By Emily Stimpson
The Year for Priests has begun. For the next 12 months, Catholics have been called by Pope Benedict XVI to reflect upon the gift of the priesthood, to pray for priests and to celebrate their service to the Church.
Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Father James Wehner, the newly appointed rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio, the only seminary outside of Italy that operates under the auspices of the Holy See, about why Pope Benedict issued such a call, what impact it might have upon priestly formation and about the nature of the priesthood itself.
Our Sunday Visitor: Why the Year for Priests?
Father James Wehner: Right now, there is a crisis of priestly identity -- not because of any defective programming, vocational efforts or theology, but because of the culture in which we live.
By calling for a Year for Priests, the Holy Father is giving the universal Church an opportunity to do more than just support our priests, but also to better understand the priesthood.
OSV: What is the nature of that crisis?
Father Wehner: In the years since the Second Vatican Council, there has been a good, healthy emphasis on the collaboration of clergy and laypeople. The council opened up the possibility of formal ministry in the Church by the nonordained, and that has allowed the Church to become more effective at many things, particularly evangelization. Having said that, with all the progress that has occurred, there also has been a diminished understanding of the place of the priest -- his place in evangelization, in the structure of the Church and in the functioning of the parish.
The Year for Priests provides us with an opportunity to recommit ourselves to understanding that there is no Church without the Eucharist and the sacraments, and there is no Eucharist or sacraments without priests.
OSV: How does the Church want Catholics to understand the priesthood?
Father Wehner: Our understanding of the priesthood should always begin with an understanding of the priest as a spiritual father. Through his priestly ministry, the priest makes present, in his identity and being, Jesus Christ.
That's significant, because without that understanding, we reduce priesthood to functionalism. That, in turn, leads to questions such as "Why can't women become priests?" and "Why can't the nonordained do what the priest does?" When we ask those questions, we're forgetting that the priesthood makes Christ completely present.
Christ wants people today to have the same intimate experience of him that folks had 2,000 years ago, and his relationship with his people, then and now, is one of fatherhood.
OSV: When it comes to the formation, what do seminaries need to do to help the men who will become priests better understand their role as spiritual father?
Father Wehner: Successful seminary formation has to focus on priestly identity, on the question: Who am I as a Catholic priest? Formation has to prepare young men to understand that when they're ordained, an ontological change takes place -- their very being is changed, stamped with the ability to make Christ present.
Seminarians (and priests) also need to understand what that ability to make Christ present means for their ministry.
OSV: And what does it mean?
Father Wehner: It means they must be loving shepherds of their flocks, and it means they must be courageous preachers of truth. People are tired of being lied to. They want to hear the truth. Even if they choose not to live by the truth, they still want to hear it. Priests today must be able to give them that. A good priest should love the Church, love the way she has fashioned her doctrines, and be able to communicate those doctrines -- preach the Gospel -- in healthy, holy ways. Everything about him -- his words, his actions, the decisions he makes -- needs to attract people to Christ.
OSV: What is the single greatest challenge seminaries face in forming men to be that kind of priest?
Father Wehner: The poisoning of the culture. These men are coming out of a culture that has been poisoned with pornography and the misuse of cyberspace. If they themselves have been poisoned by those things, they bring them into the seminary. That gets in the way of their formation and their ability to be the kind of priest the Church needs. It can cause problems for other young men as well.
We've had to get more and more specific with the kinds of questions we ask applicants because of that. If a young man hasn't purified himself, then he'll bring that into the community and formation will backfire. And I'm not just talking about purifying himself from the poison of pornography. Increasingly, addictions to technology are causing major problems with formation. You can't text your way through adoration. To be quiet, to be attuned to Christ who is speaking to you, that's a major challenge for men who've let social media and technology dominate their lives.
OSV: Is the poisoning of the culture also the most significant obstacle to young men pursuing a vocation to the priesthood?
Father Wehner: At the most obvious level, yes. But once you get beyond that problem, to the men who might consider a vocation, you find that the biggest problem is, again, a misunderstanding of priestly identity. Young men tend to see marriage and priesthood as two isolated vocations, when, in fact, the dynamics are very similar. What they need to understand is that the priesthood doesn't diminish their masculinity or sexuality; it doesn't remove spousal desire. It just fulfills it in a different way. The priesthood opens up another way of loving -- loving as a shepherd, a spiritual father and a spouse wedded to the Church.
OSV: How do you foresee the recent apostolic visitation of American seminaries impacting priestly formation in the United States?
Father Wehner: First, I think we'll see an improvement in how dioceses are staffing seminaries. Putting your best and happiest priests into the seminaries is not always easy, and both getting and retaining those priests has been a challenge for seminary rectors. But the visitation report raises the idea that if seminaries are going to form effective and competent priests, then they first have to have effective and competent priests on their faculties.
Second, I think you'll see an increased emphasis on forming priests who can engage the culture, who can carry out the new evangelization that Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict have talked so much about. Priests today need to be Renaissance men, capable of using the best there is in the culture to transform the rest.
How can families help the Church form healthy, holy priests? According to Father James Wehner, rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum, they can help by planting and watering the seeds of future vocations.
Living your own vocation well: If marriage can be strengthened, then the priesthood can be strengthened. Model for your children what it looks like to faithfully live out God's call by loving and serving your spouse.
Talking about vocations: Starting when children are very small, help them understand the different ways people can follow God. Talk with excitement about how wonderful it would be for God to call them to the priesthood and help them see the beauty in all vocations.
Exposing children to men who've answered the call to the priesthood: Befriend a priest. Volunteer to help out as a family with a project at the rectory, parish or local house of Religious. Attend ordinations. Support a seminarian. And pray regularly as a family for the priests you know.
Being excited about the faith: Make Mass the priority, not just on Sundays, but as much as possible throughout the week. Celebrate feast days. Get involved at your parish. Pray as a family before meals and before bedtime. Above all, show your children what a difference God and the Church have made in your life.
Praying for your children: More important than any words you say to them about vocation are the words you say to God. Ask him to guide your children in their discernment of his call and give them the grace to answer it.
O Jesus, greatest of all priests, knowing the need for priests and Religious in the world, you uttered those powerful words, "Beg the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his vineyard." How happy we would be if you would make us the parents of a priest or Religious. We know that we so often offend you and are not worthy of so high a privilege, but, dear God, do not think of our many sins. Think, rather, of the great needs of your Church. Remember how many confessions are to be heard, how many sermons are to be preached, how many dying people are to be cared for.
Remember, too, the great number of boys and girls who must be taught to know you, to love you and to serve you. Please, then, O heavenly Father, give your Church what she so much needs today. If you choose us to be the parents of a priest or Religious, gladly will we undertake the special care that the training of such a child would require, and for the love of you we will make any sacrifice that such training may put upon us. We desire only your glory and the salvation of souls. We offer that child entirely to your service, to the saving of souls for you.
Lord Jesus Christ, Shepherd of souls,
who called the apostles to be fishers of men,
raise up new apostles in your holy Church.
Teach them that to serve you is to reign:
to possess you is to possess all things.
Kindle in the hearts of our people the fire of zeal for souls.
Make them eager to spread your kingdom upon earth.
Grant them courage to follow you, who are the Way, the Truth and the Life;
who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor. For resources on the Year for Priests, visit www.osv.com/priestyear.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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