Saturday, October 30, 2010

The language of power does not belong to Christ; he has renamed it once and for all, and called it "service" (Reflections on Humility in Lk 14:1,7-11)

“Humility”, says St. Augustine, “is the foundation of all the other virtues and thus, in a soul without humility, there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.”

The antithesis of humility, however, isn’t really pride; it's power. And power, says Henri Nouwen in his book, “In the Name of Jesus”, is one of the deadliest temptations of those in leadership positions in the Church. It’s true in our day, it was true in Jesus’ day.

Power seeks control; it wants a spectacle and a show; it needs to be noticed—like the guests in today’s gospel reading who were choosing places of honor at the banquet. But this, Nouwen says, is dangerous—especially since we sometimes think that power can be useful in our ministry.

Many years ago, a very good friend in seminary and I made a pact. If one day, we were given a title in the church, we would both respectfully decline--not because we didn't want to serve, but because we could still do our work without any fancy titles to our name. It might sound a little presumptuous, even a little extreme, a little naïve, and perhaps a little too idealistic. But we were just kids back then, what do kids know? But we so totally believed all the lessons on humility we read about, that we promised to stick to it for the rest of our lives, no matter what happens. We were going to be as humble as St. Francis who, out of humility, even chose to remain a deacon for the rest of his life. We were going to be saints.

Two years ago, my friend did receive news that he was in fact receiving such an ecclesiastical title. He called me up all excited and said: “Ferdi, I’m going to have to break our pact. I really believe that I can use this title for the good of the church and the people I serve”. Perhaps because there’s still a bit of that fire of idealism of my youth in me, I replied: “Dude, remember we used to admire the idealism and humility of St. Francis? I thought we were going to say ‘no’ to these things for the rest of our lives?”. “Sorry man,” he replied, “I guess I’ve gotten old. Maybe I’m just a little more realistic now”.

Maybe he was right. Perhaps as we grow older, we come to see things differently. Perhaps when the fiery ideals of our youth begin to wane, we realize we were too naïve. But then again, don’t saints become saints by keeping their ideals till their dying breath? Perhaps we’ve become too old to want to become saints—as we used to when we were kids.

Titles and positions, symbols of power—they aren’t bad; but they aren’t good either. What they can be—Nouwen says—is “dangerous”. And so I prayed for my friend—that God may keep him in the straight and narrow and not let him be sucked into the vortex of power many well-intentioned people find themselves in.

And yet, as I prayed for my buddy, I remembered Nouwen’s words that we used to read and talk about when we were young seminarians:

“We will often be tempted”, Nouwen says,
“to think that power can be used for the proclamation of the gospel. This is the greatest temptation of all. We often hear from others, and sometimes say to ourselves, that power—as long as it is used to serve God and the church—is a good thing.”

But we shouldn’t be deceived. “He who sups with the devil must use a long spoon”. Otherwise, without even being aware of it, you've already turned into the very thing you despise and should never have become.

What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Perhaps, Nouwen says, it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.

Jesus asks: “Do you love me?” And we reply: “Can we sit at your right hand and at your left?” (Matt. 20:21)

Power isn’t only tempting; it’s downright alluring. And so Jesus--in his wisdom, and wishing perhaps to shield his followers from its attraction and the depredations that inevitably come in its wake--once and for all redefined power for all of us who wish to follow him: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve”.

The language of power--in any shape or form--does not belong to Christ; for he has renamed it once and for all, and called it “service”.

The lesson of today’s gospel for us—we who wish to be an alter Christus, we who are asked to act in persona Christi capitis—is that the way of Christ, the way of true Christian leadership is not the way of power. It’s not the way of upward mobility in the church, but the way of “downward mobility” that leads to the cross.

You guys are young; one day you will become priests, perhaps more. I hope and pray that when the time comes, you will not choose the way of power that often leads only to death: the death of your ideals, the death of the fire of your youth, the death of your enthusiasm for your vocation, the death of your zeal for holiness. Power usually makes us priests forget why we chose to follow Jesus in the first place.

Choose instead the “lowest place at the banquet table”, choose the way of humility, the way of downward mobility, the way to the cross, the way of Christ, the only sure path that will lead you to life.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Forbearance, Patience, and Forgiveness (Reflections by the Fathers of the Church on the Daily Gospel, Luke 6:12-16)

From Saint Ambrose of Milan's "Exposition on the Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke":

Notice that in choosing his disciples, Judas too was chosen, not through inadvertence but through Providence. How great is the truth that not even a hostile minister weakens! How great is the integrity of the Lord, who preferred to endanger his judgment among us, rather than his compassion! For he had assumed the frailty of human beings, and therefore did not refuse those aspects of human weakness. He was willing to be forsaken, he was willing even to be betrayed, he was willing to be surrendered by his own apostles, his own friends, so that you too, when you experience being abandoned by an ally, or betrayed by a friend--and this will happen many times in your lifetime--may learn to bear the pain and difficulty in good order".

* * * * * * * * *

The other name for forbearance or restraint is "mercy", and mercy is rooted in compassion--compassion for the one who offends, and who often does so without being fully aware of the magnitude of the hurt he has caused to both the one he has offended, but especially to himself. Compassion is an invitation, not only to be the "bigger person", but to realize that the one who has offended us, has in fact hurt himself more.

In one of his Dialogues, Plato puts these words in the mouth of Socrates who himself experienced injustice and betrayal by the very people and the city that he loved:
"My dear Callicles, to receive a box on the ears wrongfully is not the greatest of outrages, nor even to fall into the hands of a murderer or pickpocket…To do such an injustice to another is a far greater evil for the doer of the injustice than it is for the victim".

One who does us wrong is one who often fails to fully and totally comprehend not only the gravity of his wrongdoing, but also - and this is the real tragedy of the offense - that in hurting us, he has really first and foremost, hurt his very own self, his very being, and his very humanity which, like our own humanity, is duty-bound to treat all persons with equal dignity and respect.

When we harm another human being, we always do harm first to ourselves. This, the offender often fails to fully understand. Hence, the words of Jesus at the crucifixion: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do".

Forbearance asks of us - the pain the offense has caused us notwithstanding - that we regard the brother or sister who has offended us, still as a brother, still as a sister, still as a human person worthy of our respect.

It isn't always easy to be
the "bigger person", and our first impulse will usually be to strike back, especially when we're hurt, and especially when the cause of hurt is significant. And to feel this way is normal. But the fact remains that our call, our challenge, not only as followers of Christ - who accepted even Judas - but as men and women, human beings, is to always see in one another the image of the Creator himself.

Forbearance leads to patience. And patience is the school of forgiveness.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My Vow to Life

I shall not build my dreams on the ruins of others’ lives.
I shall shun all inordinate seeking for position, authority, or power.
I shall avoid all motives save that of service.
I shall seek to be honest, loyal, and trustworthy at all times.
I shall face risks head on but shall exercise prudence and discretion.
I shall avoid cowardice and sloth.
I shall keep my faith, whatever storm may come.
I shall hold on to hope which keeps me going in spite of all.
I shall look upon all persons as equal in dignity and respect.
I shall be beholden to none save God alone.
I shall accord each human being his or her due,
not on account of status, wealth, influence, or power;
but because like myself, he or she is a person,
created in the divine image and likeness.
I shall serve without counting the cost.
I shall live my life in solidarity with the poor,
but in brotherhood with all.
I shall stand for what is right and just,
but shall never discount compromise if it is for the good of all.
I shall trust in my principles and convictions,
keeping my heart to what is right.
I shall labor for as long as I am able.
And, I shall look forward to the rest promised,
to all who endure.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pillars of Seminary Formation: The Goals of Human Formation (From the 5th Edition of the Program for Priestly Formation)

Every seminary must have a program of human formation appropriate to the stage of the candidates’ preparation, which seeks to prepare men to be bridges for, not obstacles to, the spread of the Gospel. The identity to be fostered in the candidate is that he becomes a man of communion, that is, someone who makes a gift of himself and is able to receive the gift of others. He needs integrity and self-possession in order to make such a gift. The capacity to be fostered is the affective ability to engage in pastoral leadership with Jesus as the model shepherd.

This program must have a clear focus on the ordained priesthood as a vocation that brings the candidates to full human and spiritual potential through love of God and service of others.

The Goals of Human Formation

The qualities to be fostered in a human formation program are freedom, openness, honesty and flexibility, joy and inner peace, generosity and justice, personal maturity, interpersonal skills, common sense, aptitude for ministry, and growth “in moral sensibility and character.”

Candidates should give evidence of having interiorized their seminary formation. Growth in self-awareness and sound personal identity are the hallmarks of a healthy personality that establishes a secure basis for the spiritual life. Such growth may be demonstrated by sound prudential judgment; sense of responsibility and personal initiative; a capacity for courageous and decisive leadership; an ability to establish and maintain wholesome friendships; and an ability to work in a collaborative, professional manner with women and men, foregoing self-interests in favor of cooperative effort for the common good.

The Candidate for Human Formation

Candidates bear the primary responsibility for their human formation. The role of the seminary is to assist them in achieving the aims of the Program of Priestly Formation.

The candidate’s human formation in the seminary is very much affected by the character formation he has received in his family, cultural background, and society. Just as the seminary recognizes that the positive qualities of a seminarian’s prior formation can both indicate a vocation and provide a solid foundation for further growth, it should also address possible deficiencies in the candidate’s earlier formation and find means to address them.

Human formation programs in the seminary should begin with the assumption that the candidates have the potential to move from self-preoccupation to an openness to transcendent values and a concern for the welfare of others; a history of sound and rewarding peer relationships; an ability to be honest with themselves and with others; and an ability to trust the Church and the agents of formation. Formation programs will not be very effective for those who manifest extreme inflexibility, narcissism, antisocial behavior or any other serious pathology, a lack of sexual integration, a deep and unresolved anger (especially against authority), a deep attachment to a materialist lifestyle, or compulsive behaviors or addictions.

On the Serene Life (Words of Wisdom from the Enchiridion of Epictetus, the Stoic)

Never compare yourself to another.

You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer. When, therefore, you see anyone eminent in honors, or power, or in high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be hurried away with the appearance, and to pronounce him happy; for, if the essence of good consists in things in our own control, there will be no room for envy or emulation. But, for your part, don't wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control.

Do not give in too easily to provocation.

Remember, that not he who gives ill language or a blow insults, but the principle which represents these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you. Try, therefore, in the first place, not to be hurried away with the appearance. For if you once gain time and respite, you will more easily command yourself.

Never give in too easily to pleasure.

If you are struck by the appearance of any promised pleasure, guard yourself against being hurried away by it; but let the affair wait your leisure, and procure yourself some delay. Then bring to your mind both points of time: that in which you will enjoy the pleasure, and that in which you will repent and reproach yourself after you have enjoyed it; and set before you, in opposition to these, how you will be glad and applaud yourself if you abstain. And even though it should appear to you a seasonable gratification, take heed that its enticing, and agreeable and attractive force may not subdue you; but set in opposition to this how much better it is to be conscious of having gained so great a victory.

The one who hurt you, has hurt himself first.

When any person harms you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he acts or speaks from a supposition of its being his duty. Now, it is not possible that he should follow what appears right to you, but what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived. For if anyone should suppose a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt, but he who is deceived about it. Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, "It seemed so to him."

Choose the ‘better handle’ in everything.

Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, don't lay hold on the action by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be carried; but by the opposite, that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it, as it is to be carried.

Master yourself.

The condition and characteristic of a vulgar person, is, that he never expects either benefit nor hurt from himself, but from externals. The condition and characteristic of a wise man is, that he expects all hurt and benefit from himself. The marks of a proficient are, that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, accuses no one, says nothing concerning himself as being anybody, or knowing anything: when he is, in any instance, hindered or restrained, he accuses himself; and, if he is praised, he secretly laughs at the person who praises him; and, if he is censured, he makes no defense. But he goes about with the caution of sick or injured people, dreading to move anything that is set right, before it is perfectly fixed. He suppresses all desire in himself; he transfers his aversion to those things only which thwart the proper use of our own faculty of choice; the exertion of his active powers towards anything is very gentle; if he appears stupid or ignorant, he does not care, and, in a word, he watches himself as an enemy, and one in ambush.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The way of true Christian leadership is the way of 'downward mobility' that ends on the cross (From Henri Nouwen's "In the Name of Jesus")

"In all truth, I tell you,when you were young you put on your belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go”.
(John 21:18)

The world says, “When you were young you were dependent, and could not go where you wanted, but when you grow old you will be able to make your own decisions, go your own way, and control your destiny”. But Jesus has a different vision of maturity: It is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go. Immediately after Peter has been commissioned to be leader of his sheep, Jesus confronts him with the hard truth that the servant-leader is the leader who is being led to unknown, undesirable, and painful places.

The way of true Christian leadership is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross. This might sound morbid and masochistic, but for those who have heard the voice of the first love and said “yes” to it, the downward-moving way of Jesus is the way to the joy and peace of God, a joy and peace that is not of this world.

Here we touch the most important quality of Christian leadership in the future. It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest. We are obviously not speaking of a psychologically weak leadership in which the Christian leader is simply the passive victim of the manipulation of his surroundings. No, we speak of a leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favor of love. It is a true spiritual leadership.

Powerlessness and humility in the spiritual life do not refer to people who have no spine and who let everyone else make decisions for them. They refer to people rather who are so deeply in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow him wherever he guides them, always trusting that, with him, they will find life and find it abundantly.

The Christian leader of the future needs to be radically poor, journeying with nothing except a staff—“no bread, no haversack, no money, no spare tunic” (Mark 6:8). What is good about being poor? Nothing, except that it offers us the possibility of giving leadership by allowing ourselves to be led. We will become dependent on the positive or negative responses of those to whom we go and thus be truly led to where the Spirit of Jesus wants to lead us.

Wealth and riches prevent us from truly discerning the way of Jesus. Paul writes to Timothy: “People who long to be rich are a prey to trial; they get trapped into all sorts of foolish and harmful ambitions which plunge people into ruin and destruction” (I Tim. 6:9). If there is any hope for the Church in the future, it will be hope for a poor Church in which its leaders are willing to be led.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Reflections on the Gospel, 30th Sunday (by my good friend, Fr. Bob Vallee) - For Bishop John Noonan, a truly good man. We'll miss him at St. John's.

I. Bishop, priest and street sweeper

There is an old story told about a bishop, a priest and a street sweeper. All three men walk into Church. The bishop walks to the front of the Church, throws himself to his knees and cries out in a loud voice: “Lord God, have mercy on me, a miserable sinner.” The priest, then, kneels down beside the bishop and in a clear voice, calls out, “Lord God, have mercy on me, a miserable sinner.” The street sweeper sneaks in the backdoor, falls to his knees and whispers, “Lord, God, have mercy on me a miserable sinner.” The bishop then nudges the priest with a smirk and says, “Look, who thinks he’s a miserable sinner.”

II. New Bishop of Orlando

Just yesterday, one of my dearest friends in the world, John Noonan, was named Bishop of Orlando. I have lived with the good bishop at seminary for the past 15 years: first as my rector and, then, as the Bishop in residence. Those of you who know John Noonan do not need to listen to the rest of this homily. Bishop Noonan is a walking homily in humility, decency and kindness. He reminds me of something Francis of Assisi once said: “Preach the Gospel always and, only when absolutely necessary, use words.”

III. Lift Station

When Bishop Noonan was my rector, I used to tease him that having him as a rector was like having a cook, a maid, a groundskeeper, a nurse and a boss all rolled into one. I have a million stories that make the point but one will suffice. A few years ago, when Bishop Noonan was Msgr. Noonan and rector at the seminary, our lift station went out. The lift station is the basically a huge pump that pumps the raw sewage out of the seminary. Even though my Dad was a plumber, I have always had a deep aversion to raw sewage, which at that point was backing up into my room, which was directly adjacent to the aforementioned lift station. I ran like a scalded cat from my room, morally certain that if I touched any of the stuff, I would die of typhoid, malaria and the bubonic plague. When I got back to my room, there was Msgr. Noonan, on his hands and knees stemming the tide of toxic waste. I was shamed into human decency, as I have often been by Fr/M sgr/Bishop Noonan. I still could not bring myself to get so close to the stuff. But I did pick up a mop and started mopping.

IV. Great for Orlando, sad for us

Yesterday was a great day for Bishop Noonan and for the Church of Orlando (as the people of Orlando will soon find out); yesterday was a sad day for the Church of Miami and for myself personally. I am not sure that I have met anyone who has preached the Gospel more eloquently to me than John Noonan and he has done it without ever preaching at me. Just knowing him and working with him makes me want to be a better man and a better priest.

V. Humility

Humility opens the way to gentleness. Humility makes love possible. Of course, bear in mind that humility is not humiliation. Humility makes you just as gentle with yourself as you are with others. As Frances de Sales said in his Introduction to the Devout Life, “true humility is to see yourself as you are seen in the eyes of God, no more than you are, but no less than you are. Humility is the mean between the two extremes of masochistic humiliation and arrogant pride. If you exalt yourself, you will be humbled. If you humble yourself, you will be exalted. It is very good to know that the man in the front of the Church, the one in the fancy robes, the one we call, “Your Excellency.” the one who is exalted can still have the humble heart of the sinner in the back of the Church. To paraphrase St. Patrick’s breastplate, which is Bishop Noonan’s motto, “Christ is above him and below him; Christ goes before him and follows after him.”

Before the Lord, I can rest; I can simply be who I am (Reflections on the Gospel of the 30th Sunday, Luke 18:9-14)

Some kids can be very competitive. I was that way growing up. I wanted to be the best in everything. I had to win and be better than everyone else.

One time, I remember failing to make the cut in a school activity and feeling really bad that one of my friends did. I always thought I was better than he, and that made me feel worse.

I mentioned it to my mom and I can still remember her reply: “You’ll always be better than others in some things, and there will always be those who will be better than you at other things. Never compare yourself with others”. I never understood back then what she meant.
My competitive streak stayed with me pretty much throughout my childhood; until at one point I began feeling weary of being “on” all the time. For some reason, I started wanting a little more peace in my life; I wanted to be rid of my restlessness, so I decided to enter seminary. 

I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being competitive; and I still don’t. Being competitive is a quality that serves one well in life. But I started getting tired of the anxiety, the tension, and the stress that came in its wake. I figured a more spiritual kind of life might rid me of these, would calm me down, and perhaps give my soul some peace.

Then in seminary I met Kenny Steckler, a good friend and classmate who’s now a priest as well. Unlike myself, I noticed Kenny was very pious and devout. He never seemed to doubt his faith or asked too many questions. He was very prayerful, and seemed quite at peace with himself. Every time I saw him in chapel during prayers and Mass, I found myself thinking, “Now why am I not like that? Why can’t I be more pious and devout and prayerful and holy like Kenny? Why does my mind seem to race to so many questions a mile a minute?”

I mentioned this to my spiritual director. “Why does Kenny seem to be so certain about his faith? Why does he seem so peaceful and content with his vocation? Why does my brain seem to want to deconstruct everything?” My spiritual director’s reply reminded me of my mother’s words years ago: “Don’t compare yourself with anyone. That’s not what you are. Just be yourself. God accepts you for that and loves you for it”.
By the time I was finishing my studies in seminary, the advice I got from my mother and my spiritual director began making sense.

Before God, I simply had to be myself.

The problem with the Pharisee in today’s gospel was not that he wasn’t all those things he said. He really was a good person. He wasn’t greedy, or dishonest or adulterous. He was obedient to God’s Laws and really did his best to be righteous. But he had two big problems. First he kept comparing himself to others. “I’m not like the rest of humanity”, he said. And second, he probably felt that he had to be “on” all the time. He had to constantly prove himself before God.

What an awful way to live! Comparing oneself with others makes a person either too puffed up with pride at being better than everyone else. Or it makes him disappointed and upset because he might not be as good as them. 

A person who constantly compares himself with others will never be rid of the anxiety, tension and stress of feeling that he has to be constantly “on”. He will feel as if he has to prove himself all the time: to himself, to others, and even to God as the Pharisee in today’s reading does.

On the other hand, the tax collector wasn’t looking down on himself. We tend to forget that those words he utters really mean what they say. When he says, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner”—he was simply acknowledging the fact that he was indeed one. The man was just being realistic. I think that sometimes, when we read this passage, we read it with the thought that the line made him somehow “holy”. Far from it. It simply made him real, and most of all, humble. Humility after all simply means being exactly the person that we actually are before God, no more and no less. Humble people are very realistic people. 

Humility simply means accepting that life has its good days and bad days, and sometimes we’re good, sometimes we’re not. And God knows and accepts that. We don’t need to put on a show for him, or wear masks to make us look good before him.
The biggest problem with the Pharisee was that he couldn’t be honest before God. He always had to be “on”.

One of the important messages we can draw from the gospel is that we can be ourselves before God. We don’t have to pretend to be who we aren’t; we don’t need to wear masks or put on a show. We can rest, feel at ease, and be free in his presence. It’s the Good News of our faith.

God is the one before whom all the tensions, anxieties, stress, and worries of daily life and work melt away and cease. When we come before him, we can take off our pretensions and our comparisons. We can simply be who we are and be confident that he loves us nonetheless.

We don’t have to prove anything before God. He does require us to obey his Law, but we don’t have to be all bent out of shape proving that we do, because God knows us through and through. This was what the tax-collector understood quite well, and what someone like the Pharisee would probably never get.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The "Third and Deadliest Temptation of Christian Ministry" - The Temptation of Power (From Henri Nouwen's "In the Name of Jesus")

You all know what the third temptation of Jesus was. It was the temptation to power. “I will give you all the kingdoms of this world in their splendor”, the devil said to Jesus. When I ask myself the main reason for so many people having left the Church during the past decades in France, Germany, Holland, and also in Canada and America, the word “power” easily comes to mind. One of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly give in to the temptation of power—political power, military power, economic power, or moral and spiritual power—even though they continued to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his own divine power, but emptied himself and became as we are.

The temptation to consider power an apt instrument for the proclamation of the Gospel is the greatest temptation of all. We keep hearing from others, as well as saying to ourselves, that having power—provided it is used in the service of God and your fellow human beings—is a good thing. With this rationalization, crusades took place; inquisitions were organized; Indians were enslaved; positions of great influence were desired; episcopal palaces, splendid cathedrals, and opulent seminaries were built; and much more moral manipulation of conscience was engaged in.

Every time we see a major crisis in the history of the Church, such as the Great Schism of the 11th century, or the immense secularization of the 20th, we always see that a major cause of rupture is the power exercised by those who claim to be followers of the poor and powerless Jesus.

What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” We ask, “Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?” (Matt. 20:21) Ever since the serpent said: “The day you eat of this tree your eyes will be open and you will be like gods, knowing good from evil” (Gen. 3:5), we have been tempted to replace love with power.

Jesus lived that temptation in the most agonizing way from the desert all the way to the cross. The long painful history of the Church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led. Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints.

One thing is clear: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been persons unable to give and to receive love in return.

The "Second Temptation of Christian Ministry" - The Temptation to be Spectacular (From Henri Nouwen's "In the Name of Jesus")

The second temptation to which Jesus was exposed to was the temptation to do something spectacular, something that would win him great applause. “Throw yourself from the parapet of the temple and let the angels catch you and carry you in their arms”. But Jesus refused to be a stunt man. He did not come to prove himself. He did not come to walk on hot coals, swallow fire, or put his hand in the lion’s mouth to demonstrate that he had something worthwhile to say.

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test”, he said.

When you look at today’s Church, it is easy to see the prevalence of individualism among its ministers and priests. Not too may of us have a vast repertoire of skills to be proud of, but most of us still feel that, if we have anything at all to show, it is something we have to do solo. You could say that many of us feel like failed tightrope walkers who discovered that we did not have the power to draw thousands of people, that we could not make many conversions, that we did not have the talents to create beautiful liturgies, that we were not as popular with the youth, the young adults, or the elderly as we had hoped, and that we were not as able to respond to the needs of our people as we had expected.

But most of us still feel that, ideally, we should have been able to do it all and do it successfully. Stardom and individual heroism, which are such obvious aspects of our competitive society, are not at all alien to the Church. There too the dominant image is that of the self-made man or woman who can do it all alone.

What discipline then is required for the future leader to overcome the temptation of individual heroism? I would like to propose the discipline of confession and forgiveness. Just as the future leaders must be mystics deeply steeped in prayer, so also must they be persons always willing to confess their own brokenness and ask for forgiveness from those to whom they minister.

Confession and forgiveness are the concrete forms in which we sinful people love one another. Often I have the impression that priests and ministers are the least-confessing people in the Christian community. The sacrament of Confession has often become a way to keep our own vulnerability hidden from our community. Sins are mentioned and ritual words of forgiveness are spoken, but seldom does a real encounter take place in which the reconciling and healing presence of Christ can be experienced.

Turning Stones to Bread: The "First Temptation of Christian Ministry" - The Temptation to be Relevant (From Henri Nouwen's "In the Name of Jesus")

The Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. The great message that we have to carry as ministers of God’s word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as true source of all human life.

Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant: to turn stones into bread…Aren’t we priests and ministers called to do something that makes people realize that we do make a difference in their lives? Aren’t we called to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and alleviate the suffering of the poor? Jesus was faced with these same questions, but when he was asked to prove his power as the Son of God by the relevant behavior of changing stones into bread, he clung to his mission to proclaim the word, and said: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”.

One of the main sufferings experienced in the ministry is that of low self-esteem. Many priests and ministers today increasingly perceive themselves as having very little impact. They are very busy, but they do not see much change. It seems that their efforts are fruitless. They face an ongoing decrease in church attendance and discover that psychologists, psychotherapists, marriage counselors, and doctors are often more trusted than they.

One of the most painful realizations for many Christian leaders is that fewer and fewer young men feel attracted to follow in their footsteps. It seems that nowadays, becoming and being a priest or minister is no longer something worth dedicating your life to. Meanwhile there is little praise and much criticism in the Church today, and who can live for long in such a climate without slipping into some type of depression?

The secular world around is saying in a loud voice, “We can take care of ourselves. We do not need God, the Church, or a priest. We are in control. And if we are not, then we have to work harder to get in control. The problem is not lack of faith, but lack of competence. If you are sick, you need a competent doctor; if you are poor, you need competent politicians; if there are technical problems, you need competent engineers; if there are wars, you need competent negotiators. God, the Church, and the minister have been used for centuries to fill the gaps of incompetence, but today the gaps are being filled in other ways, and we no longer need spiritual answers to practical questions”.

In this climate of secularization, Christian leaders feel less and less relevant and more and more marginal. Many begin to wonder why they should stay in the ministry. Often they leave, develop a new competency, and join their contemporaries in their attempts to make relevant contributions to a better world.

But there is a completely different story to tell. Beneath all the great accomplishments of our time is a deep current of despair. While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world.

The cry that arises from behind all this is clearly: “Is there anybody who loves me; is there anybody who really cares? Is there anybody who wants to stay home for me? Is there anybody who wants to be with me when I am not in control, when I feel like crying? Is there anybody who can hold me and give me a sense of belonging?” Feeling irrelevant is a much more general experience than we might think when we look at our seemingly self-confident society.

It is here that the need for a new Christian leadership becomes clear. The leader of the future will be the one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and to bring the light of Christ there.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Making the most of spiritual direction (From Thomas Merton's "Spiritual Direction and Meditation)

How can one who has found a spiritual director, make the most of this grace? In the first place, he ought to realize that this is a gift of God, even though he may sometimes not be thoroughly satisfied; he should humbly appreciate the fact that he has direction at all. This will enable him to take advantage of what he has, and he may perhaps see that supernaturally he is much better off than he first realized. This gratitude will make him more attentive to the direction he receives and will attune his faith to possibilities which he may have overlooked.

Even if his spiritual director is not another Saint Benedict or Saint John of the Cross, he may come to realize that his spiritual director is nevertheless speaking to him in the name of Christ and acting as His instrument in his life.

What is one normally entitled to expect from spiritual direction? It is certainly very helpful, but we must not imagine that it works wonders. Some people, and especially some religious who ought to know better, seem to think that they ought to be able to find a spiritual director who with one word can make all their problems vanish. They are not looking for a director but for a miracle-worker.

In point of face, we very often depend on someone else to solve problems that we ought to be able to solve, not so much by our own wisdom as by our generosity in facing the fats and obligations that represent for us the will of God. Nevertheless, human nature is weak, and the kindly support and wise advise of one whom we trust often enables us to accept more perfectly what we already know and see in an obscure way.

A director may not tell us anything we do not already know, but it is a great thing if he helps us to overcome our hesitations and strengthens our generosity in the Lord’s service. However, in many cases, a director will reveal to us things which we have hitherto been unable to see, though they were staring us in the face. This too, is certainly a great grace, for which we should be thankful.

One thing a good director will not do is make our ill-defined, unconscious wishes for perfection come true with a wave of the hand. He will not enable us to attain the things we “wish” for, because the spiritual life is not a matter of “wishing” for perfection. Too often people think that all they need to turn a “wish” into the “will of God” is to have it confirmed by a director. Unfortunately, this kind of alchemy does not work, and one who seeks to practice it is in for disappointment.

It often happens, as a matter of fact, that so-called “pious souls” take their “spiritual life” with a wrong kind of seriousness. We should certainly be serious in our search for God—nothing is more serious than that. But we ought not to be constantly observing our own efforts at progress and paying exaggerated attention to our “spiritual life”.

Some who lament the fact that they cannot find a good director actually have all the opportunities for direction they really need, but they are not pleased with the available director because he may not flatter their self-esteem or cater to their illusions about themselves. In other words, they want a director who will confirm their hope of finding pleasure in themselves and in their virtues, rather than one who will strip them of their self-love and show them how to get free from preoccupation with themselves and their own petty concerns.

From the Guidelines for the Study and Teaching of the Church's Social Doctrine in the Formation of Priests

In addition to pastoral sensitivity to social problems, (seminary) students must be offered a solid philosophical and theological foundation on the principles of the social doctrine and their interdisciplinary relations.

This foundation is of special importance in the present-day situation of “dialogue with the world”, which the Church lives by putting the guidelines of Vatican Council II into practice. In fact both priests and laity involved in the social apostolate are often questioned by radical and totalitarian ideologies, both collectivist and individualist, by secularizing trends when not by a secularism which is extraneous to the Christian spirit.

Theological-pastoral and spiritual formation of all those who wish to dedicate themselves to social action includes sensitization to the different problems of society and the habit of evaluating situations, structures and economic, social, and political systems with the criteria of the doctrine of the Church.

Above all, however, this formation requires that lay people and candidates to the priesthood become aware that, through their work, they must give witness to Christ in the world. In particular, bishops and priests are called upon to preach the message of Christ in such a way that all human temporal activity will be permeated by the light of the Gospel. Undoubtedly the Church’s essential contribution in the social area is always the integral announcement of the Gospel, which also dedicates great attention to social problems.

During the period of formation, it is suggested that students be directed towards experiences of a pastoral and social nature which place them in direct contact with the problems studies… In such formation, it is very important for students to be fully aware of the specifically priestly role in social action which has been stressed particularly in recent times on various occasions by the Magisterium of the universal Church and of the particular Churches. Visits and dialogue are especially recommended by students, accompanied by professors, with business people, workers, labor unions, with social organizations and marginalized sectors.

As part of their formation in social pastoral care, students must be instructed about the task and method to be followed in making the laity have an increasingly vivid awareness of their mission and responsibility in the social area. In this perspective, the priest’s task is to help the laity become aware of their duty, for, them both spiritually and doctrinally, follow them in their social action, participate in their toils and sufferings, recognize the important function their organizations have both on the apostolic level and that of social commitment, and give them the witness of a deep social sensitivity.

Economic Justice for All (From the American Bishops' Pastoral Letter, 1986)

Followers of Christ must avoid a tragic separation between faith and everyday life.

They can neither shirk their earthly duties nor, as the Second Vatican Council declared, "immerse [them]selves in earthly activities as if these latter were utterly foreign to religion, and religion were nothing more than the fulfillment of acts of worship and the observance of a few moral obligations" (Gaudium et Spes, 43).

Economic life raises important social and moral questions for each of us and for the society as a whole. Like family life, economic life is one of the chief areas where we live out our faith, love our neighbor, confront temptation, fulfill God's creative design, and achieve holiness. Our economic activity in factory, field, office, or shop feeds our families -- or feeds our anxieties. It exercises our talents -- or wastes them. It raises our hopes -- or crushes them. It brings us into cooperation with others -- or sets us at odds. The Second Vatican Council instructs us "to preach the message of Christ in such a way that the light of the Gospel will shine on all activities of the faithful" (Gaudium et Spes, no. 43).

As Catholics, we are heirs of a long tradition of thought and action on the moral dimensions of economic activity. The life and words of Jesus and the teaching of his Church call us to serve those in need and to work actively for social and economic justice. As a community of believers, we know that our faith is tested by the quality of justice among us, that we can best measure our life together by how the poor and the vulnerable are treated. This is not a new concern for us. It is as old as the Hebrew prophets, as compelling as the Sermon on the Mount, and as current as the powerful voice of Pope John Paul II defending the dignity of the human person.

Every economic decision and institution must be judged in light of whether it protects or undermines the dignity of the human person. The pastoral letter begins with the human person. We believe the person is sacred -- the clearest reflection of God among us. Human dignity comes from God, not from nationality, race, sex, economic status, or any human accomplishment. We judge any economic system by what it does for and to people and by how it permits all to participate in it. The economy should serve people, not the other way around.

Human dignity can be realized and protected only in community. In our teaching, the human person is not only sacred but social. How we organize our society -- in economics and politics, in law and policy -- directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community. The obligation to "love our neighbor" has an individual dimension, but it also requires a broader social commitment to the common good.

All members of society have a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable. From the Scriptures and church teaching, we learn that the justice of a society is tested by the treatment of the poor. The justice that was the sign of God's covenant with Israel was measured by how the poor and unprotected -- the widow, the orphan, and the stranger -- were treated. The kingdom that Jesus proclaimed in his word and ministry excludes no one. Throughout Israel's history and in early Christianity, the poor are agents of God's transforming power. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, therefore he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor" (Lk. 4:18). This was Jesus' first public utterance. Jesus takes the side of those most in need. In the Last Judgment, so dramatically described in St. Matthew's Gospel, we are told that we will be judged according to how we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger. As followers of Christ, we are challenged to make a fundamental "option for the poor" -- to speak for the voiceless, to defend the defenseless, to assess life styles, policies, and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor. This "option for the poor" does not mean pitting one group against another, but rather, strengthening the whole community by assisting those who are the most vulnerable. As Christians, we are called to respond to the needs of all our brothers and sisters, but those with the greatest needs require the greatest response.

Human rights are the minimum conditions for life in community. In Catholic teaching, human rights include not only civil and political rights but also economic rights. As Pope John XXIII declared, "all people have a right to life, food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, education, and employment." These means that when people are without a chance to earn a living, and must go hungry and homeless, they are being denied basic rights. Society must ensure that these rights are protected. In this way, we will ensure that the minimum conditions of economic justice are met for all our sisters and brothers.

Society as a whole, acting through public and private institutions, has the moral responsibility to enhance human dignity and protect human rights. In addition to the clear responsibility of private institutions, government has an essential responsibility in this area. This does not mean that government has the primary or exclusive role, but it does have a positive moral responsibility in safeguarding human rights and ensuring that the minimum conditions of human dignity are met for all. In a democracy, government is a means by which we can act together to protect what is important to us and to promote our common values.

We should not be surprised if we find Catholic social teaching to be demanding. The Gospel is demanding.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Pillars of Seminary Formation: Human Formation (From the 5th Edition of the Program for Priestly Formation)

The foundation and center of all human formation is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. In his fully developed humanity, he was truly free and with complete freedom gave himself totally for the salvation of the world.

Pastores dabo vobis, no. 5, expresses the Christological foundation of human formation: “The Letter to the Hebrews clearly affirms the ‘human character’ of God’s minister: he comes from the human community and is at its service, imitating Jesus Christ ‘who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin’ (Heb 4:15).”

The basic principle of human formation is to be found in Pastores dabo vobis, no. 43: the human personality of the priest is to be a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of the human race. As the humanity of the Word made flesh was the instrumentum salutis, so the humanity of the priest is instrumental in mediating the redemptive gifts of Christ to people today. As Pastores dabo vobis also emphasizes, human formation is the “necessary foundation” of priestly formation.

The human formation of candidates for the priesthood aims to prepare them to be apt instruments of Christ’s grace. It does so by fostering the growth of a man who can be described in these ways:

• A free person: a person who is free to be who he is in God’s design, someone who does not—in contrast to the popular culture— conceive or pursue freedom as the expansion of options or as individual autonomy detached from others

• A person of solid moral character with a finely developed moral conscience, a man open to and capable of conversion: a man who demonstrates the human virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice, humility, constancy, sincerity, patience, good manners, truthfulness, and keeping keeping his word, and who also manifests growth in the practice of these virtues.

• A prudent and discerning man: someone who demonstrates a “capacity for critical observation so that [he] can discern true and false values, since this is an essential requirement for establishing a constructive dialogue with the world of today”.

• A man of communion: a person who has real and deep relational capacities, someone who can enter into genuine dialogue and friendship, a person of true empathy who can understand and know other persons, a person open to others and available to them with a generosity of spirit. The man of communion is capable of making a gift of himself and of receiving the gift of others. This, in fact, requires the full possession of oneself. This life should be one of inner joy and inner peace—signs of self-possession and generosity.

• A good communicator: someone who listens well, is articulate, and has the skills of effective communication, someone capable of public speaking

• A person of affective maturity: someone whose life of feelings is in balance and integrated into thought and values; in other words, a man of feelings who is not driven by them but freely lives his life enriched by them; this might be especially evidenced in his ability to live well with authority and in his ability to take direction from another, and to exercise authority well among his peers, as well as an ability to deal productively with conflict and stress.

• A man who respects, cares for, and has vigilance over his body: a person who pays appropriate attention to his physical well-being, so that he has the energy and strength to accomplish the tasks entrusted to him and the self-knowledge to face temptation and resist it effectively.

• A man who relates well with others, free of overt prejudice and willing to work with people of diverse cultural backgrounds: a man capable of wholesome relations with women and men as relatives, friends, colleagues, staff members, and teachers, and as encountered in areas of apostolic work.

• A good steward of material possessions: someone who is able to live a simple style of life and able to “avoid whatever has a semblance of vanity”; someone who has the right attitude toward the goods of this world, since his “portion and inheritance” is the Lord; someone who is generous in making charitable contributions and sustaining the poor.

• A man who can take on the role of a public person: someone both secure in himself and convinced of his responsibility who is able to live not just as a private citizen but as a public person in service of the Gospel and representing the Church.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Prometheus and Christ (From Thomas Merton's "Raids on the Unspeakable")

The small gods men have made for themselves are jealous fathers, only a little greater than their sons, only a little stronger, only a little wiser. Immortal fathers, afraid of their mortal children, they are unjustly protected by a too fortunate immortality. To fight with them requires at once heroism and despair.

The man who does not know the Living God is condemned by his own gods, to this despair: because, knowing that he has made his own gods, he cannot help hoping that he will be able to overthrow them. Alas, he realizes too late that he has made them immortal. They must eventually devour him.

The Promethean instinct is as deep as man’s weakness: that is to say, it is almost infinite. Promethean despair is the cry that rises out of the abyss of man’s nothingness—the inarticulate terror man cannot face, the terror of having to be someone, of having to be himself.

The fire Prometheus thought he had to steal from the gods is his own identity in God, the affirmation and vindication of his own being as a sanctified creature in the image of God. The fire Prometheus had to steal was his own spiritual freedom. In his own eyes therefore, to be himself was to be guilty. Guilt was the precious gift of the false gods to him.

Not knowing that fire was his for the asking, a gift of the true God, the Living God, not knowing that fire was something God did not need for Himself (since he had made it expressly for man), Prometheus felt he was obliged to steal what he could not do without. Why? Because he knew no god that would be willing to give it to him for nothing. He could conceive of no such god.

No one was ever less like Prometheus than Christ on his cross. For Prometheus thought he had to ascend into heaven to steal what God had already decreed to give him. But Christ, who had in Himself all the riches of God and all the poverty of Prometheus, came down with the fire Prometheus needed, hidden in His Heart. And He had Himself put to death in order to show him that in reality God cannot seek to keep anything good to Himself alone.

Far from killing the man who seeks the divine fire, the Living God will Himself pass through death in order that man may have what is destined for Him.

If Christ has died and risen from the dead for us, why do we continue to see ourselves defeated and in despair?

Because we think our life is important to ourselves alone, and do not know that our life is more important to the Living God than it is to our own selves.

Because we think our happiness is for ourselves alone, and do not realize that is also His happiness.

Because we think our sorrows are for ourselves alone, and do not believe that they are much more than that: they are His sorrows.

There is nothing we can steal from God at all, because before we even think of stealing it, it has already been given.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Thoughts on the Spiritual Life and Spiritual Direction (Thomas Merton)

“Spiritual direction is not merely the cumulative effect of encouragements and admonitions which we all need in order to live up to our state in life. It is not mere ethical, social, or psychological guidance. It is spiritual.

But it is important to understand what this word “spiritual” means. There is a temptation to think that spiritual direction is the guidance of one’s spiritual activities, considered as a part or department of one’s life. You go to a spiritual director to have him take care of your spirit, the way you go to a dentist to have him take care of your teeth, or to a barber to get a haircut. This is completely false.

The spiritual director is concerned with the whole person, for the spiritual life is not just the life of the mind, or of the affections, or of the “summit of the soul”—it is rather the life of the whole person.

For the spiritual man is one whose whole life, in all its aspects and all its activities, has been spiritualized by the action of the Holy Spirit, whether through the sacraments, or by personal and interior inspirations.

Moreover, spiritual direction is concerned with the whole person not simply as an individual human being but as a child of God, another Christ, seeking to recover the perfect likeness to God in Christ, and by the Spirit of Christ.

The spiritual man is one who, “whether he eats or drinks or whatever else he does, does so for the glory of God” (ICor. 10:31). Again, this does not mean the he merely registers in his mind an abstract intention to glorify God. It means rather that in all his actions he is free from the superficial automatism of conventional routine. It means that in all that he does he acts freely, simply, spontaneously, from the depths of his heart, moved by love.”

The enemy of belief in God in today's world isn't always doubt; it's often a hypocrisy that devours its own.

The Pharisee upon which Jesus pronounced woe is not merely the Pharisee of his age, religion, and creed; they are, rather, the Pharisee of every age, every religion, and every creed, the Pharisee that dwells in each one of us, most especially those of us who fancy ourselves true believers, and regard the rest of the world, wretched.

For often we preach not the true God but one made in our own image and likeness, a golden calf that we can see, touch and feel, and that we foist upon the rest of humanity, a burden we place on their shoulders but which we, in the silent recesses of our souls and in the darkened corners of our hearts, refuse to carry ourselves.

Doubt and disbelief are not the true enemies of faith in this world; it is not these that turn men’s hearts away from God; it is rather the hypocrisy and deviousness of those in whom they often place their confidence and trust. Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Feuerbach, even today’s Hitchens are not the enemies of faith. They are rather the ‘saints’ of an honesty, so brutal and ruthless, it cofronts us believers with questions answerable only by a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’: Is the faith we profess genuine? Is the God we worship true? Before the true God, Kierkegaard tells us, there is no dissembling, no 'both-and', only an 'either-or'. For confrontation with the true God brings one to a confrontation with one's true self. From this he cannot hide, and no veil can cover it.

"We who lament the fact that God is being squeezed out of this world, who decry the fact that there is no more room for God in this world must also be called to account for it. Have we perhaps added to the general crush by preaching a solid marble God that too often alienates man from himself, rather than allowing him to know himself truly and fully, a God that settles himself grimly like an implacable object in the inner heart of man and drives him out of himself in despair?" (Thomas Merton)

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