Two weeks ago I had the joy to preach the annual five-day retreat for Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where 25 years ago this year I began my formation for the priesthood. It was an opportunity to express my thanks to the 150 men preparing there for the priesthood there for their courageous witness in faithfully following God’s call and to encourage them to persevere.
This article originally appeared in The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass, on January 25, 2019 and appears here with the kind permission of the author.
Since the 1960s, to follow a priestly vocation is to be not only a sign of contradiction but an object of derision. While some support you, many oppose, often including family members and fellow Catholics. When I told peers in high school and college I was considering the priesthood, many retorted with jokes wondering whether I was gay. Today, after the revelation of the sexual abuse scandals, many are greeted with snide questions about whether they “like little boys.” Seminarians today have the faith and guts to suffer such indignities for Christ.
But at the same time greater courage still is needed. We’re living at a time when one of the big issues in priestly (and episcopal) leadership is conflict aversion. Pastoral problems are often ducked rather than addressed. Neuralgic and unpopular teachings are neglected rather than named. Not hurting another’s feelings or offending another’s sensibilities, rather than charity in truth, is the operative moral praxis.
Greater courage is needed, moreover, because we’re living in an age in which popular culture routinely mocks Christian teaching and attacks Christians. We’re treated as bigots for upholding Christ’s teaching on marriage, as misogynists for defending the sanctity of every life, as traitors for treating immigrants the way we would treat Christ. We’re being sued for not baking cakes or renting halls or compromising our consciences in favor of the culturally-correct zeitgeist. Membership in the Knights of Columbus is being treated by some U.S. Senators in 2019 as communist party membership in the 1950s. Catholic high school students from Covington are crucified by social media mobs, before even facts are known, for their pro-life convictions and support for the President.
Greater courage is needed as well because fears and phobias dominate our age. As toddlers, we’re afraid of the dark, monsters, bad weather, bad dreams, strangers, separations, doctors and dentists, masks and mascots. As we age, those fears are supplanted by dread of snakes, roaches, rodents, bats, loneliness, rejection, betrayal, unhappiness, change, unpopularity, wasting one’s life, missing out, the unknown, false accusations, personal failure, letting others down, getting fired, losing an argument, being judged, humiliated or ridiculed, poverty, public speaking, flying, loss of control, debilitating illness, pain, senility, the death of loved ones, torture, terrorist attacks, death and hell.
That’s why Christ’s words, “Be not afraid!,” were considered by St. John Paul II among the most important things our time needs to hear everywhere and often. Pope Francis has continued that focus on audacity by constantly repeating the need for parrhesia,the Greek word used by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles to refer to the boldness of the early Christians. Courage is, strictly speaking, not the absence of fear, but doing what we ought to do despite our fear because of the strength that we receive from Christ.
The chapel at Mt. St. Mary’s is an inspiring place to focus on courage, because it houses a shrine with a beautiful statue and first class relics of Blessed Stanley Rother, a Mount alumnus martyred in Guatemala 1981 and beatified in Oklahoma City in 2017. Father Rother returned to Guatemala to preach the Gospel and serve his people despite many threats against his life. He had been an “ordinary” seminarian, who struggled with some of his studies, but who persevered in faith, hope and love with the every day Christian heroism that makes one strong in extraordinary circumstances. His priestly courage framed our considerations.
In the retreat, we focused on the courage needed to win the “battle of prayer,” to overcome the typical struggles to prioritize prayer, to fight against discouragement, dryness, distractions, acedia, fatigue and other obstacles.
We considered the courage required to share the truth in and out of season, a virtue and gift of the Holy Spirit. Many prophets had fears: Moses, Gideon, Jonah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, to name a few. Jesus instructed the first disciples, as he was sending them as lambs in the midst of wolves, not to be frightened by those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul, not to worry about how to speak or what to say, but to depend on the power of the Holy Spirit. He spoke to St. Paul on multiple occasions telling him not to be afraid, but to continue to give witness to him in Jerusalem and in Rome.
We pondered the bravery needed to love God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, and to love our neighbor — including even those who make themselves our enemies — not just a little, or even a lot, but in the self-sacrificial way to the extreme with which Jesus loved us.
We spoke about the valor required to live chaste celibacy. Speaking about the virgin martyrs, St. Ambrose in the fourth century said, “Virginity is praiseworthy not because it is found in martyrs, but because it makes martyrs.” The strength required to say a yes of love to Christ and a no to the desire for marriage and family is something that fortifies a person to stay faithful out of love to Christ at the supreme hour. This is what we see in Saints Agnes, Barbara, Agatha, Cecilia, Maria Goretti and so many others. This is the chastity that also strengthened Jamie Schmidt of House Springs, Missouri, the 53 year-old mother of three who was gunned down at a Catholic Supply store in November for refusing to strip naked and perform a sex act on a gunman who had pressured two other women in the store to do so.
We prayed about the grit to study and grow in wisdom and understanding, loving the Lord “with all our minds,” so that we can give reasons for the hope that is within us. It requires effort to master Sacred Scripture, to understand and articulate the teachings of the magisterium, to become an expert in prayer and the interior life, and get to the culture well enough so that one can be salt, light and leaven to it.
We contemplated the gallantry needed to be “cheerful ascetics,” like Blessed Francis Xavier, whose 200thbirthday we celebrated during the retreat. In an age of affirmation and of the consumerist, quasi-religious pursuit of the maximization of pleasure, self-denial and picking up our Cross each day to follow Christ seem almost insane. A healthy but vigorous asceticism is one of the things very much needed today in the clergy and Catholic people in general. Many do not moderate their appetites for food and sweets at all and their waistlines, sugar and cholesterol numbers show it. Others drink too much, smoke, and can’t discipline their addictions to television, the internet or social media. Others can’t conquer their anger or their sexual appetite. Courage is needed to train ourselves through mortification to say yes to God and no to the concupiscence of the eyes, flesh and pride of life.
We discussed the courage necessary to obey the Lord, to be true doers of the Word, especially through the flawed human instruments God places over us. The recent scandals have made it more challenging for priests, seminarians and faithful alike to trust bishops implicitly, and that weaker human trust makes the lived experience of obedience more challenging. To obey God through the Church he gives requires overcoming more fears today than yesterday and a greater boldness in trusting in the constitution the Lord has given to the Church and in the Holy Spirit’s constant guidance despite checkered receptivity on the part of some in authority.
We examined the guts needed to recognize we’re sinners in need of a Savior and come to receive his mercy through his priestly instruments, confessing our sins with candor and contrition, and intending to cut off the metaphorical hands and feet and pluck out the eyes that lead us to sin. It also requires daring to share mercy at the Lord’s standard with those who have wronged us.
We prayed about where courage comes from: a deep sense of our divine filiation: that God loves us infinitely, unconditionally, and without end. That conviction allows us to live boldly, because we know that we have in our corner the one who has triumphed over Satan, sin and death and will never abandon us.
Finally, we ruminated on the courage need to remain faithful to the end. We live in an age in which many people give up: on prayer, fighting sin, suffering, Mass, Confession, marriage, religious vows, priestly vocations, jobs, hope, even life itself. We need courage never to give up, never to stop running the race, fighting the good fight, keeping the faith and growing in it.
God who knows we need courage in all of these ways and gives us all we need to live boldly — by giving himself, to embolden us from within. That’s the way we are able to live, as Christians, priests and future priests, unafraid.
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