I would like to preface this article with a note of reverential charity to our shepherds. I realize they are often the subject of much criticism—criticism which is not always the most charitable in nature. And although I may also criticize at times, I will try to also be constructive and respectful to their office, as it is only with good intentions that I am writing.
All the problems in the Church have one underlying root cause: It is a problem of formation.
When we think of formation, we tend to think of reading books and learning facts, of definitions and explanations. Rather, proper formation is a much deeper process, involving the whole person rather than just factual knowledge of the intellect.
Formation is just another word for thinking with the mind of the Church, which is just another word for thinking with the mind of Christ. A Catholic who is diligent about his own formation will begin to see the world differently. He will begin to see the world as Christ saw it (albeit slowly), and as the saints saw it, the great imitators of Christ. He will begin to see the truth of things, to see reality as it really is, and act upon that understanding in daily life. 1)A classic definition of insanity is ‘to be out of touch with reality.’ In some ways, this is the very opposite of formation. Formation unveils the truth of the world and man’s place in it. Ill-formation obscures it. Where formation puts one closely in touch with reality—the most sane, if you will—ill-formation divorces one from reality to a degree. It is thus almost a kind of insanity. The goal of formation, in other words, is holiness; it is knowing which leads to acting (and acting which leads to knowing).
Formation has two basic components: intellectual and spiritual. 2)In the formation of priests, pope John Paul II also includes a pastoral and human component as well. But these are constituents of virtue, primarily intellectual virtue. They thus depend for their growth upon the supernatural virtues, namely charity—the chief of all the virtues. In other words, when one grows in charity, one also grows in all virtue, including the natural virtues. And charity, which is a supernatural virtue, only develops by way of grace. Thus spiritual formation is the gateway to every other aspect of formation; it enables the soul to be formed and infused with the light of grace The spiritual precedes the intellectual because grace precedes everything; it is required to illumine the intellect to see and operate properly (This is how Saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, was able to write such masterpieces of theology; his writing was preceded by a life of humble prayer, sometimes spending entire nights resting his head next to the Blessed Sacrament). Many “conservative” Catholics today tend to focus on the intellectual aspect only—or rather, on memorization and externals—and thus may sometimes neglect the spiritual component. Conversely, many so-called “liberal” Catholics today tend to neglect both aspects altogether, neither applying themselves intellectually or spiritually.
In this article, I would like to focus on aspects of formation that have been neglected in the Church today, and in particular, I would like like to offer ideas on how to remedy these deficiencies. Granted, whenever someone offers a “solution-to-the-problems-of,” it is expected to be met with some level of skepticism; for, as we know, the best solutions are rarely found in new or novel ideas. Rather, they are found in the essentials, the most necessary things, but articulated in a new way. It is easy to give a quick answer; “prayer and spiritual reading of the saints.” But it is more difficult to explain what that entails. It is my hope that the proceeding list of counsels will bring clarity to a presently obscured area of formation.
It is also worth mentioning, my intended audience is our American bishops, because I believe they are the key to the remedy. They are our shepherds. They are the ones who can most most readily effect change in the Church. When bishops are properly formed, they will insure that their priests are properly formed—which includes overseeing their seminary programs—who will then insure that the laity is properly formed. Formation, in other words, is top-down. It trickles down from the hierarchy to the people of God, just as it trickled down from Moses, to the elders, to all of Israel, and from the Apostles, to the Disciples, to the world (where the shepherds go, the sheep will follow).
And let us be clear: There is a real problem in the clergy today. One need only look at the statistics. When only 63% of Catholics believe in the Real Presence, 79% say abortion should be legal, 60% support the ordination of women priests, 72% of Catholic women support same-sex marriage, and 98% of Catholic women have used contraception, 3)sexually active Catholic women between 15 and 44 you can be sure there is a problem in the clergy—because, again, the faults of the people are generally only a reflection of the faults of the clergy. So with that, let us move beyond criticism to offering some ideas to help address the problem;
1.Read the Saints assiduously, and encourage others to read them. This is where everything must begin. Next to prayer, there is nothing more wanting today in the formation of Catholics than regular reading of the saints and mystics. They represent the heights of Catholic formation, because they, more than anyone else, thought with the mind of Christ, that is; with the mind of the Church. When we read their writings (not just biographies about the saints, but the writings of the saints themselves), we enter into the mind and heart of the Catholic Church; we enter into the mind of the most well-formed Catholics to walk the earth. When we drink in their words, we we begin to see the world in a new way, as it really is. We begin to think as they thought, and see the world as they saw it. They teach us about the important things, about prayer, about the sacraments, about charity. They teach us virtue to a heroic degree, since they themselves lived lives of heroic virtue (which the Church confirms infallibly).
This is perhaps the greatest void in formation today, which, I am afraid to say, even many clergy suffer from. While seminary classes rightfully require reading of the theological masters for intellectual formation (Saint Thomas Aquinas being the prime example), little emphasis is placed on the saints for spiritual reading. As a result, many priests today have not developed a habit of spiritual reading of the saints, and are thus handicapped in their ministry. They may read about a saint to prepare for a homily. But such summaries only provide a timeline of dates and facts; it does not nourish the soul as does words in their own pen.
Reading the saints not only insures the ongoing formation of our shepherds, but it also helps them fulfill the duties particular to their office. Spiritual direction is the most obvious example of this. Without knowledge of the heights of prayer, for example, priests will be unable to direct souls in the spiritual life. The people will stagnate and remain ignorant. And they will be rightfully frustrated, as many are today (Is it any surprise that Catholics who seek good spiritual directors are unable to find them?) Indeed, ignorance of the saints has resulted in a drought of spiritual directors, as it has left priests ineffective in in the direction of souls.
What is more, the saints also provide the substance the laity so crave. Reading the saints is like reading a wonderful commentary on the Scriptures—a most vivid and moving commentary—because they show us how to apply Christ’s words in daily life. When a priest is well-read in the saints, he will be able to pull from multiple sources to help elucidate the readings for the day. And he will do so to great effect, since it is almost impossible to read a page of their words without finding “nuggets” of wisdom from them. He will thus help satisfy the hunger of the laity for substance in the homily, while at the same time insure that he remains faithful to the Magisterium as a true representative of the Church.
As a final note, it is also important that bishops read a wide spectrum of saints, rather than just a limited pool from a certain tradition or era of time (for example, Franciscans only reading Franciscan saints, or Jesuits only reading Jesuit saints, or a priest only reading the early Fathers, etc.). This is a fault of human nature that needs to be corrected, because each tradition is complimentary to one another, and together form a complete whole. A diverse and encompassing knowledge of the saints will help insure a well-rounded formation, and will further aid the priest in being more accessible to the wide spectrum of human personality.
Let us also remember we are not preparing a doctoral dissertation. And so it is not necessary to give preference to the Church father’s, for example, over other saints. We want the hearts of people to be stirred, to be awakened with the fire of faith. Sometimes the least theological of the saints are better suited for this, as, for example, many of the recent mystics.
SUMMARY: Spiritual reading of the saints is one of the largest voids in Catholic formation. Bishops who read the saints regularly will, in the first place, sure up their own formation (because, we must acknowledge that seminary formation of the late 20th century was woefully inadequate), and thus sure up the formation of their priests. They will continually feed their mind and soul with wisdom, thus providing the substance the laity desire. And they will continually insure they remain true representatives of the Church, thinking only with her mind and heart.
2. Know Apologetics, and preach it often. Be excited about being Catholic. Next to reading the saints, apologetics is perhaps the second most obvious void of priestly formation today. One of the primary functions of the priest is to equip the laity to be effective missionaries in the world (this is his duty, in fact). But the world today is different than it was just fifty years ago. It asks questions, a lot of them. And it asks—and accuses—with the skepticism of a rebellious teenager.
Catholics, however, have been unable to respond. They cannot answer their most basic questions because they have not been equipped by priests to do so. While the world screams one message, that the Church is “outdated” and “irrelevant,” it needs to “get with the times,” is homophobic and sexist, “run by men” and “the cause of war and conflict,” the response from the people of God has been largely silence (or if they do respond, their answers are generally long-winded and unconvincing). It should be no surprise, then, that many Catholics are leaving the Church. After all, if you believed everything the world says about the Church, who would want to be Catholic?
This is why apologetics (that is, making a defense of the faith) is so important. It fulfills the priest’s primary obligation of equipping the laity to be effective missionaries of the world, while also aiding the formation and greater appreciation for the Catholic Church. After all, the truth is exciting. It is easy to get excited about being Catholic when one learns apologetics—because it is about learning truth. And the more one learns, the more one falls in love with the Church, the keeper of truth. This is what makes defending her so easy, because truth “stands on its own two feet,” as it were; it is its own best advocate. It does not require spin, flowery prose, or empty rhetoric to be believed. It need only be presented with clarity and charity. When one hears truth, it resonates deep within the heart of man, because God has written this desire deep within the heart of every human being (recalling the proverbial “why, why, why,” uttered by the lips of every child). God has ordered us toward truth. But as we age, we tend to stop asking questions.
Apologetics is, in a sense, almost a return to the search of childhood, to asking questions and seeking answers. Catholics should not be afraid to ask questions, for fear of the Church crumbling under the weight. They should not be afraid to return to the constant refrain of childhood, “why.” Why do Catholics do this… Why does the Church believe that… What about the crusades? Why is contraception an intrinsic evil? Why can’t women be priests? Did Constantine corrupt Christianity? Where did the pope come from? Why didn’t the Church oppose slavery more? Scripture says Christ had brothers. Why is Mary hardly mentioned in the Bible? Priests who are well-formed will be able to answer these questions with ease.
One of the greatest tactics of our common adversary is to discourage people from asking questions—to obscure the truth just enough so that people remain uncatechized and uninterested: Make the Church look ineffectual to the world, unable to answer its questions, so that people lose faith and trust in their priests. Keep the people at the level of mere believers—culturally Catholic—rather than disciples and missionaries. This, after all, has been one of the greatest struggles between heaven and hell: a struggle over truth—between its revelation and obfuscation. The enemy obscures it. The Church reveals it. And as her representatives, it is the duty of our shepherds to be active combatants in this war, to continually pull back the veil over truth so that it may be seen clearly. This is what makes being a representative of the Church so easy. The Church is, in fact, the easiest “product” to sell, since it is most in accord with reality, and thus with the human heart. The duty of the priest is merely to pull back the veil over truth, to present it with clarity, to let it speak for itself.
SUMMARY: It is no longer sufficient to be culturally Catholic. We have entered a time of history where doubt and skepticism are a widespread epidemic. It is incumbent upon our shepherds to respond to the needs of the world by educating themselves on its questions and criticisms. This is an era of time where the spirit of Saint Dominic—the great defender of the Church against error—is required. Bishops who know how to defend the faith and preach it often, will insure that their seminaries and priests do the same, who will in turn help equip the people of God to be effective missionaries of the world (and thus fulfill one of their primary obligations). Apologetics will also help provide the substance the laity long for. And as a result, they will begin to get excited about being Catholic again, as people come to a deeper appreciation and reverence for the Church.
3. Pray beyond the minimum required by your office. Though being a less obvious void in formation, prayer is arguably the most important. In all the writings of the saints, there is nothing more fundamental to the spiritual life than prayer. We are all familiar with the saying “Work as if everything depended on you. Pray as if everything depended on God.” But in our fallen human nature, we tend to do the former, but neglect the latter. And yet, it is the latter that is the most important part. Without the aid of grace, nothing we do will bear fruit. But with grace, even our smallest actions can move hearts to conversion—even something as insignificant as a modest glance of the eyes, a humble gesture, or austere comportment—because our actions will be imbued with the scent of grace.
Prayer is thus all the more necessary for our bishops. As shepherds, they have a particular duty to be representatives of the Church. But one cannot represent something if one does not first live through the example of one’s life, especially in the most important things—which, in the first place, requires a substantial prayer life.
Prayer is everything to the life of grace. Prayer enables man to love, to live a life of supernatural virtue. In prayer, man is filled up so that he may go back into the world to carry the light of Christ to others. It opens his heart, disposes his mind to be formed, to fully receive the graces of the sacraments (and in the case of the priest, enables him to be more fully configured to Christ). It is thus incumbent upon our shepherds to pray more than the minimum required by the Church, that is; more than daily Mass and the Divine Office.
Man tends to complicate what is simple. Prayer is one of the simplest formulas to save the Church in America. It does not require lofty feats or acts of heroism. All one needs to do is show up—to put one’s foot in the door, so to speak, and be still for an hour or two. When man puts forth the time, heaven responds by showering down graces. Nothing can be more simple. Man searches the world to find peace, happiness, and comfort. But rarely does he seek it in the one place it can be found.
It is unconscionable that something so necessary to formation (and to the salvation of souls), can be so widely neglected, even among our shepherds. One of the primary functions of the priest is to be a mediator between God and man. But in order for priests to be mediators, they must mediate. They must spend long periods of time before the Blessed Sacrament, weeping for the sins of man, and imploring graces for the world. They must, in other words, pray with their hearts, not just with their lips. They must allow the Holy Spirit to groan deep within them, so as to well up from the depths of one’s soul, even to the point of tears. Only then will priests become true mediators and fulfill their calling in life.
Prayer of the heart is so vital for the priest, in fact, that the Church considers it a grave sin to neglect it. This is why priests are required to recite the Divine Office every day under penalty of mortal sin (what are the Psalms of David, if not precisely prayer of the heart?). This is just another way of the Church saying “Prayer is really, really important.” And not just any kind of prayer. But a deep longing, a groaning, a heartfelt prayer, in the same likeness of King David and the prophets; “My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the LORD. My heart and flesh cry out for the living God.” (Psalm 84:3)
A common objection I hear, is that priests do not have enough time in the day; that priests are not called to be monks; that it is unreasonable to demand two hours of private prayer each day. But this is the paradox of prayer: The more time we give to prayer, the more time we receive back. Our work becomes easier, and we become more productive. Rather than losing time, in other words, we gain time. Rather than spinning our wheels like mice in a cage, we will accomplish more with less effort. Why. Because we will be relying more upon God’s strength than our own, and will thus be walking in grace, with His special blessing and protection.
Besides, there are 24 hours in a day. Can our shepherds not tithe 10% of that time to prayer? What is two or three hours, compared to what we receive in return, compared to the souls that will be saved? As Our Lord told Saints Faustina, prayer and sacrifice will save more souls than even the most eloquent preaching. 4)P1767: “You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons alone.” And Saint Alphonsus De Ligouri said that the Mass devoutly celebrated produces more fruit than all the sermons a priest can preach in his lifetime. 5)Dignity and Duties of the Priest, Part II, Section III.
SUMMARY: Prayer is one of the simplest remedies to save the Church in America. When bishops have a substantial prayer life, everything they do will bear fruit, and they will achieve more with less effort. When bishops pray, they will set the example of their priests, who will also set the example for the laity. Prayer of the heart is also the mainstay against poor formation. The reason why so many of our clergy seem to do things and say things contrary to the mind of the Church, is largely because they have neglected daily meditative prayer, and even more so, prayer of the heart.
3b. And let the people see you pray. A minor point, but a point worth mentioning nonetheless. Bishops and priests have a particular duty to the people of God—a duty which includes leading by example in the most important things, especially in prayer. Although it may be tempting for priests to spend all their prayer time in their private chapels, it is necessary they spend ample time also in public venues, such as their church and Adoration chapel. Granted, it is true that Our Lord counsels us to “pray in secret,” (Matt 6:6) so as to avoid occasions of pride an vainglory. However, it is already assumed that priests are not given to pride or vainglory, having the minimal degree of holiness required by their office. And besides, public prayer is a hallmark of community life in the parish.
In his book Dignity and Duties of the Priest, Saint Alphonsus confirms; “Some perform these devotions in private, lest they be seen by others; but it is better for priests to perform them in public, not to seek praise, but to give good example, and thereby induce others to praise God; ‘That they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.'” Priests therefore ought to be seen frequently in the adoration chapel and in the main church (This is not to say, however, that priests should not pray in private. Priests ought to imitate Our Lord, Who at times retreated from the world to be alone with the Father. However, priests ought not to be afraid of public prayer either, and should, in fact, prefer it over their private chapel).
There is also a further benefit for the priest to be seen in prayer. Not only does it edify the laity and spur them on the path to holiness, but it also serves as a reminder to pray for their priest as well; for charity breeds charity. When people see their priests praying for them, they will return those blessings back to the priest, who is equally reliant upon their prayers. Such prayers sustain the priest and make his ministry that much more fruitful—hence why public prayer is so vital to parish life (“where two or more are gathered…”). It is a mutual exchange of heartfelt prayers and love which continually draw blessings from God and enshroud a parish with an impenetrable shield against our common adversary.
4. Fast beyond the minimum required by your office. Another significant void in the formation of Catholics is practicing a little aceticism. As with everything mentioned above, there is a need to rediscover the great tradition of fasting, which has all but been abandoned in modernity; for, throughout history, fasting has always enjoyed a special place in the life of the believer. Whenever humanity was presented with an insurmountable problem, the solution has consistently been the same, “pray and fast.” From the prophets of the Old Testament, who implored heaven for mercy in sackcloth and ashes, to the words of Christ Himself, Who expelled demons and performed miracles, the greatest feats can only be accomplished through prayer and fasting.
Granted, the Church has made concessions in recent history to account for modern times and the weaknesses of man. But this does not exempt people (our shepherds least of all) from doing more than the minimum required. Indeed, bishops and priests should excel in this area, as they should in all areas of the Catholic faith. As representatives of the Church, they have a particular duty to represent the Church by the example of their lives, which includes the practice of a little aceticism. This does not mean that bishops ought to be stoics or stylites. But they should at least practice some degree of aceticism so as to avoid becoming too attached to earthly things. Gluttony, in particular, is especially destructive to the ordained minister, due to its prevalence and general acceptance in American culture. Even though it is ranked low on the order of vice, it ranks high in its proliferation (and also serves as a gateway to other vices, and sows seeds of tepidity and lukewarmness—which, as Our Lord said, is repugnant in the eyes of God). Bishops and priests need their spirits to be free, and their minds to be sharp. They do not need to be weighed down by excessive food and drink. The Catechism of the Council of Trent cannot be more emphatic and explicit on this point. 6)As the Catechism of the Council of Trent states, “All kinds of satisfaction are reducible to three heads: prayer, fasting and almsdeeds…Nothing can be more effectual in uprooting all sin from the soul than these three kinds of satisfaction. […] This triple remedy was, therefore, appointed by God to aid man in the attainment of salvation. For by sin we offend God, wrong our neighbour, or injure ourselves. The wrath of God we appease by pious prayer; our offences against man we redeem by almsdeeds; the stains of our own lives we wash away by fasting. […] Fasting is most intimately connected with prayer. For the mind of one who is filled with food and drink is so borne down as not to be able to raise itself to the contemplation of God, or even to understand what prayer means.”
This is not to say that bishops ought not attend dinner parties or social events. But they should do so with some resistance—not allowing themselves to become attached—and only for the good of souls (as opposed to their own enjoyment). Their first duty is to the people of God. And in order for bishops to serve the people, they must be vigilant and always on guard against the threat of tepidity (which Pur Lord would rather regurgitate from His mouth than bear this especially in His shepherds). As Saint Teresa of Avila reminds us, the smoke of Satan enters through small cracks in the wall. Let bishops look to Saint John Chrysostom as their example, who was continually derided by his brother bishops for not doing the things they did. He put his love for God and for souls above all things, even above the opinion of his fellow bishops.
5. Avoid “politician talk.” Preach more than merely a self-help message. (Note, if bishops follow the first four points above, then I believe this point will naturally resolve itself). Politicians have a reputation for talking much, but saying very little. Their speeches may contain encouraging words, inspiring stories, much flowery language and rhetotic. But in the end, little of actual substance is said. 7)In ancient times, this kind of speech was almost regarded as sophistry.
Priests, unfortunately, have also garnered a reputation for this kind of preaching. In fact, the homily is perhaps the most often criticized aspect of the priesthood. Wherever I go, and whatever parish I visit, this has been the one common complaint. The people of God feel that they are “not being fed.” More often than not, they feel that homilies are too “watered down,” resembling a Joel Osteen motivational pep talk rather than an authentic Catholic homily.
This does a great disservice to the laity because it fails to form them in the faith. I would even say that it shows a lack of charity, because it does not give the people what they need. The Catholic Church sits on a vast goldmine of richness, beauty, and wisdom. But if priests don’t apply themselves to their ongoing formation, their homilies will be unable to remain substantial, relevant, or fresh. They will continue to preach a generic self-help message, peppered with the ubiquitous story, a joke, and perhaps a timeline of facts on the saint for the day. They will continue, in other words, to sound like politicians, who seem more concerned about pacifying the people than helping them (Remember, the greatness of the Christian worldview is not so much a self-help message as it is an other-help message. The homily ought to help people, in the first place, by turning their gaze outward away from themselves toward others).
But let us be clear. Preaching with substance does not necessarily mean going into a lengthy theological discourse either. Some priests have tried to combat relativism by going in the opposite direction—by being overtly technical, theological, and hard-lined. But this does an equal disservice to the laity because it often speaks over their head (again, it fails to give people what they need). Preaching with substance, rather, means speaking with the mind of the Church. Priests, after all, are called to be faithful representatives of the Church. And being a representative means not only being technically correct, but also speaking with the heart. It is a harmony of both love and truth, so to speak. The problem that most homilies have today, is they often have one but not the other: Either they have the technical precision but lack the heart, or they have the heart but lack the clarity of truth. A well-formed priest will have both in perfect balance.
Granted, it is true that people need words of encouragement. But they also need truth. This is especially true for millennials and younger, who have grown up in an atmosphere of doubt and skepticism. They need to be told why the Church still matters, why it is still relevant in the world. They need their priests to be the anchor for them, to ground them in the truest vision of reality (they in fact thirst for it). This requires that priests take one step back, and build the case for the Church all over again. I must repeat this point: Priests must build the case for the Church all over again. Being culturally Catholic no longer suffices to withstand the influences of the world. People need to know “why.”
This is why good priestly formation is so important. It not only brings intellectual excellence, but also disposes priests to receive all the graces particular to their office, that is; to be configured to Christ is a more perfect way. In fact, people should be able to hear a homily and feel that God has just spoken to them (the priest, after all, is called to act in persona Christi). It may only be one word, one nugget of wisdom. But in that word is everything they need.
This is what the homily ought to do for people. Far from being a bland and generic self-help message, the homily ought to feel a fresh mountain spring surrounded in an arid desert, because that is precisely the same feeling that comes with proper formation. The truth has become so obscured in our world today, that when people hear it, it is like opening up a whole new to world to them. There is a certain freshness and virility about it; it gives new confidence, joy, and peace. Do you remember a time when you read or heard something and had that “ah hah” moment, that moment where everything “clicked” and made sense to you? Some would call this a moment of infused grace. Whatever the case may be, good formation should spark many moments like this. And likewise, so should the homily.
SUMMARY: The people need substance. Bishops who preach with substance show, in the first place, that they love the people enough to give them what they need (which is more than just a self-help message; it is primarily an other-help message, i.e., the most self-help message of all), and also set the example for their priests to follow. When bishops preach with substance—that is, preach with the mind of the Church, which is a perfect balance of love and truth—-they will rouse the sleepiness of hearts and inflame souls to great holiness. The homily is the most often criticized aspect of the priesthood, and for good reason. Good formation will readily resolve this problem, providing a stay against the painfully numbing speech of the politician. The more well-formed the priest, the more they will correspond to graces particular to their office, and thus the more Christ will be able to speak through them to the people—and thus preach with substance.
5b. And don’t be afraid to ask questions during the homily (and give people a chance to answer). This may seem like a trivial point. But I believe it can go a long way in the pedagogy of priests—one which can be easily implemented. There is no reason why priests can’t ask questions during the homily. Priests, after all, are called to emulate Our Lord. And did not Jesus, Himself, pose questions to His audience at times? The people of God should not always expect a monologue from their priests. When a father teaches his child a new lesson, sometimes it is helpful for him to ask questions. Priests, of all people, should appreciate the value of posing questions, having studied Plato’s works at length. The Socratic method, as we well know, is a wonderful tool to help engage minds and lead them on a journey to truth. Rather than spoon-feeding people with all the answers, sometimes it is better to challenge them with questions first, to lead them up to the final conclusion, to allow them to take ownership of it through their own reasoning. When done appropriately (asking simple questions, without condensation or arrogance, and relevant to the readings for the day), it can greatly aid in priestly pedagogy.
6. Preach about love, often. Love is the very core of our faith. It is the most central tenet of the Catholic Church, because Christ Himself is Love incarnate, and designated love as the greatest commandment. This is what most distinguishes Christianity from other religions. Only in Christianity is love taught in its highest form, self-sacrificial supernatural love. And yet, many Catholics don’t even know how to define love. The word “love,” itself, seems to have lost all meaning in modernity. It has been reduced to a kind of false compassion or tolerance, and emptied of all its masculine components. Indeed, this word has been spread so thin in contemporary language, relegated to mere emotion or a warm feeling, and even enlisted by the very enemies of God.
This is all the more reason why love ought to be a recurring theme in homilies—to probe the meaning of love at great length and depth—so that people may come to rediscover this core tenet of our faith. The readings for the day provide ample material to draw from in this respect. Indeed, the Bible itself is sometimes described as one long love-letter written by God to man. The primary lesson that God intended to teach us, in fact, is precisely this: To impress upon man His great love for us.
Remember the constant criticism of the laity? They want substance, they want to be fed. Priests can do this by showing the people what true love is, heroic and valiant, in all its splendor. Priests must inoculate the people against the false love of the world. They need to show people (men especially) its masculine aspect, love which freely ascends the steep slope of Calvary in imitation of Our Lord. They need to show them the manliness of love, love that is willing to be dragged face-down in the dust and drained of one’s blood for one’s beloved. Men need to be called back from wandering the desert, detached as they are from family and religion, to put a sword in their hand and coarse sheepskin on their back. They need to be divested of the false idea of love as a 1960’s “make-love-not-war” sentiment. Like a drumbeat, the preaching of authentic love ought to echo throughout the Church until people come to rediscover its true nature—love that is both meek, gentle, sensitive, and compassionate, but also strong, warrior-like, and uncompromising against evil.
And people not only need the what, but they also need the how. They need to be shown how to love, how it is applied in everyday life. At the end of Mass, the priest or deacon sends the laity into the world to share the good news. But what does this mean? If love means “to will the good the other,” how do I live this? What is the “good?” And how do we will it? Pope John Paul II described love as self-gift, to make a gift of oneself to others. He described love that is wholly other-centered. But he did not leave it at an abstract level. He, being the good pastor that he was, also provided concrete examples of how this plays out in everyday life, especially in the marital relationship between man and woman (just read Love and Responsibility, especially the last few chapters). Bishops and priests ought to follow the pastoral genius of pope John Paul II, and always provide practical examples for the people on the topics they preach, especially on something as obfuscated as love.
7. Love your flock with your heart, not just with your mind. One of the most striking themes in the writings of the saints, is how deeply they desired the salvation of souls, and how afflicted they were over their peril. They were so consumed by the thought, in fact, it is as if they were haunted by it. 8)For example, in a moment of great fervor, Saint Catherine of Siena lamented she could not stand before the gates of hell to prevent souls from entering. I am reminded of the 2006 movie “Amazing Grace,” which told the story of William Wilberforce and how he worked to abolish slavery in the British Empire. This movie depicted Mr. Willberforce as a man similarly afflicted (except by the injustice of slavery), to the point were it even affected him physically. He was plagued by incessant nightmares, which flashed before his mind the suffering of the slaves, and often awoke in pools of his own sweat. His insomnia wore his body out with constant illness, as he spent restless nights mulling over the plight of the slaves.
This vivid imagery captures a small glimpse into the kind of love the saints had. It was a love that pushed them beyond their natural strength, even to the point of losing sleep (for example, regularly doing night vigils). It was not a sentimental love—a love based only on emotion—but an authentic supernatural love, a love that gives freely without expecting anything in return.
Bishops, too, ought have this kind of love for their flock, a love that sees souls, not bodies. A bishop ought to be able to look out over a crowd of people and feel a compelling force well up from the depths of his heart, a force of great love and sorrow (sorrow for their suffering and loss). And when he is mocked or attacked by the people, and incessantly badgered to do this, or preach that, he should not become offended or embittered, but rather, remain humble and simple, quick to accuse him and excuse others.
Such love, it must be repeated, can only be found in men of deep prayer. Prayer, indeed, is what makes love and self-sacrifice so easy (and joyful). With prayer, it becomes a happiness to spend oneself for others (because then we truly give, and receive back far more). But as soon as we slacken in prayer, everything becomes difficult. In fact, one of the greatest temptations of holding ecclesial office, I believe, is precisely this. It is to neglect the most necessary thing that love depends on; those periods of solitude—so vital for the fecundity of priestly ministry. And when this happens, then all in put in jeopardy. The more bishops trust in themselves and in their own hands, the less they will accomplish. Rather than delegating less important tasks to others, they will begin to allow others to manage their time, and spread themselves thin with things the laity are perfectly capable of handling.
Worse yet, he will begin to drag his feet through his most important duties, that is; he will mechanically pray the Mass, half-heartedly administer the sacraments, and murmur in his heart against his superiors. He will become discouraged and embittered by the faults of people, by their demands and continual criticisms (and may even find himself becoming polarized, taking extreme and irrational opposite positions), and by the politics in the hierarchy. He will even begin dressing in civilian attire in public more frequently, feeling as he is an impostor deep inside his heart. He, in short, will lose the grace to love supernaturally—because, after all, charity is a theological virtue, and therefore can only come by way of grace—to make a gift of himself to others. And as we have said above, he will become as if a mouse on a wheel; working and working, but to little avail. Lack of prayer means lack of love. And this has been the downfall of most clergy, and the greatest thorn in the side of the Church.
SUMMARY: Charity is what makes the priest behave priestly; it is the epitome of his vocation, because the priest is called to emulate Our Lord Who is Love incarnate. A sign that a priest has charity, is what happens to him in prayer, whether the Holy Spirit groans within him for souls. Supernatural love is distinguished from natural love (which even atheists can possess) insofar as it involves the whole person rather than just the intellect, and it wills the highest Good for souls rather than just a good. The life of Saint John Vianney teaches priests of this kind of love—love that spends countless nights in prayer and often weeps for souls, even during the homily (coincidentally, the maniple was originally designed for this purpose, says Saint Alphonsus; to wipe away the tears of the priest during Mass). Vianney epitomized the Psalms of David because of his charity, which welled up in his prayer. Heartfelt prayer, in fact, is the first duty of the priest, who is called to be a mediator between God an man. This kind of supernatural love can only come by way of grace, since it is a theological virtue after all (and one cannot will God for another if one does not know God). If bishops and priests are able to love with their heart rather than just their intellect, then they will fulfill their calling in life, which ultimately is a calling to charity. Everything I have written above are merely aids toward this one end. The formation of Catholics, likewise, ought to lead toward this end, which indeed is the end of all human life on this earth, union with Love.
8. Be Pro-Life as the youth are pro-life. To be Catholic is to be pro-life. The former cannot exist without the latter. Pro-life is not merely relegated to political activity, as some would claim (it has only become political because the government made it such in 1971), nor is it merely a ministry for a small segment of the Church. Being pro-life is fundamental to an authentic Catholic worldview, because it is merely a recognition of God’s law as established in the first book of Scripture, the imago dei (image of God).
And yet, for whatever reason, there are a number of bishops today who seem to be dismissive—even hostile—toward any pro-life activity in their dioceses (and likewise many priests are antithetical to it as well). The root cause of this, in my estimation, cannot be anything other than a deficiency of formation. For, with formation comes an understanding the sanctity of human life, and an awareness of the gravity of its destruction. But more than this, formation also brings the wisdom to order all things in their proper place—to recognize the grades of moral evils and thus properly classify abortion as an evil of the highest order (not only from its objective gravity, but also its shear proliferation and cumulative harm to society). A well-formed Catholic is thus able to classify abortion as the civil rights issue of our time—just as slavery was for Colonial America, and the holocaust was for Germany—and thus rightly place it above all other political issues combined. Generations from now, when people look back on the 20th and 21st centuries, they will not be asking about immigration or the death penalty (although these issues are important humanitarian issues in themselves). They will look back and wonder why our Catholic bishops were so silent on abortion. If we can’t get this right, then we won’t get anything else right.
But more than just being pro-life, it is important to look to the example of our young people (this is why I intentionally added “…as the youth are pro-life”), because there are currently two pro-life movements in America today; one old and one new. Most bishops today are likely familiar with the old-style pro-life, which sometimes tended to preach a harsher message of condemnation, and often overlooked the humanity of the mother. This kind of pro-life activity, no doubt, is flawed, and is itself reflective of a formational deficiency.
The new pro-life movement on the other hand, corrects the deficiencies of the old and brings a message of mercy and forgiveness. It is a movement that understands the double-edged evil of abortion, that there are two victims in every abortion, not just one (not only the killing of a child, but also the slow killing of women’s souls), and offers a hand of support, counsel, and guidance. It is a movement that is composed mostly of the younger generation, whose joy and enthusiasm for pro-life is unlike any other ministry in the Church.
Bishops who find in themselves with deep-seeded antagonism toward pro-life—no doubt instigated by the old style—must divest themselves of such negativity and embrace the new pro-life movement. Our youth need our bishops to stand alongside with them, leading the charge, to help form the future leaders of our country. Pro-life can no longer be dismissed or neglected by our bishops. They must be openly pro-life, and not afraid to speak about it from the pulpit for fear of offending someone (There are of course ways to preach pro-life in a positive and educational way while also being sensitive to post-abortive mothers).
If bishops want to effect change in the Church, they must necessarily take cues from our young people and preach often on pro-life in a positive and constructive way. It is not enough for a few bishops to write an article every now and then, and treat it as just one issue among many. Our bishops responses should be in proportion to the evil of abortion, that is to say; they should join together in a single chorus and never tire of repeating themselves until abortion becomes illegal again in our country.
The Church needs our bishops to lead by example in this, to be her true representatives by giving voice to her teachings. Without our bishops on board, Catholics will continue to be divided on this issue, which is the central axis around which all other political issues revolve. If bishops can just unite on the abortion issue, then the other issues will come in time. But without unification on abortion, then it is impossible to make any significant progress in the civic arena. Catholics will continue to vote in pro-abortion candidates, and the culture of death will be perpetuated in our country.
SUMMARY: Bishops who preach pro-life regularly (not in a condemnatory way, but in a positive and catechetical way), set the example for priests to follow, who will in turn help teach the laity to love and appreciate the gift of life. They will help empower the laity to engage the world effectively, and address the misconceptions spread by pro-choice advocates. Furthermore, when the Church in America is united on this issue, then everything else in the public arena will fall into place. Pro-life is the foundation of true change in our country’s leadership, even in just how Catholics cast their vote. Bishops who are pro-life, will also provide the leadership that the youth so desperately need. The youth are the future of the pro-life movement, and bishops who want to take an active interest in the youth, must by extension take an active interest in pro-life.
In summary, everything begins with reading the writings of the saints on a daily basis. From the saints, comes a deeper appreciation for the most important things; for the Mass, the sacraments, for silence, obedience, and prayer…. Especially prayer. As the saints remind us, prayer is everything in the spiritual life. It will mark a new beginning in the life of the soul; for it will fill the soul with grace, and with it, peace, happiness, charity, and a new sharpness of mind. Where sin dulls the intellect, grace sharpens it, making the mind a sponge in absorbing the wisdom of the Church, and thus providing the substance that the laity crave. And the more one prays, the more one desires prayer, and desires to know truth—to learn about apologetics, and everything else I have written above. Prayer disposes the soul to be formed. But as I have said, prayer must be consistent and heartfelt (Saint Catherine of Siena calls it “humble, constant prayer”).
When bishops attend to their ongoing formation in this way, that is; when they do the things I have listed above, then, I believe, the world will shift on its axis. The Church will change overnight, in fact, because bishops undoubtedly have the most power (of office) to effect change. They will insure that their priests are properly formed, who will then insure that the laity is properly formed. Our bishops are thus both the problem and the solution at one in the same time.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||A classic definition of insanity is ‘to be out of touch with reality.’ In some ways, this is the very opposite of formation. Formation unveils the truth of the world and man’s place in it. Ill-formation obscures it. Where formation puts one closely in touch with reality—the most sane, if you will—ill-formation divorces one from reality to a degree. It is thus almost a kind of insanity.|
|2.||↑||In the formation of priests, pope John Paul II also includes a pastoral and human component as well. But these are constituents of virtue, primarily intellectual virtue. They thus depend for their growth upon the supernatural virtues, namely charity—the chief of all the virtues. In other words, when one grows in charity, one also grows in all virtue, including the natural virtues. And charity, which is a supernatural virtue, only develops by way of grace. Thus spiritual formation is the gateway to every other aspect of formation; it enables the soul to be formed and infused with the light of grace|
|3.||↑||sexually active Catholic women between 15 and 44|
|4.||↑||P1767: “You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons alone.”|
|5.||↑||Dignity and Duties of the Priest, Part II, Section III.|
|6.||↑||As the Catechism of the Council of Trent states, “All kinds of satisfaction are reducible to three heads: prayer, fasting and almsdeeds…Nothing can be more effectual in uprooting all sin from the soul than these three kinds of satisfaction. […] This triple remedy was, therefore, appointed by God to aid man in the attainment of salvation. For by sin we offend God, wrong our neighbour, or injure ourselves. The wrath of God we appease by pious prayer; our offences against man we redeem by almsdeeds; the stains of our own lives we wash away by fasting. […] Fasting is most intimately connected with prayer. For the mind of one who is filled with food and drink is so borne down as not to be able to raise itself to the contemplation of God, or even to understand what prayer means.”|
|7.||↑||In ancient times, this kind of speech was almost regarded as sophistry.|
|8.||↑||For example, in a moment of great fervor, Saint Catherine of Siena lamented she could not stand before the gates of hell to prevent souls from entering.|