(Father O’Donnell died Nov. 26, 2012, in Manhattan at the Paulist Residence. In 1991 he entered senior ministry and continued to serve as a professor of philosophy at St. John Neumann Seminary College in Dunwoodie, N.Y.)
Roughly, 65 years will have separated your day of ordination from mine. When I was ordained on May 1, 1951, a first class postage stamp cost 3 cents, while a gallon of gasoline cost 20 cents. Paulist Fathers that year were given an allowance of $10 a month. Pope Pius XII was in the 12th year of his reign with seven years still to go. There were only a few Catholics alive at that time who remembered the first Vatican Council. The second Vatican Council had not yet entered anyone’s imagination, not even the Vatican’s Nuncio to France, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, who was 70 years old that year and not yet a Cardinal. He would succeed to the Papacy in 1958 at the age of 78.
The Mass was celebrated in Latin with the celebrant’s back to the congregation, and the eight hours of the Roman Breviary were recited every day in Latin by every priest. It took one hour, give or take a few minutes.
The Roman collar was the accepted form of dress for Catholic priests in the United States, whether on duty or off duty. It was worn in trains, on planes, in theaters, and in restaurants.
As soon as he was elected in 1958, Pope John XXIII began to talk about a General Council. “To bring the Church into step with the 20th century” was his announced goal. He died in 1963 after the first of the four sessions of Vatican II, having brought the Papacy to the zenith of its prestige. For no Pope who preceded him ever loved more or was more loved as the now Blessed John XXIII.
Who could have predicted what has happened to the Church in the half century since the death of this great Pope? Beginning in the 1960, the Church has become desacralized within a society which has become perversely secularized. Many hundreds of priests and religious turned away from their vocations during the 1960s and 1970s. And Pope Paul VI, who had succeeded John XXIII, and who agonized over the crisis which the Church was undergoing, let them go. He truly had great compassion for them. But when he died in 1978, followed quickly by the death of Pope John Paul I, the College of Cardinals elected a tough-minded Pole, Karol Wojtyla, who announced immediately that no priest would be eligible for laicization until he had ceased functioning as a priest for five years. This succeeded immediately to stem the hemorrhage of priests leaving the active ministry.
Pope John Paul II, early in his papacy, became instrumental in causing the dismemberment of the Communist party in his native Poland, and eventually in the countries of Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union itself. He also launched a vigorous attack against the “culture of death” which was promoting birth control, abortion and euthanasia in Western society. His was the most strident voice in defending the “culture of life.” Pope John Paul II commanded amazing respect and admiration from all the world, even from enemies of the Church. An attempt was made on his life in 1982, less than four years into his papacy, and yet he lived to lead the Church for more than 26 years. Only St. Peter himself and Pope Pius IX reigned longer than he.
His funeral on April 8, 2005, gives ample testimony to all of these claims. “John Paul Two, we love you!” became the mantra of young people around the globe. His popularity eclipsed even that of the greatly loved Pope John XXIII.
It is the mission of the Church to make saints. And John Paul II beatified and canonized more saints than all of his predecessors taken together. Commenting recently on John Paul’s penchant for making saints, Pope Benedict XVI remarked: “There cannot be too many saints.” It is the principal business of the Church.
Re-sacralization of Europe
In April 2005, the College of Cardinals elected a German, Joseph Ratzinger, to succeed his friend and mentor, Karol Wojtiya. Taking the name Benedict XVI, he announced that the principal preoccupation of his papacy would be the re-sacralization of Europe, “restoring Europe to its Christian roots.” In the first six years of his reign he took significant steps in that direction. In addition to his encyclicals (Deus Caritas Est, Spe Salvi, Caritas in Veritate) which have been translated into ten European languages as well as Byelorussian and Chinese, Pope Benedict also published a series of books which became best sellers in both the old and the new worlds. These books, studies of the person of Jesus Christ, provide fresh insights into His life and into His Church.
In addition to the wisdom and scholarship that he disseminated through his writings, his September 2010 visit to Great Britain must be counted as a first step toward the return of the Anglican Church to the Roman Catholic Mother Church. His beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman offered Europe a strident voice of one of its own proclaiming the Christian origins of European culture.
[Permit me a brief digression here: Father Isaac Thomas Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers was a contemporary of Cardinal Newman. When the Cardinal learned of Father Hecker’s death in December of 1888, he wrote to Father Augustine Hewit, then Superior General of the Paulist Fathers: “I have ever thought that there was this sort of unity in our lives — that we had both begun a work of the same kind, he in America and I in England, and I know how zealous he was in promoting it.” Cardinal Egan declared Father Hecker a “Servant of God” on Jan. 27, 2008, an initial step toward his canonization. May I ask your prayers that he, Father Hecker, like Cardinal Newman, will soon be declared “blessed,” and that he will play a role in the United States similar to the role which Blessed John Henry Newman is playing in Europe.]
A Priest in the 21st Century
You are to become priests of the 21st century. You have a 21st century Pope to follow. Adding your voices to his, you can re-sacralize this world of ours. You can defeat its secularism, relativism and skepticism. And the more philosophy and theology you know, and especially the more personal holiness you acquire, the more effective will your voice become.
And recognize the link between philosophy/theology and personal holiness. The very word “philosophy” means “love of wisdom.” Wisdom, like faith, is a free gift of grace from God. And God gives that gift to those who ask Him for it. In the first book of Kings (3:9 sq.), we read that the young Solomon, when he succeeded his father King David as King of Israel, asked God for the gift of wisdom. God answered Solomon’s prayer in these words: “Because you have asked for the wisdom to rule justly instead of a long life, or riches or the death of your enemies, I will give you more wisdom and understanding than anyone has ever had before or will ever have again. I will also give you what you have not asked for.” In his Gospel, St. Luke records the words of Jesus (11:31): “The Queen of Sheba traveled all the way from her country to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and yet I tell you there is more than Solomon here.” The wisdom of Jesus Christ is even more than that of Solomon. And it is yours for the asking!
The Most Important Duty
Preaching the Good News and administering the Sacraments are important duties of the priest. But neither of them is the most important duty of the priest. The most important duty of the priest is offering the holy sacrifice of the Mass which is the re-presentation of the sacrifice which Jesus offered on Calvary. Make the greatest love of your priestly life the love of offering the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist.
In its weekly English edition dated April 28, 2004, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican daily newspaper, published, with the approval of Pope John Paul II, an “Instruction” of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments entitled Redemptionis Sacramentum. No. 110 reads: “Remembering always that in the mystery of the Eucharistic Sacrifice the work of redemption is constantly being carried out, priests should celebrate frequently. Indeed, daily celebration is earnestly recommended, because even if it should not be possible to have the faithful present, the celebration is an act of Christ and of the Church, and in carrying it out, priests fulfill their principal role.”
Bits of Advice
Approaching the ninth decade of my life on earth, I recognize that my life is rapidly ebbing away. I want nothing more than that your priesthood should be as long and as happy as mine has been. To that end I offer you the following bits of advice for better or for worse. You be the judge:
1. Be a priest who prays, recognizing that God our Father listens to even the faintest of your prayers. To believe that He does not, is to limit his infinite omniscience.
2. Learn to love offering the holy sacrifice of the Mass, your “principal role” as a priest. Offer the Mass daily, not exempting days off or vacation periods.
3. Read the back-page editorial of Father Kenneth Baker, S.J., in the April, 2011, edition of The Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and obtain a copy of the book he recommends there: Guidebook for Confessors by Father Michael E. Giesler (www.scepterpublishers.org, 2010). Note especially that the confessor must always be “kind and merciful,” and that he must not ask questions of the penitent “unless they are absolutely necessary for the integrity of the confession. But here it is important to remember that the integrity of confession is primarily the responsibility of the penitent, not of the Confessor.”
When it becomes your decision, never charge a stipend for administering the Sacrament of Baptism. Accept stipends only for Masses offered (a long-standing tradition in the Church) and for weddings. Accept no stipends for administering any other of the sacraments.
Let your disposition in the pulpit, in the parlor and in any public arena be the same as your disposition in the confessional — compassion for the sinner and kindness for everyone. Keeping that in mind, join your voice to the voices of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict in opposing the “culture of death” and in proclaiming the magisterial teaching of the Church in its fullness. Not only are abortion and euthanasia sins against the natural law, they are sins against the author of the natural law, God our Father. Artificial birth control, premarital sex, deliberate homosexual activity and same-sex marriage are also sinful. Do not surrender to political correctness by opposing only a truncated “culture of death.” Arm yourself with a thorough knowledge of moral theology, and then play your role as a priest to help the Church prevail over the secularism, the relativism and the skepticism of contemporary society.
Although St. Francis of Assisi was never ordained to the priesthood, as a deacon he became the most notable preacher of the Gospel in Europe during the first quarter of the 13th century. He also composed the perfect prayer for priests. While it may not be unfamiliar to you, I offer it at the close of these reflections, hoping that you will make it a frequent part of your prayer life as a priest:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, forgiveness;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is desolation, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not
so much seek to be
as to console;
To be understood, as to
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are
And it is in dying that we are born to
God bless you all! TP
Father O'Donnell, C.S.P., died Nov. 26, 2012, at age 88. He was a member of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle for 67 years, and was ordained May 1, 1951. He was director of the Paulist radio, television and film apostolate 1966-68, and then president and superior of St. Paul College 1968-70. He then was superior and procurator general in Rome 1970-78.