Monday, February 27, 2017

OUR LIFE IN SEMINARY CAN TRANSFORM US INTO MEN, OR IT CAN DEFORM US INTO BOYS (On the Dangers of Complacency, Indifference, and an Unhealthy Sense of Entitlement in Seminary Formation)

"Father, I entered seminary because I wanted to be challenged. I was at a World Youth Day when Pope John Paul II issued a challenge to the youth that were present. He told us not to satisfy ourselves with what is easy, but to seek what is noble and good. I entered the seminary wanting to be a man; this place has turned me into a boy."

This was the reply a former student gave me when I asked him why he decided to leave seminary. He was that type of seminarian whose choice to leave, someone like myself who has been in formation ministry for decades can really feel sad about. He was just a really good, mature, hard-working, level-headed kind of guy whom everyone on formation staff believed could have been a really good priest. 

“I entered seminary wanting to be a man; this place has turned me into a boy.” 

For as long as I live, and for as long as I am to find myself involved in the work of teaching the Church's future priests, I will never forget that young man's words, nor the warning they hold for all of us on this journey towards being more closely conformed to the person of Christ.

There is tremendous beauty and goodness in seminary formation; but like everything in this world, it has pitfalls for those who lose sight of their reasons for having wanted to enter seminary in the first place.

There's this gospel passage where Jesus, encouraging his followers to hold on to his teaching, tells his listeners that his truth shall set them free. Perhaps thinking he was suggesting that they somehow weren't free, some of his listeners counter that "they have never been slaves" since they were "Abraham's descendants." (John 8:33)

For the Jews, Abraham was one of the greatest figures in all religious history; and they considered themselves safe and secure in the favor of God simply because they were his descendants. This admiration they had for Abraham was perfectly legitimate; he is after all, a giant in the religious history of the world.

But, as Jesus points out in the same gospel passage (8:34-47), it was what followed from this admiration that eventually became problematic. For they believed that Abraham had gained so much blessings from his goodness that this merit was sufficient, not only for himself, but for all his descendants as well.

This in effect, led to a very bad attitude of complacency, indifference, and an unhealthy sense of entitlement on the part of the people of Jesus' time. They became less concerned with seeking and obeying God’s will, and had instead allowed their religion to deteriorate to the point that they could not even recognize the Messiah for whom they had been waiting. In fact, as Jesus says, they now even wanted to kill him. This could hardly be the work of Abraham’s children.

They had forgotten that being chosen by God conferred upon them, not only great privilege, but great responsibility as well.  

The Covenant was not meant to be a one-way street. 

In our case too, our being called by God, our being privileged to receive such great a gift as our vocation to the priesthood, confers upon us a lot of blessings; but it also comes with tremendous responsibility – which we forget or neglect at our own peril.

Consider the relative ease of our life in seminary. Yes, there are hurdles and problems here and there; no one denies that. But consider the larger picture. 

You get up in the morning, you know that immediately, your spiritual needs will be met. The chapel is right there; the opportunity to receive Jesus in the Eucharist is given to us daily. No need to drive, no need to rush to church to attend prayers or Mass like people outside who then have to beat rush-hour traffic to get themselves to their workplace afterwards.

When Mass is over, your bodily needs are provided for. You don’t have to worry about preparing breakfast for yourself. The refectory is right there. The same is true at noon and dinner time. (Pope Francis used to cook his meals for himself.)

Afterwards, your intellectual needs are satisfied. No need to rush from one building on campus to another. The classrooms, the good, kind, and understanding professors are all there.

And neither are your emotional needs neglected. When you have a problem or a difficulty, your spiritual director, or other gentle, patient, and understanding priests are right there, willing to listen, so are friends and peers who are always ready to lend you a hand on practically anything. 

A number of years ago, I mentioned these to a seminarian, hoping that were he to realize and truly embrace the many blessings God gives him in his daily life in seminary, he'd do his best to live up to his potential and give himself fully to the demands of formation.

His reply pained me greatly: 

"That’s okay, Father; I’m asked to deny myself a lot of other things anyway." 

His words reminded me of something a priest I know said to me many years ago - half-jokingly, of course - after I asked if it was such a good idea to get himself a rather expensive car after he was made pastor: 

“No wife, no kids, no high paying job. I don’t think God would get mad at me for a few toys here and there”. 

Beware of the danger of entitlement, be on guard against complacency, and rid yourselves of the thought that denying ourselves certain things means license to replace them with others. 

The sacrifice and self-oblation at the heart of our promises of celibacy, simplicity, and obedience, will mean nothing if we substitute in their place, things that are incompatible with our calling.

The things that offer us a certain degree of ease in our life in seminary are meant, not to make us comfortable. They aren’t entitlements for the things we deny ourselves.  Rather they are meant to free us, so that we can give ourselves to the demands of our vocation and our formation, with greater commitment, with total dedication, and with an ever-growing sense of self-giving, today as seminarians, and later on as priests who will be sent to serve and minister to God’s people.

We are in seminary to be formed as men, not to be deformed into boys. Sadly, that has happened too many times, to too many seminarians, in too many seminaries.

Remember, when things start getting too comfortable, and we start becoming complacent, even lazy, we cease to follow Christ, who has called us, not to a life of ease, but to a life of greatness - one that ends, not in comfort, but on the cross. 

Do not satisfy yourselves therefore with what is easy, but seek what is noble and good. Seminary formation can transform you into the man God wants you to be, or it can deform you into a boy.

The choice is always yours.

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