dad, husband, or priest. Your relationship with God is the font from which your strength will come; it will be the source of your life. You will spend much time preaching and teaching about this relationship to others; you will not be able to give what you do not have. You will be asked to pray for the Church in the Divine Office. One of you chief duties as a priest is to intercede for your flock. Developing a devotion to the Blessed Mother is important and a source of great consolation. Learning how to be in silence, to do spiritual reading, to be wise with your time is important. Too many times priests will jettison a prayer life in order to keep up with their schedules...it kind of like jettisoning eating to keep up with the rigors of life. Your flock will suffer your inattentiveness to prayer.
3) Develop virtue. As the priest, you are going to have to be the Persona Christi. You are to model what being a child of God looks like. Like a good dad, you will be modeling correct behavior. Cultivate patience. The damage done by angry priests is devastating. Cultivate the cardinal virtues. Learn to control your tongue. The capital sin of the clergy is gossip. Gossip is born of everything wrong within the priesthood: ambition, disordered passions, wrath. There is no place for gossip in our calling. We can hurl words like 'liberal', ;'conservative', 'traditionalist' and so forth like well aimed javelins. We can allow our prebyterates to devolve in tribes who look askance at each other. That starts in the seminaries. It must stop.
My brothers, you do not get wasted time back. Opportunities lost may well never come around again. The people you will serve will need you to be a man of God. They will need to be able to trust that what you are saying is THE truth. As the seminarian, so the priest. Any flock assigned to you, please understand that they belong to God first and we will be held accountable for the care we gave His flock. You aspire to a noble cause. You are human and will struggle. You may not be a complete package. If God only called the perfect, there would be no priests. Discern well...you are needed out in the fields of the Lord.