Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"Service": The new and only name for "power" Jesus gave his disciples

Power is an ambiguous reality. Exercised in and by the church throughout history, it has brought with it tremendous good as well as enormous suffering, pain, destruction, and yes, evil. No age in the history of the Christian community has been spared from its fortunate as well as unfortunate effects. This is perhaps the reason Christ, Scripture tell us, “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7), and commanded his church to speak another language. This is also why before commanding his disciples to preach the Good News in Matt. 28:18, Jesus reminds them first that “all power in heaven and on earth” had now been given to him (and to him alone). He also chose to give it a different name altogether when exercised by his followers. (Mk. 9:35) He called it ‘service’.

This isn’t ‘power for the sake of service’, nor is it ‘service exercised in and through power’. These are modifications and distortions of the simple and straightforward Gospel message by what became an imperialistic medieval Christianity whose claim to fame are the bloodbaths of the crusades and the torture and burning of countless souls. There’s can be no ‘power interpretation’ here. Christ called it ‘service’, period. And one who doesn’t get that is no different from James and John, and pretty much the rest of the disciples who, at one point, couldn’t understand that Jesus did away with the language of power once and for all. Of course, not all ‘couldn’t’ understand; some simply ‘wouldn’t’. And the spectacle of individuals throughout the church’s history who sought to ‘qualify’ or ‘modify’ Christ’s statement in order to accommodate ‘power interpretations’ is proof of this.

Consider Judas, supposedly the most intelligent of the disciples. Scripture scholars tell us that Judas most likely knew in his heart of hearts that Jesus was the Messiah. More than any in Jesus’ ‘inner circle’, he was the one who was most convinced that this carpenter was indeed the savior Israel was waiting for. Why otherwise would such a bright and clever man choose to follow a nobody? But more than any disciple as well, Judas was the one who not only failed to comprehend the kind of ‘power’ Jesus preached, he was also the one who refused to do so. And so began his effort to ‘qualify’ and ‘modify’ Christ’s message—according to his own interpretation. It was in fact Judas’ belief in what had become for him a ‘distorted’ understanding of Christ’s version of ‘power’ that led him to commit that fatal mistake.

We must not imagine Judas’ betrayal as a mere act of hatred towards his master, even if this might seem logical given the rebuke he receives from Jesus earlier on in the gospels (Matt. 26:6). It is rather, very possible that Judas, realizing that Jesus would never go the route of power as he understood it, resorted to something more drastic, something that in his mind, would force the hand of God to reveal to the world, once and for all, that this man Jesus was his Son, the all-powerful Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. If an act of betrayal would cause God’s only-begotten to suffer in the hands of the unrighteous, and if that would lead to the Almighty coming down with all his might and fury at the tormentors of his Son, then Judas was willing to take the chance and betray Christ—anything to once and for all show to the world, the might that he was convinced Jesus always had.

Sadly, Judas miscalculated, and in despair took his own life. Jesus would never go the way of power, especially not in the way the world had understood and wielded it. Judas got it all wrong. For the Incarnation, the kenosis or “self-emptying” of God represented the death-blow to power; and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ was the final act in the drama whereby power, though it continued to wield its influence in the world and its allure among men, would have forever been defeated. Christ’s death on the cross is the Father’s final ‘stamp’ in the saga of power’s demise and the ultimate affirmation that from hereon, the way of the “suffering servant” is the only way:

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”. (Mk 8:34)

Judas, however, wasn’t the only one. Neither was Peter, the ‘prince of the apostles’, an easy convert to Jesus’ understanding of power as ‘service’. Peter would hear none of the suffering Christ would endure (Matt. 16:32), and had flat-out rejected Jesus’ offer to wash his feet. He probably thought it unbecoming of a leader to stoop down and wash dirty feet (Jn 13:6). But Jesus was clear about it. Rebuking Peter in the gospel of Matthew for putting an “obstacle” on his way (Matt. 16:23), he lays down in very clear terms, for his disciples and all his future followers, the way power was to be understood from hereon:

“Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him”.
(Jn. 13:12-16)

‘Service’ is the only genuinely Christian way of understanding power, there is no other. We on our part, however, have often reduced Christ’s action to a ‘symbol’—like the washing of his disciples’ feet on Holy Thursday—that we fail to see how literal it was and how ‘non-symbolic’ is the demand attached. Service isn’t a ‘symbolic act’ done in order to merely recall Jesus’ action two thousand years ago. Service is a ‘real’ and ‘literal’ act expected of a Christian, especially a priest, in order to continue Jesus’ two-thousand-year old action, making it present in every age. Service is no after-thought, no icing on the cake, no mere sugar-coating. Service is what we are, or at least what we as followers of Jesus ought to be about.

Service is the only language of “power” those who wish to follow in the footsteps of Christ ought to use, for it was the only language Jesus himself employed. And self-effacement is the only acceptable response to the inevitable interpretation that the world will give to the service that we render—for the world can’t do otherwise. It will call our service, ‘power’, or ‘influence’, at times ‘clout’ or ‘importance’. At other times it will entice us with the thought that has entered the minds of a not a few well-meaning churchmen: that it’s perfectly alright to seek power as long as we seek to use it for good as well. Perhaps the unspoken idea is that it’s better to have it than not, for by having it, one can use it for doing good.

I was once talking to a fellow-priest (a friend from seminary in Belgium) who was so happy he was being given a new ‘title’—for him an obvious promotion. “This isn’t only a personal honor”, he told me when I asked why he seemed so delighted at the prospect, “this is also an opportunity for me to make use of the position and the title to further my pastoral plans and projects for the church. It’s not just for me, it’s for the people I’m serving as well”. Knowing he was a good man, I kept silent, inclined with all my heart to believe him and wish him well as he embarked on what I knew was going to be a dangerous and tricky game. In my mind meanwhile, a phrase I remembered from literature class in seminary kept repeating itself:
“He who sups with the devil must use a long spoon”.

Power is a corrupting reality. On rare occasions perhaps, and with the rarest of men, it may fail to do so. Think of Pope John XXIII, for instance. There was a man who understood quite well Christ’s warning about power. But how many among us can withstand its corruptions once it becomes ours? Mind you, Jesus himself said a very clear ‘no’ to it, right from the start. The temptation story in Matthew 4:1-11, as the theologian Bernard Harring says,
“totally unmasks the satanic temptations to use religion for the sake of utility, self-exaltation, and earthly power; and it reveals these temptations to be in direct opposition to the vocation of the Servant-Messiah”.

In his book Priesthood Imperiled, Häring tells an interesting event at the end of Vatican II:

“At the Second Vatican Council, warnings against Church triumphalism were frequently sounded. At the very last session, several cardinals, patriarchs, bishops, and some theologians, including myself, were gathered to discuss a final proposal to the Council, and it was this: We had planned that the Council Fathers should not return to their respective dioceses without first having solemnly pledged apostolic poverty and, above all, apostolic simplicity by renouncing all antievangelical titles... Several hundred bishops were ready for this step. However, time was pressing, and the proposal never came to pass”.

One can’t help but wonder what the church would be like if things had turned out differently, if what Häring relates came to pass. But that’s all wishful thinking now. What is certain is that we all have a long way to go in living out the ‘new understanding of power’ which Jesus had inaugurated, spoken in the plain and unadulterated language of self-effacing service that says simply, “I serve. All power belongs to Christ”. We have but to remind ourselves of what Paul and Barnabas did at Lystra when those who saw them heal a cripple wanted to offer them gifts and sacrifices, thinking they were gods (Acts 14:9-18). The pair refused the adulation, telling everyone that they were no different from them, and then pointing to God as the source of their good deed. (Acts 14:15)

The desire for power in whatever shape or form is a betrayal of Christ crucified. It’s a betrayal of the Christ who was baptized by John in the Jordan. It’s a betrayal of the Christ who washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. It’s a betrayal of the Christ who refused Satan’s offer of power in the desert. Make no mistake about it, and do not think that there can be a justification for seeking it. Calling it ‘responsibility’ doesn’t work, nor does saying that with it one can ‘do more’ for the church. And neither does piously declaring it to be a ‘burden one does not seek but which was merely placed on one’s shoulder’ make it more palatable. True discipleship consists in service, minus the trappings of power, honor, prestige, and popularity. Incidentals you call them? Then we can do away with them. They don’t belong to the substance and essence of what we are and what we’re supposed to be about anyway. There’s only one kind of ‘power’ that sits well with the Christ of the Gospels, its name is ‘service’. It has no other.

Strive, even in seminary therefore, to rid your minds of any possible ‘qualification’, ‘modification’, or ‘personal interpretation’ of the message of Jesus who came “to serve and not to be served” (Matt. 20:28). Instead, take the plain words of Christ literally, and take it to heart. There are some instances in which we must simply allow the plain and simple voice of Scripture to speak to us, with no attempt at dissembling. And the admonition to service is clearly one of those instances. Jesus’ rejection of the devil’s temptations in the desert is proof of it. One who seeks to follow in his footsteps must not only avoid actively seeking power and authority, he must not even think about it, especially not when he thinks of the service he is asked to render. This isn’t easy. But it has to be done. We must not deceive ourselves; it is best to steer clear of power, even the thought of it. Do not even contemplate what you would do if you were given the position “without seeking it or working for it”. This is idle thinking, and idle minds are the devil’s workplaces. Just free your mind of such thoughts and when they do enter your heads, banish them as quickly as you can. Remember, “He who sups with the devil must use a long spoon”. “Serve”, that’s all that Jesus asks us to do.

Monday, September 22, 2008

“I shall not harm.” (THE PRIEST AS PHYSICIAN OF SOULS)

The Hippocratic Oath, traditionally taken by physicians, believed to have been written by Hippocrates in the 4th century B.C., and (in a modern form), is still taken by students graduating from medicine today. (The modern translation is at the end of this article.)

Ὄμνυμι Ἀπόλλωνα ἰητρὸν, καὶ Ἀσκληπιὸν, καὶ Ὑγείαν, καὶ Πανάκειαν, καὶ θεοὺς πάντας τε καὶ πάσας, ἵστορας ποιεύμενος, ἐπιτελέα ποιήσειν κατὰ δύναμιν καὶ κρίσιν ἐμὴν ὅρκον τόνδε καὶ ξυγγραφὴν τήνδε.
Ἡγήσασθαι μὲν τὸν διδάξαντά με τὴν τέχνην ταύτην ἴσα γενέτῃσιν ἐμοῖσι, καὶ βίου κοινώσασθαι, καὶ χρεῶν χρηίζοντι μετάδοσιν ποιήσασθαι, καὶ γένος τὸ ἐξ ωὐτέου ἀδελφοῖς ἴσον ἐπικρινέειν ἄῤῥεσι, καὶ διδάξειν τὴν τέχνην ταύτην, ἢν χρηίζωσι μανθάνειν, ἄνευ μισθοῦ καὶ ξυγγραφῆς, παραγγελίης τε καὶ ἀκροήσιος καὶ τῆς λοιπῆς ἁπάσης μαθήσιος μετάδοσιν ποιήσασθαι υἱοῖσί τε ἐμοῖσι, καὶ τοῖσι τοῦ ἐμὲ διδάξαντος, καὶ μαθηταῖσι συγγεγραμμένοισί τε καὶ ὡρκισμένοις νόμῳ ἰητρικῷ, ἄλλῳ δὲ οὐδενί.
Διαιτήμασί τε χρήσομαι ἐπ' ὠφελείῃ καμνόντων κατὰ δύναμιν καὶ κρίσιν ἐμὴν, ἐπὶ δηλήσει δὲ καὶ ἀδικίῃ εἴρξειν.
Οὐ δώσω δὲ οὐδὲ φάρμακον οὐδενὶ αἰτηθεὶς θανάσιμον, οὐδὲ ὑφηγήσομαι ξυμβουλίην τοιήνδε. Ὁμοίως δὲ οὐδὲ γυναικὶ πεσσὸν φθόριον δώσω. Ἁγνῶς δὲ καὶ ὁσίως διατηρήσω βίον τὸν ἐμὸν καὶ τέχνην τὴν ἐμήν.
Οὐ τεμέω δὲ οὐδὲ μὴν λιθιῶντας, ἐκχωρήσω δὲ ἐργάτῃσιν ἀνδράσι πρήξιος τῆσδε.
Ἐς οἰκίας δὲ ὁκόσας ἂν ἐσίω, ἐσελεύσομαι ἐπ' ὠφελείῃ καμνόντων, ἐκτὸς ἐὼν πάσης ἀδικίης ἑκουσίης καὶ φθορίης, τῆς τε ἄλλης καὶ ἀφροδισίων ἔργων ἐπί τε γυναικείων σωμάτων καὶ ἀνδρῴων, ἐλευθέρων τε καὶ δούλων.
Ἃ δ' ἂν ἐν θεραπείῃ ἢ ἴδω, ἢ ἀκούσω, ἢ καὶ ἄνευ θεραπηίης κατὰ βίον ἀνθρώπων, ἃ μὴ χρή ποτε ἐκλαλέεσθαι ἔξω, σιγήσομαι, ἄῤῥητα ἡγεύμενος εἶναι τὰ τοιαῦτα.
Ὅρκον μὲν οὖν μοι τόνδε ἐπιτελέα ποιέοντι, καὶ μὴ ξυγχέοντι, εἴη ἐπαύρασθαι καὶ βίου καὶ τέχνης δοξαζομένῳ παρὰ πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις ἐς τὸν αἰεὶ χρόνον. παραβαίνοντι δὲ καὶ ἐπιορκοῦντι, τἀναντία τουτέων.

A literal translation of the oath reads:

I swear by Apollo, Asclepius, Hygieia, and Panacea, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath.
To consider dear to me, as my parents, him who taught me this art; to live in common with him and, if necessary, to share my goods with him; To look upon his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art.
I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.
To please no one will I prescribe a deadly drug nor give advice which may cause his death.
But I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts.
I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.
In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or with men, be they free or slaves.
All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.
If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practice my art, respected by all men and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my lot.

* * * * *

There is a very ancient image of the priest which patterns itself after the identity of Jesus as healer. Ancient Christians understood Christ’s role as “savior”—soter in Greek and salvator in Latin—in terms of carrying God’s healing and life-giving balm. Jesus is the one who brings health and wholeness to a broken and sinful world. (The English word “salve” is itself derived from salvus which means “healing”.) In line with this thinking, the priest as an alter Christus is seen as one who mends broken hearts, heals hurting souls, and applies God’s soothing balm on pained and wounded lives. He is a “doctor of souls”.

The person of Jesus is the source of healing for the Christian, and conformation to his ‘image’ by means of imitation is the key element in the process. Jesus is the ‘image’ or ‘icon’ of the Father, the highest manifestation of God’s love for our fallen and broken world and his pledge of healing for souls that bear the wounds of sinful humanity. The Incarnation is the ultimate proof of God’s healing love, the ‘door’ through which one who desires his life to be made ‘whole’ passes. A person who is conformed to Christ, the Incarnation of God, also finds his life transformed from one that is shattered and fragmented to one that has become ‘whole’ and now has room for growth and enlargement.

Just as Jesus is the ‘icon’, the revelation of the Father’s healing love, the priest likewise serves in an iconic capacity—mirroring for the people to whom he ministers, the image of Christ, in much the same way as the bronze serpent crafted by Moses in the desert healed all those who looked upon it. There’s a certain ‘representationality’, even ‘sacramentality’ that’s going on here. For the priest is precisely that—a ‘representation’, ‘image’, ‘symbol’, ‘sacrament’, and ‘reminder’ of who and what Jesus is.

A priest’s very existence is encompassed and defined by such a relationship. In this relationship we find the essence of his healing ministry; apart from it he is a hollowed-out shell, able not to heal, but to harm. For just as the serpents in the desert poisoned and killed the Israelites, and it was the power of God, not the bronze serpent that healed those who were dying, so it is the person and the power of Jesus and not the priest, that heals the sorrowing heart.

It is important that our being healers in the image of Christ begin as early as our days in seminary. It happens when we strive to mirror to one another, Christ’s unconditional love and acceptance for us. Despite the relative comfort afforded by seminary life, there is much in seminary that causes pain and difficulty. The close proximity by which we live with one another and go about our daily business of formation sometimes gets the better of us. We sometimes tend to forget that we are in formation to approximate day by day, the loving, accepting, caring, and compassionate person of Jesus Christ. Patience with one another, tolerance, understanding, charity in speech, a thoughtfulness and concern that constantly anticipates the needs of those we live with, these are only some of the means by which we can gradually grow into the healing persons that priests are called to be.

However, just as there are ways by which we can imbibe the healing character of Christ, there are also ways by which we can not only lose it, but actually act against it. “I shall do no harm”—medical doctors make this ancient oath of Hippocrates, the father of medicine, reminding them of both their responsibility to heal, but also of the possibility that they can in fact end up hurting people instead of healing them, and destroying lives instead of building them up.

The Hippocratic Oath is a recognition that even a healer can in fact cause pain if he isn’t careful. And the difference between healing and wounding is sometimes defined not accidentally, but by a conscious choice on the physician’s part. The priest’s case, as a physician of the soul, is no different. For him, what spells the difference between causing pain and bringing healing to people, is a conscious choice to live, speak, and act never in himself, but in the person of Jesus the healer. Apart from this conscious choice, a priest can cause very great harm.

In this thoughts. A priest can cause harm when he fails to remember and recognize that he is not the source of his strength but Christ, that he is not the source of healing and therefore must not claim credit for himself, but always point to Christ as the sure foundation and ultimate purpose of his ministry. Failure to do so could lead him to wound others, because while they may find a temporary solution to their pains in him, this can only go so far, and ultimately, he fails to provide them with the complete and lasting healing of their wounds which only Jesus can give.

And he also wounds himself in the process, for when his personally-made solutions no longer help those he assists, he discovers in himself a yawning abyss and he is left with the most profound sense of ultimate uselessness and despair. He comes face to face with his nothingness. If Christ’s healing balm is not applied to this self-discovery, the priest enters into the downward spiral of self-destruction, dragging along the way, the lives of others he had originally intended to help. This is a tragedy of gigantic proportions, and priests must be careful that they do not enter into this path.
Pride comes before a fall.

In his words. When a priest loses sight of the intimate connectedness of his healing-work with the ultimate font of all healing—Jesus Christ—he begins to see himself and his ministry in a grossly exaggerated way. He becomes proud, vain, even pompous. Worse, he can start seeing others in a most deprecatory light—as individuals who are utterly dependent on him, and therefore, of second-rate status to himself, who is the “star of the show”. He comes to see himself as the repository and oracle of truth and the final arbiter of what is right and good.

Instead of being a tender of God’s Word meant to console and comfort the weak and sorrowing, his words can become like sharp knives that cut through the already scarred flesh of those he now looks down upon as his inferiors. Instead of binding the wounds of those weaker than himself, he can sprinkle salt on them and heightens their agony. Instead of empowering the weak, he can make them even weaker by making them utterly dependent on him. He starts to find joy in the thought that “they can’t survive without me”. But surely they can survive without him! The world and the church have existed long before we are born, long before we were ordained, and they will continue in existence long after we are gone. Jesus saved the world two thousand years ago, the priest is not meant to duplicate this saving act.

In his actions. When a priest forgets that he is no more than an instrument, and not “the healer” himself, he loses sight of his true identity and value, and begins to build monuments to himself. The repository of his self-worth, once the deepest part of his being where he is intimate with Christ, is now found externally—in his projects, his building plans, his programs, his crusades, his ambitions, degrees, and titles. He ceases to be a “wounded healer”, but a “wounding” one, running roughshod on anyone who stands in the way of his work. His ministry and service become a show. The people he assists and serves become means to an end. And his priesthood degenerates into a hollowed-out shell, an empty temple at the altar of which is erected no longer Christ, but himself.

The Incarnation is the key to avoiding this trap and is the first step to a priest’s conformation to the image of Christ the healer. The Incarnation is at the heart of the iconic understanding of the healing work of the priest. Just as Jesus is the Incarnation of the Father’s love for a broken world, so the priest is called to be the Incarnation of this continuing love in every age. He is tasked with communicating, not his own message, but the message of love and salvation that is from Christ. But it’s a task that can only be carried out to the full if the priest has become empty in himself and full of Christ. Even for his task as doctor of souls, kenosis--the emptying of self--is for the priest, the order of the day.

This is not self-debasement, instead it is the discovery of the greatest source of self-worth there can ever be, namely, knowing that one is an instrument in the hand of the Great Physician himself. It is the confidence wrought by knowing that I belong to Christ and am an extension of his healing work begun two thousand years ago and continues to this day.

* * * * *

Modern Version of the Oath taken by Graduates of Medicine Today:

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug.I will not be ashamed to say "I know not," nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient's recovery.I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

Text of the Modern Version written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University, and used in many medical schools today.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

THE PRIEST AS A "MAN FOR OTHERS"

There are many good and wonderful things that one learns in the years he spends in seminary. There is much growth, development, and personal improvement that one experiences through the many programs, activities, assessments and tasks that the seminary provides. In many ways, a seminary ‘pulls’ and ‘stretches’ a student in all sorts of directions in order to see how much of his potential can be realized—all for his personal good as well as the good of the church.

Good seminary programs are structured in a way that would allow those passing through them to become well-rounded, mature, and intelligent young men who will one day become effective ministers of the church. Do not wonder then if at times you would feel yourselves seemingly ‘swamped’ with a thousand-and-one things to do or attend to in seminary. And avoid as much as possible, the temptation to complain too much that you can no longer seem “to find time” for yourselves. Believe me, it’s early training, and good too. For when you do get ordained, one of the things you’ll discover you have to live with and accept, and later on appreciate perhaps, is the fact that there will really be very little time for yourself. Your day will be largely filled with activities, some of which you yourself arrange, but many still will be arranged for you by others.

Naturally, you will be expected to learn to keep everything ‘balanced’ as you go through it all. This means that as a seminarian now and later on as a priest, it is the expectation that while you will know how to set aside time for yourself: for prayer, rest and relaxation, reading and study, for a hobby here and there, the greater portion of your time will still be spent “laboring in the vineyard”, where there is indeed much to be done. While we must never neglect our personal needs—otherwise we risk frustration and burnout—the fact remains that as priests, God’s people come first. However good, effective, and efficient we might be as priests, our first and utmost priority must always be the service we render people, whatever shape or form that might take in our day-to-day living out of our ministry.

People come first. They always come first, within reasonable limits of course. But this statement, more than simply telling us that we should do as much good as we can for others, is actually an invitation to consider why in fact a priest (and a student preparing to become one) does the service that he does. And the answer is really very simple: that’s what a priest is. He’s “a man for others”. Take away all the trappings and peripherals that often hide who we are and what we do, strip away the layers of degrees and honors and positions that “come with the territory” and you will get to what is really the heart and core of what a priest is meant to be.

Living for others is a priest’s calling. In fact that’s what (hopefully) attracted him to the priesthood to begin with. And living for others was most probably one of the initial reasons we chose to be in seminary in the first place. It was for us, the first articulation of the reason behind what to other people may have been an incomprehensible decision: to want to become a priest. It may have been no more than a vague “feeling” or “desire” on our part, but that’s what was most definitely there at the initial stage of our journey in formation. And seminaries are meant to be environments where that initial, and often vague and uncertain “feeling” of wanting to “live for others” is nurtured, directed, and concretized through the different programs that take care of your intellectual, spiritual, communal, personal, social, and pastoral formation.

So as you can see, “living for others” is the raison-d’etre of everything we do in seminary from the very first thing you do when we get up in the morning, to the last prayer we say before retiring at night. The “other” is the ever-present glue that holds together our entire life as a seminarian and as a priest. The desire to “live for others” is also the ever-present spirit that should direct all our efforts, activities, and goals in seminary formation. Seminary students are young men who are being formed to be “other-centered” persons. As priests, this orientation towards others is absolutely indispensable in living our calling as ministers of the gospel and servants of Christ’s flock. There is simply no alternative.

In our concrete day-to-day life in seminary, however, it is sometimes difficult to fully understand or even be reminded of this. How in fact does living in seminary make one a “man-for-others”? Do not imagine this to be an easily answered question, for we know only too well that while the seminary tries to train us in generosity, hospitality, and service-orientedness, there is also much in seminary that can make us turn too much towards ourselves. How many seminarians become, over the years, seemingly too involved, preoccupied, and concerned with themselves?

The ever-present admonition in seminary to “be mindful of oneself”—meaning to understand oneself, one’s strengths, weaknesses, sins, etc.—is meant for our good. The constant reminder to us to look into our hearts and souls is meant, we are told, to “purify one’s intentions” and rid us slowly of things in us that do not befit a future minister of the church. But like any good thing in this world, there is also a ‘downside’ to this admonition, and that is it could degenerate into unnecessary ‘navel-gazing’ and an introspection that loses touch with its original goal—to rid oneself of the ‘self’ in order to live for others.

This exercise in the seminary contains a tremendous paradox—going into oneself in order to lose that very self so that one can live no longer for himself but for others. And it is precisely because of this paradox that we can get waylaid at times and forget that “going into oneself” is meant to allow us to “lose that very self” eventually. But it doesn’t happen for everybody, and despite outward appearances and talk about “living for others” and “serving others”, they remain mired in concern for the self. Be careful then, and be awake to the dangers inherent in analyzing yourself, however well-intended such activity might be, for you may lose yourself in the labyrinth of selfhood and never get out.

“The unexamined life is not worth living”, said Socrates thousands of years ago. While agreeing with the father of western philosophy, however, we must also add: “The overly-examined life is not worth living either”. For the basic nature of the human being—actually of all created things—is to live “outside oneself”. Remember those worn-out truisms about us being “social animals”, and that “no-man-is-an-island”? Well, they’re more than just truisms. They’re an articulation of a basic fact of all life. We only find our true self by losing it, and although losing it initially requires us to immerse ourselves in an understanding of it, we must never forget that this initial immersion is no more than a means to a ‘selfless’ end. It’s never the final point of the exercise. Kenosis, the Greek word for the “self-emptying” activity whereby God incarnated himself as one of us, must always remain the pattern of a seminarian’s life, now and later on as a priest.

These ideas do sound high and abstract: kenosis, self-emptying, other-orientation. Too lofty, they seem most difficult to reach, which is probably why most either give up somewhere along the way, or simply reject it as too naïve and idealistic a goal. It really isn’t though. In fact it’s quite readily achievable, but it does take constant practice, and it requires consistency. How? Through what we can call “the art of being thoughtful”. You see, thoughtfulness is a virtue so simple, and yet so rare, especially in our society and world today where people seem too preoccupied with personal needs, wants, worries and concerns.

Thoughtfulness is the key to steering a middle-ground between being consistently mindful of our selves and the need to be constantly on guard against the danger inherent to it. Thoughtfulness is what can enable us to live the “examined life” and the “other-oriented life” at the same time. And it is an art, which means it isn’t something we naturally become. While even the human (and some natural sciences) today tell us that our very nature as individuals is “socially-oriented”, that’s just a seed. Nurturing it requires a lot of effort on our part, a daily, even hourly effort. Concretely, this means “thinking of the other person” first, putting the other person first, caring for and loving the other person first, with the firm realization that only in this way do we then manage to genuinely know and love ourselves. I do remember one of my professors in seminary saying that to us. “Live for the other”, he said, “it’s the only true way of living for your self”.

When you get up in the morning, put yourself into that mode of thinking by telling yourself “I will do good to and for someone today. I will actively seek out persons to help and support. I won’t wait for people to come to me seeking my assistance. I won’t be nosy, but I will look for good deeds to do”. And throughout the rest of the day, do not only seek out good things to do for others, be mindful as well of how your actions, decisions, and choices affect them. This doesn’t mean that others will determine what you will decide, choose, or do, but it does mean that others—and your “thoughtfulness” of them—will become a genuine ingredient in what you do, eventually leading to a situation whereby “thoughtfulness of the other” becomes a genuine ingredient in who and what you are.

Friday, September 19, 2008

LOVING THOSE WHOM WE OFTEN PASS BY (Homily for Friday, Sept. 19, 2008, 24th Week in Ordinary Time)

“Jesus journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources”. (Luke 8:1-3)

* * * * *

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, shelo asani ishah.

These are lines from the ancient Aleinu, a prayer Jewish males during the time of Jesus would pray every morning. Translated, the line means:

"Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who did not make me a woman."

Imagine that! There’s nothing surprising about the prayer though (and I must add that Judaism has in fact reformulated the prayer so that the negative reference to women is no longer included in the Aleinu’s contemporary form.)

Still, there’s no denying that women during Jesus’ time were regarded as ‘inferior’ to men—on so many levels. And this wasn’t just the case with the Jews. Their neighbors, the Greeks and Romans were no different. Plato and Aristotle, for instance, regarded women as “inferior by nature”, and insisted that women came about as a “degeneration of human beings”. Aristotle went as far as to call them “infertile males”.

Jewish rabbis would not normally have women tagging along with them, especially not as followers or disciples. In fact associating with women openly in public was something that was simply frowned upon. Remember that encounter Jesus had with the Samaritan women at Jacob’s well? When Jesus asked her for a drink, her reply was: “How could you, a man and a Jew, be asking me, a Samaritan and a woman, for a drink? She didn’t simply say “Samaritan”; she had to add “woman” to that.

Or recall the gospel reading from yesterday (Luke 7:36-50), when Simon the Pharisee was simply scandalized that this prophet and holy man who had come to his house was allowing this sinful woman to bathe his feet in perfume and tears and wipe them with her hair. “If this man were a prophet,he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him”, declares the horrified Pharisee.

And yet that is precisely what Jesus did. He didn’t only associate with these second-rate members of his society, he even welcomed them in his group—as today’s gospel reading tells us.

When I first entered seminary many years ago, I was asked to be part of a group of students who served at the cardinal archbishop of Manila’s masses. It was fun as we got to meet a lot of people—usually archbishops, cardinals, and bishops, and we got to go wherever the cardinal went. We also got to skip classes whenever there was a service and we were needed. (That was probably one of the things I enjoyed he most!)

One time, I was loading the seminary van with the things we needed for a mass. One of the boxes was a little too heavy and I was having problems lifting it up. A student, George, who saw me came running and offered to help. “Where’s the mass this time?” he asked. “At the cathedral…the cardinal of Cologne is visiting and we have to serve at his mass”, I replied. “Must be great to serve at the cardinal’s masses”, George said. “Sure. Haven’t you served at any of them?” George suddenly became quiet, and then replied: “I doubt I’ll get to serve at any of them. I’m not presentable enough”. I didn’t really understand what he meant by that. I do remember George being a very short and rather overweight kid who had sort of a hunched posture. I figured that’s what he meant.

I totally forgot about that conversation. A few years later, after I got my doctorate and was ordained, I began teaching in seminary. Now I’ve always liked having smart and intelligent students in class. Back then, however, I only had time for them. If there were four or five very bright students in class, I would often allow them to ‘monopolize’ pretty much the whole conversation in the classroom. Sometimes without my realizing it, I was actually talking only to them. I was paying so much attention to the bright ones, I didn’t realize I was neglecting the other students.

One day, Albert, one of the older priests in the seminary who’s like this grandfather-figure to everybody called me aside and said to me: “I need to tell you something. You know, one of your students came to me. He was rather sad and disappointed because he thought you were only interested in the bright students in your class. He said he really liked your class but didn’t feel you were giving him and the others enough attention.”

Suddenly, I remember that conversation I had with George many years ago. How could I be so blind? I had gotten so interested in my smart students and had totally neglected the others who weren’t as bright and articulate.

You see, it’s far easier to like smart people, pleasant people, presentable people, and nice people. It’s far more difficult to like all the others who aren’t. Just as in Jesus’ time, women, children, tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, lepers, the poor, and the outcasts were neglected and often forgotten, so it is in our time.

The actions of Jesus in today’s gospel challenge us all. When we become priests, are we going to treat with greater concern and deference those who are smart, wealthy, presentable, pleasant? Or are we going to have what the late Pope John Paul called a “preferential love" for the poor, the needy, the outcasts, the difficult, the not-so-smart, the not-so-presentable, and all those who are often passed by because they are not easy to like and to love?

Jesus cast his lot with those at the margins. Today he challenges us to do the same.

"Run, jump, shout. But do not sin". - Saint John Bosco, Patron of the Youth

Our religion, our faith is one of joy, of liberation, of strength of courage, of the attitude that says “with God nothing is impossible” (Lk 1:37). It is a religion that seeks to make us happy in this life and hopeful for the next. Suffering, pain, oppression, weakness and disappointment have value only in so far as they can be transformed into instruments or pointers to the joy that comes after. Good Friday is valuable because a Christian knows that there is going to be an Easter. “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your victory, o death where is your sting?” (I Cor 15:54-55) Death is not the final word. Life is. Suffering and pain are not the promised lot to those who believe. No, it is happiness and joy. As such, Paul is able to declare: “With Christ we are more than conquerors” (Rom 8:37).

Put in very simple terms, God wants you to be happy. He is not an isolated God, untouched and unmoved by our plight. Nor is he a vengeful God who seeks only that he be placated by our suffering and pain. We must—and here we have to somewhat agree with Nietzsche—disabuse ourselves of that “nonsense”. It is what keeps people weak, and it gives religion a bad name when it wrongly stresses that suffering is always good and life is misery and pain. No. Life is joy, and victory over sin. Our vocation is one of happiness and fulfillment in Christ. And seminary is not a miserable place to be in, where one must live in constant fear that he might be having too much fun and thus is possibly committing a sin.

“Run, jump, shout”, says St. John Bosco, the great modern apostle to the youth. And then adds, “but do not sin”. Seminary life should be a true celebration of vocation, an explosion of joy at being called by God, and humility at finding the heart to respond to that grace. Seminary formation should be a joyful and generous outpouring of oneself to the stirring of divine grace in the hearts of young men who have reached deep inside their souls, and found a calling to lead others to the joy they have experienced, and who cannot help but reach out to a God who has so lovingly called them to give themselves in trust to his invitation that they follow him to a land unknown, with nothing more than the promise that he shall be with them every step of the way.

The words of God addressed to the prophet Jeremiah are also addressed to the young men he has called and who have responded to his gracious invitation: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you” (Jer 1:5) These are not words of privilege or predilection, rather they are words that manifest the great tenderness and care that God has for those whom he has chosen to serve him. In seminary we are often told to have faith and trust in God because “the one who has called us will also see to it that we are provided with everything that we need”. What more can we ask for?

“Consider the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more important than they? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you?” (Matt 6:26-30)

It is trust in the love and providence of God that must lie at the foundation of your joy and happiness as seminarians. As priests, it should also be the source of our strength and consolation, not anything external to ourselves like our accomplishments, projects, degrees or titles. These are all ‘peripheral’ and ‘marginal’ to who and what we are as individuals called by God to a unique kind of relationship with him—a relationship so deep that he alone becomes the source of our happiness, our fulfillment, and personal worth.

As early as now therefore, strive to develop in yourself that sense of joy and happiness that should characterize the life of a faithful follower of Christ. This is the single greatest blessing you can share with those to whom you shall minister in the future. This is also what the “Good News” is all about. And we are meant to be its messengers. This does not mean that we shall never encounter difficulty, heartache, sorrow, or even tragedy in our lives. Those are “givens” of human existence. “All life is suffering”, is one of the most important teachings of Buddhism. But while there is much truth to it, and while it is important for us to realize the limitations of human life, it is also possible to take that idea to an unhealthy extreme.

Gipsy Smith, an American evangelist once said, “There are five gospels of Jesus Christ—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and you, the Christian. Many people will never read the first four”. For many people, the life that we as followers of Christ live, will be the greatest and perhaps the sole gospel or proclamation of Jesus’ message that they shall ever encounter. Would that what comes across to them is a message of joy, hope, and victory, and not one of defeat. This attitude, of course, is not necessarily something we’re born with, though some of us may have a sunnier disposition than others. Neither is it something that is learned overnight. Nor is it an attitude you pick up when the bishop lays his hands on you at ordination. Rather, it is something that we should imbibe, develop, and master while still in seminary. Call it “the art of being happy” or perhaps “the art of seeing the seminary as a place where one can be happy”.

John Bosco’s admonition to his youth, “Run, jump, shout, but do not sin”, should be the motto of every seminarian. Seminaries should not be places that form dour and sad-looking young men who walk around as if they were carrying the burden of life and existence on their shoulders. They’d end up dour and sad-looking priests later on. Parishioners don’t appreciate that. Seminaries should instead be places where young men live in an atmosphere of gratefulness to God for allowing them to be there, of profound joy and happiness at discerning and growing in God’s will, and of unshakeable trust and confidence that
“with God all things are possible”.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

THE PRIEST: A PRAYER ON A SUNDAY NIGHT (From: Michel Quoist, Prayers of Life, pp. 49-51.)

Tonight, Lord, I am alone.
Little by little the sounds died down in the church.
The people went away,
And I came home,
Alone.

I passed people who were returning from a walk.
I went by the cinema that was disgorging its crowd.
I skirted café terraces where tired strollers were trying
to prolong the pleasure of a Sunday holiday.
I bumped into youngsters playing on the footpath,
Youngsters, Lord,
Other people’s youngsters who will never be my own.

Here I am, Lord,
Alone.
The silence troubles me,
The solitude oppresses me.
Lord, I’m 35 years old,
A body made like others,
ready for work,
A heart meant for love,
But I’ve given you all.
It’s true of course, that you needed it.
I’ve given you all, but it is hard, Lord.
It’s hard to give one’s body; it would like to give itself to others.
It’s hard to love everyone and to claim no one.
It’s hard to shake a hand and not want to keep it.
It’s hard to inspire affection, only to give it to you.
It’s hard to be nothing to oneself in order to be everything to others.
It’s hard to be like others, among others, and be an other to them.
It’s hard always to give without trying to receive.
It’s hard to seek out others and to be oneself unsought.
It’s hard to be told secrets, and never be able to share them.
It’s hard to carry others and never, even for a moment, be carried.
It’s hard to sustain the feeble and never be able to lean on one
who is strong.
It’s hard to be alone,
Alone before everyone,
Alone before the world,
Alone before suffering,
death,
sin.

Son, you are not alone,
I am with you.
I am you.
For I needed another human vehicle to continue my Incarnation
and my Redemption.
Out of all eternity, I chose you.
I need you.

I need your hands to continue to bless,
I need your lips to continue to speak,
I need your body to continue to suffer,
I need your heart to continue to love,
I need you to continue to save,
Stay with me.

Here I am Lord,
Here is my body,
my heart,
my soul,
Grant that I may be big enough to reach the world,
Strong enough to carry it.
Pure enough to embrace it without wanting to keep it.

Grant that I may be a meeting-place, but a temporary one,
A road that does not end in itself, because everything to be gathered there,
everything human, must be led to you.

Lord, tonight, while all is still and I feel sharply the sting of solitude,
While people devour my soul and I feel incapable of satisfying their hunger,
While the world presses on my shoulders with all its weight
of misery and sin,
I repeat to you my “yes”—not in a burst of laughter, but slowly,
clearly, humbly,
Alone, Lord,
before you,
In the peace of the evening.

St. Paul's "all things for all people" doesn't mean "jack of all trades, master of none".

Modern science has come a long way because it developed two very important ways of looking at life: focus on the particular and specialization. Focusing on the particular has freed it from the chains of the medieval penchant for vague and general conclusions with little interest in careful observation and thoroughness in testing. This has allowed science to develop an arm that has entered the life of so many human beings today—technology. Specialization on the other hand has allowed it to study particular objects with a focus so fierce, scientists get to know them in their smallest detail. This results in a tremendous power of control and mastery over many things.

Because of specialization and particularity of focus, progress, development, and knowledge of the natural world have become synonymous with science itself. This has not only given science its tremendous respectability and made its success the envy of every other intellectual enterprise, it has also assured it of continued success and progress for generations to come.

Of course, there is also much that is undesirable to these ways of modern science. And we hear a lot about it, mostly from religious folks who decry its lack of ‘humanity’, it’s often disregard for what is ‘valuable’ and ‘sacred’ in life. We must also not fail to mention that the particularity and specialization which are science’s strengths are also its weak points, since they prevent it from seeing “the larger picture”, as well as the “meaning”, and “significance” of things (although we must add that these are really not its primary concern). Be that as it may, the fact remains that there is much that we can learn from the scientific way.

One of the things I found most disconcerting as a seminarian, and most counter-productive to formation when I got assigned to seminary, was the idea that one had to be good in everything. Don’t get me wrong, the church is absolutely right to insist that its future priests be “the best they can be” and develop as many talents as possible and be good in as many areas of ministry there are. Still one can also have too much of a good thing, and forcing oneself to be good in something one obviously doesn’t have a knack for is just as bad as insisting a priest who has no gift for working with young people, be assigned to work with them.

This doesn’t mean of course that students must ‘pigeon-holed’ in seminary, figuring out where one is good at and insisting he there without the possibility of exploring other possible areas of skill and talent. Part of the adventure of seminary life is precisely discovering as many gifts we have and realizing these as ways of preparing ourselves for the work of ministry in the future. The point therefore is not to close oneself to the possibility that there may be other areas that one can be good at, it is rather realizing that eventually, we shall have to settle on which of these areas we really wish to be good at, to be “experts” or “masters”.

Adrian Van Kaam, in his book “Religion and Personality”, says that the mature individual is one who realizes that while there are many areas of specialization and expertise he may choose to go into, there is really just one or two that he can finally opt to be truly good at in life. Part of growing up as a person is realizing that paths do need to be closed, not all roads need to be taken—simply because they can’t, and finally, that choice is really important, because it is what makes us realize what shape we would really like our life to have. Being good at a lot of things is important, especially for one preparing to be a priest one day. But being good at a lot of things must never preclude our being “extremely good” at one or two things, i.e., being a “master” of a particular domain of human interest or in our case, a specific area of ministry.
Are you interested in psychology, counseling, sociology, the natural sciences, philosophy, theology, human relations, management and administration, diplomacy, education, research? Are you interested in dogmatic or pastoral theology, liturgy, scriptures, homiletics and preaching, canon law, church history, music, art, moral theology? One can be many things as a priest and part of seminary formation involves allowing the student to discover his “area of interest”, which can later be transformed into his “area of expertise”. It represents a recognition of the human drive and desire not only for self-fulfillment but also for excellence, not for one’s sake simply, but especially for the sake of the church.

We must be, as St. Paul says, “all things to all people”. There is no denying that. But within that larger goal, it is not only possible, but very much advisable, that we find smaller goals or areas in which we can fulfill that deep-seated human longing to give the best of ourselves, to spend ourselves as much as we can in order to allow our spirit to burst free and join in the creative Spirit of God that continues to transform and renew the world by drawing upon the best in each human being. It is in this way that we can become true “instruments” in God’s hands.

It would be a sad day for the church if its pastors, especially one of its future ones—yourself—were to misunderstand Paul’s words and turn yourself into some kind of “jack of all trades, master of none”. It’s a sure recipe for spreading yourself out too thinly and then experiencing stress, disappointment, frustration, and burnout. It is also one of the chief culprits behind some priests’ inability to delegate some authority and responsibility to subordinates and lay people. Thinking that “the whole world rests on their shoulders” and living still in that worldview which says “Father knows all”, some of us become “micromanagers”, forgetting the all-important principle of subsidiarity in the church. [My old spiritual director used to constantly remind me: “You’re not meant to save the world. Jesus already did that two thousand years ago”. I believe he’s right.]

A priest who is a “jack of all trades, master of none” will have very little appreciation for the expertise of others, whether fellow-priests or laypeople. He will have a tendency to downplay the strengths of those around him or worse, feel such self-doubt that he will quash and stifle any possible leadership potential that may arise among his parishioners for instance. This could very well arise from feelings of fear and bitterness as the jack-of-all-trades priest sees others in the church taking on responsibilities that used to belong to priests alone. And since at one point practically everything did belong to the domain of the priest, he will more and more see the growing expertise especially of laypeople as an “encroachment” upon his traditionally held bailiwicks.

‘Letting-go’ and having confidence that others can be just as good, perhaps even better than himself at executing important tasks, is probably the biggest hurdle a jack-of-all-trades priest will have to face. Trust in God’s Spirit always at work in the world—in himself and others—is the most important virtue he needs to develop.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

WHAT GIFTS ARE YOU BRINGING TO THE CHURCH?

When I was assigned dean of men in seminary many years ago, I remember inviting the students to give trust and openness a chance in order that good things may result. And while it took a while for many of them to accept that invitation, it did come eventually; and while I was aware of how difficult it was for some, it was truly gratifying that by the time I was getting a new assignment, most of them had in fact found their way out of their shells and opened themselves up to the possibility that the priests who were assigned to form them really had their best interest in mind. To put it more simply, while it took a while before it actually happened, most if not all, of them eventually trusted that we were genuinely interested in them, and were not merely doing our job.

This calls to mind a conversation I had with my spiritual director in Louvain. Fr. Rick Friedrichs was a wonderful priest from Rhode Island, whose ways with us his students spoke very clearly of his care and concern for those he was guiding. At one of our meetings, during a pause in the conversation, I remember asking him a question which probably caught him by surprise, but which, I guess, didn’t really bother him. “Do you really care for your spiritual directees or are you just doing it because it’s your job?” I was afraid I had offended him by asking a question that seemed to suggest that I didn’t trust him enough. Always the perceptive guy however, Fr. Friedrichs must’ve sensed that I was asking a sincere question. “Both”, he said. “It is a job”, he added, “I wouldn’t deny that. But it’s not just a ‘job’. It’s what I do. I’m a spiritual director, and I love what I do, I like guiding, assisting, and caring for people very much. And you’re one of them”. His response was both sincere and real. I was to have a very similar conversation with one of my students in seminary years later.

That answer I got from my spiritual director—“loving what we do”—is a great way of bringing together the two sides of our concept of ‘vocation’. On the one hand, vocation is about God calling us, inviting and drawing us to him. But vocation is also about us responding to that invitation, of being attracted to God’s invitation, because of a seed that he has planted deep in our hearts. What exactly is this ‘seed’? In the first chapter of the gospel of John, we find what could well be a most profound way of understanding what this ‘seed’ is. Two of John the Baptist’s disciples begin following Jesus after the latter points to him as the “Lamb of God”. Out of a great curiosity, or a strong initial interest perhaps, they tail Jesus for a while, until he turns around, looks at them both and asks: “What are you looking for?” (Jn 1:38)

“What are you looking for?” A better sense-translation of the Greek, ti zeteite, would probably be “What do you want?” The Greek zetein— “to search”, means in a more profound sense, “to desire for something”. What Jesus was asking the two curious ones was in fact, what they “desired”—i.e., what they most eagerly wanted, what in their heart of hearts they longed for more than anything else. To which they respond of course, with a question that spoke of what was in their hearts: “Teacher, where do you stay?” It was a question that in effect meant, “We want to know you more. We want to know who you really are. Show us where you live. Take us there. Take us with you.” What is most interesting about this episode is that Jesus takes them with him, saying: “Come and see”. (Jn 1:39)

Desire is the force that powers the universe. We’re not talking about some superficial kind of ‘wanting’ here, like wanting to be wealthy or popular, or powerful. Nor does this kind of desire include in its scope, desire for what is obviously wrong and misguided. What we’re referring to instead is, knowing what one, in the “innermost core” of himself, earnestly seeks in life. We’re talking about vision and goal, of ultimate purpose. We’re talking about what we normally mean when we use language like “what I am called to do”, “what I would like to be”, “what shape I would like my life to take”. Just as Jesus’ question to the curious followers of the Baptist was the foundational question that led them to follow him more closely, so too is that question which God himself has planted deep in our hearts—“what do I so earnestly seek in life”—the foundational question of all true vocation.

Noli foras ire, in te redi, in interiore homine habitat veritas, says St. Augustine. “Do not go out of yourself, go within, truth dwells in the inner man”. God has placed the seed of vocation deep within our hearts and souls and it is there that he speaks to us, inviting us, and showing us the way. Unfortunately, most of the time, we are like the disciples after the Ascension, constantly “looking up to heaven” for signs that should rather be sought from within. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” (Acts 1:11) Vocation is about looking into ourselves, taking stock of the gifts, talents, skills that God has given us, and asking ourselves in all honesty, what it is that we would like to make of these blessings. “What would I like to do with these gifts?” “What would I like to do with my life?” “What would I like to be?”

“What would you like to be when you grow up?” was a question we were all asked as children. As we do “grow up”, however, we learn two important things: first, that being “grown up” is not so much a final stage one arrives at in life, it’s rather a long and never-ending process; and second, we never really outgrow that question, “What would you like to be?” Life after all—our “calling” to “be all we can be”—is very much like “growing up”, it’s a never ending process that calls us to never cease responding to the invitation placed before us by God himself. Put more simply, it’s being aware of those special gifts, the “charisms” we have, and putting them to good use.

As a student in Louvain, I had the opportunity to be among six students interviewed by the board of benefactors of the seminary. One of the questions I remember from that encounter was asked by the owner of a large European company. After telling us that he appreciated everything we said about our faith, vocation, studies, etc., he paused, took a deep breath and said: “Now gentlemen, tell me, what do you wish to do as priests?” He wasn’t at all expecting the usual “celebrate the mass”, or “be a good or holy priest”, response. He was asking us what line of work, what specific area of ministry, we wanted to go into as priests and which we thought we would be good at. In terms more familiar to us, he wanted to know what “charisms” we believed we had, were bringing into the church, and wanted to realize and live out as priests.

My spiritual director’s answer to the question I asked him hit the nail on the head. He was happy with his work, his ministry. He was good and effective at it, because he “loved what he was doing”. He was “a spiritual director”. That was his gift from God, that was his charism, and being a good spiritual director was his way of realizing that gift and responding to his vocation. One always goes the extra mile when he truly appreciates, enjoys, and loves the work he does. And that was why when we, his spiritual directees, would talk about him, the common experience we all shared was that this was one happy and fulfilled priest, who loved his ministry and whose life was “whole”. And that happiness, fulfillment, and “wholeness” rubbed off on everyone he met and ministered to, his directees most of all

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

BECOMING AWARE OF OUR GIFTS (CHARISMS)

“A person who likes what he does will always be happier than one who feels himself ‘a square peg in a round hole’”. These are words of advice I received from an old priest who used to talk to me all the time about “charisms”. St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians says: "Every one has his proper gift [charisma] from God; one after this manner, and another after that" (I Corinthians 7:7). ‘Charisms’ are the spiritual graces and qualifications granted to every Christian to perform his task in the church. Whether as seminary students or priests, a key to being happy with our chosen state of life is knowing what we want to be and do. “Being aware” of our charisms and gifts, and “being awake” to our interests, goals, visions, and dreams for our formation and ministry are indispensable in keeping our hearts in the right place. But it’s a “key”, not a “magic formula” to secure happiness and fulfillment.

However, it is quite easy to fall into either of two extremes here. On the one hand, we could be too preoccupied with our charisms and talents and their ‘realization’ that we become frustrated and disillusioned when we find ourselves in a situation that doesn’t always allow to us utilize and develop them to the full. On the other hand, we can also be cynical at the outset and simply tell ourselves that since there’s no guarantee that we can get what we want anyway, then there’s no reason to even consider what we want as part of what could give us happiness and joy in our chosen state of life.

Both attitudes are really unhealthy, and run counter to what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ. Many years ago, a seminarian expressed his disappointment to me at not being able to give all his time to his academic pursuits when he was so convinced that his intellect could be his greatest contribution to the church as a priest. Another lamented the fact that he wasn’t being allowed to pursue his musical interests more, when he was as a matter of fact, good at it. But being good at something is one thing, insisting that because we are good at it—because we are aware of our talents, because we know our skills—then we must always have the assurance that things will go our way, and we will get what we want in realizing them, is another.

This is a sure recipe for frustration and disappointment. For it is a basic reality of our lives as seminarians and priests that we live under obedience. And although the present climate in the church really doesn’t seem too keen on using the term anymore, it is in fact, one of the promises of ordination. And formation in the seminary requires a good deal of it. True, it’s a promise one doesn’t formally make until his day of ordination, but that doesn’t mean we can’t already strive to live and build it up day after day while yet in seminary. Besides, whoever said it would be completed and perfected on the day we’re ordained, such that the struggle to live it would come to an end? The struggle to live under obedience only takes on a more public form at our ordination—becoming something for the sake of service to the people of God. It doesn’t begin nor end there.

While yet in the seminary, our ‘obedience’—if it is to be genuine—must take the form of struggling to live with the tension that necessarily accompanies our deep knowledge and acceptance of our uniqueness as persons as well as our charisms, with the rightful demands of the seminary program that seek to develop not a few of these gifts, but as many of them as possible. Maximization of an individual’s potentials should be the chief aim of formation, allowing the student to view the grand vista of the many possibilities his God-given talents would allow him, for his own good and for the good of the church. But this should also be the motivation of each student. To focus on just one gift and to insist that it be the sole aim of one’s formation is myopic and while it might give the impression that one is developing a particular gift to the full, it’s actually quite minimalist since it prevents him from discovering that there might be greater possibilities for personal growth that he is overlooking.

Even as a priest, one is never guaranteed that one’s personal charism will always be fully utilized. This has been a source of frustration for some priests, but it has also been a blessing to many who have found other, or should we say ‘additional’, strengths, while remaining fully aware of where their happiness truly lies. What is important is that we “do know” what we want, that we are “aware” of what we’re all about as a person, as a man, and as a priest. Being men who have given our word to minister wherever the church needs us, it is vital that we are “awake” to this foundational component of our vocation—our “charism” as an individual.

But because we do in fact live lives in the service of the church’s needs, it is also absolutely important that we do not equate our ”full knowledge” and “appreciation” of our gifts with being able to “fully actualize” them. We must avoid equating “knowing what we want”, with “getting what we want”. These are two different things. And while they sometimes coincide, they won’t always do. And while coinciding doesn’t always guarantee that we’ll be happy and fulfilled, neither does the fact that they sometimes don’t, amount to immediate unhappiness.

In fact, being fully aware of our gifts and charisms, rather than making us disappointed that we aren’t always able to realize them, should instead makes us stronger and more courageous in undertaking whatever task the community, the people of God, the church, asks of us. It is not so much the realization of one particular talent that is important within this context, it is rather the knowledge that one in fact has a particular gift, a God-given ‘potential’, if you will—understood in the old scholastic way as a “power” to accomplish something. That is encouragement enough to say with St. Paul, that because we are followers of Christ, we can be “all things for all people”, and that “in Christ [we] can accomplish all things”.

On a more practical note, when it comes to being asked to do something, whether in seminary or later on as a priest, it is important to keep in mind that in some instances, appreciation, i.e., one’s ‘liking his assignment’, will in fact be there at the outset—as when we’re given our ‘dream assignment. This is an ideal situation, and one who finds himself in it should thank God that at this particular point, he has been blessed to find himself “at the right place at the right time”. But it’s an ideal situation. In most instances, our appreciation for the assignment could very well come at the end, or sometime later—as when we find ourselves “growing into the job” and learning to love it despite our initial apprehension and dislike for what is “unknown territory”.

Monday, September 15, 2008

THOMAS AQUINAS ON AUTHORITY AND CHARITY (Published article, by Fr. Robert Vallee, philosophy professor, St. John Vianney College Seminary, Miami)

Thomas Aquinas concludes his discussion on the role of authority and its relation to reason with the following passage: “Cum igitur gratia non tollat naturam sed perficiat, oportet quod naturalis ratio subserviat fidei sicut et naturalis inclinatio voluntatis obsequitur charitati.” Which is: “Since therefore grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity.” This article investigates the importance of this passage for the exercise of authority, especially within a seminary context. The major premise contained herein is that authority which seeks to circumvent or suppress reason is abusive and illegitimate. Grace, the grace of authority no less than any other manifestation of grace, perfects natural reason. To paraphrase St. Thomas, authority which sets itself above and against human reason sets itself on the weakest possible foundations.

Thomas confirms this interpretation in ST, Q. 2, art. 2, “faith presupposes natural knowledge even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection presupposes something that can be perfected” [fides praesupponit cognitionen naturalem, sicut gratia naturam et perfectio perfectibile]. According to Dr. Sixto Garcia: “For our purposes the key word is praesupponit. To presuppose in scholastic Latin is to predict a ceratin contingency, that is, cutting to the chase, no reason [cogitatem naturalem], no faith. As Pierre Rousselot so cogently demonstrated, reason requires the eyes of faith and faith requires the clues of reason.” The raw material upon which grace builds is, precisely, nature. Hence, the natural gifts, talents and capacities of the student must be nurtured and groomed so that the student might cooperate with the work of grace. Grace does not build on nothing. It builds on nature. Hence the natural, intellectual, moral and psychological capacities of the seminary student must be of central concern to those in charge of the process of formation. Grace does not work against nature but with it so as to perfect it.

I recall the comments of a woman religious I once knew who said that her order consisted of mostly ignorant farm girls and that, for them, the process of formation consisted of basically erasing who they were on the personal level, so that they could be re-formed in the cookie-cutter image of something less inadequate, which is why they all walked, talked, dressed and thought in the same way. This is more a matter of deformation than it is one of formation. Moreover, it is not, explicitly or implicitly, harmonious with a Catholic anthropology. As I begin teaching philosophy in a college seminary and being a member of the formation team for another year, I would take the position of St Thomas as a starting point for reflection. Whether one is teaching in the classroom or involved in the process of formation, it is obvious that the voice of authority must be exercised. However, whether that voice is a font of grace or pit of disgrace depends, to a large extent, on the manner in which it is exercised. The sounding of authority’s voice must be modulated by the dictates of reason and charity. Hence, how is one to exercise authority without becoming authoritarian? How is one to maintain discipline without establishing a police state haunted by fear and trembling? Most of all, when a situation of conflict or necessary correction arises (as it inevitably will), what tone and principles should guide the process of correction? These are the questions to which this article addresses itself.

Returning to St. Thomas, authority has the disastrous tendency to subvert itself when it sets itself against human reason. Which is to say, Thomas did not allow for a “double” theory of truth. The truths of reason do not contradict the truths of faith. The truths of faith go beyond those of nature, yet build upon them [Utitur tamen sacra doctrina etiam ratione humana]. In a like manner, the student has a much deeper and more daunting responsibility than mere compliance with the program of priestly formation. It is no virtue to believe irrationally that which one does not understand. The student must attempt to understand not merely what is expected of him but why it is expected. Formation is not successful simply because all the soldiers learn to line up and march correctly. Formation is successful when the soldiers know why they march and have interiorized the principles and values that underlie the program of priestly formation.

The authority figure in a seminary, albeit a rector, a dean or a professor, who constantly and arbitrarily appeals to authority, eliciting compliance by pure fiat, quickly uses up the capital given to authority by persons of good will who enter the seminary. The average and normal seminarian enters seminary with a fundamental disposition to be obedient and pliable–there are of course exceptions to this rule. Nevertheless, the average seminarian, such has been my experience in the classroom and in formation, is willing to be taught. He possesses a fair amount of what used to be called docilitas, which is inadequately translated as docility and better translated as teachability.

The distinction between docility and teachability is a crucial one in a seminary formation program. A student may be perfectly compliant with all the rules of seminary life. But if that student is not open to being taught, the program of formation is practically useless for him. Because, strictly speaking, such a student is not being formed but is only conforming to rules, regulations and norms that remain external to him. Essentially, such a one says you can make my body do what you want but my soul is free and untouched by all this pandering. On the other hand, the student that is teachable is open, open to letting the voice of authority into his life and instigating a true and frank dialogue.

Of course, it is incumbent upon those in authority to be cognizant of the immense responsibility they bear. Most students who close down, become passive aggressive and, as a psychologist friend of mind used to say, “submarine,” do so because in one way or another they have been roughly handled by authority. Those charged with exercising authority in the seminary must be cognizant of the fact that the fund of good will is not endless. A student treated roughly or unfairly will be far less inclined to open himself again. This is not resistance to formation so much as it is a healthy instinct for self-preservation. This is not to say that discipline should be avoided but only that those in charge of formation need to choose their battles wisely.

Obedience is clearly not merely a matter of doing whatever a superior tells one to do with no further qualifications. Thomas himself is quite forceful on this point in II-II, 104, art 5 of the Summa Theologica: “ad interiorem motum voluntatis, homo non tenetur homini obedire, sed solum Deo.” Which is, “in matters touching the internal movement of the will man is not bound to obey his fellow-man but God alone.” Even in the case of a slave, slavery does not bind the entirety of the slave. Instead, “the better part of the slave is excepted. His body is subject and assigned to his master but his soul is his alone [pars enim melior excepta est: corpora obnoxia sunt et adscripta dominis, mens quidem est sui juris].” One could easily multiply examples so as to show that, for St. Thomas, obedience is far from an absolute virtue. In general, obedience must be tempered by reason. The intellect, as Thomas teaches, has the power to move the will, just as the will may move the intellect. The delicacy of this balanced relationship must always be maintained. If the will assumes a position of utter dominance, one quickly lapses into voluntarism and the moral fundamentalism that so often attends it. If the intellect assumes a position of utter dominance, then one lapses into rationalism and the arrogant egolatry that so often attends it. Either way, neither the pious fundamentalist nor the arrogant rationalist make for very good priests. In any event, the responsible teacher must bear this complex moral landscape in mind when interacting with, and especially when disciplining, students. Insofar as, the teacher betrays his or her vocation and does violence to the student if the precious fund of docilitas is used up needlessly or squandered on trivialities. The entire program of priestly formation, as it has been practiced of late, is, in my view, plagued by an unfortunate tendency to train men in the exercise of their will against their reason. Students are expected to do what they are told and not ask too many questions. Obedience has become the central virtue. Such a program is perilous insofar as it sets the will against the intellect. Therefore, it is little wonder that the main complaint pastors have against newly ordained is that they are not self-starters. How could they be? They have gone through four to eight years of training where the mark of success was how compliant they could be.

Seminaries are structured like monastic communities. Most priests live and work individually, in offices that more closely resemble business offices in the secular world than a monastery. Moreover, most priests live in rectories which have more in common with an apartment complex than a cloister. It is difficult to see how monastically structured seminaries prepare one for secular priesthood. It is even more difficult to understand why the Church persists in this style of formation. Obedience, passivity and a willingness to “not rock the boat” are qualities highly prized in seminary. However, the priest needs to foster vision, independent thought and creativity in order to be an effective minister. These priestly qualities are precisely ones that will tend to get a seminarian in trouble. He may be characterized as stubborn, willful or resistant to formation. It is odd that the very qualities that make for an effective leader are not more explicitly nurtured in the process of priestly formation. Seminaries function very well with seminarians who merely do what they are told. Sadly, parishes do not flourish with pastors who sit around and wait for someone to tell them what to do.

Long ago, I knew a seminary professor who made every detail of seminary life a matter of holy obedience, as if the way a student walked or handed the celebrant a cruet at mass were a matter of life and death. Students tend not to flourish and grow under such painful scrutiny and constant criticism. To the contrary, students tend, for the sake of their own psychic and spiritual well-being, to tune out the harping voice of criticism such that they become progressively deaf to any and all authority. Ironically the excessive exercise of authority does not lead to a greater respect for authority but to a servile compliance and to a passive and entrenched resistance. The student begins to act out of fear and in order to avoid reprisals. Such a process does not form the student. Such a process deforms the student, keeping him in an infantile state and rendering him unfit for ministry.
A far better approach is to appeal, always and ever, to reason. I recall when I was first in college seminary and on the other side of the formational stick. I was plagued by the chronic inability to get out of bed in time for morning prayer. I paid the price countless times by punishments that annoyed me much and taught me little. Once, during my second year in the college seminary, I slept through morning prayer. Afterwards, the dean of students called me into his office. I was resolved to doing dishes for another a week. Instead, the priest, one of the wisest men I have ever known, said: “Bob I am not going to punish you. Instead, go to chapel for a half an hour and think about this one question I have for you. If you can’t get up for morning prayer, what in God’s name makes you think that you will ever be able to get up for morning mass when you are a priest?”
That single question had a greater effect on me, and more formational value, than thousands of dirty dishes. Why? Because the priest refused to treat me like a child and appeal to his avowed authority over me, even though I was expecting to be treated as a child. Instead, he sat me down, looked me in the eye, and appealed to my reason and good will. He challenged me not merely to obey but to understand and grow. Such is a true and healthy exercise of authority, not set against human reason but building upon human reason.

Recalling the maxim of the psycho-analyst Victor Frankel, “a man who has a why can bear with any how.” The process of seminary formation is not an easy one. The student faces hardships, challenges and frustrations. It is never easy to be told that one must improve in one area or another, much more difficult is it for a young man to be told that some aspect of his physical, psychic or intellectual life does not measure up. This is particularly difficult for young men. As the Jungian psychologist, Robert Johnson explains so evocatively, the young man needs to slay the red dragon. He needs to prove, to himself more than anyone else, that he is a strong and competent man, to throw off his mother’s home-spun garments. This constitutes a fairly daunting how and is more daunting in the context of seminary formation where many of the normal rules of competition and male-bonding do not apply. A young man will only be able to bear these difficulties and challenges if he is clear as to why he is doing so.

Frankel, with his rational approach to cognitive psychology, could be quoting Thomas. The will, for Thomas, is not a blind and ravenous power seeking it own satisfaction, although sometimes it seems as if those in charge of formation construe it in this manner, “the will is a mover moved [voluntas autem est movens motum].” The will is moved by the intellect and the intellect is moved by the will. Each power is mover and moved [movens motum]. The will is naturally ordered toward the good. Whereas the intellect is naturally ordered toward universal being and truth [Primum autem principium formale est ens et verum universale, quod est objectum intellectus]. Hence, the intellect moves the will by presenting its proper object to it. In other words, the intellect presents the will with the why of moral action, as viewed under the aspect of the truth, the student armed with such a why can bear any how. He is a house built on rock. The student lacking such a why is readily broken down by the first strong wind. He is a house built on sand.

At this point in the Church’s history it is somewhat politically incorrect to decry the intellectual capacities of the clergy. After all, the battle cry of many Catholics, even some Catholic bishops, is that the Church needs kind and compassionate pastors and we needn’t worry too much if they are a bit dim in the intellectual department. There is probably not a single seminary in the country that has not been told to keep a man or “give him another chance” when academics are the only issue that is bedeviling the student. The Church is often so desperate for priests that we seem willing to ordain men whether they can complete the course of studies or not. As a Church, we must come to see that this course of action is disastrous from a spiritual, ecclesiological and psychological point of view. Ignorant priests do positive harm to the Church. They mean well but they don’t mean much. No adequate theological vision of priesthood construes the priest as merely a nice guy.

This is not to deny that the Church does indeed need kind and compassionate leaders. However, purity of will must not be set against strength of intellect and pious laziness must not be permitted simply because a student is a likeable person. From the outset, seminary formation must commit itself to forming the whole person, heart and head, will and intellect. Too often, seminaries produce pliable, pious priests who have been very well trained in the habit of doing what they are told but are unable to think for themselves. I do not think that Thomas, with his views on freedom of conscience and the importance of the intellect even for the sake of volition would have approved of a such a heart-felt but intellectually vapid model of formation.
Thomas makes an interesting point in the incomplete Supplement to the Summa. Therein he states: “Order is given as a remedy, not to one person but to the whole Church. Hence, although it is said to be given to counteract ignorance, it does not mean that by receiving Orders a man has his ignorance driven out of him, but that the recipient of Orders is set in authority to expel ignorance from among the people.” This brings up a thorny conundrum. How is a man to dispel ignorance if he is himself ignorant? The seminarian who adheres perfectly to the program of priestly formation for eight years, conforming his will to that of his superiors, while remaining utterly in the dark as to why he does what he does is virtually useless as a priest. Such a one has been taught to follow but not to lead. Moreover, such a one is unlikely to be able to nurture goodness or wisdom in others when he has no idea as to how goodness and wisdom were nurtured in himself.
It would be easy for those of us who are involved in seminary work to send up a great storm of complaint, given the academic quality of many of the students, the lack of support from vocations directors who want as many ordinations as possible and the sometimes benign, sometimes not so benign, neglect of some bishops. However, we in seminary work must take responsibility for the parts of this problem that belong to us. We have allowed academic standards to drop and have turned a blind eye in the name of an insipid charity. We have, often times, been unwilling to take responsibility for maintaining a healthy discipline in seminary, often in the rather immature and idiotic hope that the students will “like” us and be our friends. As a priest friend of mine once told me when I was teaching eighth grade, “Bob, they don’t need a thirty-three year old friend, they need a teacher. And if you need a thirteen year old friend, you’ve got a problem.” The age gap between my students and myself may have narrowed or have been erased but the principle holds.

Most of all, we need to realize that the Church commissions us to train the whole man. We must turn out candidates who realize that there are passions of the mind, as well as those of the heart and know that the intellectual disciplines are not merely the domain of the philosophy and the theology professors in their ivory towers. Rather, “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity.”

TRUST AND OPENNESS IN FORMATION

For two and a half years, I was a spiritual director in the seminary. There was probably no other job I enjoyed more. I was assigned to it as soon as I came home from studies abroad. I was just a deacon when I arrived in 1998 and was immediately given the task of taking care of the spiritual direction of our youngest college students—the fresh graduates from the high school seminary as well as non-seminary high schools. As things would have it though, I got moved to being dean of men two and a half years later. It wasn’t exactly the kind of job I envisioned myself having. For some reason, they’re always the ‘bad guys’ in seminary, having to enforce the rules and seeing to it that everyone was ‘behaving himself’. I wasn’t worried about being unpopular of course. It was just a job after all, and someone had to do it. Plus, I figured that having built a good relationship with the students in spiritual direction, changing hats wouldn't be too much of a problem. But being assigned to the ‘external forum’ did present its challenges and difficulties.

I immediately felt that some students who used to chat quite a bit with me about their studies, struggles in prayer, girlfriend problems, etc., began somewhat avoiding me. That was to be expected of course. Not only did the internal forum-external forum setup demand that I no longer ask too much about matters that belonged to the internal forum, it’s also an arrangement that almost guarantees that seminary students would naturally relate with deans with a certain degree of caution. The spiritual director is ‘safe’, he ‘can’t talk’ during evaluations anyway. And as I would always tell people, it’s the nature of the situation. It has worked for ages and I would be the last one to question it or wish to dismantle it.

Still, during the time I was dean, I did my best to remind students that while there is much wisdom to maintaining the clear dividing line between the internal and external forum—a clear demarcation that assures objectivity, charity, and fairness to all parties in formation, seminarian and priest alike, come evaluation time—the intended good of the setup degenerates into pharisaic legalism and even hypocrisy, when we sacrifice transparency and openness towards those who are meant to guide and assist us, for the sake of keeping up appearances.

I felt rather sad to have heard from not a few students that it was ‘ok’ to disclose oneself to one’s spiritual director—“because he couldn’t say anything during evaluations anyway”, but that one ought to be very cautious in sharing himself with priests who were on the ‘external forum’ because they could very well send one out of the seminary if they “knew too much”. This mindset completely misunderstands the meaning, value, and purpose of the ‘external-internal forum’ setup. It’s also not very honest. But not only that, it also endangers the student himself who, on account of choosing not to open himself up to the possibility of being better formed by those tasked to guide him, could find himself in very difficult, if not problematic situations later on as a priest.

Trust and openness towards those who form us, fearful as that can be at times, is a risk that a seminarian must take if he is to secure for himself a degree of certainty that he is being ‘well-formed’ according to the mind of Christ and the church. Not to do so brings with it dire consequences for the student when he becomes a priest, and consequently, for the church as well. We are wounded and broken creatures, and while these scars can become sources of strength not only for ourselves but for others later on, if left untreated and unhealed while in seminary, they can become our downfall as priests and a cause of great scandal to the people of God.

Challenges brought about by a difficult upbringing perhaps, or a dysfunctional family life and troubled past that may have caused big or small psychological damage to a person, the level of one’s emotional and sexual maturity, one’s capacity for healthy relationships with the same or the opposite sex—these are things that one should never ‘sweep under the rug’ while in seminary. They should be shared, processed and discussed with one’s spiritual director and/or counselor, brought into prayer, and finally integrated into the overall narrative of one’s life and growth in his vocation.

Our life in the seminary should be a gradual but continuous opening to the grace of God that transforms sadness into joy, weakness into strength, our personal darkness into a light that can assist others in their struggles. We should never allow it to deteriorate into a game of hide-and-seek with those forming us. Neither must we allow our response to formation to be defined solely in terms of ‘not breaking any rule’. Sure, we are meant to live and uphold the directives and guidelines that assure the smooth functioning of the community and the proper implementation of the programs meant to form us into good priests. But “living by the book” is one thing; making that the primary point of our life in seminary is another. How often did Jesus rebuke the Scribes and Pharisees for failing to see beyond the “letter of the Law”, but not after saying that he “did not come to abolish the Law but bring it to fulfillment”.

When I was new to the seminary, I remember one of the priests telling us that it was “really easy to become a priest”. All we needed to do, he said, was observe the rules, follow the schedule, obey the superiors, do nothing foolish—or if we did, to avoid getting caught—and in a decade or so we would be ordained. As I moved from one year to the next in seminary, and as the initial fire of enthusiasm gave way to boredom and fatigue on certain days, I gradually realized his words were true. If I’d just “go with the flow”, I’d still be alright. I’d be a priest one day. Was that not the goal anyway, to get ordained?

But I also realized how awful that kind of life in seminary could be, how untrue to one’s vocation that kind of existence was, and how unfaithful to the goal of becoming molded “in persona Christi capitis” (in the person of Christ, the head) the resulting priesthood would be. There could be no question that merely going through the motions would in fact bring one to the day of his ordination, just as merely allowing oneself to be “carried by the flow of things” would also be a kind of life. But it would be a ‘half-life’, not a real life at all. It would be superficial formation that will never touch the “core” of one’s being, which is precisely that which needs to be configured to the person of Christ.

What concretely does this mean? It means allowing oneself to genuinely grow, learn, and mature as a future minister of the church should. And that entails a tremendous amount of openness to the process of formation, trust in those tasked to form one, and finally—I’ve seen students smile whenever they’d hear me say it—the firm conviction that “it’s alright to make mistakes”. That’s what we’re in seminary for; to be formed, to be improved, made better, developed. We’re not in the seminary to be perfect, to be supermen, or to be made free once and for all from what is perhaps that which makes human beings human, namely, the capacity to make mistakes, to learn from these, and to start anew afterwards.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)