Monday, April 30, 2012

Same Old Same Old?

These days again, I had occasion to share with older parents about their pain over adult children who do not practice the faith of their upbringing. This tragedy of estrangement is nothing new, not even for the "good old days", when sometimes even within the rural or small town parish atmosphere, for whatever reason, a grown child might show up at Mass on Sunday so as to avoid criticism, but without really participating or investing anything of self in that attendance. It seems more frequent today, however, and more identifiable because of social mobility: the factor to consider being that number of children who leave home for college or a job opportunity and essentially never return to the neighborhood or parish where they grew up. They are on their own, far from home and supporting community, and many quickly abandon entirely the practice of their faith. A Georgetown study quoted in a book I am reading claims only 16% of post-Vatican II adults (born after 1961) attend Mass weekly. I have heard Father Robert Barron say in his videos that the largest religious body in the United States is made up of former Catholics.

The situation is certainly scandalous, but I am urged to ask again why it is so, especially feeling I owe a better explanation to the question as it arises from good parents' pain. How can people so easily abandon something like the Catholic faith, if as in the case of the parents I am talking about their children were indeed brought up in a faith-filled home? How can you cut yourself loose from God, Who out of His great love created and saved us? What washes out or blots out, what smothers the sense of the transcendent which was indeed palpable in these good homes?

Up until now I did not make much of those "man-on-the-street" videos, like one I saw from Ireland, where many who said they no longer practiced their faith cited science and the sophistication of the modern age as reasons for rejecting their childhood training in the faith. I'll grant you a certain pride or "intellectual" pride and crass materialism as things to turn one's head. For indeed to believe you need to be humble and not caught up in those things alone which you can quantify with your hand, tongue or eye. But are people really that brainless as to put faith in a scientific community which would sell off its own grandmother to gain recognition and more money for questionable, even frivolous research which knows no boundaries, Dr. Frankenstein?

It is hard not to draw the conclusion that our Western world is once again on the brink of total eclipse, as it was when Arianism ran rampant or when much of thought was tainted with the bazaar myths of Gnosticism. Has our world, at least in terms of its ordinary reflexes, not succumbed to the propaganda of atheism or of some sort of godless materialism? The follies of Bing-Bang and unsubstantiated Evolution theories continue to hold sway, untenable as they are, often based on lies and manipulation of data as they are, seemingly only to spite God and deprive Him of His creative will and existence.

I surely hope that home-schooling can save more than a few of our next generations for God. Are we again at a point where we need to pray harder for another St. Benedict and his sister, St. Scholastica, who will turn their backs on a world in shambles and begin through a rule of life to reclaim the world for civilization? I am glad about all the upbeat people out there who see signs of hope: small colleges with great books curricula and what not. At the same time I fear that National Geographic and the Discovery Channel play too big of a part in forming hearts and minds. The public school and university system is too jaded and Hollywood and Co. too intolerant. We need to take them all back a few notches.

This weekend, home in the States for annual vacation, I celebrated my first parish liturgies with the new English texts of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal. The parish is familiar and so to me the change for the better by comparison with last year is strikingly evident. More needs to be done, surely, and on many fronts if we are to save our children from the insipid bogs of "political correctness" and that 84% who choose to sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, as if Christ our Light had not already won the victory which gives us hope of life forever in God.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Contrition and the Love of Christ

The Reading for Compline on Mondays, from 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10, is indeed incomparable, or at least so it strikes me today: 

“God chose us to win salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that, alive or dead, we should still live united to him.”

These words encouraged me at the end of my day today, as I was annoyed by another instance of aggressive intolerance against us Christians and most specifically against us Catholics which the news services announce may soon in the UK be treating ministers of religion as if they were “Marrying Sams or Samanthas” at the beck and call of the state for joining and “blessing” anyone that can get themselves up the aisle in pairs demanding a “church wedding”. I don’t believe it; it has to be an ugly rumor or something which touches only “state religion”, but then again, after the recent assault on religious liberty in the US, well, who knows.

A very aggressive part of our world doesn’t seem to want to be or think that it needs to be saved. Bad as that is, they don’t just turn their backs on us and walk away; they seek to fill the Temple with their abominations; with clenched fist or claw they seek to bring down in the West what Lenin and Stalin never got far enough afield to trample upon. Atheism, materialism, humanism or (pick your terminology) will not tolerate that there is an option for us in life beyond that of the beasts, besides ultimately crawling off in a hole some place and dying.

“God chose us to win salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that, alive or dead, we should still live united to him.”

While the bottom line obviously is Easter, the good news of the Resurrection, of Jesus' victory over sin and death, I cannot help but think that part of the problem, part of the reason for these incursions into our space, if you will, is to be found on the Catholic side. You might say that we ask for some of what we get. Today being today, I think we egg on our aggressors through our own disbelief, our own lack of love for Christ, our failure to bind ourselves to Him and to His teaching. There is a lack of prudence or wisdom in the way we go about rather glibly claiming Catholicity. Catholic or not, it used to be a compliment to be described as a God-fearing man or woman. Who speaks that way today? Who gives evidence of cultivating that virtue which is the Fear of the Lord? How often can you hear a Christian or a Catholic speaking about their dread of offending God? 

We need to face squarely our reticence to talk about Hell, our refusal to admit eternal damnation, everlasting death, as a real possibility or consequence of our sins, of our failure to choose Christ and life with Him forever. Our adherence to Christ, our chosen-ness by God requires more than an entry in the baptismal registry and putting our envelope in the basket at church.

 "Fire and brimstone" preaching from the pulpit? Well, yes, in the sense that we need clarity; we need sound teaching. I cannot claim to love God where no real love exists; I have to give evidence of my love and adherence to Christ. Part of this is certainly living by the Commandments; part of it is recognizing that my sins also offend God. My commissions and omissions have consequences both now and for eternity. To explain, I'm thinking of my act of contrition which I have used since childhood when I go to confession:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee. I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin. Amen.

 Granted, fear of damnation is imperfect contrition, but it is identifiable as contrition and perhaps more readily so than I can prove my love for the Lord I have so grievously and often offended. There is no love without reverential fear. A truly loving husband fears, yes, fears offending the wife he loves with all his heart. My point would be that growing in love, in perfection, in terms of the God I cannot see, might best be rooted in a healthy dose of fear of eternal damnation.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bishops: Prayer and the Service of the Word

 The first reading at Mass today teaches us about the origins of the ministry of deacon in the Church as first and foremost a ministry of charity. This Bishop couldn't help but hear that same reading speaking to him and to his duties and life priorities as a successor of the Apostles, duties which have never changed since those apostolic times:

‘It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food; you, brothers, must select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom; we will hand over this duty to them, and continue to devote ourselves to prayer and to the service of the word.’ (Acts 6:2b-4)

St. Francis de Sales teaches that the bishop's role is not that of the monk, when it comes to spending time in contemplation and prayer, and Pope St. Gregory the Great, long before him, wept over the loss of his monastic life in favor of the duties of the pontificate, which had him very much immersed in society. What is it then that we read in the Acts of the Apostles? How do I divide up my day? Counting the hours for sleep, for business and whatever, when can I rest secure that I have devoted enough time to prayer and to the service of the word of God without passing over into a cloistered existence? When and how am I being faithful to my specific calling?

One of my dear bosses years back would occasionally refer to life in an Apostolic Nunciature as sort of unique. He found it so in contrast to the domestic existence he had known in Rome in the Curia, living with his parents, brothers and sisters, and commuting to work in the Vatican. I think he liked the Nunciature, but there are many young priests who find the lifestyle too austere by comparison with the busy life of a parish or teaching assignment. A lot of it has to do with understanding the service to the Word of God that is required of us as successors of the apostles and presbyters.

We understand from Acts that the Apostles knew that the widows, the ministry of charity could not be neglected. After all, charity is the hallmark of Christianity. Nonetheless, the need for a division of labor for the sake of a life of prayer and preaching was all too clear to them.

No doubt for some of us, study and prayer, the life of virtue is to be privileged over anxiousness about finding occasions to preach and teach. No doubt prayer is the best preparation for seeking the Lord's kingship over us and thereby being ready to further build that Kingdom through proclamation. The path is clear to the extent that we see the difference when preaching flows from the virtuous man's storehouse by the grace of the God Who gives seed to the sower and bread to eat.


War of the Worlds

Personally, I have noticed that more often than not I am backing into things as is the case with my annual retreat. With no particular plan to do so, my travel reading set the stage for a word of encouragement which came at Mass this morning at the retreat house. It came from the First Reading for this Friday of 2nd Week of Easter (Acts 5:34ff.):

“One member of the Sanhedrin, a Pharisee called Gamaliel, who was a doctor of the Law and respected by the whole people, stood up and asked to have the apostles taken outside for a time. Then he addressed the Sanhedrin, ‘Men of Israel, be careful how you deal with these people. There was Theudas who became notorious not so long ago. He claimed to be someone important, and he even collected about four hundred followers; but when he was killed, all his followers scattered and that was the end of them. And then there was Judas the Galilean, at the time of the census, who attracted crowds of supporters; but he got killed too, and all his followers dispersed. What I suggest, therefore, is that you leave these men alone and let them go. If this enterprise, this movement of theirs, is of human origin it will break up of its own accord; but if it does in fact come from God you will not only be unable to destroy them, but you might find yourselves fighting against God.’”

The invincible power of God! I doubt if we can ever ponder enough the implications of this grace for our lives and for the sake of the life of the world.

I'm reading a book published by the author himself, John M. Wynne, entitled "A Catholic Assessment of Evolution Theory - Weighing the Scientific Evidence in Light of Thomistic Principles and Church Teachings on Origins". The man writes well and has a message which needs to be heard. I've promised a review when I am done reading, but meantime, I wish to pass on a couple of websites that merit more attention:

For now I'll just say that I never could have imagined how crass public school biology books could be or how intense the battle for the hearts and minds of our youth was being waged. Psalm 2 comes to mind: "Why do the nations rage and the peoples utter folly..." I take courage from the wisdom of Gamaliel, that fighting us, if we are faithful to God's word, is fighting against God and they will not prevail!

Day one of this retreat seems to bring consolation and promise from our God Who answers all our needs.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Miracle of Numbers

For the second time in this The Great Day of the Octave of the Resurrection of Our Lord, a passage from the Acts of the Apostles turned a light on for me, or should I say, set off an alarm in my head. This time it was the reading for Mass on today, Friday of the Octave of Easter: Acts 4:1ff.

"While Peter and John were talking to the people the priests came up to them, accompanied by the captain of the Temple and the Sadducees. They were extremely annoyed at their teaching the people the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead by proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. They arrested them, but as it was already late, they held them till the next day. But many of those who had listened to their message became believers, the total number of whom had now risen to something like five thousand."

The total number of believers had risen to something like five thousand, the passage says. The first thousands came from Peter's preaching on Pentecost and these additional from Peter's testimony in answer to the crowd's query as to how they were to understand the healing of the crippled man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. No doubt the wonder of Pentecost and the miracle of healing were factors, but the explanation, the message was essential. This gives us hope concerning the potential fruitfulness of our message as proclaimed today. God's Word is like the rain, Scripture says, which brings forth fruit: seed for the sower and bread to eat; it never returns to Him void.

The content of their teaching was "the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead by proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus". The doctrine is one of hope, which inspired belief among their listeners in proportions, in numbers, I would deem inexplicable, truly miraculous. I cannot say as I find the slightest note of hysteria in all this. People listen and respond to the challenge, which is an invitation to repent and believe.

Do the results in terms of numbers of new believers in response to the apostolic preaching cast a shadow on the central event, which is Jesus' victory for the sake of the life of the world, His victory over sin and death? Obviously not! Rather the results in terms of numbers from the teaching of the apostles bear witness to the power of the Resurrection.

None of the apostles had ever studied rhetoric, at least not to my knowledge. They had substance and the Holy Spirit on their side. They proclaimed the ultimate hope, and namely that although taxes (hail the month of April!) might have the last word, death while at some point still claiming us, sinners, cannot keep us in its grasp. By His Sacred Wounds we are healed in the glory of His rising from the dead!

Хрістос воскрес! 
Воістіну воскрес!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

That our Joy may be Complete

Mass of Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord
for the English Language Community
 Kyiv, 8 April 2012
Acts 10:34a, 37-43
            This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad.
Col. 3:1-4
John 20:1-9

Normally, let us say, among the expressions we use to describe today the notion of “Easter Joy” figures very high on the list. Maybe that’s why the Gospel we just read from St. John, which recounts the first moments of that very first Easter Day: the discovery by Mary of Magdala of the Empty Tomb; Simon Peter running with the beloved disciple to the Tomb and seeing the burial cloths there lying on the ground empty, maybe that’s why we find a bit unsettling this particular Gospel assigned for today. What it describes is Easter surprise: not so much Easter joy as Easter panic. That is what renders our first two readings for today so important: they help us process this great mystery of Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead and to better understand its meaning for us in terms of now, that is, in terms of things in time and for all eternity, where when time has run its course we who are faithful will be with Him in joy and light for ever and ever.

During Holy Week, I had the chance to read some great words from a homily of St. Augustine, which talk about Jesus’ death for our salvation and His resurrection for our eternal glory:
“Who is Christ if not the Word of God: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God? This Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us. He had no power of himself to die for us: he had to take from us our mortal flesh. This was the way in which, though immortal, he was able to die; the way in which he chose to give life to mortal men: he would first share with us, and then enable us to share with him. Of ourselves we had no power to live, nor did he of himself have the power to die.  In other words, he performed the most wonderful exchange with us. Through us, he died; through him, we shall live.”

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I think I’m too thoroughly Catholic. It is not that I take my faith for granted, but rather simply that I cannot appreciate how burdensome life must be for lots of people, even here in this great city of Kyiv, who live with no other expectation than that death is bound to overtake them sooner or later. I have a problem understanding that there are those in the world who cannot even pray as the Old Testament prophet Job prayed and say “I know that my redeemer lives” and that on that great Day of Judgment I, in my body, with my own eyes, I will see him.

“Easter panic”! Do me a favour and with me wish a little “Easter panic” by way of a blessing and first step (like on that very first Easter Sunday with Mary of Magdala, Peter and John) wish a little “Easter panic” on lots of folks here and elsewhere around the world who either have never been baptized or who were never raised in the faith of their baptism, a bit of panic as a first encounter for all those who were never taught, have never experienced themselves the meaning of “Easter joy”.

May all in every place and time learn of the cause of our joy, borrowing the notion from St. Augustine, that we from simply being a people destined to die are or have become much more thanks to the “yes” of the Blessed ever-Virgin Mary to the Archangel Gabriel which gave the Word of God His humanity, gave Him a share in our humanity and the possibility of dying, such that swallowed up in death Jesus might burst the bars of death’s prison and grant to us a share in His eternal life.

I rather suspect that old Adam and Eve must have panicked a bit too, when on that first Holy Saturday Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, descending to them in death grasped them both by the hand and said, “Awake, you sleepers, arise from the dead!” Please, God, may our world everywhere receive a healthy dose of “Easter panic” and then truly, finally awake to “Easter joy”!

See and believe as did the beloved disciple! He is risen! Yes, He is truly risen, even as He said! Alleluia!

Banishing Darkness

I was very much taken by the opening words of the HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI for the MASS OF THE LORD'S SUPPER, which according to custom he celebrated in the Basilica of St John Lateran, on Holy Thursday evening, 5 April 2012:

“Holy Thursday is not only the day of the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist, whose splendour bathes all else and in some ways draws it to itself. To Holy Thursday also belongs the dark night of the Mount of Olives, to which Jesus goes with his disciples; the solitude and abandonment of Jesus, who in prayer goes forth to encounter the darkness of death; the betrayal of Judas, Jesus’ arrest and his denial by Peter; his indictment before the Sanhedrin and his being handed over to the Gentiles, to Pilate. Let us try at this hour to understand more deeply something of these events, for in them the mystery of our redemption takes place.
Jesus goes forth into the night. Night signifies lack of communication, a situation where people do not see one another. It is a symbol of incomprehension, of the obscuring of truth. It is the place where evil, which has to hide before the light, can grow. Jesus himself is light and truth, communication, purity and goodness. He enters into the night. Night is ultimately a symbol of death, the definitive loss of fellowship and life. Jesus enters into the night in order to overcome it and to inaugurate the new Day of God in the history of humanity.”

I cannot help but think of the Ignatian invitation to rally to the banner of Christ, to choose His cause, to volunteer to fight at the side of Jesus.

Not only the darkness, but the sepulchral silence of Holy Saturday should remind every soldier of Christ of the earnestness of the fight. Soon the trumpets and alleluias will sound and the light of our victorious King will shine forth dispelling darkness, fear, and incertitude.

The Holy Father speaks of “the new Day of God in the history of humanity”. Let us rally to His side and as we read in 2 Peter 3, let us with expectation each do our part to hasten the coming of that new day:


The Way Forward

Rome Reports video renders well the Holy Father's teaching from this year's Mass of Holy Chrism concerning how best we as priests serve Christ and His People.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Reverence and Recollection

The 4th FIUV Position Paper, entitled The Manner of Receiving Communion , has been published (I read it at RORATE CAELI). The paper is very well done and thought provoking; please, take the time.

The Position Paper speaks of the value of receiving a. kneeling and b. on the tongue. This morning I was watching on TV the distribution of Holy Communion at the Papal Mass on Palm Sunday. While people have always vied to receive Holy Communion from the Holy Father and are presumably especially well disposed at that moment, TV seems to communicate the difference in the two practices presently used in the Church and speaks at least to me of the wisdom of encouraging our people to choose to return to the tradition of centuries past. (As an aside, I think the portable kneeler used at Papal Masses for Communion, just like the "communion stands" which made a brief appearance at the beginning of the liturgical changes, are not to be considered improvements on the Communion Rail, with or without the long meters of starched linen veils for the rail which the dear nuns so devotedly prepared and we altar-boys so loved to flip back and forth before and after Communion. You can see three of the stands I am referring to in this picture of the Abbey Church at St. John's Collegeville. I think people came up to them two by two.
The return of or to the rail is not the return of or to a barrier. It was always understood as an extension of the Altar of Sacrifice itself and rightly so. By encouraging people to come to the Communion Rail to receive (a. kneeling, if health and joints permit) we offer them more time to focus on the Lord there before them. It slows to a full stop for the actual moment of receiving Holy Communion a communion procession which can be very hectic. Please tag this as a gain for RECOLLECTION or a RECOLLECTIVE SPIRIT on behalf of the one who is receiving. The alternative, as I have already mentioned, which I have experienced here in Ukraine, is that people in pewless spaces continue to kneel where they were for the Eucharistic Prayer and the priest comes around the church distributing to them as they indicate, from their place kneeling, their wish to receive the Lord in Holy Communion.

Many people sort of bluster or scoff when it is affirmed that Communion (b.) on the tongue is a more reverent way to receive. The Position Paper rightly betones the nexus between faith and reverence. The more profound our faith in the One here Present, the deeper our reverence. Aesthetics are not the decisive criteria for reverence and the priest's edification at the posture and grace of the person before him receiving communion in the hand as opposed to a tongue, which rarely attracts, must not and cannot be factored in. REVERENCE arises better from the practice of Communion on the tongue simply by reason of the issue of particles, which are though tiny still big enough to be recognized for what they are, namely, the Body of the Lord as Bread broken for our salvation. To the extent we can get people to worry about particles of the Consecrated Host, we can also give them pause to think about the body, the heart, the soul which receives the Lord. Renewal of the Sacrament of Penance goes hand in hand with gains in reverence and recollection and vice versa.

How do you bring a parish back to the rail? I suppose you have to preach about it. I suppose you start with daily Mass folk. Communion here in Ukraine is usually by intinction as it was in the Cathedral in Castries, St. Lucia. I have the impression that people generally appreciate this manner of receiving as (in the Reformation milieu of the Caribbean) it was a dignified way of granting Communion to the folk under both Species. Here it conforms best to the Byzantine practice which predominates in Ukraine, whether Catholic or Orthodox. 

Increasing our longing for and raising our consciousness of the Lord Who comes into our hearts, in any case, is bound not only to melt the frozen and warm the chill, bringing hearts back to Him, but it may even knock one or another down like a certain apostle on the road to Damascus. My more profound awareness of Whom it is that I serve is certainly part of being that glorious city on the mountain  top, of being the lamp on the lamp-stand, of being salt and light for our world.



Priesthood, ever old and ever new

Conference for Presbyterate

of Latin Diocese of Mukachevo – Holy Week 2012

          “Are you resolved to be more united with the Lord Jesus and more closely conformed to him, denying yourselves and confirming those promises about sacred duties towards Christ’s Church which, prompted by love of him, you willingly and joyfully pledged on the day of your priestly ordination?”
          In these last months, by way of the various means of communication which the Vatican has at its disposal, we have been treated to the Holy Father’s ad Limina talks addressed to the U.S. Bishops’ Conference. If we have occasion to read these talks from the Pope to the American bishops, you and I can have some insight into the priorities and issues facing the Church there and perhaps elsewhere in the world as well. Rightly, Pope Benedict does not waste much time bemoaning the secularization of society (which to a great extent is the central problem of our day), but rather he puts the focus on evangelization, on how to proclaim the Gospel, on how to bring this world of ours to Jesus Christ, our Joy and our Salvation. At our level, I’d like to do something similar with you here today. I want to talk to you a little bit today about the urgency of leading all to Christ, about your responsibility as priests here in the diocese of Mukachevo for bringing the Good News to those around you, of enabling others to choose life rather than simply let death overtake them.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing my bishop friends and colleagues in America today is the same one facing the Catholic Church in Ukraine, even if the origins of this challenge are quite different on that side of the Atlantic as opposed to here on this side. If I had to formulate the content or the substance of this challenge as one specific question facing the leadership of the Church (here and there) it could go something like this: With too few priests for the kind of ministry centered on the parish which we have always known and with most of these men ordained only a few years, how do we go about fostering Catholic life? How do we proclaim the Gospel (evangelize) in a way which meets the needs of our people and reaches out beyond ourselves to all of those sitting in darkness, yes, in the shadow of death? Given our human and priestly resources, how do we build up the Church, how do we build up the Kingdom of God in our day and time?
          You might rightly ask, why am I posing to you priests a question which in the first place must be faced by bishops and, if we stretch things slightly, then also by the bishop’s vicars general and specific? Most priests do not see pastoral strategy as a part of their portfolio nor really need that be so. Over history the most successful priests and the greatest saints among them (like the patron saint of parish priests, St. Jean Marie Vianney) have always been those who stuck to basics, dedicating themselves to the administration of the sacraments, to prayer and sacrifice on behalf of the people entrusted to their care. Besides celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, they were constantly teaching and readily available to hear confessions, visit the sick and bury the dead. The best priests in the history of the Church have not been known for sitting at the planning table but rather for getting the job done, for sacrificing themselves for the good of the flock entrusted to their care.
Very simply I’d say: that is indeed the case. However, in this new world of ours in some ways different from times past you as a priest have a double responsibility: on the one hand, to counsel and encourage your bishop as his college of presbyters, as the bishop seeks ways to serve the needs of the Church and of the faithful in these different and difficult times; on the other hand, like the curé of Ars you need to live the essential life of a good and zealous priest. While contributing to future strategies, you, like the 12 year old boy Jesus in the Temple, you have to be about your Father’s business. Your fundamental job description has never changed, will never change, and urgently calls you to act and to do so with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength.
          To introduce this talk, I just read to you one of the questions posed by the bishop in the renewal of priestly promises from the Chrism Mass; I did so not so much to offer you an answer to my question about how we contribute specifically as priests to building up the Church in our time but as to point out really how difficult the question is to answer. In conscience I cannot recommend taking the promises I made on my ordination day as the single best roadmap for guiding my priestly ministry.
Don’t misunderstand me! While it certainly would be great if I took the promises I made on the day of my ordination, including that of obedience to my bishop and his successors, and conscientiously measured myself over and against them, striving always to do better, that would not be enough. It would be a great start and a great help, I think, for most of us priests, but it is not sufficient as method or approach. Where do I stand in terms of what I promised on my ordination day? I ask the question, while stating at the very same time that renewing my promises from time to time is not enough; life is growth, not necessarily a march forward (progress, if you will), but certainly always a deepening of my appreciation of things based on insight derived from experience and reflection.
          I don’t know if a similar saying exists in Ukrainian, but in English we say, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Wishing or willing alone does not really accomplish anything and for many people promises are little more than wishful or well-intended resolve. In terms of vocation discernment, I have to think twice before accepting a young man into the seminary who comes from a totally dysfunctional family: he may be well-intentioned, but confession and counseling may not be enough to prepare him to accept the burdens of the priesthood. In a sense I would be foolish to recommend to you, as if it were enough, to look again and again at the promises you made on the day of your ordination. Why then do we renew them each year in the Mass of Holy Chrism? I think that it is celebratory for us priests and instructive for the faithful who take part in the liturgy. As I mentioned in my homily, I think today’s celebration can stir the faithful to aid you, to pray for you, to challenge you to be a better priest.
Renewing promises is not a dynamic process in the sense that it is not dynamic enough to achieve personal renewal; it is sort of like the custom in some counties, like my own, of renewing marriage vows. The people who renew their marriage vows in public on their 25th or 50th wedding anniversary do so to celebrate, they do so knowing full well that their marriage vows have become much more for them personally, they have become much more intelligible, filled with more meaning, more joy and a lot more pain. Their vows now have a rich history; in a sense the couple has moved beyond them. Most long-term and faithfully, happily married people will look back with a smile at the thought of their firm purpose on that wedding day and say “Yes, weren’t we young back then!”
The same is true with our priestly promises. Renewing them in a liturgical context is positive but not bent on personal renewal. For better or for worse, we priests too have moved beyond who we were on ordination day. Granted, it will never be enough, we can always grow and at some point or other, looking at those ordination day promises, we may figure out that, despite our desire “to be more united with the Lord Jesus and more closely conformed to him”, to Jesus the Perfect Man, the Son of God, Who took His place at the right hand of the Father already at 33 years of age, we still fall short at 60 years plus of that perfection which is required of us for our own sake and for the sake of the salvation of His People.
          We are fewer priests than in days now long gone and for the moment quite a few of us are very young. How does the Church go about building up the Kingdom without sufficient numbers and with young men who sometimes, for lack of maturity, grate on the nerves of their parishioners? Certainly, we do the best we can; we don’t have any other option. Here in Ukraine the present situation is basically the fruit of upheaval and persecution of the Church throughout most if not just about all of the 20th century. We can only be thankful, as Catholic Church, that we have made what amounts to a miraculous comeback after National Socialism and Communism did so much to try and destroy us.
On the other side of the Atlantic there was no such terrible suffering for the Church, in fact, many people from here found refuge over there. In the Americas, however, the social upheaval of the last three decades of the 20th century did similar harm and placed all sorts of obstacles in the way of young men following their call from God to priesthood. The few good men who are there today are faced with the challenge of bringing a society to Christ, a society which, more than ever before in modern times, is not exactly healthy. Our society, in point of fact, is much more generally disordered and lacking safe and sacred spaces for children and therefore also for youth and adults than in any time or any where other than in war zones. The social status of priests, at least for Catholic priests, is a far cry from what those who have gone before us enjoyed in another day and time.
          Without much effort, I guess I could develop my topic into a week-long retreat, but I think it is time to repeat and summarize again these two points about you, really, about your situation, your task, your duty for the sake of the life of the world, starting from the parish or chaplaincy where you find yourself today:
1. We need to reflect on the concrete situation in which we find ourselves; we need to turn matters over to God in prayer; we need to offer to our bishop, for the good of the diocese as local Church, our insights as brother priests, as a presbyterate, a college of priests. Why do I say college of priests? I am thinking of the patristic image of the bishop and his clergy as the image of the Most Holy Trinity: The bishop is seen as God, the Father, his deacons standing beside him and ready for service in the ministry of charity as God, the Son, and the presbyters seated around him in council as God, the Holy Spirit. I would hope that your bishop had more time for reflection and analysis than you do, but you need to share your experience with him just the same; you need to support him and urge him on for the sake of the whole flock entrusted to his care.
2. Guided by the example of traditional models of priestly sanctity, we need to give ourselves entirely to celebrating the sacraments for the good of God’s people, to being teachers and guides for them. Looking ahead to the Year of Faith which Our Holy Father has proclaimed starting this next autumn, we need to so order our lives that we have time for study, both for our sake, that is, for our own growth in faith, and for the sake of the people entrusted to our care. Regardless of how great your seminary training was, you need to continue studying and reading approved authors. When preparing your Sunday homilies, besides the Scriptures, you need to have the Catechism of the Catholic Church at your side; you need to know it and how to use it. I admire the fact that most of you are multi-lingual, but I know myself that it is one thing to speak another language or to be able to celebrate Mass in another language and quite another to read in that foreign language. What can I say? If what you need for the sake of your people or for your own spiritual nourishment is not available in your mother tongue, then you have to bite the bullet and do the hard work of thoroughly appropriating another language.
          In times past, that was sufficient as a plan. Today we find ourselves less than equal to the task because others deny the sufficiency of what we say and do. I have not been here in Ukraine long enough to know if it happens here or not, but especially in the Americas, despite the cry for more young priests, there is a genuine intolerance on the part of many, when those young priests are there and then proceed to act their age. The ages of a man are what they are. A priest in his late twenties or early thirties may assess a certain situation with the same accuracy as an older man, but his assessment might have a bit of an edge; it might actually be brutal. All of the great spiritual authors, Fathers and Doctors of the Church tend to teach that patience, for instance, is not infused but rather learned or cultivated through a schooling which is painful and for some of us even lengthy; it is a matter of failing and then starting over again. An older priest may not have all the energy for activities, but he may have acquired a lot of virtues and gifts in the course of his ministry. There is no substitute for experience.
          To the older men among you, I would say, greet and accept your younger brethren with great joy and gratitude! Be available to them and help them in their struggle to mature in the priesthood which is already fully theirs!
          To the young men among you, I would say, rise to the occasion! In all humility, learn from your mistakes, curb your excesses and give of yourselves totally after the manner of Jesus Christ. The Perfect Man only made it to 33 years of age here on this earth. Identify with Him Who invites us to share His yoke, to learn from Him, meek and humble of heart as He is.
          “Are you resolved to be more united with the Lord Jesus and more closely conformed to him, denying yourselves and confirming those promises about sacred duties towards Christ’s Church which, prompted by love of him, you willingly and joyfully pledged on the day of your priestly ordination?”

Priest, for you!

Homily for Chrism Mass

in Mukachevo 2012

“As they give up their lives for you and for the salvation of their brothers and sisters, they strive to be conformed to the image of Christ himself and offer you a constant witness of faith and love.”
These words are taken from the preface which is proper to this Mass. The Mass of Holy Chrism draws our attention in a very special way to the priesthood, to the presbyterate, to those in our midst who really make the Church and thereby Christ Himself present to His people, Sunday for Sunday, day to day, in all the sacraments, and interestingly enough, especially in and through those sacraments which do not use one of the Holy Oils. I am thinking specifically of the Sacrament of Penance and of the Holy Eucharist. Today, we meditate upon, we celebrate, the calling of those men given the power to forgive our sins in Confession. Today, we reflect upon the great gift of Christ present among us, the Bread of Life and the Chalice of Eternal Salvation, Christ among us through the ministration and in the person of His priests.
It is the preface for this Mass which speaks the most and the most eloquently of the priest. I would like to share with you today a brief meditation on its central thoughts.
"For by the anointing of the Holy Spirit you made your Only Begotten Son High Priest of the new and eternal covenant, and by your wondrous design were pleased to decree that this one priesthood should continue in the Church.”
We, as ordained priests, share in none other than the priesthood of the Only Begotten Son of God; we continue His priestly service in that new and eternal covenant sealed in His Blood. Not only do we have special duties and responsibilities, but by our sharing in His anointing with the Holy Spirit, we identify with Jesus and are transformed to the very core of our being by the saving grace of the sacrament of Holy Orders.
If I had a message for the faithful gathered here today in support of your priests, it would be this: all together we need to strive for a clearer understanding of our election as Church, of our very special place in God’s plan for the salvation of the world. Too often we fail to recognize ourselves, the baptized/very regular Catholics, as different or distinguished from the world around us. We fail to see ourselves as different from those who have not been graced by the life of sanctifying grace in Baptism. The best indication of this is the leveling tendency within Church society itself, which allows our priests to be less than what our faith teaches us they are to be. When St. Paul says that as an apostle he is all things to all men, this does not mean that he hasn’t drawn the consequences for his behavior and self-understanding of that special call which is his through Jesus Christ. So it is with us as priests; our call is to conform our lives to that of Christ. St. Augustine said that with his people he was one of the baptized like them, but by God’s grace and the laying on of hands, for them he was a bishop. We can say the same for priests: baptized, yes, like any other Catholic, but through the laying on of hands and prayer, something more, a priest, for the sake of our brothers and sisters. And so I would say to the faithful, my message to you today would be: love your priests as Christ’s gift to you; love them enough to demand holiness of them, a thorough-going identification with the person of Jesus Christ Himself! Don’t tempt them to be anything less than other Christs!
“For Christ not only adorns with a royal priesthood the people he has made his own, but with a brother’s kindness he also chooses men to become sharers in his sacred ministry through the laying on of hands.”
What is His sacred ministry in which priests share through the laying on of hands? How is it different from the royal priesthood with which we are all adorned through Baptism? The words of the preface come to our aid and offer an answer.
"They are to renew in his name the sacrifice of human redemption, to set before your children the paschal banquet, to lead your holy people in charity, to nourish them with the word and strengthen them with the Sacraments.”
          One of the teachings coming to us from the Council has been that on the role of the laity within the Church, of the essential part which ordinary people have to play in the work of salvation, simply by reason of our Baptism. Maybe the Council should have come sooner than it did, because that important message somehow got garbled or distorted and today we are continually confronted with a confusion of roles in the Church. As it happens, lay people often withdraw from their responsibilities out in society, in the world of work and in the building up of family, and find themselves up front in church, speaking and doing in a time and place which by rights is reserved for the worship of the Living God. The trend over the last decades has been that, instead of becoming more present in society, lay Catholics keep more to themselves and fewer non-Catholics have contact with us; fewer adults are converting to Catholicism, and for neglect of the children’s faith at home more adolescents and young adults abandon the faith of their Baptism. Priests, on the other hand, seem to have little time for prayer, for hearing confessions and traditional priestly duties, and that seemingly as their social lives tend to expand.
“As they give up their lives for you and for the salvation of their brothers and sisters, they strive to be conformed to the image of Christ himself and offer you a constant witness of faith and love.”
We may wish all sorts of things from and for our priests, but given the way things are today I think we would think ourselves to be in the best of all possible worlds if our priests really were striving hard to be as Christ for us, offering to us and to God “a constant witness of faith and love.”