A Sacerdotal Summer

St. Ignatius of Loyola likened the “enemy of our human nature” to a cunning military strategist who sussed out each of our weakest defenses and thereby knew exactly where to strike. A war for souls is truly on, both on the individual as well as the societal level.

In each of us the good and evil spirits are at work whenever we open our mouths and stretch out our hands, as there is no experience throughout our day which he cannot use for his greater glory (a “God in all things” spirituality), and there is nothing in our day that Satan does not want to taint with his filth. Simul iustus et peccator.

In society this is all too evident as well. Do you think the extent of the scandals and cover-ups being brought into the light in 2000 was not the perfect time for ol’ Screwtape to strike? As the Church and her supposed leaders were struggling to make sense of decades of an almost-systematized ephebophiliac sickness and its orchestrated hushing-up, the enemy seized it as the perfect opportunity. Just as we were in the throes of it all, the enemy got Obergefell v. Hodges through as he has wanted, and now Satan has used the wake of the McCarrick molestations as his opportunity to call for an end to heterosexuality (you know, the kind by which the human race continues) as the norm by which we are to understand gender, for an end to sexually-loaded pronouns, as well as for an end to the divinely-intended goodness of male and female.

Welcome to our 21st-century version of ancient Rome, when the emperors also reveled in gender-bending; sexual deviancy with men, women, children, and animals are on record, too. Caligula, for instance, loved to don the dresses and adornments of little girls, and such youthful experimentation led only to sexual violence and the thrill of combining voyeurism with murder, as he would put to death anyone who looked at him askance as he effeminately paraded through his palace or sashayed through the streets of his Rome.

Into such a world, our Lord Jesus Christ entered. He came not when things were perfect and pristine, for Eden did not need him in such a way! But this is the world we have lived in since the First Adam and Eve preferred a careless experimentation with their own supposed autonomy over the good things provided them by their Father for his glory and for our flourishing. For creatures endowed with good will, the possibility ever remains: to surrender to God’s plan for your life, or to determine your own identity and purpose. But the Son of God came as one of us in order to show us all how much his Father loves us, no matter what we wear or call ourselves, as the dignity of each and every human person has to be the supreme foundation upon which all Catholic teaching and truth, all Catholic sermons and service, must be based.

For this call to true dignity, Christ founded his Church, and he founded that Church upon our sacerdotal service. He emptied himself first and foremost when he “took the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7), but there is a second and ongoing kenosis as well, whenever he uses sinful men like you and me to extend his priesthood into this world.

A renewed sense of the indisputable importance of holy priests was a grace throughout this past summer. With courses at Saint Louis University coming to an end in mid-May or so, my summers are often filled with retreats for priests and religious. I began with giving a retreat week to the pre-postulants seeking entrance to the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist up in Ann Arbor, MI. What joy, what youth, what zeal for Christ! I would often enter the lecture room wondering what an Augustinian Jesuit might be able to offer a room full of Thereses of Lisieux’s: twenty-six young women desirous of offering themselves to Christ in total consecration, willing to extend Mary’s “yes” through time and today’s world.

From there I was blessed to help Dr. Scott Hahn on a week of retreat he offers priests every year. It was held on one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, as beautiful as it is a well-kept secret. At the Oglebay Resort and Conference Center just outside Wheeling, WV, Dr. Hahn and Dr. Ralph Martin (Sacred Heart Seminary) and Dr. John Bergsma (Franciscan University) gave all-day conferences on the Old Testament Prophets (Bergsma), the needed renewal of the Holy Spirit in our Church and in our hearts (Martin), and what true holy priesthood looks like (Hahn). Each day obviously offered time for Morning and Evening Prayer, Eucharistic Holy Hour, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the offering of beautifully concelebrated Holy Mass.

Is Scott Hahn not something of an American C.S. Lewis? Both chose his spiritual journey very, very carefully (as Lewis called himself the world’s “most reluctant convert,” while Hahn spent many a year as the world’s “most reluctant Catholic”), both were experts in their chosen academic field (Lewis in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, while Hahn is a leader in Biblical Theology), but both are so wise they are able to speak to the masses in terms that are not only apologetic but alluring, not only intelligent but imaginary (Lewis’s popular writings are akin to what Hahn’s many tapes and DVDs are for us today). Nearly 250 priests enjoyed these talks, this prayer, this fraternity. It is an experience opened to all priests, and you might want to look into it for next year through the St. Paul Center at Franciscan University in Steubenville.

I asked a dear friend of mine, Fr. John Eckert from the Diocese of Charlotte, what he took away from this week of retreat, and here is what he wrote back:

This is an over-generalization, but very often we priests are treated as one of two extremes. People very often see us as admirable princes who can do virtually no wrong, or, we are looked down upon as perverts who cannot possibly do anything right. What struck me about the St. Paul Center Priest Conference was that its organizers managed to demonstrate the virtuous mean. For four days, we were encouraged without being doted upon, challenged without being excoriated, reminded of both the treasure we carry and the earthen vessel in which we carry it. We were helped to step aside for a few days and rekindle our love for the Holy and to be reminded that we are not alone in our work of calling all whom we serve to Holiness.

Within the context of this virtuous mean of how to treat priests came an important call that I have never heard articulated quite so well. We need a better cooperation, a communion even, between clergy and laity to advance the call to holiness in the world. Pointing to examples like Clopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus, Drs. Hahn, Bergsma and Martin all demonstrated the ways in which the Lord uses men and women of various states in life to call a fallen world to faith in Jesus Christ. With impressive scholarship, and humble faith, simple yet profound comments were made, like the fact that Jesus never rebuked the apostles for being too gullible, that we should love the valid celebration of the Eucharist while being wary of liturgical wars, that we need to encourage those whom we serve to focus on their prayer lives in accessible and concrete ways, and that we need to give more in our Sunday homilies than mere anecdotal musings.

One of the most powerful moments of the conference was when Dr. Hahn passionately explained his exasperation that a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church who has been found guilty of despicable crimes has been punished by being reduced to the lay state. If the Church really believes that all are called to holiness, then why is “sentencing” a prince of the Church to the same state as Dr. Hahn himself the punishment? Whatever happened to excommunication? Where is the call for repentance and conversion now for the former Cardinal? Shouldn’t the laity be offended by this? With this passionate address, which never even approached the disrespect of a mere critic, but was rather the emboldened cry of a true lover of the Church, one could see this lived communion between cleric and lay on full display. We not only need one another, we need to be working together, supporting and challenging one another in this important work of proclaiming the light of Christ to a world so deeply immersed in darkness.

This was my first time attending the St. Paul Center Priest Conference, but I think this will become an annual pilgrimage to West Virginia. One final note on why this is the case is because of the clear centrality that the Eucharist holds in this conference. The organizers and the participants alike all know that any true call to holiness, any authentic action, any valid reform will all come “Through Him, With Him and In Him.” The very schedule with Mass and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, both done well with attention paid to detail, showed Who the conference was truly about; not the presenters, not the priest participants, but the one from whom all good things come, Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I pray that this Conference bears much fruit and I thank God for the opportunity to have participated.

True holiness was St. John Paul II the Great’s clarion call: not to hide behind a collar unchallenged, but to appropriate the Gospel so as to become fire! We priests must be nothing other than Christ’s hands and voices, and despite each of our own sinfulness, we must continue to pray and surrender until the “gap” between Christ’s presence and our own is dissolved: “This is my body . . . ” “And I absolve you . . . ” Notice the first-person singular: we do not say, “This is Jesus’s Body,” nor do we say, “And Jesus absolves you.” Know your vocation, brother! It is you who are speaking for a Jesus who has chosen to communicate his loving presence through you and as you!

Some living instantiations of such holiness came at this summer’s concluding highlight for me, giving the annual retreat to the Cistercian monks at the University of Dallas. Many of us know the story of this amazing group of men: forced to flee Hungary after the Soviet invasion, many of these monks made it to America where Bishop Gorman of Dallas invited them to start the recently-acquired University of Dallas in 1956 and then eventually the monks began Cistercian Preparatory School. With less than a handful of the original brave Hungarian brothers remaining, the rest of the choir stalls were filled with young, personable, very human monks. I was edified on how they prayed, how they spoke of their love of Jesus, and how they were open to serving God’s people, whether that meant staying in the monastery doing their small part or heading off to Europe for further studies.

Many of us are now heading into a new academic year, whether as diocesan priests with our neighborhood students, or as religious in a college or university. Most of the readers of Homiletic & Pastoral Review are probably not even affected by the academic year, working day in and day out in the local parish. Whatever you do today, thank you! Thank you for taking your and other souls seriously. Thank you for knowing that Jesus Christ truly is the Way and that all the challenging ideologies in the end will be brought to naught. Thank you for withstanding the onslaught of media coverage that would love to see us disappear or at least get more in step with the agendas of today. Thank you for never confusing the culture wars with the Faith. Thank you for bringing the Sacraments of Christ faithfully to his people, thank you for loving his Blessed Mother, and thank you for having said “yes” years ago up through today.

Allow me to end with this link to a copy of the Holy Father’s Letter to Priests from this summer as well. I fear many of us have given up on Pope Francis because we see in him a certain non-chalantness or insipidness. But he is our Holy Father, the one whom the Holy Spirit has seen fit to sit on the Throne of Peter for this time right now. His letter is from the Feast of St. John Vianney and continues the recent pontificate’s desire to see all of us grow in charity and in unity. Here is the Vicar of Christ calling us all to greater trust in the Spirit’s power, in greater transparency with our confessors and close friends, and with a love for God’s people that is translated into our own thirst for holiness, our own ongoing study, and our own prayer before the Eucharistic Lord each day. Blessings on all of you, and oremus pro invicem, please!

– Fr. Meconi, S.J.

Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ About Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, SJ is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.

Comments

  1. Avatar catherine ross says:

    Sweet uplifting words. But is it truly sincere? Nowadays, who knows. Sorry, my trust level of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy and clergy is close to the zero mark. And irony of all ironies, is Fr. David Meconi’s attached letter of Pope Francis to Priests, on feast day of Cure of Ars. Why do I find Father David’s attached letter of Pope Francis to be the irony of all ironies? Because contrasted to this wonderful prose from Francis to priests this past August, is this same pope’s latest, uncharitable remark he made about American Catholics on his plane trip to Africa
    . I sometimes feel Pope Francis has mastered the art of the Marxist political dialectic (“one step forward ; two steps back” to advance one’s political agenda). Francis seems to behave more like a snarky Peron politician , rather than a true shepherd.. And what he recently allowed to be done at the JPII institute is simply indefensible. Like I said, my trust level for the RC hierarchy is near the zero mark. I pray to God that He may either reconvert HIs wayward prelates and clergy back to the constant teachings of the Roman Catholic Church or remove them asap. I am so done with phonies in the Church.

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