The full Saint John's Seminary Faculty met this afternoon and then enjoyed pre-prandials and dinner. Here is an excerpt of the remarks I delivered to the plenary session.
Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis
Reflections on paragraph 94
Finally, allow me to conclude my update this afternoon with a brief reflection on what the ratio says the human formation of a seminarian should be about and what role we should play in that “journey of transformation” (43) which is the Seminary experience, drawn from paragraph 94 of that document.
In the psychological sphere the Ratio envisions forming a man who is psychologically stable, with a well formed conscience and a balanced sense of self-respect.
Allow me to reflect briefly on each of these three goals in the human formation of a Priest for service as a parish priest today.
First, a stable personality. The ratio describes such a person as emotionally balanced with a good sense of self-control and a well integrated sexuality.
The opposite of which, it seems to me to be sloth. And, even in a Seminary, there's a lot of 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 priests and seminarians are 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.
It’s manifested in all kinds of ways: in seminarians 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 on their door,.
There are, however, two vaccines for the sloth virus: prayer and love. Prayer, which is, quite simply, talking to Jesus. It really hasn't changed in its essentials since we 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. Prayer is the first antidote to sloth.
And the second vaccine is like unto prayer...it'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 the feeling of tears running down my cheeks.
And then there is the second goal of human formation in a Seminary: a morally well formed conscience. Is he able to make the right decision? Doe he general exercise right judgement? Is he able to objectively perceive persons and events?
The opposite of which, it seems to be is ambition, where everything is about me and nothing is really about anything or anyone else.
Pope Benedict spoke beautifully of this 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-fulfillment 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 made me a Prelate of Honor five years ago. It's really cool wearing that 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 clerical ambition? 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 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.
And, finally, there is a balanced sense of self-respect and a capacity for social interaction.
The opposite of which, I would suggest is cynicism. Now, sadly, the snarky smirk of the clerical cynic is never very far away. It’s one of Satan’s most successful temptations in the clerical world. It starts innocently enough, as a venting of frustration at all those things I cannot control. And then it grows into something quite ugly at a fairly rapid rate.
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 Damocles hanging continually over your head!
Thus the seminarian is constantly faced with the very real question: what do I do with the surplus of fear, resentment, and suspicion which grows from living under such a microscope?
Too often the answer is giving in to 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 about me which Christ and his Church are asking me to change or let go of, I am tempted to 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, I must admit, I have been quoting from things I heard and said when I was in Seminary, forty years ago. But I would not be surprised if the walls of this holy house 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 for a seminarian 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 of a seminarian with his friends who know enough not to take you too seriously.... is replaced by a consistent attitude of cynical snarkiness...when he really starts to believe that the stuff he’s saying...then he has caught a disease which has destroyed too many priests' souls and rotted away the virtue and integrity of too many of our brothers. Then, the seminarian is in trouble. And he needs help.
You've probably met a few clerical victims of this disease by now...guys who are more intent on gossip than on the truth, on tearing down than building up, on 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 know 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.
So, that’s what we aim to do, dear colleagues, whether in the classroom or the corridors: we aim to build these seminarians up into bridges to Christ. We teach them theology and philosophy and all kinds of pastoral skills. But our most important work is in forming them as human beings who are stable, morally sound and capable of effective social interaction,.
We do that by what we say, in lectures, homilies, conferences and meetings one-on-one. But we do it most of all by who we are, as stable, morally sound and socially effective agents of the Gospel.
And thus I thank you, not just for what you do, but who you are for these men. May the Lord bless you for it a hundred fold as you form shepherds after his own heart.