Friday, September 14, 2012

Seminary - First Rector's Conference

Part One


I’m back!  And I want to begin my first Rector’s conference with an apology.  I just missed the first week of school.  More importantly, I missed the opening retreat.  And I want you to know that this happened only because of a longstanding commitment to preach the Priests convocation in the Diocese of Sydney.  Cardinal Pell asked me to thank you for your indulgence and has written a note with an excuse for my absence, which I hope you will accept.

Seriously, I regret not being here, because this is where your pastor belongs.  I have spent more than half my life as a pastor and that is how I see myself in these days: as a pastor of a flock of shepherds.  

And like any pastor, I am called to exercise my ministry more by example than by my great plans.  By who I am I seek to form you in what God has called you to be.

In the Seminary, the Rector fulfills a ministry, exercised in the name of the Bishop of each sending Diocese
 is “to initiate the candidate into the sensitivity of being a shepherd.” Assisted by the Faculty, “the bishop and the rector together” are ultimately responsible for the fostering and verification of the “spiritual, human and intellectual endowments” needed for the Priestly ministry.

What does all this mean, in practical terms?  It means I must know and care for you and the faculty as the Good Shepherd knew and cared for his sheep. It means I must preach the truth, to lead you into the mysteries of the Sacred Liturgy, and be accessible, consistent and fair in my judgements

In other words, I am called to be your pastor and your priest.

That’s what it means to be your rector, but what does it mean to be a Seminary?

We are more than a school of theology.  Indeed, our mandate is significantly more challenging, as described by the Conciliar Decree on Priestly Formation, Optatum Totius.  

Saint John’s Seminary has a threefold mandate: to develop in our students an intellectual rigor, a profound love of the magisterium, and an integration of our academic instruction with the work, the prayer, and the lives of seminarians.  Allow me to spend a brief moment of each of these mandates.

First, Optatum Totius tells us that “In the very manner of teaching there should be stirred up in the students a love of rigorously searching for the truth and of maintaining and demonstrating it, together with an honest recognition of the limits of human knowledge.”
What the Church is calling for here is an authentic theological method, whereby the seminarian sees himself as the unworthy servant of the Truth, and not as its ultimate master.  Such a theologian is ruthless in his self-critique, but childlike in his wonder at the tradition he has been called to preserve, a tradition which comes from the Word made flesh and has been preserved by the Church in fidelity and love.

The seminarian who has been exposed to such a method will hunger for solid theological reflection for the rest of his life.  The questions which arise from the pastoral, spiritual, and human struggles he will encounter will be informed and challenged by the authentically Catholic theologians to whom he has been introduced.  In other words, he will have learned in the seminary how to embrace the Church and the truth she preserves with humility and love.

Second, Optatum Totius calls us, “under the guidance of the magisterium of the Church” to teach students how to “correctly draw out Catholic doctrine from divine revelation, profoundly penetrate it, make it the food of their own spiritual lives, and be enabled to proclaim, explain, and protect it in their priestly ministry.”

In other words, your professors are not just teaching you, they are teaching every parishioner you will ever preach to, every confused young adult you will ever counsel, and ever catechism class you will ever instruct.  And by the way they will teach you, with a love for the Catholic faith that has penetrated their heart and become food for their spiritual lives, they will enable you to teach the truth not just with your words, but by the manner in which you live your priestly life.

And finally, the Church calls on the seminary to beware lest they “tend merely to the communication of ideas.”  Rather, they should counsel and “provide a true and intimate formation.”

True means preaching Christ and not the latest academic theory.  True means teaching what the Church teaches and not what I think she should teach.  And “intimate” means understanding that what we teach here goes to the very heart of things, seeking what Pope Paul VI has called the “total formation of the young man, not only as a human being and a Christian but above all as a priest, whose whole personality must be penetrated by the light of divine revelation.”

How This is Accomplished
How is this accomplished?  It is accomplished through the Faculty and Staff of the Seminary, my intimate collaborators in this great work.  Without them, I could do nothing as Rector of Saint John’s Seminary.  With them, we can accomplish wonderful things!

Great collaborators like Father Raymond Van De Moortell, our new Director of Intellectual Formation.  Father Raymond, along with the Educational Affairs Committee, will assure that the best of academic principles are consistently applied, that Faculty are encouraged to grow in their discipline and in their craft, and that through a comprehensive system of evaluation of every aspect of our program, including faculty and staff, we will continue to grow in the sort of excellence that makes us worthy of this great work.

As a side note here, I wish to thank Father Steve Salocks, the outgoing Dean of faculty for his dedicated service through the years.  Fr. Salocks is about to head off on a well deserved sabbatical and then return to us refreshed as the great professor of Sacred Scripture which he is.

Great collaborators like the spiritual work which Father Barber and Father Borek and Father Merdinger and all the spiritual directors who carry out this great work in the name of Christ.  By listening to you, they teach you how to listen.  By counseling you, they prepare you to give counsel.  By speaking the hard truth to you they teach you how to speak the truth to the sinner.  And when required and appropriate, forgiving you they teach you to forgive.  

Then there are the good pastors who teach you how to be good shepherds by the manner of their shepherding, led by our Director of “Shepherding,” Father Riley.  His is a double duty as Dean of Men and Director of Pastoral Formation; he is responsible for the education of the shepherds in the field and governs the flock within the seminary walls.

I am also grateful to Father David Pignato, who has accepted the newly created position of Director of Human Formation.  For it is only when we have become fully human that we are able to reflect the image and likeness of Christ to a waiting world.

That, briefly, is my vision of how a Seminary does the work of helping men to discern their vocation and the forming them as Priests in the model of Christ Jesus, our great Hish Priest.  It is a noble endeavor to which we are called as a community of faith and one to which I pledge my every waking moment.

And with each waking moment and every ounce of our strength we must each seek to become what God wants us to be.  Like the rich young man, all we are seeking is how to go to heaven.  And helping us get there is what this house is really all about.

Part Two

Clerical Diseases and Their Vaccines

The flu season will soon be upon us. I can tell because CVS and Walgreens are offering a vaccine.  Did you know, as a doctor friend of mine recently told me, that they have to throw away all the left over vaccine at the end of each flu season?  It seems that it is formulated specifically for the strains of influenza particular to each given year.  

This year’s strains of flu are known as influenza A (H3N2) and its variant (H3N2v).  And the vacines which have been manufactured are intended to foster immunities to these specific pathogens.

The clerical sin season is now upon us, too, my brothers, and welcome to the club.  For as good as priests may be, as desirous of just giving their life to Christ and to his Church, as selfless and generous and sometimes even heroic they may be, priests as a species are subject to particular strains of sin, diseases of the heart, if you will.  And as seminarians, you are now susceptible to the same soul rotting contagions as me and my brothers and all those clerics who have gone before you.

Like the influenza, we're more susceptible to these diseases when we're not taking care of ourselves, when we neglect the important things.  But like a roaring lion seeking to devour us, the three most common clerical pathogens of the priesthood are always out there, threatening to devour us at every given moment.

The first sin is ambition.  Our Holy Father spoke beautifully of this a while back in a homily at the Ordination of Priests in 2006.  He was speaking of the Gospel parable of the Good Shepherd.  

Jesus highlights very clearly this basic condition by saying:  "he who... climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber" (Jn 10: 1). This word "climbs" - anabainei in Greek - conjures up the image of someone climbing over a fence to get somewhere out of bounds to him.
"To climb" - here too we can also see the image of careerism, the attempt to "get ahead", to gain a position through the Church:  to make use of and not to serve. It is the image of a man who wants to make himself important, to become a person of note through the priesthood; the image of someone who has as his aim his own exaltation and not the humble service of Jesus Christ.
But the only legitimate ascent towards the shepherd's ministry is the Cross. This is the true way to rise; this is the true door. It is not the desire to become "someone" for oneself, but rather to exist for others, for Christ, and thus through him and with him to be there for the people he seeks, whom he wants to lead on the path of life.
One enters the priesthood through the Sacrament, and this means precisely:  through the gift of oneself to Christ, so that he can make use of me; so that I may serve him and follow his call, even if it proves contrary to my desire for self-fulfilment and esteem.
Ambition is a common clerical disease and a constant temptation.  It's great to be successful and a real thrill to be recognized for one's accomplishments.  As you may know, the Holy Father, through the intercession of Bishop McManus, recently made me a Prelate of Honor.  It's really cool wearing that new colored piping on my cassock.  It makes me feel special and somewhere way down deep inside the little kid who did not get chosen to play baseball at recess is vindicated that he has been made a Monsignor.

But does it have ultimate value?  Does it make me better than anyone else?  Or is it merely an invitation to greater service, a pat on the back that keeps me moving in the right direction, and a reminder of the importance of acting like the sacred person I am called to be. The disease is to climb the clerical ladder and to judge my life by the color of my buttons. 

So what's the vaccine for this first clerical sin?  Good friends.  Friends of all sorts and sizes.  Priest friends, lay friends, married couples, single folks...all are a good vaccine and antidote, but perhaps the most effective inoculation is a good, long term clerical friend who loves you enough to tell you the truth.

No one can tell me the truth quite as effectively as my closest priest friends, and the longer they've known me, the better they are at operating the ambition detector.

They've been there, seen you make a fool of yourself, consoled you when you were on the verge of tears, listened when you were making no sense, put up with your endless lines of blarney, all because they love you, and they love you enough to tell you the truth: that there is only one God and he ain't you.

Such friends, my brothers, are worth their weight in fire tried gold.  Friends who know you, and still keep coming back.  Friends who rejoice with you in your triumphs, but who lend perspective, and who love you enough to knock you off your high horse again and again and again.

The second sin is cynicism.   And just like all the good things you learn in seminary, sadly the snarky smirk of the clerical cynic is taught here as well.

Oh, it's not in the catalog, but I've never known a seminary that does not grant a masters degree in cynicism, taught in the hallways and the lounges and in the car on the way home.  It starts innocently enough, as a venting of frustration at all those things I cannot control.  And that's tough.

Seminary is a pressure cooker, a fish bowl, in which it's easy to feel that your every move, your every look and perhaps your every thought is scrutinized, evaluated and inscribed in your permanent record.  That's a heck of a way to live, with a sword of Damacles hanging continually over your head!

But if I don't trust that God is really running this show, what do I do with the surplus of fear, resentment, and suspicion which grows from living under a microscope?  Often it gets translated into a cynical attitude that suspects the motives of the faculty and even of other students and even of the Bishop.  When I don't want to admit the painful truth about something in me which Christ and his church are asking me to change or let go of, I try to kill the messenger. You know, he's always been out to get me.  And he's incompetent, too.  You know what I heard about him.  He's only in the seminary because he can't cut it in a parish, and he really has no friends.  Why he's such a fool that I heard....

Now here,  my brothers, I have been quoting from things I said and heard when I was in seminary, thirty-six years ago.  But I would not be surprised if the walls of the Student Lounge were sometimes veneered with the same gossipy cynicism today.

Now hear me out.  I am not saying that venting is bad.  There are times when it is appropriate and indeed healthy to vent in a safe place about the frustrations and fears which have been shaking around inside of you like a coke bottle with the cap still on.

But when the occasional, safe, contextualized, confidential venting with your friends who know enough not to take you too seriously.... is replaced by a consistent attitude of cynical snarkiness...when you really start to believe that the stuff you're saying is Gospel truth...then you have caught a disease which has destroyed too many priests' souls and rotted away the virtue and integrity of too many of my brothers, when then, you’re in trouble.  And you need help.

You've probably met a few clerical victims of this disease by now...guys who are more intent on gossip than on truth, at tearing down than building up, at proving that everyone else is less competent, less holy, and less authentic than they are.  And sadly, when this disease enters the clerical blood stream, it threatens the priesthood and even the soul of its victim.

So, what's the vaccine to clerical cynicism?  Confession and a really good spiritual director and a really good shrink.  Folks who will call you back, again and again, to dealing with the darkness in your own soul, so that you won't spend your waking hours howling at others.

There ain't nothing that makes me more loving, more priestly, or more honest than kneeling down in front of my confessor and saying, you know I really did it this time.  There ain't nothing that makes me more of a whole human being than saying to a counselor who knows me, I don't where share this feeling is coming from. There ain't  nothing that makes me less susceptible to ranting as a career, than a wise spiritual director who helps me work through it and live the truth with love.

And then there's sloth.  That's such a great word, sloth.  And it's even the name of an animal, who just sits there all day, couch-potatoeing his life away.  Naval gazing and never quite getting out of bed.

Now, again, I'm not saying that we're not entitled to rest or a break or a good pattern of work and recreation or a day off.  I once had a spiritual director who, in my Messianic period, told me that on your day off you should walk over the dead bodies on the front porch and drive away for the day, or you'll be no good to anyone else for the rest of the week.

But I’m speaking of those who seem to have retired before they have begun to work.  Bishop Reilly, Bishop Emeritus of Worcester, when confronted by the legions of priests who claim to be burnt out, is wont to respond, “I'm not sure how the can be burnt out when they never caught on fire!”

The kind of self indulgent sloth which is frequently born of depression is a disease which hits every cleric on occasion, and perhaps even more frequently enters the seminarian's blood stream.  

Yet when you find yourself just not wanting to get with the program, with no energy to do what must be done, or resistant to the demands which are knocking a your door, there is hope.

For there at two vaccines for the sloth virus: prayer and love.  Prayer is, quite simply, talking to Jesus.  It really hasn't changed in its essentials since you first did it at three years old.  And Jesus hasn't changed either.  Even when I don't want to do it.  I go to the chapel, and just pray.  And if I can't pray, I just sit there and ask God to help me to pray.

And the second vaccine is like unto's love.  Nothing so quickly cures sloth as loving someone, especially someone who you don't expect to love you back.  Sometimes a good antidote to sloth is going to see your brother seminarian who has been having such a hard time lately...or going to that soup kitchen you've always wondered about....or leaving early for your apostolate...or just plain seeking out someone who needs to be loved and loving them.

As a parish priest I always found Saturdays to be the toughest day of the week.  You'd sprinkle them with meetings, start with a morning Mass and maybe a wedding, and with seeming inevitability, the odd funeral or two.  Then, as you're trying to polish your homily (and sometimes, polishing was a euphemism for starting) you'd be watching the clock for the start time of confessions.   And a big wet blanket of sloth would start to surround you.  

How can I sit I that box for an hour when I haven't finished my homily.  I'm so exhausted and the fan doesn't work and it's hot and stuffy in there.  And...a thousand other reasons why I'd rather take a nap than hear confessions.

But you know something, as predictably as the slothful temptations were...each time I'd go sit in that confessional, I'd slide over that little creaking door and hear "bless me Father for I have sinned, it's been nineteen years since I've been to confession...."bless me Father for I have sinned, I just don't know what to do..."bless me Father for I have sinned, I don't think God loves me anymore...."bless me Father for I have sinned, I can't pray anymore...

And the wet blanket of sloth would suddenly disappear, replaced by a warm feeling of being needed, and tears running down my cheeks.


Ambition, Snarky cynicism, and sloth...

Three diseases we're particularly susceptible to, just as crummy as the flu
.....and good friends, confession and love: three vacines which they don't sell at CVS.

God bless you.

Monsignor James P. Moroney