Ash Wednesday Conference
March 6, 2019
Lent is an appropriate time, I believe, for us to do what we do every day in a more concrete way: Examine our conscience. Every evening at compline, we take a moment to review our day and to think about ways we have failed, and hopefully, about ways we have succeeded in realizing our primary vocations of following God in Christ. If you are like me, this can sometimes, perhaps quite often, seem somewhat perfunctory, a little rote, at the end of a long day.
Yes Lord, I have sinned.
Yes Lord, I am sorry for my sins. I said the act of contrition, didn't I?
Attitude. Attitude. Attitude.
Perhaps in this season of Lent, we are offered a chance to do in a more focused way what we frequently skip over in our daily acts of examination.
And so today, standing as we are on the threshold of this penitential season, I would like to ask some questions, perhaps relating to you, perhaps to us, certainly to me. Let's consider this a collective act of examination.
Let us begin broadly: What is the spiritual condition of our Church, writ large?
I would say, if we are honest, we have to admit that it is reeling. It is difficult to maintain an upright consciousness of the Church when it is being subjected to so many attacks from without, with the full realization that many, if not all, of those attacks are fully justified. It does not mean that it is comfortable to see some of our priests, and some truly beloved priests, dragged through the mud for incidents that may have happened many years ago.
We know that justice must be done, that is a moral absolute, but it does not make justice comfortable. We know that there are bishops in our Church who have done their part in robbing our Church of her moral credibility and we must disdain that behavior, if not disdain the man. Sometimes that is difficult. It is hard to find room in my little store of compassion for Mr. Ted McCarrick.
I received a letter the other day from a lady I don't think I have ever met. She had read something on the abuse crisis that I had written and she said: I had such hopes for Pope Francis when he was elected. A good deal of that hope is now gone in the wake of so many scandals. I feel sorry for those in our Church who may feel the same way. If I am honest, I also feel sorry for myself, that while I have a full conviction in the ultimate divine nature of the Church and its invincibility, there are days when my faith is pushed to the very limit. I hope that gives me, very superficially, some level of solidarity with those who are suffering now.
I go back and say: the condition of our Church is reeling. I know that it will ultimately right itself, but that does not make this storm-tossed journey in the ark of Peter any easier today, in this time, during this season of Lent. Our Church is in trouble. God will right that trouble, but we must do our part as well.
Part of "our part" is being honest with our struggles, but another part of "our part" is defending the Church, standing up for her apologetically. One way in which we do this is to have in our hearts an understanding for victimsand an understanding for those who abuse. None of us want to hear this latter part, but it is true. We must have compassion for those who have abused others. If we cannot have mercy on this sinner without excusing him, then what hope have we to be agents of reconciliation for others, much less able to forgive ourselves?
When we say the examination of conscience in the evening, when we ask for mercy, can we find it in our hearts to authentically seek God's mercy for abusers? Can we ask for their reconciliation, their forgiveness? Can we pray for their souls, in spite of what they have done to the Church? That is the role of the priest. That is what you are preparing for, not to be men of judgment and condemnation, not to be executioners, but to be angels of mercy called to the sickbed of humanity.
Now, perhaps, that spirit of examination we need so much in this Lent might be drawn closer to home. What is the condition of this community? Let me begin by saying this is a good community. If it was anything other than a good community, I can assure you I would put the blame for that squarely on my shoulders.
Is it a perfect community? No. Is it a community that fulfills the expectations of everyone here, their personal biases and tastes? No. If that were the case, it would most certainly be a schizophrenic community. What is the condition of members of this community? Here we must realize something that may be shocking, that is, we must realize the truth: We are sinners. We are a community of sinners. If we can know that individually, then we can have a great deal more trust in the system.
In this day and age, there must be trust in the system. If you do not trust the seminary, if you do not trust the formation you are receiving here, if you have come to be your own formator, that needs to change, or you need to go. An anti-institutional attitude does not bode well in the priest. I hope that we do not give you the ammunition you need to distrust us. However, if you are by nature on the lookout for that ammunition, you will undoubtedly find it, at least in your imagination.
I also think, in this Lenten season, we do well to reflect on ourselves. In my estimation, there are four kinds of seminarians, even though I certainly recognize that all are unique, and wonderfully so, I see certain trends unfolding over time. The first type is the one who comes to Saint Meinrad with a certain set of expectations. He knows what a priest should be and he knows what a formation program should be. He is wise beyond his years, or so he thinks.
This sort of man spends his time with us judging the place according to whether or not it meets his expectations and his values. He takes those aspects of formation that meet his ideals. He accepts the faculty members who say the things he believes must be said. He rejects the rest. He does not change. He does not convert during his time with us. This pattern - the stubborn, intellectual narcissist - is not a good candidate for priesthood, because his priesthood will be riddled with the same brokenness he brings to formation. He cannot accept what the French call difference. He cannot live into mystery. He must write the script himself.
The second sort of man also comes with a set of expectations. He knows everything when he arrives, but soon learns that there are aspects of priestly service and life, indeed aspects of God, he hasn't yet fully fathomed. In the course of his time here, he will be taken apart and put back together. His new reality will also be confident, but it will not be built upon his ideas and ideals alone, but upon the Church's need, the Church's desire.
This man is open to the Spirit in a way the first man is not. He has the ability to change his mind and is happy to do so. He listens to everything, prays over all of it, accepts what is necessary, files away the rest for perhaps further reflection. This man, in the seminary, establishes a pattern that will see him successfully through the rest of his life. He will hear the voices of the people he will serve. He will delight in the surprises that God will hold out for him and, finally, he will look back with nostalgia on his former, cocksure self and laugh a little at how immature he was, all the time rejoicing in how his God has given him wisdom beyond what he could have imagined.
The third sort of man is the one who comes to seminary as a tabula rasa. In our current climate of infinite discernment, these boys are a bit rare. He doesn't have a set of expectations. He is happy to admit he knows very little about what he is getting into. He places himself completely in our hands. This can be helpful. It can also be a problem in that one wonders where his faith journey has taken him thus far and how that journey has left him with no lasting imprint.
I remember distinctly my first week in the seminary. We were having those insufferable "sharing" sessions and one of the new guys confided: I really don't know if I want to be a Catholic or an Episcopalian. He didn't last. These men can be quite malleable, but there is a great deal of work to do. It can be done, however, and there is the benefit of their openness to hearing the Good News of formation.
Finally, there is the last kind of seminarian. This one is the dark horse, or what I call the submarine. He comes with nothing, or at least nothing he is telling, and for four or six years the staff never learns a thing about him. He rides the wave of anonymity. He doesn't let on that there is anything at all going on. He sees a spiritual director all of that time and the director is no wiser after years of meeting than he was at the beginning.
This kind of submarining is something that the seminary staff must root out. On the one hand, we must ask why he is so unwilling to share his faith with us. On the other, a lack of knowledge must lead us to speculate as to why a man who proposes to dedicate his life to the evangelical call of going out to all the world and telling the Good News remains so secretive about his own faith journey. All in all, it is better to deal with a loudmouth narcissist than a submarine. At least with the narcissist, you know where you stand.
I believe the question we must ask ourselves is simple as we embark on this Lenten pilgrimage: Who do you want to be? What kind of a priest do you want to be? Lent is a time for putting away everything that keeps us from fully engaging our formation. That is true whether we are in the seminary, in the monastery, no matter. Lent trains our eyes and our ears, the eyes of our minds and the ears of our hearts to be attuned to the promptings of the Spirit. I think that is especially important in this time of crisis for the Church.
Of course, there is variation and there is success. There is triumph and there is brokenness. Every day we examine our consciences and, if we are honest, we find many things there. Day to day, week to week, year to year. Our ability to listen to the promptings of God through these daily things is a gauge of our success as priests.
My ability to overcome the storms of the day, including the storms of the Church, is a barometer of success. That does not mean putting it aside or shielding ourselves from trouble. That means looking trouble in the face and calling it by its name. Sometimes it means finally spitting at it.
On my desk, I have a little glass snowman. I have had it for many years and, frankly, I don't remember who gave it to me. He is a holiday snowman. He is smiling and happy to the last degree. He wears mittens, a scarf and a red Santa hat, all of which seem highly non-intuitive for a snowman. He has a cord coming out of his snow backside and he is connected to the computer. Interiorly, he changes color, shifting every few seconds from blue, to red, to yellow, to green.
When I pay attention to him, which isn't often, I note that he is like me. Smiling and happy on the outside, but sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes blue on the inside. Trying hard on the outside, but red with anger on the inside. Healthy on the outside, but yellow with sickness on the inside. Then of course, happy on the outside and filled with green life on the inside. I hope that is how we can be most of the time; that is what I hope for in the long term.
Being a priest is hard. Being a seminarian is hard. Being a faculty or staff member is hard. Our life is hard, but even in that, even in a broken Church, even in a miserable Lent, the joy of a green spring breaks upon us, a new Easter beckons.