Walking uphill

Talk about memories. In early February, I attended the installation of Bishop J. Mark Spalding in the Diocese of Nashville, Tennessee — my home. It was the fifth such event in my lifetime.

I witnessed my first installation when the late Bishop Joseph A. Durick assumed office, a half-century ago. I was a seminarian at the time. All the diocesan seminarians were present and had roles in the ceremony.

For Bishop Spalding’s installation, the diocesan seminarians were present. As I recalled Bishop Durick’s installation 54 years ago, and as I observed Bishop Spalding’s installation recently, I thought about how things have changed when it comes to being a seminarian, a candidate for the priesthood.

Back in my day, rare was the Catholic who did not stand in awe when a man applied to a seminary. Seminarians enjoyed respect, as a group, for what they were willing to take upon themselves.

When it came to celibacy, rare was the Catholic who did not admire a young man’s wish to remain celibate for life, for the Lord’s sake. Celibacy primarily was not esteemed for avoiding immorality, or for making time for worthy endeavors, but for giving self totally to God. Jesus explained it in the Gospels.

Rare was the Catholic who was not uplifted by the fact that seminarians were not concerned about being millionaires. People found inspiration in seeing that priests, diocesan or religious, had no interest in dominating others.

Catholics also expected all priests to subordinate themselves to superiors, actually to the mission of the Church, believing that this conformity by priests to superiors was all about Christ and the kingdom, not about self, even despite self. It was the way to bring Christ to the world effectively and as quickly as possible.

Rare was the Catholic who did not expect seminarians to accept the priesthood as a lifelong commitment. (Catholics were not alone in Western society when it came to expectations about commitments for life. Almost everybody saw marriage, for example, as a state of commitment “till death do us part.”)

Rare was the Catholic unaware that priests often face many other demands, and Catholics found the willingness to face such demands as a sign of strength and nobility.

All this has changed. Most people now view any person considering a vocation to the Catholic priesthood, or to the consecrated religious life, with puzzlement at best, disgust at worst.

Take popular attitudes about celibacy. Today, preferring not to engage in sexual intimacy with another is considered little less than psychotic. Furthermore, sexual intimacy no longer is thought to be linked by its nature, or by any worthwhile ideal, with affection for, or dedication to, another. It is all about self.

Think about poverty and obedience. Try to sell these notions in the marketplace of today’s culture. Everything is all about self. Nothing else matters or should matter.

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Modern culture tells seminarians that in fact they are fools pursuing impossible, and even self-destructive, dreams.

Remembering when I was a seminarian, thinking about the present, I saw one great difference between my day and now. Today’s seminarians have utterly none of the cultural props that surrounded me and my contemporaries when we studied to be priests.

Thinking about modern seminarians, I admire them. I respect them. I know that we must pray for them. They are walking uphill. I suspect that they know this but care not. They love the Lord, who, while the world jeered, walked uphill on the way to glory.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.