Third Rector's Conference - October 7

Monday, October 8, 2018

I want to talk to you this evening as though you were priests already. Certainly, I understand that you are not. I know that some of you may not be destined for priestly service, but as you also know, one of my points of emphasis is that here you must be set on preparing to be a priest, not merely on four years of discernment.

In the Ratio Fundamentalis, the document produced by the Congregation for the Clergy in Rome to oversee seminary formation, the ideal of priestly formation is the ideal that what we call theology is not a time of discernment; it is a time of preparation. Theologians should not be in an active discernment mode; you should be preparing to be priests. So, I will speak to all of you as priests, as men destined for service in the Church, as mature men, as men who only (ONLY) have the needs of the Church in your minds and hearts.

This evening, then, I want to look momentarily at a passage of St. Matthew's Gospel, chapter 19:

But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus said, let children come to me.

Jesus said, do not hinder the natural attraction that children have for the reality of God.

Jesus said, the realization of the Kingdom of God is dependent upon our care for children.

Interesting and troubling.

Our current dystopian narrative - one in which we are called increasingly to NOT believe that people have rights, that people have value, that people have responsibilities - in our current climate, the human quality of childhood has been called into question. We have watched countless films, read books and looked at stories about children who commit crimes, and are otherwise seen as perpetrators of violence on others. I think the most dangerous expression of this is the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade, a decision that gave free reign to a culture to kill children in order to promote the freedom of the parents.

Given this, why the focus on the Catholic Church? Why are we given so much press when other Christian groups and other religious institutions share in the guilt in failing to look after children properly, of ignoring the words of Jesus?

But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

To me the answer is simple: We are supposed to stand for something greater. We are supposed to be exemplars of what it means to live in a healthy world, a healthy culture, a healthy Church. We are supposed to be better and, when we fail, our failure looks all the more dramatic. Our failure also looks dramatic when we fail and will not admit that we have failed. If we know that children have been hurt in our churches, by members of our clergy, if we know that and do not call those people to justice, the failure is all the greater.

How can we have a Church that stands for the goodness and peace of Christ, the same Christ who said: Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven? When we fail in that, our fall is mighty. When people find out that we, who claim to stand up for Christ and his world and his righteousness, fail to protect the most vulnerable and lie to protect a corrupt institutional structure, we have failed mightily.

What are we supposed to stand for? My brothers, we are supposed to stand for integrity. We are supposed to stand for justice; we are supposed to stand for Truth, the Truth that is Jesus Christ. And if we are going to stand for integrity and justice and Truth, then we must be, first and foremost in our world today, men of healing. So I say: aim your formational goals in this direction. Become men of healing.

The priest is called to healing or service leadership and cultic leadership; healing leadership for the sake of cultic leadership. The priest leads by confecting the Eucharist in the exercise of his unique power. The Eucharist makes the Church and thus is the full manifestation of the new condition of humanity. The Eucharist is the source of human success in its striving to touch the transcendent, to grasp the things of heaven in a way the Icarian pretense of human pride could not.

If the priest is set apart in Holy Orders from all the others who have been set apart in Baptism, his status is for healing and service in the cultic action of the constitutive Eucharist. Like Joshua, the priest fights against the citadels of the compromised expectations of our condition and opens the gates of grace, not for his own sense of victory, but to feed a hungry people left to wander the desert. The priest has a dignity that is manifested in his willingness to fight for the people, even as Joshua railed against the walls of Jericho, even as Christ fought, all the way to Calvary.

The priest has a dignity that is bound up with the fate of the people. The priest has a dignity that is directed always over the shoulder to encourage a people moving forward freed from the burdens of the earth. The priest has a dignity that is not his own, a dignity that rightly belongs to Christ. The priest has a dignity that is always emptying itself like the breast blood of the pelican to give life to others. The priest has a dignity rooted in sacrifice. The priest has a dignity that bridges the fully human and the fully divine.

The priest has a dignity that carries the people on his shoulders so that they can have a better look of that rich valley, that promised land, that God has called us to in calling us his sons and daughters, brothers and sisters in our dear Lord, Jesus Christ. The priest has a dignity that serves as a living icon of that dignity to which we are all called. The priest has a dignity that is not his own. The priest is not his own. The priest is for God and the priest is for us. Yet, in some places, that dignity has been ruined.

When we examine the condition of the holy priesthood today, we must say that in its character, in its essence, there is no compromise to the priesthood. The priesthood today is what Christ realized it to be in the institution of the sacrament of Holy Orders on the night he was betrayed. The priesthood, in essence, is what it is and its inherent dignity is complete and inviolate. But in our time of trouble, the perception of the dignity of the priest is another story.

The essence of the priesthood is safeguarded by the matter and form of the sacrament and the assurances of apostolic succession. The perception of that dignity, however, is undoubtedly compromised. What, or perhaps who, has compromised the perception of the dignity of the priesthood? It is true that this perception has been assailed in the pretensions of an overweening, media-saturated culture. But let us not place the blame completely out there. The loss of respect experienced by the priesthood is not only the product of persecution; it is the product of our own folly.

What compromises the dignity of the priesthood? First, I would say a lack of personal character on the part of priests. All of us are the products of our environment. Many of us have been raised in a highly commercialized culture in which we were told that we can have everything. We cannot. The character of the priest is dependent upon his ability to understand his nature, his function, and his place in the social and ecclesial order. The character of the priest is compromised when he tries to have his cake and eat it, too. It is compromised when he remains with one foot in the world of the so-called "secular" and another in the sacred.

It is compromised when it fails to reach its true potential in Christ because the priest is engaged in other activities that begin to take precedence over his life of prayer and service. The character of the priest is compromised when he fails to accept completely who he is, when he tries to hold on to that which is not priesthood. It is compromised when he tries to live an ontological lie, when he brackets in any way his essence for the convenience or pleasures inherent in not bearing the heavy responsibilities of the priesthood.

Let me give some more concrete examples. The priest is compromised when he is lazy. Laziness is a trait that has to be overcome in a serious way because we live in a culture of leisure. It is a false leisure. All of us have the necessity, I would say the responsibility, to recreate in the truest sense of the word. That is not the question.

Laziness is doing what I need to do to get by and nothing more. It is fulfilling obligations at the bare minimum in order to do what I want to do. The lazy priest rushes from Mass in order to catch the game or his show. The lazy priest abandons the confessional to do something fun. The work ethic in our culture has been severely compromised by the cult of leisure. We work not to fulfill a mission, but to have the resources to spend on having fun. Laziness eventually overwhelms the priest, making him a mere functionary.

God can use the mere functionary character of his priesthood, but at what price to his own dignity and at what cost to his reputation? The lazy priest makes excuses not to go to the hospital, the nursing home, not to make communion calls. He "says" Mass. He gets homilies off the internet. He gives lip service to his responsibilities so he can do what he wants. The lazy priest is no leader. Neither is he a follower. He is a lounger and thus compromises the dignity of which he is possessed. The lazy priest holds the treasure of his priesthood in a reclining chair. Then he wonders why no one shows him the proper deference due his office. After all, he has sacrificed so much to be a priest.

The perception of the dignity of the priest is compromised also by crudeness. This can take several forms. One is poor hygiene and poor grooming. The priest looks slovenly and then protests that his appearance is the result of a commitment to evangelical poverty. This is nonsense. While we may reject the Wesleyan axiom that cleanliness is next to godliness, cleanliness is respectful. I show respect for the people I meet by appearing clean-shaven and not reeking of body odor.

Crudeness can also take the form of impropriety of speech. The use of crude and shocking language as a matter of course is not prophetic; it is ignorant. It demonstrates a lack of humanity, particularly when it is directed to a sexually exploitative purpose. No one can take the celibate commitment of a priest seriously when he is continually using foul language about women and telling off-color jokes. Refinement of speech is not un-manly; it is human.

Another means of compromising the inherent dignity of the priesthood is the expression of an anti-intellectual bias. We wonder, even aloud, about the necessity of the study that we undertake here for our future pastoral engagements. I say, if you do not take your studies seriously, even if you are not the best student, if you do not take seriously the need to know the teachings of the Church and the Tradition, I hope to God you never have any parishioners to inflect your ignorant and unformulated opinions upon.

The damage wrought by the material heresy of what they claim as well-meaning, anti-intellectual priests is real and devastating to the fabric of the Body of Christ. The cavalier attitude that some priests take toward doctrine is not only shocking; it is sinful. As priests, we bear a tremendous responsibility for the orthodoxy of the Christian people, and that orthodoxy cannot be of our own construction. It must be forged and forged hard at the anvil of the Church's intellectual life, a life to which all of us, no matter our native talents, have access.

One manifestation of this anti-intellectual attitude is cultural narrowness. A cultural perspective that is woven together from distended threads of popular music, the internet, social networking, commercial television, etc. is not likely to weave a tapestry of inspiration. A cultural bias that is earthbound is not going to offer us the opportunities for cultivating such practicalities as a celibate life or a literate imagination for preaching and teaching.

It is commonplace in our society to disdain higher culture. We scoff at those who care about art, music, literature and theater. We laugh at the pretensions of those who seek the things that are above. And yet, it is these things that have the potential to unite us as a people by appealing to our better selves, whereas the manifestations of a low fanciful culture merely reinforce the self-gratification and selfishness that tear at the fiber of the Body of Christ.

The dignity of the priesthood is compromised by too close an identification with popular culture. We think that "being in touch" with the world is inspirational to our youth. I would suggest that familiarity breeds contempt and that young people are more often inspired by alternatives to the dead-end culture that surrounds them.

Another means by which the perception of the dignity of the priesthood is jeopardized is a lack of engagement with the spiritual life. An old adage in the world of formation is that after ordination, the prayer life is the first thing to go. Outside the structures of seminary life, the priest simply cannot find the time or the energy to pray. We make excuses for neglecting the breviary and the holy hour. We live into falsehoods such as: "my work is my prayer." We discover, all of a sudden, that we are burnt out and the pastoral life has little meaning.

Why should it if we have discarded the essential relationship with God expressed in prayer that gives meaning to our pastoral engagement? We fool ourselves if we do not think prayer is the key to priestly life and service. We fool ourselves here if we are not convinced that a dedication to prayer is the most important thing for me to do. We fool ourselves if we believe that people do not know when we no longer pray, when our spiritual life is not only dry, but dead. We compromise the dignity of the priesthood when we continue to present ourselves as that bridge between heaven and earth and fail to acknowledge that the bond has been broken by our lack of prayer.

We also endanger the dignity of the priesthood when we refuse to accept responsibility for the pastoral mission to which we have been called. This can take several forms. One is a refusal to accept the unique role of the priest as leader - servant leader to be sure - but leader, and to align ourselves to an unserviceable egalitarianism. Another way is to fail to engage the work of God in a particular place, because I am constantly looking forward to the next, seemingly better, place.

It is amazing to me how many of our young clergy today are ordained for the transitional priesthood and refuse to take their place in the vineyard of the Lord in the expectation that some better venue will soon be opening. It is amazing to me how many young priests today are willing to sacrifice their name, and indeed their souls, by stepping on the backs of lower men to rise to the top of chancery officialdom in some of the poorest dioceses in the country.

The obverse of this refusal to accept responsibility is rank clericalism. I use this expression "rank clericalism" intentionally. An authentic clerical spirit recognizes the uniqueness of the vocation and accepts the responsibility that that uniqueness necessitates. Rank clericalism claims privilege without responsibility. Rank clericalism is more about the dress than the service. Rank clericalism insists upon respect without offering. Rank clericalism is all about the look of the thing and nothing about the substance of the thing. Rank clericalism legislates according to tastes. Rank clericalism exercises power without consultation. This kind of clericalism destroys perceptions of the dignity of the priesthood by being all about me.

But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

As priests, we cannot be the instruments of hindering others' relationship with God. We are in need of that healing. We will become accustomed to that healing when we start thinking as men of God and stop thinking as men solely concerned with self. This is for our good and the good of our Church in troubled times.