Tag Archives: priesthood

Sheep and Goats

2 Apr

In the past I’ve spilled perhaps an inordinate amount of ink on the Holy Thursday foot-washing rite, which surely has been the cause of some controversy in recent years. At the same time, though, the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper has never ceased to be one of my favorite liturgies of the year, and my family is eagerly looking forward to tonight’s celebration, grateful that there is no conflict with “March madness” or youth sports!

One aspect of this beautiful liturgy that always captures my attention is the first reading, from chapter 12 of Exodus, in which the Lord gives the instructions for the Passover to Moses and Aaron. I tend to zero in on the part about the lamb being taken from either the sheep or the goats. The Lord isn’t particular on this point–the blood of either a sheep or a goat on the doorposts and lintel of the house will save the family’s firstborn from death.

In other contexts, there is a huge difference between sheep and goats. The example that immediately comes to mind is Matthew 25, where Our Lord says that at the judgment He will separate the sheep from the goats. The sheep obviously are those in a state of grace, those who are being saved, while the goats are those who are destined for eternal fire.

I don’t want to make too much of that, because these are two distinct passages with their own distinct messages. But on the night in which we celebrate and praise God for the gift of the New Covenant priesthood, we are reminded that ”in the old days” the Lord made use of both sheep and goats in the rite that prefigured the Mass. I find that to be a reminder of the efficacy of God’s salvific economy irrespective of the holiness or sinfulness of His ministers. When the New Covenant “instructions” are followed, Our Lord is true to His promises, and He becomes the living bread from heaven bearing everlasting life. What an awesome reality!

At the same time, whether we are sheep or goats does have eternal ramifications. And isn’t that what the Last Supper, and more specifically, the Institution of the Holy Eucharist, is all about?  The Good Shepherd, through the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, gives us the means to be recognized as His sheep, enabling us in turn to recognize and serve Him in the least of our brethren (cf. Mt. 25:31-46) and so come to enjoy the fullness of life with Him.

St. Joseph, a Saint for Our Times

19 Mar

St. JosephSt. Joseph is one of the few saints to have more than one feast day. He also happens to be my patron saint, so when my wife and I were getting married, she asked which feast day I celebrated. Before I had the chance to answer, she mused out loud, “Definitely not St. Joseph the Worker.” She was right, though I’ve teased her ever since about this apparent commentary on my work habits!

The Church has traditionally honored St. Joseph during the month of March, so it seems appropriate this month to draw some insights from this great saint, especially today on his feast day.

At the outset of Luke’s Gospel, we read that part of John the Baptist’s role in preparing the people for the imminent coming of the Messiah was to turn the hearts of fathers to their children. In St. Joseph, we find a father whose heart is already exquisitely calibrated.

God was able to accomplish great things through this eminently faithful man of service. Priests, deacons, and laymen do well to pattern their lives after the beloved “Guardian of the Redeemer.”

While St. Joseph wasn’t a priest in the usual sense, this “just man” has much to say in response to today’s crisis of fatherhood–both the spiritual fatherhood of priests and the fatherhood exercised in the home.

St. Joseph was entrusted with the care of the Holy Family, the sanctuary of love where Jesus spent His hidden years. This family was, in embryonic form, the Body of Christ, containing both Christ and the mother of those who would come to believe in Him and keep His commandments (see Rev. 12:17). For this reason, St. Joseph, husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus, is considered the patron saint of the Universal Church.

Some men think St. Joseph got it all wrong. This is the age of Viagra, no-fault divorce, and the “sexual revolution.” The goal seemingly is sex without responsibility, whereas St. Joseph accepts the serious responsibility of marriage and family while foregoing the pleasure of marital intimacy.

Yet, St. Joseph got it exactly right. He tells modern man that it is possible and necessary–in fact, noble and manly–to live in accordance with the Church’s teachings on sexual morality. Certainly this does not mean that all men, particularly married men, are called to perpetual continence. But all men according to their state in life are called to chastity and at certain times in their lives (e.g., before marriage and possibly at times during marriage) are called to continence.

The marital act is a sacred expression of one’s total gift to one’s spouse and must not degenerate into a merely recreational, selfish act of self-gratification. St. Joseph gives himself totally to Mary. He embodies true love and marital fidelity to his beloved spouse even in the absence of physical intimacy.

A significant element of fatherhood is playing good defense–in other words, protecting the precious treasures that have been entrusted to us. Wolves in many forms pose serious threats to families and parishes. Our response as men of faith must not be fear or anxiety in the face of such threats, but rather vigilance and courage.

During this month devoted to the Guardian of the Redeemer, may all of us fathers draw renewed strength from this holy hero. St. Joseph, patron of the universal Church, pray for us!

This article appeared earlier this month in The Leaven, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

What Is a Vocation?

9 Apr

vocationVocation comes from the Latin verb vocare, which means “to call.” A vocation is a calling from God and to God. A vocation naturally includes what we do “for a living,” but it goes much deeper than that. God has a personal plan for each one of us. This “plan” is our personal vocation, as God invites each one of us to a special relationship with Him through Christ.

Let’s take a closer look at how this plays out.

All the faithful, by virtue of our Baptism, have a vocation in the Church. All of us are called to a deep, personal, and communal relationship with the Lord and His family, the Church; all of us are called to holiness—to become saints; all of us have a role to play in bringing the Gospel to the world, one precious soul at a time.

Continue reading

Great Vocations Site

27 Mar

IRLIn celebration of its 40th anniversary, the Institute on Religious Life (IRL) has launched a completely redesigned and rebuilt website at ReligiousLife.com.

The new site, made possible by funding from the Our Sunday Visitor Institute, is more dynamic and user friendly than the older site, with many more audio and video features to complement existing features. In my estimation (and admittedly I’m prejudiced as a long-time advisor to the IRL), it is the premier vocations information portal on the Internet today.

I invite you to visit the new IRL site. You can sign up for an eight-day “virtual” vocation discernment retreat, browse the entirely new online catalog, or read the new e-version of Religious Life magazine.

Check out the “Speak Lord” vocational download of the month club, and VocationSearch–the IRL’s searchable database of great religious communities.

Visit ReligiousLife.com, too, for complete information on the upcoming 2014 IRL National Meeting, featuring guest speaker Mother Dolores Hart, O.S.B., who left her life as a top Hollywood actress to become a cloistered Benedictine nun.

The Proper Care and Feeding of Priests

31 Jul

Pope with childrenLike many parents, I’ve heard the incessant pleas of my children to get a pet (or in our case, another pet). With these pleas come all sorts of promises and assurances that the dog, cat, or gecko will receive abundant love and impeccable care. All will be right with the world–or at least with our home–if we simply were to adopt Rover or Princess.

Then, of course, we get the pet, and the enthusiasm diminishes with the first accident on the carpet. The kids are still fond of animals–they love the zoo or Animal Planet, and maybe would like to own other pets. But the pet or pets they already have are taken for granted, and what was previously considered loving care is now experienced as a burdensome chore.

Pet Seminary

When we think about it, there’s a similar dynamic at work when it comes to our parish priests. We’re concerned about the looming priest shortage in many areas. We have vocation directors and parish committees on the constant lookout for prospects. We come up with 101 ways to support our seminarians. We esteem the priesthood and like the idea of getting a new priest.

Yet, as a pastor in California once confided to me, priests tend to fall off the map after ordination. The priests that we do have, day in and day out, are easily taken for granted. Over time their personal quirks or shortcomings overshadow, in our minds, the graces that come to us through their ministry.

In short, the idea gives way to the reality.

Like anything else, the best way to act upon the godly inspiration to support our priests is to make good, practical resolutions and carry them out. What are some resolutions we can make when it comes to supporting our priests?

Prayer Necessities

Most practicing Catholics would readily accept that the first order of business would be to pray for our priests with renewed ardor and consistency. But while the intention is there, we often fail in the execution. What we need is a concrete resolution to incorporate prayer for priests into our daily routine, so that it becomes a habit-even more, a virtue. To that end, here are some suggestions we might wish to consider.

Mass. There is no better way to pray for priests than to remember them in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This can be done whenever we attend Mass on Sunday or other days, but maybe we can even pick out a particular weekday or Saturday each week or month in which we go to Mass specifically to pray for our priests.
Special prayers. We can offer specific prayers or novenas of our own choosing–anytime, anywhere–for the sake of our priests. It’s especially appropriate to seek the intercession of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests. And offering our daily sufferings, crosses, and inconveniences for priests is a good idea, too.
Eucharistic adoration. Praying for our priests in the presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass is highly recommended by the Church. And on a larger scale, parishes may want to sign up adorers for each hour of the day specifically to pray for their priests throughout the year.
Prayer chain. Even if Eucharistic adoration is not presently available, parishioners can divide up among themselves the hours in the week, such that at any time, day or night, there is at least one person praying for the parish priests in that community.
Family prayer. Prayer for priests should find its way into the rhythm of family prayer. One excellent time to remember priests is during the family Rosary. Most people pray for the intentions of the Pope during the Rosary, but why not also include our bishop and our parish priests? This prayer would also instill in us–and even more, in our children–a greater sense of the Church as being both universal and local.

No Strings

How we pray also matters. I’ve met people whose prayer for priests imposes their agenda upon God. They pray that the pastor will be transferred to another parish, or that he will (finally) fire the flamboyant liturgy director, or that he will bring in program X and/or dump program Y in the diocese or school.

There may, on occasion, be some validity to such agendas, but more fundamentally, with a humble, childlike faith, we should simply lift up our priests in prayer without any strings attached.

Let’s look at it this way: We know that Jesus is the physician of our souls (cf. Mk. 2:17). Even more, He’s a surgeon, always willing and able to repair our brokenness. But further still, He’s the diagnostician par excellence of the human heart. We do well to let Him figure out how to draw individuals to Himself.

When a loved one is injured or very sick, our job is to call 911 or drive to the closest emergency room. In other words, we take him or her to the doctor, knowing that the doctor is the one who is able to diagnose and treat the ailment.

How much more is it important for us to spiritually take our priests–and all the people in our lives–to the feet of Jesus and let Him take it from there. May He give them strength in the face of temptations, consolation in the face of loneliness or setback, and courage in the face of opposition. And may He give them the grace to be holy, faithful priests who bring Christ to us in Word and sacrament.

Our Just Desserts

In one sense, we don’t “deserve” priests, any more than we deserve grace. But in another sense, we get the priests we deserve. In a real sense, our priests are a reflection of us (as are, often to our shame, our Catholic politicians).

Incorporating prayer for priests into our lives may not perceptibly change them or particular situations, but it will change us. We may find, over time, that our parish will be transformed little by little into an environment that’s more conducive to our priests’ growth as men of God.

Prayer and Feeding

If we do nothing else besides pray for priests, we have done well. Yet we also sense that our prayer should be accompanied by acts of personal affirmation.

While that sounds good in theory, we may struggle when it comes to getting close to our priests. Their lives are very different from our own, and their schedules and responsibilities can be brutally demanding.

And the fact is, serious Catholics and nominal Catholics alike–and everyone in between–can tend to depersonalize priests. We treat them as mere functionaries, as sacramental dispensers, not terribly unlike how we treat tollbooth operators, gas station attendants, and postal workers. We just want to get a “fill-up” of grace without annoyance or hassle.

So, it seems to me that the first step for us is to recognize that behind the priestly garb is a human being. He has forsaken many natural goods so as to choose the supernatural good of serving the People of God (us!) as an ordained minister.

The Church is not a private business or a government entity, but the Family of God, and the priest serves a fatherly role in the local family known as the parish. So clearly the priesthood is meant to be relational and not merely functional. We see in this reality the need to build the bonds of friendship, fraternity, and solidarity with our priests. But how? Here are a few simple suggestions:

Get to know him. Do we bolt for the door after Mass? Or even after Communion? Why not stop and say hello to him? On occasion, why not invite him out for a cup of coffee, or even welcome him into our home? Such one-on-one encounters are much more life-giving to most priests than big, noisy banquets.
Interaction with families. Priesthood and marriage are vocations that complement and draw strength from one another. A priest’s involvement in our family’s life could help during difficult phases of our lives and possibly even foster religious vocations in our children. But priests also benefit greatly from the loving friendship they are shown by families that open their hearts–and homes–to them.
Deal with difficulties gracefully. I’ve known pastors who actually hide when they see certain parishioners walking toward them. They do that because they know that these parishioners talk to them only to hammer them about some liturgical or doctrinal concern. Whatever the perceived difficulty may be, such an adversarial approach doesn’t respect the person of the priest (nor his office, for that matter). When, however, we befriend priests and treat them with respect, we have earned the right to express concerns in charity to them.
Offer positive assistance. Along with that, all of us need some encouragement at times–even priests. Affirming the good things they do (Nice homily, Father! Thanks for your time, Father! etc.) is a good start. But we can go even further: Rather than complain, perhaps we can offer (not impose) assistance to our priests, who almost universally carry a very heavy burden of responsibility in serving us each day.
As we support our priests, we will surely find that we get back far more than we give, as personally and spiritually renewed priests will return the love shown to them in myriad ways, for the good of souls and the betterment of our parishes.

Yes, we need more priests. But, with the Church, let’s remember and take good care of the priests we have!

This article originally appeared in the November-December 2009 issue of Lay Witness magazine.

Commitment Matters

18 Jun

Young men playing gamesI’m very concerned about the direction of many teenage boys today. They seem to lack motivation, focus, and religious sensibility, as they idly pass their time on their iPhones and X-Boxes.

Granted, this is to some extent a perennial issue. Many young men (like me!), after sowing some wild oats, eventually make the difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood and accept the responsibilities that come with it.

The present generation of teens has it a little tougher in some ways. Too many are raised without a strong sense of faith and family. They seem to have no mooring, no anchor to draw them back from the pagan society that has enveloped them.

And they have never learned about commitment. Instead, they have been brainwashed by the “anti-commitment” ideology of the culture of death and the entertainment industry.

I have much more than a passing or speculative interest in all this. I am the father of three daughters who are still single. I presume that not all of them will be called to the religious or single life, so I wonder about the “pool” of young men that will be on the scene as I wake up to find that my little girls have one-by-one become young women. After all, this is largely a post-divorce culture. While divorce is the tragic consequence of a commitment gone awry, many young people today (perhaps children of divorce themselves) don’t understand the point of commitment in the first place.

And then there are my young sons, and I wonder how they will navigate through this cultural morass and become men of honor and commitment.

As I completed law school I had a “re-conversion” to the Catholic faith, and I became very serious not only about the practice of the faith, but also about my attempt to live a God-centered, purpose-driven life. Yet even then I occasionally experienced the erratic tendencies of my adolescence. This was especially the case in my vocational discernment as I pursued, in quick succession, a legal career, religious life, and secular priesthood as a seminarian.

But then God put into my heart a love for the woman who would become my wife. Now, over 22 years later, despite my own limitations and sins, He has continued to give me the grace to love and serve Him through my faithful, self-giving love for Maureen.

All vocations in Christ are responses to God’s invitation to enter into an intimate, personal relationship with Him. This is nothing other than an invitation to love. How do we love Christ? How do we authentically love anybody? By giving completely of ourselves: by committing ourselves to the other.

The vocation to love God plays itself out differently in every person. For most of us, it will lead to another invitation—to enter into a marital relationship that reflects the union of Christ with His Church (see Ephesians 5:31-32). For others, it may lead to an invitation to the consecrated life or to the priesthood.

But the point is, love without commitment entails using God and others, not giving of ourselves to them. Without a sense of commitment, we are a culture, as C.S. Lewis would say, of “men without chests.” Without a sense of commitment, all vocations—including the primordial vocation to Christian holiness—fall by the wayside.

The current vocations landscape—and here I refer to the relative dearth of committed Catholic marriages as well as to the shortage of priests and religious—indeed poses serious pastoral challenges to the Church. Yet I think a concerted effort to restore a sense of commitment to today’s youth will go a long way with God’s grace toward fostering a new springtime of vocations in the Church.

One good place to start is by exhorting and equipping parents, teachers, and mentors to devote themselves to the youth, after the pattern of St. Paul: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). When we authentically share the Gospel with the next generation, we are also sharing ourselves, becoming a gift to them.

This of course entails a challenge to the “older generation” to live what we teach. Young people don’t have any use for teachers unless they are first and foremost witnesses. Our own Christian commitment must be continually renewed through the Eucharist and manifested in virtuous lives of service to others.

These brief reflections on Christian commitment also have an obvious application to the goal of Catholic formation. So often the concern is about numbers (how many baptisms, RCIA candidates, seminarians, etc.) or about what catechism series is used or having the most up-to-date catechetical methods and technology aids.

While all those things are important, the goal of all Catholic formation, especially when it comes to youth, must be a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Any so-called “vocation crisis” goes hand-in-hand with a “commitment crisis.” The perennial response of the Church to this challenge, amplified in recent years by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is to introduce young people to the captivating person and life-giving teachings of Christ and let him or her fall in love.

Calling All Catholics!

4 Apr

Cardinal NewmanThe great 19th-century English convert, Blessed John Henry Newman, was a great proponent of the laity’s role in the Church. Once, when asked by his bishop what the clergy should think of the laity, Newman famously quipped, “Well, we’d look rather silly without them.”

A century later, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), influenced in part by the writings of Cardinal Newman, announced that one of its goals was “to impart an ever-increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 1). Therefore, the Council charted a plan for renewal on the premise that every baptized Christian has a crucial role to play in the life of the Church. In other words, holiness isn’t the exclusive domain of “professionals” (i.e., priests and religious), but rather the goal of every human life. This principle became known as the “universal call to holiness” and was discussed at length in chapter V of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium).

Given the centrality of this theme, the vocation of lay people to holiness and to participation in the Church through the renewal of the family and society informs every conciliar document. However, in the 1965 Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem), the Council addressed the subject directly.

When my children were young, I would go into their room at night and sprinkle them with holy water. Depending on how trying of a day it was, I would give them an extra sprinkle or two or three. (Sometimes I would be tempted to bathe them in holy water!) As I went through this ritual, I would ask them, “Whose child are you?” to which they would reply, “God’s.” The point was to link their being Christians to their being children of God through the waters of Baptism. And, as Vatican II stresses, it’s our shared Baptism–deepened through the sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist–that provides the basis for the entirety of the Christian life.

For that reason, as we continue our series on the Vatican II documents, I thought I would call us to reflect upon this passage from the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity:

“The laity derive the right and duty to the apostolate from their union with Christ the head; incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body through Baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation, they are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord Himself. They are consecrated for the royal priesthood and the holy people (cf. 1 Peter 2:4-10) not only that they may offer spiritual sacrifices in everything they do but also that they may witness to Christ throughout the world. The sacraments, however, especially the most holy Eucharist, communicate and nourish that charity which is the soul of the entire apostolate” (no. 3).

This is a broad topic, but here are a few thoughts to consider:

(1) Call to holiness means a call to apostolate. We notice that the document is not called the “Decree on the Holiness of the Laity.” Our pursuit of holiness cannot be seen in isolation from our participation in the Church, which exists to bring all men and women into full communion with Christ. Lay Catholics build up the Church through word and example in the midst of the world.

(2) It’s apostolate, not ministry. True, we often use “apostolate” and “ministry” interchangeably, and in fact “ministry” is the more commonly used term, especially in Protestant circles. Yet Vatican II intentionally refrains from using the term “ministry” in connection with the laity, as that term is ordinarily reserved for the sanctifying and teaching functions of the ordained. “Apostolate” is what we are all called to do by virtue of our Baptism. Here we see the Church balancing the “universal” call to build up the Church with the specific call of ordained ministers, whose participation in the one priesthood of Christ differs from that of the laity in essence and not merely in degree (Lumen Gentium, no. 10).

(3) It’s not about doing “Church” things. In recent decades the Church has seen an explosion of lay liturgical “ministries” as well as the growth of lay positions in the institutional Church (like mine!). These are good things in themselves, so long as we understand that when the Church calls for an active, engaged laity, she is speaking primarily of the role of the laity outside of the church building and church offices. The idea is not to have lay people look more like priests or religious–and certainly not more “lay bureaucrats”–but to encourage laity to “be what they are”: agents of the Gospel in the midst of the world. As Pope Pius XII noted back in 1946, laity must be “on the front lines of the Church’s life.”

(4) Renewing the temporal order. Priests minister to us, so that we in turn can bring Christ to the world. When the Church calls the laity to “renew the temporal order,” she is not being abstract, but very specific. We are called to evangelize our families, workplaces, social networks, and public places. Occasionally this may be a little more dramatic, but more often it takes place in the ordinariness of daily living, which when united with Christ becomes extraordinary and redemptive.

(5) It’s all about being united with Christ. Consider this analogy: Imagine there’s a mishap on an airplane and the craft begins losing cabin pressure. In the face of such a calamity, most of us would want to be courageous and help as many of our fellow passengers as possible. Yet, if we don’t use our own air mask first, in a matter of seconds we’ll be of no use to anybody. We would be among the first casualties. Similarly, our first responsibility as Christians is to open our own hearts to Christ each day, allowing Him to change us and work through us. Only then does “apostolate” happen!

How do you understand your baptismal vocation to holiness and to mission?