Note: Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology began the fall semester this week with the Intensive Spiritual Formation Week. President-Rector Fr. Denis Robinson, OSB, gave the following opening talk to seminarians.
Opening Talk for Spirituality Week
Anyone can tell you that the major job of any pastor is to help establish the values and the principles by which a community lives. It is an important question for us as well: What are our values? What do we stand for, in both a general way and in a particular way? Of course, we know that in general we stand for the values of the Gospel. We stand for Jesus Christ. But what about the particular way? What about the ways of this community?
Every community is different and while, in a seminary, there are many similar, perhaps for our old hands here even familiar, if at times neglected goals, there are also varied ways of achieving those goals.
What are the values of this seminary? What do we hope to achieve in our time here? Today this question may be more important to ask than ever. There is no one in this room who is unaware of the current climate of crisis facing the Church in the United States. The double blow of the charges laid at the feet of Cardinal McCarrick and the appearance at long last of the Pennsylvania report have brought our Church, in many ways, to its knees, or at least I hope so.
My experience in reading the Pennsylvania report (every last word of it) was one of profound nausea. The report is almost nine hundred pages long. Can you fathom that, nine hundred pages of reporting on the sins of priests and the absolute corruption of a system that sought to cover up their criminal action? It is hard to believe, but it is also important for us to face, and to realize that the Pennsylvania report could probably be duplicated in many regions of the United States. There is, undoubtedly, more to come. That is hard to hear. That is bad news. But you must be asking if there is any possible good news. I know I am.
What does the Church today need? The Church needs what we all need: Conversion. But we might begin that conversation by asking another question: What does the Church have? Overall, I would say the Church has good and faithful priests, we have hard working priests, and we have men who are willing to get dirty and to take chances not for personal glorification, but that the Word of the Lord might be proclaimed in season and out of season. Some of us might say that we are currently out of season. That may be true, but even out of season the Church today needs men who are willing to be authentic shepherds in a time when the occupation of shepherd is, shall we say, underrated, even castigated. The Church needs heroic priests. Will you be those heroic priests?
I would like to think that this is just the sort of men that Saint Meinrad is preparing for service in the Lord’s vineyard. But let’s be honest, even in normal times (if there is such a thing as normality), there are other kinds of priests as well. They are, I believe, a minority, but as we know it takes only one bad apple to threaten the whole barrel. It takes only one encounter with rotten fruit to put us off forever.
Who are these priests? Not only are there those who grossly abuse others, there are also those who look to their own needs and their own values before they look to the needs and values of their flocks. We have some priests who are more like preening peacocks than servants. We have priests who laugh about intellectual pursuits and prayer. We have priests who regularly abuse their bishops’ good names. We have priests who want to be media stars. We have priests who absolutely must have their voices heard. We have priests who look for power and prestige before they look for opportunities for service.
We know those priests exist; they are part of a statistic. They are the men who either end up in the newspapers or in a filing cabinet in the Congregation for Clergy. They are among those who try to ease out of promises and vows made; they are the failures. Fortunately, very few of them are alumni of Saint Meinrad. How do we get to this impasse? How do we engage a formation program, if we engage a formation program, that ultimately produces nothing because it does not offer the Church a priest in the Order of Melchizedek, a man willing to sacrifice everything, especially his ego, for the sake of proclaiming the Glory of God in the Church and do that for the rest of his life?
Here is what we want, here is what I want, not only as a rector but as a faithful Catholic whose Church is hemorrhaging because of the rottenness of a few. I want men who are ready to be crucified with Christ for the sake of the Gospel. I want men who are willing to look for meaning outside their particular tastes in serving the people, a people often, perhaps very often, ungrateful. I want men who are perfectly satisfied with pouring out their lives in anonymity. I want men, we want men, whose hearts are broken not only for their own sins, but for the sins of the world and the sins of the Church. We want men who are willing to shut up and listen every once in a while. We want men who need to know and learn and not think they know everything already. We want men of talent, willing to turn every ounce of that talent for use in God’s Kingdom, proclaiming His reign, His justice, His world. That is what we want. Will we get it with you?
In my remarks today, I would like to focus on two images from the New Testament, touching upon our themes for this spirituality week: The first is from the Book of Hebrews.
Here is the text:
And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
What is the Scripture asking here?
That seems obvious. Our task as Christian men and women is to do good and to share with others. It is also understood in the Word of God that this is a sacrifice, one that is pleasing to the Lord. Sacrifice is not a pleasant word for us to hear at times. That is something that touches the very heart of what we try to do here at Saint Meinrad. It means that true sacrifice, lives poured out, is not behavioral, although it certainly has that quality. True sacrifice is internal; it is about the person within, the person that is not seen at first glance.
One of the things I try to reiterate each year is the need for deep and extended vision. I rehearse this with faculty and staff and I try to convince each of you. Please do not be quick to judge your fellow seminarians. Do not be quick to judge the faculty and staff. There is a great deal happening here that we cannot always see, much less understand. Sometimes that is happening in others, sometimes in ourselves. That means that we have to begin all of our relationships with an act of faith, faith that something is going to unfold, something is going to be seen that is not there at first sight.
I do believe that priests should be good judges of character, but I also believe that arriving at that judgment may take some time and effort. We are going to give you time and we are going to make the effort, but you must do that as well. It also means that the sacrifice of good character also builds toward being an authentic person. When we look back at the problems the Church has faced, and is facing, it is built around men whose characters were essentially flawed and who were not willing or able to seek the help they needed into making themselves complete and whole men.
I will now move on to the Gospel of Luke:
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.
We cannot serve two masters. There is a truth there that only comes with maturity. One of the most formidable tasks you face here is learning to live in this truth. You must learn that many of the things you value, many of the things you love, must now be set aside. You are conflicted, having built your life upon certain realities, you are now asked to forsake them, at least some of them. Brothers, I understand that nature within you. I also understand that it is incongruent with the pursuit of a vocation to the priesthood. Formation for the priesthood demands a singlemindedness that is unparalleled in the world we inhabit today.
A true sense of vocation means pursuing an end relentlessly and with such focus of heart, soul and mind that it cannot be set aside, even for a moment. The death of the vocation is doubt. The death of the vocation is duplicitousness. You cannot serve both God and mammon. You cannot serve two masters. The Gospel life calls us to a simplicity, not only acknowledged in simplicity of life, but acknowledged foremost in an unwavering pursuit of the ends of God, the telos of God, which have become our ends, our telos.
What does the Gospel tell us: Do not be anxious. God provides. A test for us today is to ask ourselves how deeply, how thoroughly, we believe that: God provides. The providence of God is a major theme of formation. To a great extent, your success here is dependent upon your willingness to cast all of yourself onto the providence of God. Give everything to God. Give him your hopes and dreams. Give him your cares and concerns. Give him your sin. Give him your virtue. Give him your sexuality. Give him your celibacy. Give him your intellect. Give him your stupidity. Give him your sense of wonder. Give him your depression. Give him your seeking.
Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all of these things will be given to you. Do not be anxious about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself. Care about yourself today and foster one thing during these coming days: a deeper, more personal, intimate relationship with the Master in prayer. If we have that, we have everything. If we have that, we can overcome anything, including the nastiness of the scandals that are surrounding the Church today. If we do not have that, then we have nothing, no matter how well stocked our liquor cabinets are.
Brothers, many blessings as we begin this spirituality week. I pray that you take it seriously and that you gain immense benefits from it. Use this time to deepen your resolve and your faith. Use this time to become more fully the man you are called to be. Use this time to love more deeply. Use this time to mend fences both here and at home. Use this time of prayer and reflection on God’s providence to extend that providence to all you know and all you meet. Entertain the unseen God as readily as you entertain one another. Learn from God as easily as you learn from your professors. This week will yield a harvest of as much as you are willing to sow. God has promised and he will do it.