I t seems that no matter where I travel, what parish I visit, or what group I am speaking with, there is a real sense of renewal among Catholics of all ages. There is an enthusiasm about being Catholic, an excitement about the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, and a great appreciation for the priesthood.
I often tell the seminarians that our people are expecting great things from their priests. This is not a sentiment that should scare them but, rather, excite them. Why? Because the faithful love their Church, have a high regard for priesthood and want to see how their faith can make a difference in the world.
A bishop once told me, “One of the worst things in ministry is missed opportunities.” When a difficulty calls for a response, and the priest fails to act; when a situation calls for leadership, and no one steps in; when there is an incident, maybe even tragic, and no voice preaches the Good News. One of the aims of seminary formation is to emphasize the urgency of pastoral ministry and why the Church has to be on the forefront of all issues: political, moral and social.
Good Leadership — Good Evangelization
I believe there is a real sense of excitement among Catholics in the United States because bishops are bringing leadership to difficult moral, political and ethical situations in a more visible, unified way. Catholics want to see their shepherds acting, leading and responding. With more bishops being comfortable with social communications and the media, Catholics are seeing their bishops on newscasts, Web sites, podcasts and blogs. There is a sense that Church leadership is serious about meeting the faithful where they are.
Pope Benedict XVI has excited the base, as they say, by reaching out to traditionalists who have felt marginalized; to young people seeking reverence and awe in the sacred liturgy; to seminarians who were inspired in New York when he spoke about how the Church needs them; to Anglicans who have felt betrayed by their own bishops, and even to grade school children meeting with the Pope in St. Peter Square for a catechism session.
For too long there was an attitude among some priests to ‘‘not rock the boat,’’ to not emphasize any one liturgical or spiritual tradition for fear of alienating others, or to not promote some of the Church’s best resources in evangelization for fear of ‘‘turning back the clocks.’’ How many parishes had no form of Eucharistic adoration outside of Mass; had uninspiring liturgies that never employed incense, holy water or chants; had no public veneration of the saints; had hardly any Marian devotions — certainly not those led by priests; had liturgical celebrations led by the laity while the pastor stayed in the rectory, and had minimalistic Triduum liturgies where the priest would say to the liturgy committee, ‘‘Let’s keep it simple.’’? As a result of poor leadership in many of our parishes, the sense of being “Catholic” was reduced to liturgies without spirituality, spirituality without mystery, and a community life often energized more by fundraisers than by prayer.
Priests of all ages seem to have shaken off this misconceived sense of priestly ministry and are reclaiming their proper role as shepherd and spiritual father in the parish. How good God is in promising Pastores dabo vobis (I will give you good shepherds).
Seminarians Today — Priests Tomorrow
So, who are our future priests? These are men who cannot wait to preach the Good News with force, energy, conviction and vibrancy. There will be no confusion among the faithful about what the magisterium, Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church teach when our future priests preach from the ambo, teach in the classroom and prepare the faithful for the sacraments.
These seminarians are coming from all age brackets. Men who lived before the Second Vatican Council and grew up in the 1970s; men who were born (believe it or not) after Ronald Reagan left office, who knew only a feeble John Paul II; men who had careers, and men right out of high school. It would be a mistake to stereotype our current seminarians as “young traditionalists” or “inexperienced” in life matters. As a matter of fact, in so many ways these men are light years ahead of my generation when we were in the seminary. I had a classmate offer a day of recollection to the seminarians in Pittsburgh where I once served as rector. He told me these guys put us to shame. And, he was right.
Our present-day seminarians have a mature love for the magisterium, a respect for the Pope, a loyalty to Church teaching, an authentic desire to be friends with the saints, a sonship to Our Lady and a fervent joy in wanting to be priests who have no other agenda than to be faithful. They envision priesthood not motivated by the “left” or “right,” or by “progressive” or “traditional” agendas. Celibacy is not something to be endured but a real gift to love — this is how the seminarian sees this promise.
Good Priestly Formation for Effective Evangelization
Don’t get me wrong — every generation of seminarians and every generation of Catholics have their challenges. The job of a seminary is to prepare seminarians for the realities of pastoral ministry and to serve real people with real needs. So many marriages end in divorce; people are losing their jobs in record numbers; young people are afflicted by drug and alcohol addiction, and old people suffer in nursing homes and hospitals resulting in distressed families. Immigrants, so many of them Catholic, are seeking to be American citizens, to live dignified lives. Prison populations are at their highest; how many young people live in detention facilities?
These are the vineyards where evangelization must take place. Seminarians are being formed to understand that ministry does not just occur in the sacristy or rectory. They need to be out among the faithful, shepherding them to Christ and serving them with a Gospel that cries out for justice.
This “Year for Priests” is a reminder to the faithful that we cannot have a Church without priests — for without them, we have no Eucharist, no sacramental life. Seminarians must understand the primordial identity of a priest — Christ himself. As the alter Christus he not only brings good leadership, he is not only a man of communion , he is first and foremost that “other Christ” who in the moment of sacramental ministry brings Christ in a most personal, intimate way that no other experience can achieve.
As the current generation of seminarians is being ordained to the priesthood in the United States, get ready to be re-energized! The faithful themselves should be ready to welcome these new priests with the same enthusiasm they will bring to parish life.
Yes, there are still pockets of people who fear a rigidity when the priest cites the pope in his homily, or are distrustful of the priest who wears his cassock and chants the Mass parts. There are still a few people who think that when Latin is used at Mass, there is a secret agenda to take us back to the 1950s. There are a few people out there who think the priest hates women when he, rather than the pastoral assistant, leads the Stations of the Cross during Lent or promotes vocations among the eighth grade boys. A few think he is anti-laity when he decides to teach adult education classes in parishes have seen the lay faithful teaching for decades.
The seminarians are being prepared for this reality, but with a greater emphasis on the proper and necessary collaboration among the ordained and non-ordained in carrying out ministry in the Church without having to lose one’s priestly, fatherly identity. When a priest truly understands his identity, his role as shepherd and spiritual father, then he can lead his parish without fear of offending anyone. Mistakes are always made, things are said that shouldn’t be said and decisions sometimes backfire, but the promise of Christ is our assurance: the gates of hell shall not prevail.
The New Evangelization is Here
With the bold leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, who is working tirelessly to unite the Christian world and renewing efforts within the Church to promote reverence, mystery and awe in the sacred liturgy and in spirituality, our future priests will be ready to meet you and me in the vineyard.
One key to the success of the new evangelization is the dialogue between faith and culture. This has been strenuously emphasized by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. The kingdom of God inaugurated by Jesus Christ captures for us, in our final journey, the relationship between the temporal and the spiritual. The Church, living in both orders, leads us as pilgrims embracing everything God intends in His creation while preparing for that ultimate reality which is only in Him.
The new evangelization calls the Church to be a part of every aspect of human life — promoting the establishment of an authentic humanism which relies on both faith and reason. Culture is the venue by which man lives his faith, discovers his vocation and pursues holiness. The Church therefore is no enemy of culture; she is its promoter. Faith brings out the best in culture, while culture gives faith form and shape.
The priests of today and tomorrow must be renaissance priests: men of culture, men of faith. I’ll have to write another article to flesh this out, but safe to write here that seminarians are not living with their heads in the sand. The Church is preparing them for our culture — the worst and the best of it. In doing so, the Church can avoid “missed opportunities” and be out front on whatever issue is being tackled. Pray for our seminarians. They need your prayers and support. Soon they will be your shepherds! TP
Father Wehner is the rector/president of the Pontifical College Josephinum, the only seminary in the United States under the auspices of the Holy See. Father Wehner earned his doctorate at the Gregorian University in Rome in dogmatic theology, writing on the new evangelization. You can hear his podcasts to the seminarians by visiting www.pcj.edu.