Fr. Denis Robinson gives opening conference of 2018-19 school year

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Note: Below is the text of the President-Rector's Conference, given by Fr. Denis Robinson, OSB, on the opening day of the 2018-19 school year.

Opening Rector’s Conference – 2018-2019

“Therefore I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”

The reading tonight from Isaiah is a powerful one, coming as it does in the context of the suffering servant narrative in Isaiah, but also engaging an authentic Christological foreshadowing. I would also say it is a prescient passage for those of us who are conformed in the person of Christ, those who seek to serve Christ, those who are men and women of Christ. What does it portend?

I have set my life to be in tandem with that of Christ Jesus, and I cannot falter. I cannot fail, no matter what forces of nature or society assail me.

Tonight this reading is presented for us in the midst of scandal and real need among the people of God, the clergy, our bishops, in the Church and in this community of formation. We must begin this year, in my opinion, with an honest appraisal of our situation. As a theologian and a priest, I think I know the principle values our Church represents. I think I know that the Church, having been established firmly on the foundations of Christ, cannot ultimately falter. I know that there is an eschatological dimension to our Church that will see it through any storm.

But I also know this: storms do come. Even an eschatologically sure institution is not immune to threat and danger. The power of Satan continues to rock the Church and our success, in our time, in our situation comes not only, perhaps not principally, from asserting the Church’s permanent reality, but in helping the Church to weather the storms that cannot be avoided.

In other words, we do not compromise the Church’s essential divine origin, or its ultimate fulfillment, when we assert that, at this moment, we are very seriously in trouble.

Now again listen to the prophet:

“Therefore I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”

Courage in adversity is, first and foremost, acknowledging the adversity.

I am also reminded tonight of the Gospel reading from St. John that we had about a week ago. It comes within the context of Chapter 6. It is a chapter about scandal. Jesus has hard things to impose on the disciples. These sayings of the Lord are so hard that many abandon “The Way,” turning their backs on Jesus and his mission. Jesus asks the apostles if they, too, do not wish to move away from following him. Peter’s reply is important to us:

Lord to whom shall we go?

Lord, to whom shall we go?

Ultimately, my brothers and sisters, that is the question.

This evening I would like to say a few words about my father. I do not often speak about him, at least directly. My father died 38 years ago. He was 44 at the time of his death. Today, I am older by 11 years than my father. I only knew him as a young man.

My father came from a family of 16 children. It was a very sturdy family of faith, many ministers, and endless church activities. It was a hardworking and upstanding family of men and women who sought beyond anything else to serve God in the way they thought best.

He was a man of faith. He was a man of prayer. He was a man of charity. He was a man of strong opinions. He was a man of service, and all of this was done so quietly that no one might have noticed if it was not for his rather large frame.

In 1977, he and my mother converted to the Catholic Church, having grown up in conspicuous and devout Baptist homes. In converting, my father was largely abandoned by his family. While he seldom talked about it, I know that loss weighed very heavily on him.

His conversion to Catholicism, however, also transformed his life. His attitude toward the world was radically changed. I do not believe there could have been any saint or martyr who loved the Catholic Church more than he did. He read and studied every day, with the same fervor he had once pursued his Baptist faith. He worked hard, or as hard as he could, in the parish. He befriended the priests. He was president of the Vincent de Paul Society. He was a man of the Church through and through for three years, until he died of kidney failure at that very young age.

In my admiration for the man, I sometimes ask myself: What would my father’s reaction to the scandals be? After all, as a new Catholic, one filled with idealism, he would surely have been disappointed. I don’t know. I am sure, as a man of the world, he understood weakness. At least he always understood my adolescent weakness.

I don’t know if he could have accepted that there were priests who lied and cheated their way through life, priests who abused small children, priests who abused vulnerable adults, priests who abused those under their care, priests who abused their office in the confessional, priests whose stoles would have more profitably served as nooses for their damage to the Church, bishops who lied and covered up for others, even if they were not complicit themselves, bishops who sent serial abusers from parish to parish to renew in other pastures their predatory behavior, bishops who failed to look to the needs of their flocks and sought to preserve an institution that ought to have been standing up for the weak and powerless but instead made itself weak and powerless in the face of lies continuously being revealed.

These men have willfully damaged our Church, they damaged themselves, they created a simulacrum of perfection that was nothing more than a house of cards. They have disappointed the faithful. They have scandalized the world in their inability to tell the truth. They have made men and women despise the God whom they proposed to represent.

They have become wolves instead of shepherds, and we stand today in shame on their decimated killing fields. The wonder of the Church has been stained by blood. The grandeur of the Church has been washed in vomit. The goodness of the Church? O my, the goodness of the Church …

What would my father think of the Church he loved being exposed in this corner and that corner as fraudulent?

I don’t know, but I would give anything to be able to talk to him about it.

I do know this: he could never abandon his faith, the faith he fought hard for, the faith that gave shape to his short life.

“Therefore I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”

“Lord to whom shall we go?”

Since I am speaking very personally to you this evening, I would like to tell you about two experiences I have been reflecting on. Somehow, they speak for themselves.

The first one actually happened a few years ago when I was residing in Anselm Hall. It was in the summer, and I was in my room when the alarms began to sound in the building. It was not the time of day for “practice drills” nor had we been given any warning of practices. I looked out the window and saw that it was dark and foreboding: storm.

However, it was odd in that the alarm sounding seemed like both a tornado warning and a fire warning. Needless to say, I made my way to the basement. Others were equally confused. Was it a fire, or a tornado? Should we go outside and avoid the “fire” or stay inside and risk a different kind of fate? Fortunately, the so-called emergencies ended soon enough, but I so distinctly remember standing in the doorway near Health Services and wondering: which way must I go?

Which way shall I go? You have heard me say many times in the context of our various conferences over the course of years that: Everyone will break a promise. There is no priesthood perfectly lived. There is no priesthood that does not incur the price of sin. I don’t care how perfectly continent you are. I don’t care how perfectly obedient you are. I don’t care how faithful you are in reciting your prayers. For some of those perfect priests, their point of fall becomes the pride they have in being perfect priests. All will sin. All.

Everyone will damage the fiber of the Church by giving bad example. I am having a bad day and I spout off at the staff or parishioners. I am upset about something and I take it out on the nurses at the hospital where I am visiting. I lose my temper in traffic. I become irritated at the doctor’s office.

Or more seriously, I find myself in a relationship in which a parishioner and I are verging on the prospect of inappropriate behavior. I am on vacation, and who will ever know if I engage this or that kind of encounter. I am at a wedding reception and have too much to drink and I drive home drunk. I make it or I don’t make it.

There is no perfection. That is especially true if we are authentically living our priesthood. We all have struggles. We all have falls. We all have challenges. There is no perfection, none at all. But there is honesty.

How can I react honestly to the scandals plaguing the Church? There are many responses that might be realized, both from priests and Catholics in the pews.

There is resignation, a casual acceptance of failure or even the need to cover it up. We have seen all too much of this. We might say: the Pennsylvania report is biased. We might say there is a political motivation to the accusations against this bishop, that cardinal, for God’s sake, the pope. We might say all of this excrement is in the past, and to some extent it is. But wishing it away or trying to explain it away is not an option. Excrement does not stink any less because it’s under the rug.

Or we might respond with bitterness and anger. So many victims have, and it is certainly understandable. How could our priests do this? How could our bishops do that? We cannot understand how those who hold themselves up as moral exemplars, and perhaps infallible moral exemplars, can fall.

Some, of course, are leaving, either leaving the Catholic Church, or more tragically, abandoning belief in God altogether. I cannot understand their actions from a personal point of view, but I do appreciate that people are hurting, hurting to the point of forsaking God or at least forsaking the God that some in our Church are inadequately representing. How can that be?

“Lord to whom shall we go when you alone have the words of everlasting life.”

In the face of all of this, somehow, my brothers and sisters, we have to hold firm to these words. You Lord alone have the words of everlasting life and we must wade through the refuse to gain a pure revelation of those words, but that pure revelation is there. It is surely there.

In spite of scandal, the Truth still remains:

The Truth still remains, in the classroom and on the playground of the parish school.

The Truth still remains in the quiet ticking away of hours of prayer offered up on behalf of an often-indifferent flock.

The Truth still remains in the words of teachers lecturing, and students taking notes.

The Truth still remains in quiet words of kindness offered to those who are hurting and confused.

The Truth still remains in the hard decisions that must be made and the easy decisions that are ready made.

The Truth still remains in the confessional and the sacristy of the church.

The Truth still remains in the hospital room and in the nursing home.

The Truth still remains in the parish offices, the Tribunal, the dicasteries of the Church.

The Truth still remains in the heart of the Vatican.

The Truth still remains as I kneel beside my bed every night and say my prayers:

Lord now let your servant go in peace…

Let your fragile and fallible servant go in peace for in him, in me, your Word has been fulfilled, poorly, weakly, falteringly, but nevertheless, fulfilled in the very act of kneeling by my bed.

In spite of scandal, the Truth still remains.

My brothers and sisters, we are guardians of that Truth. The faculty, whom we renew and bless tonight, are holders of that Truth, communicators of that Truth. They have a great deal to teach you, but if they teach you with words and not deeds, their words are useless. We have a faith-filled faculty and I am proud of them.

We have staff who are holders of that Truth. In spite of our rampant humanity, we can help you find and carry the Truth, because you, my brothers, are the carriers of that Truth, the holders and guardians of that Truth. You carry and hold and guard in so many ways, some that you know and many perhaps you cannot see so clearly. Your fidelity, our fidelity, to the Truth that is Christ Jesus is what will carry us beyond the scandals we are currently experiencing, but we must walk, step by step, through it all.

Finally, I would like to recount for you a dream I had last week. I was on vacation (in the South, of course) and I had booked a room in a really nice hotel by the beach. The porter took my bags at the desk and showed me to the room. He opened the door and I could tell two things right away. It was a grand room beautifully appointed, a view of the ocean, absolutely magnificent; and two, it was trashed.

There was literally crap everywhere, carpets torn up, bed unmade, the furnishings fouled. The porter looked very embarrassed and said how sorry he was that the room was in such bad shape. It really was their best room. He asked me if I wanted another smaller room, and I said no. This room was fine. We just had to clean it up.

“Lord to whom shall we go?”

“The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced. Therefore I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”