Tuesday, November 30, 2010

God's 'Revolutions' in Mary's Magnificat (From Barclay's "Daily Study Bible") - For my students, that you may see with 'new eyes' words we pray daily

And Mary said, "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant, from this day all generations will call me blessed. For the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant, Israel; for he has remembered his promise of mercy—a promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children, forever”. (Luke 1:46-56)

Here we have a passage which has become one of the great hymns of the church—the Magnificat. It is saturated in the Old Testament; and is specially kin to Hannah's song of praise in 1Sam.2:1-10. It has been said that religion is the opiate of the people; but, as Stanley Jones said, "the Magnificat is the most revolutionary document in the world." It speaks of three of the revolutions of God.

(i) He has scattered the proud in their conceit. That is a moral revolution.

Christianity is the death of pride. Why? Because if a man sets his life beside that of Christ it tears the last vestiges of pride from him. Sometimes something happens to a man which with a vivid, revealing light shames him. O. Henry has a short story about a lad who was brought up in a village. In school he used to sit beside a girl and they were fond of each other. He went to the city and fell into evil ways. He became a pickpocket and a petty thief. One day he snatched an old lady's purse. It was clever work and he was pleased. And then he saw coming down the street the girl whom he used to know, still sweet with the radiance of innocence. Suddenly he saw himself for the cheap, vile thing he really was. Burning with shame, he leaned his head against the cool iron of a lamp standard. "God," he said, "I wish I could die." He saw himself.

Christ enables a man to see himself. It is the deathblow to pride. The moral revolution has begun.

(ii) He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. That is a social revolution.

Christianity puts an end to the world's labels and prestige. Muretus was a wandering scholar of the middle ages. He was poor. In an Italian town he took ill and was taken to a hospital for waifs and strays. The doctors were discussing his case in Latin, never dreaming he could understand. They suggested that since he was such a worthless wanderer they might use him for medical experiments. He looked up and answered them in their own learned tongue, "Call no man worthless for whom Christ died!"

When we have realized what Christ did for all men, it is no longer possible to speak about a common man. The social grades are gone.

(iii) He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. That is an economic revolution.

A non-Christian society is an acquisitive society where each man is out to amass as much as he can get. A Christian society is a society where no man dares to have too much while others have too little, where every man must get only to give away.

There is loveliness in the Magnificat but in that loveliness there is dynamite. Christianity begets a revolution in each man and revolution in the world.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The challenge of kindness, for those seeking to reflect the image of Christ (Reflections on the healing of the centurion's servant, Mt. 8:5-11)

A great deal has been said about the strength of the centurion’s faith. Today though, I propose we focus on an aspect of the gospel that’s often overlooked: the centurion’s kindness and humanity towards his servant.

“Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.”

If the miracle of his servant’s cure was the fruit of his faith; his kindness towards someone who was literally his property—was the soil in which that faith was planted. It was the fertile ground that anchored that faith; without it there would have been no faith, no miracle, no healing.

Kindness—or as it is known by its Latin name, humanitas—is a disposition, an attitude, and is one of the virtues that defines a truly good human being. There’s no denying the strength of the centurion’s faith; yet it was the man’s kindness and compassion towards his servant which made that faith even more remarkable. Consider these two things.

First, most of those who came to Jesus for healing came to him for themselves, for a child, or for a friend. The cure of the centurion’s servant is the only recorded instance in the New Testament in which someone comes to Jesus asking him to heal a ‘servant’. It’s true that masters were responsible in keeping their servants healthy, but that didn’t extend to seeing to it personally.

Second, servants who fell ill were immediately removed from their master’s home for fear of spreading the disease. They were usually sent to relatives or friends till they recovered or died. Not the centurion though; he took a personal interest in his servant’s well-being. Here was a man of power and authority, acting in a very unexpected, even unusual, way towards someone whose status was far lower than his own.

It’s fascinating to think that perhaps, as the Incarnate Son of God who stooped down to save fallen humanity, looked into the eyes of this centurion, he couldn’t help but see a mirror image of himself. And as these two men stood there face to face, one can’t help but wonder if they in fact felt a certain kinship—a reflection of oneself in both the power and kindness of the other.

“I too am a man subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes… Say only the word and my servant will be healed”.

In his letter to Titus, St. Paul refers to Jesus as the φιλαθρωπία (philanthropia), the humanitas, the “kindness of God” (Tit. 3:4). In today’s gospel, Jesus, the “kindness of God” saw a reflection of himself in the centurion, and found himself “amazed”.

We who are called to be reflections of Christ could learn much from the centurion’s attitude. Speaking of our humanity as the foundation of our priesthood, Pope John Paul in Pastores Dabo Vobis says:

“The priest who is called to be a ‘living image’ of Christ should seek to reflect in himself the human perfection which shines forth in the Incarnate Son of God and which is reflected in his attitude towards others… the priest should mould his humanity in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Christ”. (PDV, 43)

My old spiritual director used to tell me, you want to know what a seminarian will be like as a priest? Observe only how he treats others: those below him, those equal to him, and those above him.

If there’s one thing my years in seminary formation have taught me, it’s that this is a powerful indicator not only of the kind of priest a seminarian may eventually be, but of his viability as a candidate for the priesthood itself.

Two cases always raise question marks:

A seminarian who shows great deference (and even fear) towards superiors but shows little kindness or is mean towards his peers or those he sees as inferiors is going to be problematic as a priest (no matter how clever he thinks he is). For unless the soil of his humanity is converted and conformed to Christ, he will mistake bullying for shepherding when he gets ordained. He will most likely have very little problem cozying up to his superior later on, but don’t expect him to be kind to his flock. Remember, Jesus was strong; but he was never rigid or arrogant; and he certainly wasn’t a bully.

A priest who shows great respect and deference to his bishop and to those in authority in the diocese, but is mean-spirited and unkind to his parishioners or people working under him is anything but a reflection of that “living image of Christ” of which John Paul II speaks.

On the other hand, a seminarian who shows kindness to his peers and to his inferiors, but hides from his superiors or is unreceptive to them, equally raises red flags; for he will most likely pose problems for his superiors when he gets ordained, and will dismiss fraternal correction as a priest. He will most likely be nice to his flock; but when the time comes that he has to preach the hard truth, he will buckle and even sell-out. Remember, Jesus was kind and compassionate; but he was neither soft nor weak; and he certainly knew what he stood for.

A priest who is very popular, or builds a ‘following’ among his flock, but gives little importance to the principles that are meant to guide the life of the Church (in doctrine, morals, and worship) or shows little value to the promises he made at ordination (especially obedience to his bishop) is also anything but a reflection of that “living image of Christ” of which John Paul speaks.

There’s the third type of course—the type we’re all invited to become. It’s the seminarian, it’s the priest who knows that being truly conformed to Christ means respecting and being kind to everyone: superiors, inferiors, and equals alike—just as Jesus did, and just as the centurion in today’s gospel has shown.

His story is an invitation for us to look into our own attitudes and dispositions and ask: Which of these three types am I? Which of these three kinds will I be if I do become a priest?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Benedict XVI's appeal to future priests to take their intellectual formation seriously (From Pope Benedict's "Letter to Seminarians")

Above all, your time in the seminary is also a time of study. The Christian faith has an essentially rational and intellectual dimension. Were it to lack that dimension, it would not be itself.

Paul speaks of a “standard of teaching” to which we were entrusted in Baptism (Rom 6:17). All of you know the words of Saint Peter which the medieval theologians saw as the justification for a rational and scientific theology: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an ‘accounting’ (logos) for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). Learning how to make such a defense is one of the primary responsibilities of your years in the seminary.

I can only plead with you: Be committed to your studies! Take advantage of your years of study! You will not regret it. Certainly, the subjects which you are studying can often seem far removed from the practice of the Christian life and the pastoral ministry. Yet it is completely mistaken to start questioning their practical value by asking: Will this be helpful to me in the future? Will it be practically or pastorally useful? The point is not simply to learn evidently useful things, but to understand and appreciate the internal structure of the faith as a whole, so that it can become a response to people’s questions, which on the surface change from one generation to another yet ultimately remain the same.

For this reason it is important to move beyond the changing questions of the moment in order to grasp the real questions, and so to understand how the answers are real answers.

It is important to have a thorough knowledge of sacred Scripture as a whole, in its unity as the Old and the New Testaments: the shaping of texts, their literary characteristics, the process by which they came to form the canon of sacred books, their dynamic inner unity, a unity which may not be immediately apparent but which in fact gives the individual texts their full meaning.

It is important to be familiar with the Fathers and the great Councils in which the Church appropriated, through faith-filled reflection, the essential statements of Scripture. I could easily go on. What we call dogmatic theology is the understanding of the individual contents of the faith in their unity, indeed, in their ultimate simplicity: each single element is, in the end, only an unfolding of our faith in the one God who has revealed himself to us and continues to do so.

I do not need to point out the importance of knowing the essential issues of moral theology and Catholic social teaching. The importance nowadays of ecumenical theology, and of a knowledge of the different Christian communities, is obvious; as is the need for a basic introduction to the great religions, to say nothing of philosophy: the understanding of that human process of questioning and searching to which faith seeks to respond.

But you should also learn to understand and – dare I say it – to love canon law, appreciating how necessary it is and valuing its practical applications: a society without law would be a society without rights. Law is the condition of love.

I will not go on with this list, but I simply say once more: love the study of theology and carry it out in the clear realization that theology is anchored in the living community of the Church, which, with her authority, is not the antithesis of theological science but its presupposition. Cut off from the believing Church, theology would cease to be itself and instead it would become a medley of different disciplines lacking inner unity.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Seize the day; later may never come (Reflections on the First Sunday of Advent)

There’s a reason folks go crazy shopping on “Black Friday”—they don’t want to miss out on a good deal. They wake up early to get to the store, or sometimes they camp out near the store entrance itself the night before. The lines are long, the merchandise is limited, patience can wear thin, and sometimes people even get hurt like that greeter who got crushed to death during a stampede at a store a couple years ago. All the craziness is for the sake of getting the best deal one can find and saving a couple bucks. One of my students from Providence emailed me saying she went to bed very early Thanksgiving night so she could get up at 2 am as they were handing out tickets at 3 am. She said she managed to snatch some pretty good deals.

Each year, we hear people lamenting the commercialization of the holidays—though its been quite muted the last couple of years because of the economic downturn. Still the “shopping culture” for the holidays remains pretty strong—and so we should probably do our best to maintain the true religious meaning of the season—especially in our families. But we shouldn’t bad-mouth the holiday shopping season either; yes including Black Friday. People do have a great time shopping, and many do save by looking out for the best deals around. There’s no need to join those who protest consumerism by observing “Buy Nothing Day” either. In fact, I propose that instead of bewailing the consumerist mindset that’s sure to prevail throughout the holiday season (something which we simply can’t do anything about), we could perhaps learn something from those who do shop like mad on Black Friday and all throughout the coming weeks.

What’s the key to getting good deals this time of year? Two words: “being awake”, that means being on the constant lookout for the best deals around—especially since most of these are limited. Like those who get up in the very early hours of Friday to get to the stores as soon as they could, the Gospel reading uses an interesting word to describe what our attitude in life should be: “being awake”—literally “being sleepless” in the original Greek tongue.

We begin today, the season of waiting, of being awake, the Season of Advent. The readings at mass during the week and on Sundays—until Christmas—will focus our attention on “being ready”, “being prepared”, “being watchful” for the coming of Christ—not only at Christmas, but at the end of all things.

It’s a season in which we as Christians prepare ourselves spiritually to celebrate Christ’s birth. Today’s Gospel tells us: “Be ready, be awake. Do what you have to do, not later, but now. Do not postpone things till later because later may never come”. Like Black Friday deals, “when it’s gone, it’s gone”.

The old Romans had a saying that could be meaningful for us this Advent and throughout the year: “Carpe Diem”, they would say. “Seize the day”. “Seize the moment”. Make every moment count. Don’t wait till later because it may never come.

In October of 1998, a couple weeks after I returned from studies abroad, my grandmother died. She had wanted so much to see me when I came home from Belgium, but she had a very bad second stroke and was bedridden and unable to speak or move when I came home in September. I did pay her a visit as soon as I arrived, and promised I was going to come back. But I kept putting my next visit till later, until one evening I was out, I received a call from my mom that my grandmother had passed away.

To this day, it remains one of the greatest regrets I have; but also because of that I promised that I would never miss an opportunity to be with the ones I love, to be patient with them, to be present to them when I can, and to let them feel and know I love them and care for them. I won’t be seeing my grandmother again until we’re reunited in heaven, but I can certainly live a life of “readiness” and of being constantly “awake” to the opportunities I still have to love people, whether they’re family, friends, or just about anybody.

Perhaps there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, for yourself or for someone else, but have never gotten around to doing it. Advent encourages us: “Do it now”.

Perhaps there’s someone whom you need to forgive or from whom you need to ask forgiveness. Advent reminds us: “Do it now”.

Perhaps you've been wanting to say "I love you" to your dad or mom, or your kids, Advent says to us: "Do it now".

Maybe there’s a good or charitable or kind or generous thing you’ve been meaning to do but have been putting of constantly. Advent tells us: “Do it now”.

Like a lot of good deals and bargains on the many shopping days of this holiday season, “when the opportunity’s gone, it’s gone”.

While God will always be there for us; life and its many great opportunities won’t. Life is short and its awesome opportunities come only once in a while, and so we must“seize the day”; we must “make every minute count”. Do not wait till later, because later may never come.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A king who has chosen to veil himself in the abjectness of the human condition (Reflections on the Solemnity of Christ the King)

The closest I ever got to a real king was when, as a student in Belgium, I saw the funeral of King Boudouin who is somewhat of a personal hero. Boudouin was a very devout and faithful Christian.

On the 4th of April 1990, when the Belgian government passed legislation to legalize abortion, Boudouin declared that he could not, in conscience, sign the law. So he decided to abdicate rather than agree with something his Catholic faith told him was wrong.

The Belgian parliament passed the law without him, but because of their tremendous respect and love for him, they reinstated him as king the very next day. And admiration for him just grew.

But during Boudouin’s funeral in August of 1993, something even more unusual happened. There were several eulogies that were made by heads of state and close personal friends at the end of the liturgy. The most memorable, however, was done by a woman who stood up at the cathedral pulpit and said, “I was a prostitute”. You could hear the entire congregation gasping. Whose idea was it to pick her to give a eulogy?! Then the woman spoke of how she came to Belgium looking for a job in order to provide for her poor family, but instead found herself sold into prostitution. King Boudouin learned about her case and saved her.

While her story was compelling, you could tell people were uneasy that a former prostitute was standing in front of them, telling them how thankful she was to their King who to her was simply this kind man who had rescued her. Men of dignity and power do not normally associate with these kinds of persons. I can tell you that it was an even more uneasy moment for me to listen to her speak—because she was from the Philippines! We ourselves don’t normally want to be associated in any way with such types of persons.

And yet Boudouin was a different kind of King. He was more like Christ in today’s gospel. Perhaps only ‘real’ kings can do what they did.

It is perhaps one of the strangest things about Jesus that one of the very last recorded exchange of words he had before he died, was a conversation, not with a decent and respectable person, but with a criminal, with Dismas the thief.

“Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”, Dismas says; to which he replies, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”.

In life, Jesus associated with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers and with other undesirable persons in his society. He always looked out for those who were lost. In the final moments of his life, the last person he chose to associate with was also an outcast.

Our gospel reading today puts before us and celebrates a totally different kind of King: one who refused to identify himself with the powerful, the wealthy, and the self-righteous of this world, but with the poor, the sinner and the undesirable.

The life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus turns the worldly idea of kingship on its head and demolishes it completely—at least for those who wish to identify themselves as his true followers.

"And Jesus called them and said to them: "You know that those who are considered the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; for whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be the first among you must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man came not be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many"."

Today’s Solemnity reminds us that Christ often reveals himself in persons, circumstances , and events we least expect to find him, concealing himself in those we sometimes find undesirable and unlovable: the outcasts of this earth who are yet the “sacraments” of a God who has chosen to veil himself in the abjectness of the human condition.

And so we have to open our eyes, but also our hearts. For Jesus is there, in the poor, the needy, the sorrowing, the outcast, the unloved, the unlovable, the difficult, the pained and wounded.

He is there in anyone who is in “need”. He is in that difficult co-worker you try to be kind to. He is in your spouse when he or she has had a bad day and isn’t being his or her best self. He is in your children, even when they act up or disobey. He is in that student of mine who’s having a tough time in class or is indifferent, or sometimes even disruptive. He is in your teenage son or daughter who often finds his or her stage in life confusing. He is in that superior or parishioner who’s giving you a hard time. And he is in that poor family you might consider giving some cheer during the coming holidays.

Christ the King, identified himself with a sinner in today’s gospel, so that we sinners can in turn, identify him in each other, especially the weakest among us. And he identifies himself with the weakest among us, so that one day, when we see him face to face, he can say to us:

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was in prison and you visited me. Come, then, you who have been blessed by my Father. Inherit the Kingdom I have prepared for you. For whatsoever you have done to the least of my brothers and sisters, this you have done unto me”.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Steer clear of the extremes; virtus stat in medio (virtue stands in the middle) From Thomas Merton's "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander"

One of the great problems that has arisen after the Council is the division between so-called “progressives” and “conservatives”, and this has proven quite ugly in certain cases, though it may also be a fruitful source of sacrifice for those who are determined to seek the will of God and not their own. I do not speak here of bishops, but of ordinary priests, theologians, lay people, and all who voice their opinion one way or another.

I for my own part consider myself neither conservative nor progressive. I would like to think of myself as one who wants to preserve a very clear and marked continuity with the past and not make silly and idealistic compromises with the present—yet to be completely open to the modern world while retaining the clearly defined, traditionally Catholic position.

The extreme progressives seem to me, as far as I can judge with the poverty of my information, to be hasty, irresponsible, in many ways quite frivolous in their exaggerated and confused enthusiasms. The also seem to me at times to be fanatically incoherent, but I do not sense in them the chilling malice and meanness which comes through in some of the utterances of extreme conservatives.

The thing that disquiets me most is the fact that the progressives do not seem to have the dogged and concerted stamina of the conservatives. The extreme conservatives seem to me to be people who feel themselves so menaced that they will go to any length in order to defend their own fanatical concept of the Church. This concept seems to me to be not only static and inert, but in complete continuity with what is most questionable and indeed scandalous in the history of the Church: Inquisition, persecution, intolerance, Papal power, clerical influence, alliance with worldly power, love of wealth and pomp, etc. This is a picture of the Church which has become a scandal and these people are intent on preserving the scandal at the cost of greater scandal.

To begin with, while they are always the ones who make the shrillest noises about authority and obedience, they seem to be shockingly unready to practice the most elementary obedience or to display the most rudimentary faith that the Council is guided by the Holy Spirit as soon as something is decided which they do not approve. They are so convinced that they are the Church that they are most ready to declare the majority of bishops to be virtual apostates, rather than obey the Council and the Pope. At the same time, of course, their hysteria suggests that they are having a little trouble handling the guilt which this inevitably arouses in them.

On the other hand, the refusal of extreme progressives to pay any attention to any traditional teaching which would give them a common basis for rational discussion with conservatives is surely scandalous as well—especially when it is allied with an arrogant triumphalism of its own, and when it simply ridicules all opposition. This is not only foolish, but seems to show a serious lack of that love to which they frequently appeal in justification of their procedures. Though they are continually shouting about “openness” one finds them hermetically closed to their fellow Catholics and to the Church’s own past.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The journey of seminary formation, being true to oneself, and taking the risk of trusting those tasked to form us

Seminary life is a journey towards being conformed to the image of Christ, according to the mind of the Church, the two thousand-year old community of believers to which we belong. Now when Jesus sent his disciples out, one of the things he commanded them to do was to “take nothing with them for the journey” except that which was an absolute need.

While, a seminary student is not yet being “sent out” to do ministry, the words of Jesus to the disciples have an echo in his life. When we enter seminary, the only thing we take with us is really ourselves. The thing is, this ‘self’ we take with us can sometimes be the greatest and heaviest baggage we bring along.

Our ‘self’ is what we bring to Christ and present to God when we enter seminary. It’s the starting point of our journey. It’s the material that will be used. Without it, there can be no finished product. The question is, what exactly is this ‘self’ we’re bringing with us?

The 'self' is the coming together of many things: our family background, our education, our upbringing, our strengths, our weaknesses, our quirks, our problems, wounds, and scars. The self is a very strange mix of all sorts of things: the good and the not-so-good. “We are darkness and light”. But it is this “strange mix”, this “impure mix” that is the most basic ingredient or material that God will use. There isn’t any other.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger says that “the inauthentic is the ground out of which the authentic arises”. Who and what we are in our totality—the good and the bad, the pleasant and the unpleasant—the fact that in us dwell the twin realities of sin and grace—this is the ground out of which God will form the priest he wants us to be. For as Thomas Aquinas says, “grace does not destroy nature. It builds upon nature and brings it to perfection”.

When we enter seminary, and all throughout our years in formation, the invitation is always: “come as you are”—because it is our encounter with Christ in formation that will transform us. We do not do it ourselves.

Who and what we are, our humanity–the core of ourselves–this is what needs to be formed and transformed by our life in formation; not the externals or the accidentals of our character or personality.

This, however, involves a tremendous risk, requires a tremendous amount of confidence and trust, because it can be daunting, even scary. And fear is the greatest enemy of formation, discernment, vocation, faith, and of life itself.

There’s a tremendous amount of risk involved in seminary, especially if one does enter fully into the process of formation. There’s a lot of “what if’s” involved. What if I’m just wasting my time here? Are all these things going to produce the result they say they will? Is my ‘investment’ of time, self, energy, effort, etc., worth it? There’s a lot I’m really giving up. (Every so often I still think of the ‘life’ I’ve ‘missed’ because of entering seminary too early. On some days I feel bad when I think of the ‘what-if’s’. But as Adrian Van Kaam, spiritual author of books on formation says, growth in maturity is realizing that in life, some doors really need to be closed, not all paths can be taken. And becoming the person God wants us to be involves accepting the fact that we can’t be everything we would like to be, but only the best that we have chosen to be.)

There’s also a great amount of risk involved in entrusting ourselves to those in charge—the priests and professors who are part of the formation staff.

We have our own ideas, our own visions, our own dreams, hopes, ways of doing things, of seeing things, etc. Sometimes they will agree with what formators thinks, sometimes they won’t, at other times, they’ll probably go against them. But this is part of the package, not only of seminary life, but of being part of the church as well.

Being a good priest (and a good seminary student) involves recognizing, accepting, and living within the tension of being a faithful and obedient son of the church, and being “one’s own man”. Part of our calling as seminarians, and later on as priests, is to learn to be at peace as we live an “in-between” kind of existence.

Theologians for instance, can encounter teachings of the church or ways of presenting the church’s teachings that are challenging. And here there are always two dangers involved: either complacency or rebelliousness. One can simply ‘go with the flow’. It’s one thing to remain faithful to the teachings of the Church, it’s another thing to use that as an excuse for not wanting to struggle with the demands of these teachings. Fidelity must never be made an excuse for laziness and complacency. Thomas Aquinas was misunderstood when he first articulated his philosophical and theological positions; some of his books were even ordered burned in Paris; but no one could ever accuse him of complacency and unfaithfulness.

Similarly, it’s one thing to struggle with the more difficult and challenging teachings of the church, perhaps even find oneself perplexed about them, it’s another thing to use this as an excuse for destructive critique and dissent. Perspicacity and a critical mind must never be made excuses for adolescent rebelliousness and a deep-seated need to always be proven right by proving everyone else wrong.

But these dangers do exist in formation: Laziness and complacency on the one hand, arrogance and rebelliousness on the other. Living within the healthy tension of being a ‘faithful son of the church’ and being ‘one’s own man’—is the only honest way to go, the via media where virtue stands. But this is risky, tricky, and oftentimes, tiring, as it is always far easier to acquiesce to the extremes.

But that’s where the challenge lies. “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few”. (Mt 7:13-14) The ‘middle way’ where virtue lies is the ‘narrow gate’, the difficult and challenging path—which is why few choose it. [Here, as a footnote though, we must add that even in formation, just as in doing theology, the ‘key’ is to always give our faith community’s accumulated wisdom of two thousand years the heavier weight.]

But trusting those who form us is also risky because every community has its share of unfortunate stories of trust betrayed, of disappointment and disillusionment. Many years ago, when I was sent by my bishop to study abroad after college, one of the persons on staff whom I trusted and thought was my friend and was supporting me turned out to be one of those who were trying to make the whole thing fail. It was only years later that I learned of it. All’s forgiven and forgotten of course; but the case proves the point why some students find it difficult to open themselves up to those guiding them. Perhaps they’ve heard of ‘stories’—and not very encouraging ones.

But that’s the nature of the situation, and while saying that doesn’t mean simply accepting it and doing nothing to somehow change it if and when we can, it also doesn’t mean that we can transform it overnight. The possibility of trust betrayed is real; and yet just as real is the possibility of trust deepened—something I experienced with the spiritual directors I was blessed to have as a student in seminary, not to mention the really great priests on formation staff I was privileged to meet, and under whose care and guidance I experienced tremendous growth in my life as a person, my vocation as a seminarian, and my faith as a Christian.

Trusting those the church has tasked to form us involves a real risk on our part, and yet it’s a risk we must take and is one worth taking.

It is said that there are three types of persons: those who run, those who sit on the sidelines and watch, and those who take the risk and commit.

The first two types are those who fear getting hurt. And so they either run away from risk or prefer to watch while others play. They will most likely never get hurt; but neither will they ever know the joy and triumph of succeeding. Those who risk and commit, on the other hand—they are the ones who will most likely experience hurt, who could in fact suffer loss; and yet they are also the only ones who open themselves fully to the possibility of winning.

The courage to take risks and to commit to things, even if things can be fearful and intimidating, is born out of a deep trust and confidence, in oneself, in others, and especially in God.

This is not just a superficial kind of confidence, but one that comes from the heart; and it can be nerve-wracking and even disappointing at times. Think of Abraham, for instance. God called him out of the comfort of his home, inviting him to follow into the unknown, with only a promise that he shall be made the father of many nations. Years later, we find Abraham pouring his heart out to God; he had no sons, he had no nation. Yet we know how Abraham’s story ends: God kept his promise.

This same trust in God lies at the foundation of a seminarian’s ability to trust in his formators, in the process of formation itself, and in the wisdom of the Church in whose care he commits himself when he enters seminary. “We stand taller when we stand on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us”, one of my professors in Louvain used to constantly remind his students. To trust in the wisdom of the formation process is to stand on the shoulders of the giants of our faith, whose wisdom represents the accumulated treasure of two thousand years.

Only a genuine and profound trust and confidence in God will allow a priest to effectively minister to people in both a prophetic and pastoral way, challenging and encouraging them at the same time.

In this, fear is the seminarian’s greatest adversary. But this isn’t the kind of fear that is the “beginning of wisdom”. This kind of fear is the result of an earnestness to do what is good, right, and just before God. This is ‘holy fear’.

The type of fear we speak of, which is the enemy of trust, is fear born out of an insincere heart. It is the result of a desire to see to it that everything is right because one is aiming at something, or aiming to get something. It is fear that results from a purpose or goal that is ultimately incompatible with the call one has received from God. This fear is the most dangerous kind, for (i) it makes one hold his cards too close to his chest, (ii) it makes one always want to say ‘the right thing’, (iii) it makes one always ‘guarded’ in his words and actions, never ‘letting his guard down’, (iv) it makes one put on a façade which he believes is acceptable and will win him favor, (v) it makes one suppress what is heart and conscience may tell him, and finally (vi) it makes him put on a false ‘persona’ or a ‘mask’.

This is what happens when instead of opening up and taking the risk of being formed, one chooses instead to 'hide' from those forming him if only to achieve what he mistakenly perceives the priesthood to be - a 'goal' that must be achieved at any cost, yes even the loss of his true selfhood. One who allows himself to fall into this trap turns formation into a game: showing to those forming him what he believes they want to see, all the while hiding his true self. In doing so, however, he fails and misses the very goal of the formation process itself, which is none other than the transformation of himself into an image, not of his own making, but of Christ. The seminary is not a place for those who wish to hide, but for those who have the courage to stand before God in the stark nakedness of self.

One who succumbs to fear and plays this game will unfortunately be left without knowing anymore who or what he really is. He eventually learns to live a lie. The very ground which God should be working on and transforming through the formation program, gradually disappears. The externals of one’s personality then become the source of one’s identity—trappings, trinkets, titles, honors, degrees, wealth, power, fame, etc. Soon he identifies with these externals, like the Pharisees of Scripture who “lengthen their tassels and widen their phylacteries”, he mistakes style for substance, mistakes the fancy robes he wears for genuine religion, the accessories he burdens himself with for authentic faith, and a mountain of mumbled meaningless words for true spirituality. What difference is there between such priest and the whitewashed tombs Jesus railed against? When the person beneath disappears and is replaced by a shell, what else is God to work on? None.

This is where the true danger lies, because eventually, the shell cracks, and the walls come crashing down. The scandals that currently rock the church are testaments to this truth. We have to pay attention to what is happening and learn our lesson. It simply cannot be ‘business as usual’, lest the Church simply move from one crisis to the next. “We piped you a tune but you didn’t dance. We sang you a dirge but you didn’t wail. You have missed your day of visitation”. We who have been given this sacred trust of forming future priests have to learn our lesson well.

The priest as teacher

Called to teach his flock, a priest must present, as best he can, the fullness of the truth embodied in the wisdom of his 2000-year old faith community.

He must present it with complete fidelity—in its entirety, including those things about which he himself struggles.

He must never trim the truth to suit his personal loyalties—political, social, or economic; for his ultimate loyalty must always be to Christ and His Church.

Rather, a priest must allow the teachings of his faith community, in its fullness to speak for itself and to speak to the heart of the people entrusted to his care.

His trust in the wisdom and power of his community's treasure of faith must allow him in turn to trust and respect the gift of intellect and freedom God has given the people he shall teach.

Called to teach God's people, he will learn to "take off his sandals" for "the ground he walks on is holy ground". He will therefore neither coerce them into following, nor insult their intelligence by presenting them with arguments meant to convince them through trickery. Instead, he will treat their faith, no matter how simple or learned, with the utmost reverence and respect.

Such disposition will lead him on the one hand to "meet them where they're at", speaking the truth to them plainly, simply, clearly, and without dissembling. On the other hand, the same attitude will prevent him from "insulting their intelligence" by being unprepared, "winging it", and "feeding his people fluff".

For he must always remember that the people to whom he is sent, the flock he ministers to, is the body of Christ himself; and they therefore deserve nothing but the best he can offer.

A priest must always act as a 'theologian (a teacher and seeker after truth) never like a 'used-car salesman' (a sophist who seeks to convince by putting on a show) - no offense to persons of that profession.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Prayer to God, for the Grace of Letting-Go

Loving God, I give you thanks
for having called me
to this great
and wonderful adventure

called seminary life.
While my heart is filled with joy
and my spirit with great excitement,
I am slowly discovering
that this path I have chosen

asks that I give up many things
which have already become
part of my life.

And let me be honest with you,
I’m not finding it easy at all.

It is not always easy to let go of what I’ve gotten used to, Lord.

It’s difficult to let go of late night outings with my friends
instead of studying.

It’s difficult to let go of mornings when I can stay in bed
instead of going to prayer.

It’s difficult to let go of the good food that I’ve enjoyed at home.
It’s difficult to let go of the freedom to go
wherever and do whatever I please on weekends.
It’s difficult to let go of my friends,
especially that girl whom I like so much.
It’s difficult to let go of those moments when I choose to be by myself
instead of having to deal with members of the seminary community
some of whom I don’t like, and who do not like me.
It’s difficult to let go of many more things,
old habits really die hard.

This new life scares me at times too.
How do I know all this letting-go will bear fruit?
How do I know that giving up all these things
will result in my becoming happy with the path I have chosen?
How do I know that letting go of my great ambitions in life
will really enable me to give my entire life to you alone?
How do I know that all the sacrifices being asked of me
will really make me a good priest?
How do I know that I will not fall later on
and cause pain and sorrow to your church?
How do I know that this is your will for me and how do I know
that I am not making a mistake when I try
to overcome my anxiety that it might not be?

Speak, Lord, your servant listens.
Let me put my trust completely in you.
Allow me to see that though the initial stage of my journey
can sometimes be dark, difficult, and uncertain,
your presence is more than enough to calm my fears,
to lighten my burden, and to give me the strength and courage
to stick to this path that I have chosen,
in the firm conviction that you who have asked me
to let-go of many things that
have so given comfort and consolation to my life
will give me in their stead,
the greatest consolation there can be:
the knowledge that wherever I go,
whatever happens, whomever I become,
you will always be there to love, guide, and protect me.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

A priest must embrace his humanity in its fullness - a process that begins in seminary.

"To be good priests, you first of all have to be men, to feel what men feel. Live the relationship with everything that becomes present. Live the truth of your humanity. Cry because you need to cry - or you are afraid, because the problem is difficult and you feel the inadequacy of your strength. Be human; live your humanity as an aspiration, as a sensitivity to the problems, as a risk to face, as a faithfulness to what God makes urgent in your soul. In this way, reality will appear to your eyes in a true way". - Luigi Giussani

A priest who is a truly happy man knows that he is a “vessel of clay”, made of earth and therefore given to weakness, formed by a potter’s hand into a masterpiece that is beautiful yet fragile. A truly happy priest is one who can look at himself squarely and see himself for everything that he is, a person broken and wounded, sinful and weak, and yet loved by a God who has known him long before he was born, who has singled him out, not to give him privilege, but to form him into an instrument, by which grace can be known by a people who are just as vulnerable, beautiful, and fragile as he. In this he becomes a “bridge” between a truly loving God and a wounded and fallen humanity.

Only by seeing himself in his weakness and fragility can a priest also know what it truly means to be a creature of grace, loved infinitely by God, and therefore tasked to share that most profound experience of grace with those to whom he ministers. And this is born, not out of a superficial piety that mumbles the words but feels nothing in the heart. It is rather the result of having come face to face with who and what one truly is. One cannot separate one’s priesthood from one’s humanity, they go hand-in-hand. The priesthood is not sugar-coating on something bitter or sour. It is not something tacked on in order to make something unpleasant look good, or enhance something that would otherwise be unappealing. The priesthood is not some superficial trapping that merely cloaks one's humanity; it is rather anchored and inseparably rooted in it.

A priest is a “vessel of clay”, he is a man like every other man, but he is also one who has peered deep into the reality of himself, and with the strength and courage given by Christ, willingly accepts what he encounters as a gift of God, the very earth out of which God is going to fashion for himself, an instrument who will bring a message of grace, compassion, love, and challenge to a world that is also striving to make sense of its experience of darkness and light.

The seminary is a place where young men are first and foremost initiated into this “encounter in honesty” before God. It is in seminary that a future priest must be taught to stand in the presence of God, empty of all his pretensions, bereft of all the trappings that can hinder him from showing God who and what he truly is. But it is also the place where he must be told that while such prospect might seem utterly terrifying and excruciating, it is the only way by which he will be able to genuinely offer something worthwhile to God. And it is the only way by which God can use him to communicate his life to his people. The seminary is the place where one learns that rather than being a fearful experience, standing before God in all honesty of self, is actually the profoundest experience of grace there can be, and hence there is absolutely nothing to fear. Enter into the fire then, allow the flames to consume you, and know that God will be there with you.

There is a paradox that characterizes the life of a good and happy priest. In facing what is most terrifying, he does not find himself defeated and destroyed, instead he finds himself redeemed, emboldened to proclaim to the whole world, the grace and forgiveness that he has personally experienced as he brought to God’s altar, everything that he is, the desirable and the undesirable, the holy and the unholy, the darkness and the light that dwell in him. Only a man who has known what it means to stand completely empty before God can become an instrument of grace that will set on fire the hearts of other men and women who will recognize in his very experience, a similar invitation to open themselves up to the flames of God’s purifying truth.

The confrontation with truth does not only set one free, it also makes one an instrument of Truth itself. But truth begins with oneself. There is simply no other way. A vessel that has not been washed, cleansed, and purified by the truth, will forever fail in communicating God’s grace and mercy that alone can wash, cleanse, and purify the hearts of others who long to experience what a priest experiences. One who fails or refuses to stand in all honesty before God and self will find himself grasping at straws, carving an identity out of superficial trappings that will only give fleeting and superficial happiness.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Contemplation and the Fullness of Life (From Thomas Merton's "New Seeds of Contemplation")

Contemplation is life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness, and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent, and infinitely abundant Source.

Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes beyond reason and beyond simple faith. It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in mere images, in words, or even in clear concepts. It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it know the contemplative mind takes back what it has said, and denies what it has affirmed. For in contemplation we know by “unknowing”. Or, better, we know beyond all knowing or “unknowing”.

Contemplation knows God by seeming to touch Him. Or rather it knows Him as if it had been invisibly touched by Him. Touched by Him Who has no hands, but who is pure reality and the source of all that is real. Hence, contemplation is a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to the Real within all that is real. A vivid awareness of infinite Being at the roots of our own limited being. An awareness of our contingent reality as received, as a present from God, as a free gift of love. This is the existential contact of which we speak when we use the metaphor of being “touched by God”.

Contemplation is also the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being; for we ourselves are words of his. But we are words that are meant to respond to Him, to answer to Him, to echo Him, and even in some way to contain Him and signify Him. Contemplation is this echo. It is a deep resonance in the inmost center of our spirit in which our very life loses its separate voice and resounds with the majesty and the mercy of the Hidden and Living One.

It is awakening, enlightenment, and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God’s creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life. Hence contemplation does not simply “find” a clear idea of God and confine Him within the limits of that idea, and hold Him there as a prisoner to Whom it can always return. One the contrary, contemplation is carried away by Him into His own realm, His own mystery, and His own freedom.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Falling in love, and remaining in it (Reflections on Marriage and the Priesthood, on the 9th Wedding Anniversary of a Good Friend)

Have you ever noticed how radical the words of love songs can be? “Forever”, “always”, “never”, “you alone”, “no one else”, “for all eternity”. There are no “if’s”, “but’s”, or “maybe’s”; just a lot of certainty and single-minded focus on the person one loves.

That’s perfectly understandable, since falling in love is that way; no “if’s” or “but’s”, just an invincible certainty, not necessarily in one's head but in one's gut. The world changes when we fall in love. Things are more beautiful; life’s more interesting. We have more energy for things. And there’s a whole lot of excitement all around.

That’s what happens when a man falls in love with a woman, and a woman with a man. But that’s also what happens when a young man first chooses to follow Christ in the priesthood. Whether in marriage or the priesthood, the first step is always the same: a person falls in love and the whole world changes. There’s so much to live for, and enthusiasm for life is at an all-time high.

The disciples of Jesus experienced pretty much the same thing. They fell in love with his teachings and with the good things he was doing. And so they followed him around, sat at his feet, listened to his every word.

Like a man or woman in love or a young man who becomes a priest, Jesus’ disciples fell in love with his ways. And their world was changed. It was good and beautiful and exciting. And they liked it.

But “falling in love’s” just half the story. And beautiful as it might be, there’s the second and more important half: “staying in love”.

If “falling in love” is the first part of a relationship; “remaining in love” is the second. It’s longer, and without it, the first part just fizzles out. “Falling in love” just happens, “staying in love” needs work. “Falling in love” is grace. You don’t earn it. “Staying in love” is commitment. You take out as much as you put in. “Falling in love” is easy, “staying in love” is tough.

Because as any married couple or priest would know, when the honeymoon ends and the excitement subsides, the daily grind begins. And soon, the high’s and low’s of life take over and reality sinks in.

The disciples of Jesus do arrive at that point. The honeymoon stage of their relationship did come to an end, the excitement began to wane; and worse, Jesus entered a difficult stage in his ministry.

His words and actions were beginning to cause trouble. The Jewish leaders were no longer amused, and sooner or later things would get messy, not just for him, but for his friends as well.

For his disciples, reality had sunk in. The initial stage of being attracted to Jesus had ended. The early excitement was gone. Were they going to stick around and endanger themselves? Would they stay with him?

They didn’t. One by one, these men who found themselves drawn to Christ before, slowly abandoned him.

When that “thing” hits the fan—that’s when you know who your real friends are. When life’s no longer as bright and beautiful as on your wedding or ordination day, when the peaks have turned into valleys, and you’re still in love, that’s when you know your love is real.

But not everyone abandoned Christ. His real friends stayed. Among them was Peter who says: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”

Peter and all the other disciples had one thing in common. They all fell in love with Christ. But while they all “fell in love”, Peter “remained in love”. While the others left, Peter stayed.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” These were not the words of a fair-weather friend, but of a man who stuck to his commitments. He knew that while his initial attraction to Christ was important, sticking to him through thick and thin was even more. He simply knew his priorities.

The others left. Peter stayed. And he stayed not because he was stronger than they. He will after all, deny Jesus three times. He stayed not because he was holier than they. Jesus called him “Satan” at some point. He stayed not because he was, smarter, wealthier or more powerful than they. He was a lowly fisherman.

Peter stayed because his heart belonged to Christ, and Christ alone.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” They might as well be the radical words of a radical love song. They were the words of a man in whose heart Christ had sunk roots so deep, no “high” or “low” point of life could rip Christ out. Nothing could make him fall out of love.

And life can make us fall out of love. Life can complicate things. It can make us forget why we got married or ordained in the first place. Life’s up’s and down’s can dim our love. It can make us less enthusiastic, even cynical and jaded. A husband can fall out of love with his wife (and vice-versa), a priest can lose sight of why he chose to become a priest in the first place.

Life can make us less like Peter, and more like the disciples who left.

Peter stayed in love because he kept his eyes on Christ. He anchored his life on his reason for following Christ in the first place. And he kept that reason alive. To fall in love is great; to stay in love is greater.

Nine years of marriage is no small feat. In this day and age when love is seen more as a feeling than a promise of commitment, the challenge can be overwhelming. And becoming like the fair-weather disciples of Jesus is an ever-present danger.

But we don’t have to be like them. If we can keep our eyes on the essentials and less on the marginals, we will remain faithful to Christ.

And how do we distinguish the essential from the marginal? We have only to go back to Peter’s words:

“Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of everlasting life”.

When a husband and wife look into each other’s eyes and see only the person they fell in love with many years ago, they’ll know they’ve stayed in love. When a priest considers Christ and sees in him, the only reason for becoming a priest in the first place, he’ll know he’s stayed in love.

Nine years ago, a very good friend of mine, a fellow thinker and kindred soul, fell in love and followed his heart. Nine years into his marriage with his beautiful wife, and they have remained steadfast in that love. May it continue to sustain you my friend, your beautiful wife and kids, and your ministry of teaching and service to God’s people, for many more years to come.

“Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of everlasting life”.

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