Preparing for Summer Formation

So many of you have told me that this year has been a year like none other since coming into the seminary: a year of successes and yet a year of challenges.

Year of Suffering

Death of family members – were we not moved when one of you stood before family and friends, before so many of us to grieve the death of his father with an integration of theological, pastoral and familial reflections. How proud I was of you. As we speak, one of you is in Mexico with his father trying to locate his brother who is having a psychotic break-down. One of you spent the past several days comforting his mother and having to put her in a nursing home. One of you found out that your sister is pregnant outside of marriage anticipating however a hopeful resolution. One of you learned that your grandmother passed away this morning while your sister had surgery today. Another of you has a grandmother who is dying.

We also experienced how the power of prayer can bring about happy resolutions with a staff member not having breast cancer to one of your sisters-in-law having a successful procedure in which a brain tumor was removed.

I anointed three seminarians this past year as you prepared for medical procedures.

Some of you are experiencing family issues with parents, tensions with your siblings, poor decisions being made by family members. Some of you are saddened that family members have left the Church. A couple of you have told me of the lack of support you receive from family members.

I celebrated a Mass of Reparation as I do each year on the last day of the year (December 31) praying that whatever sins may have occurred in this campus, that reparation is made and God’s blessings be over this community.

Year of Transition

As the first rector in nearly 60 years from outside the region and province, many eyes were fixed on me. I experienced some rejection from some of you early on while also being received with open-arms. Did I move too quickly at the start? Should I have waited a little longer before moving mailboxes and plants? For others, why am I not moving more quickly? Discernment is always a part of how to exercise authority and how to collaborate with others.

The PPF charges the rector to clarify a unifying theme that brings integration to the formation program and brings to light what the seminarian is trying to achieve in his formation. After consultation with bishops and vocation directors, and considering the pontificates of Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, I proposed for your reflection the theme: Disciples of the Lord: Missionary Priests for the New Evangelization.

Using the USSCB’s document on the new evangelization that was released one year ago, last Spring that I asked each of you to read and be familiar with, there are three moments of discipleship that are present in the lives of all the faithful and of our seminarians: one who is an eye witness to the person and events of Jesus; one who allows that experience to transform him – to take off the old self and put on Christ; and one who then gives testimony – by word and deed – to the person of Jesus.

How does this occur in a seminary? Drawing from the reflections of Blessed John Paul II, we understand that the seminary is an apostolic community. It is not a parish; it is not a retreat center; it is not a school; it is not fraternity home – it is a seminary, a juridic person with its own identity, rule of life, horarium, and character.

While not a permanent vocation or experience for the seminarian, it is where the seminarian encounters the Lord in a new manner. Each of you have experienced Jesus before coming into the seminary in ways that have forever impacted your life.

The temptation is to replicate that experience in the seminary. Why can’t I experience Jesus the same way I did at World Youth Day, at the March for Life, with the youth group, at AbbeyFest, at my home parish? Therefore, when I am at the seminary, let me try to have that same experience or let me attempt to find this experience off campus – the more I can be away from Notre Dame Seminary, the more I can experience Jesus in my own way.

No. Jesus has indeed planted a seed in each of your hearts. As this seed grows, it needs to be pruned, toiled, and cared for. Amongst other seminarians and disciples, Jesus has gathered you together where this seed needs to be nurtured.

As the spiritual father of this house, I have the task of creating an environment where you can trust in the Holy Spirit. This has been something I have tried to create in my first year as rector. I am not perfect, my brother priests are not perfect, and our faculty is not perfect. Like no other priestly assignment, we priests live among you. You do not see the best of us and we do not see the best of you. But, this is the Lord’s plan for formation. I would have it no other way and I feel blest and honored to be with you.

Year of Faith

1)   Synod of Bishops: not long after our year began, Pope Benedict XVI convened a Synod of Bishops to study the new evangelization. For the first time in the history of the Church, an American facilitated that Synod – Cardinal Donald Wuerl. He will speak to us next Spring here at NDS. I asked all of you to read the two working documents that preceded the Synod: the Lineamenta and the Instrumentum Laboris. I also asked you to read the Propositions that the synodal fathers presented to the pope and the Holy Father’s closing address to the Synod. These reflections can shape and form your own ecclesial view point to the new evangelization and how this inspires you own sense of ministry.

2)   50th Anniversary of the Second Vatican Council: since last Summer I suggested that you prayerfully read through the sixteen documents of Vatican II to also discern how you see yourself as one preparing for pastoral ministry according to the mind of the Church: sentire ecclesia.

3)   20th anniversary of the CCC: The two apostolic constitutions that issue the CCC provide a rationale and context for how to receive the CCC. Familiarity with the CCC is essential to how we approach the teaching office of the Church and how we priests exercise munus docendi. No doubt our preaching must be fashioned with a clear catechetical foundation. Maybe this Summer you can once again open the CCC with a viewpoint to preaching.

4)   30th anniversary of the Code of Canon Law: the law of the Lord is good, it refreshes the soul as the Psalmist sings out. Positive and juridic law capture and articulates for us natural law and the transcendental calling of man. This is what Pope Benedict XVI first gave to the world in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est. When the law of the Church is disconnected from love, it ceases to be what God intends. The anniversary of the promulgation of CIC reminds us that the Church, comprised of men and women, is a society all of its own that has its own language, culture, tradition, and rites. How does this Church live and breathe in the culture of man – this is the crux of the new evangelization. The CIC preserves in our human structures the divine inspiration of who we are and keeps our attention on the things to come.

Year of Surprise

The Monday before Ash Wednesday will go down in history as one of the most shocking moments in the life of the Church. As I came down from my room seeking out coffee, Matthew Graham asked me: what did you think about Pope Benedict resigning? Stunned and disbelief.

Did we not immediately feel saddened? There was a funk that clouded my day. What did this mean? Where is the Church going?

Then there was the sense of courage and strength. The Enemy is clearly lurking in our world and rearing its ugly head. To have a pope who will spend the rest of his life in prayer and penance for the Church while another pope holds the Chair of Peter – the words of Jesus are strikingly clear: the gates of hell shall not prevail.

On February 27 however as we watched the helicopter depart from the Vatican Gardens to the hills of Castel Gondolfo – we felt fatherless. When the Swiss Guards were dismissed that evening, the Church had no Pope.

The Holy Spirit stirred in the hearts of Catholics everywhere a sense of hope as the Cardinals went into conclave. Emerging from the Conclave was a pastor of the Church, a chemist, a priest who never sought anything else than to serve the poor and administer the sacraments. God gave the Church Pope Francis.

Indeed – a Year of Surprise.

Year of Testing

We began the year with nearly 25 new seminarians. These men would be tested in their formation and discernment coming into a new place.

Dr. Tom Neal, Father Mike Flynn, Mr. Mario Sacasa, Ms. Cindy Garrity, Ms. Essue Marrero, and Ms. Debbie Panepinto – new staff who took on new positions. Anytime there are new people this can create a sense of testing for the new people but also for the present community. I think you would agree with me how well they have contributed to the community.

The Food Service arrangement was confirmed and they started the year out working out of a new kitchen and dining room. I am grateful for the leadership of the Board of Trustees as they approved the contract.

The construction project was not completed when you returned this Fall. Many of us had temporary quarters until the project was completed. We saluted and thanked Mr. and Mrs. Benson for their outstanding gift and tremendous support. This all reflects however the commitment of Archbishop Aymond who has worked tirelessly these past three years to make NDS what it is today.

We would be tested early on with Hurricane Isaac. The silver-lining in that experience is how we got to know one other – with new seminarians, with me, and with returning seminarians, this was a week of testing and coming together.

The re-election of President Obama tests how the Church will continue to defend marriage, the right of the free exercise of religion; preaching the Gospel in a culture or secular humanism; atheistic movements to marginalize people of faith. We are all proud to be American and we want the best for our culture. The evangelization of culture is a pressing need and one that you are a part of.

Highlights included the successful mission trip to Nicaragua and the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. So many of you had the chance to proclaim freedom and the Right to Life at the March for Life this past January. You witnessed to your vocation with the many young people who were inspired by your vocation at the March for Life. Weekly prayers at the abortuary continue to speak of our commitment to the life. Our participation in the interfaith service that prayed for a stay of execution for Mr. Sepulvedo reminded us that the right to life is a seamless garment that considers life from natural conception to natural death.

Acolytes and lectors were installed; seminarians added into the body of candidates; and candidates called forth for the diaconate and priesthood.

For me being outside of my diocese and outside my own particular culture, learning new foods, traditions, and the history of the deep-south including Mardis Gras and Saint Joseph Altars, Crawfish Boil, the French quarter festival, from Shrewsbury to Volleyball to Spades – all of this has revealed to me a city and seminary where joy, family fun, and life are all celebrated.

Promoting this seminary as an apostolic community from the standpoint of our spiritual life is at the centre of who we are hence coming together each mid-day for Mass is the highlight of what we do. Praying Morning and Evening Prayer, six days of Eucharistic Adoration, occasion for weekly Rosary, the frequent celebration of penance, your personal piety – these reflect the spiritual life of this community which is strong and vibrant.

Your generation will contribute greatly to the Church in the United States as well as the Church Tororo and elsewhere because you desire reverence for the sacred; you are obedient to the Magisterium of the Church; you are zealous in wanting to bring the Gospel to young people; you work hard to be successful and competent men.

This is good because sometimes we have tolerated laziness, infidelity, and even those priests who lacked self-awareness and self-identity. You are men who know who you are and what you are about. Your generation is tired of scandals; your generation is tired of apathy and minimalism

Your generation will make the new evangelization something real and tangible. Great Beginnings Last a Lifetime.

The priests who serve today – we have a lot to learn from them. They are taking on tremendous responsibilities often pastoring more than one parish; older priests who continue to serve beyond retirement; priests who have more than one assignment. Therefore, you must not judge them or somehow think that you are more holier than they are or that their formation was defective. Each generation of priests has their strengths and weaknesses.

Something that all of need to do is be aware that the Enemy does not distract us from what we are called to embrace and the type of priest you are striving to be. This means we reject sin and choose Christ.

This past weekend, Pope Francis stated:

“We have to empty ourselves of the many small or great idols that we have and in which we take refuge and upon which we often seek to base our security. They are idols that we sometimes keep well hidden; they can be ambition, careerism, a taste for success, placing ourselves at the centre, the tendency to dominate others. This evening I would like a question to resound in each of your hearts, and I would like you to answer it honestly: Have I considered which idol lies hidden in my life that prevents me from worshipping the Lord? Worshipping is stripping ourselves of our idols, even the most hidden ones, and choosing the Lord as the centre, as the privileged path of our lives” (Pope Francis).

Some tough questions are being asked by the Holy Father. I think maybe some of the idols you are struggling with come from the brokenness of American culture.

The PPF speaks about the American culture as one of “fragmentation.” Some of us come from broken homes and single parent families. Our young people today lack interpersonal socialization due to social communications. I can sometimes see this in you. How to relate to each other, how to relate in a healthy manner with those in authority, how to stay grounded in the present moment, while also being patient about what the future may hold for you.

Priestly formation must therefore strive at integration. Presbyterorum Ordinis speaks about the “life of priests” One can speak about a “lifestyle” of the priest which transcends any one culture or generation. This lifestyle is grounded and rooted in the spiritual life, one’s relationship with Jesus and his Church. This lifestyle cuts across all generations of priests. However, we must consider from where each generation comes from in order that integration occurs in a deliberate, healthy manner. Seminary formation must therefore be organic responding to your needs.

The PPF identifies seven points that describe the lifestyle of priests and therefore goals for seminarians:

1)   A way of life permeated by the three-fold charge given at ordination – to teach, sanctify and lead. The 4 pillars of formation support how a seminarian is to pursue a lifestyle that enables the tria-munera to unfold in a joyful, integrated manner

2)   A life of steady prayer rooted foremost in the Eucharist, structured around the LOH, and a prayer that is personal and devotional. This is the seminarian who has a lively horarium and personal rule of life.

3)   A deep devotion to Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior. That priest knows Jesus and I want to know that priest. I allow myself to be lead by that priest who is my shepherd. This is the seminarian who can answer the question – do you love me more than these?

4)   A life of obedience that is apostolic, communal and pastoral. Meaning, an obedience that is non-conditional and lived for the needs of the Church. Needs identified by our bishops. This presumes therefore that the seminarian allows his will to be bent for the will of another even if he thinks he is right and the superior may not be. Obedience that is communal – that does not take the seminarian or priest away from his brother priests. This is the seminarian who lives obedience for himself – has no friends and only presents himself to the community when he sees it fit; the priest who rarely attends presbyteral or diocesan functions. Pastoral – obedience that is lived for the salvation of souls. Jesus – my priesthood belongs to you, not to me. Do with me as you will.

5)   A life of celibate chastity that serves, as LG points out, as both a sign and stimulus of love that serves as the spiritual fertility in the world. As Pope Paul VI wrote in his encyclical on priestly celibacy, the life of a priest points us to heaven. Celibacy is a proclamation that the KOG is here – in the concrete, the now and present . As a gift, the priest must protect his celibacy but also generously live it. When the gift is not protected, we see selfishness, narcissism, its all about me, a focus on self rather than other. Rather, the seminarian commits himself to a virginal love for Christ and the Church, even if he is not a virgin – he must love the Church as a virgin.

6)   The life of a priest and therefore a seminarian is also rooted in simplicity which begins with an appreciation and gratitude for material blessings that we do have and living a life of simplicity. This priest knows my suffering and knows I am poor because he is simple and poor. Pope Francis spoke strong words about this during the Chrism Mass that I asked you all to pray over. What does my room look like – is it cluttered with material things? Do I have respect for what I do have therefore I live in a clean room respecting what God and the Church provides to me.

7)   The life of a priest embraces what Blessed John Paul II calls the missionary priest. All priests – diocesan and religious, embrace this quality. Men ready to go deep into the world therefore he has no leashes on himself – nothing prevents him from being bold in ministry. With this, not all of us can be Thomas Aquinas, John Vianney and Fulton Sheen. I know my sins, I know my weakness, I know my strengths – I give everything over to you God so I can be faithful and energetic to my people.

8)   Finally, the way in which a priest lives his life spurs on an array of ecclesial vocations. This is a man who does not embrace clericalism but lives among the people as their shepherd. Pope Francis says that a good shepherd smells like his sheep. I hope I am a good shepherd so I can smell like a seminarian – whatever that might look like. The Church sees priesthood  as the impetus of how other vocations are promoted. How does my priesthood promote holy marriages, encouraging young people to religious life, men to the priesthood and diaconate, how to call forth leadership in the parish. I will do whatever my priest asks because he loves Christ and I want to follow Christ.

These reflections help us better under the “lifestyle” of the priest expressed by the three promises we make and the way in which we bring the fatherhood of God to the people.

God’s grace builds on the cooperation we bring to the formation of the human virtues. We strive for holiness for the sake of the Kingdom, for the sake of our own salvation, for the sake of the salvation of other souls.

This has been a good year and I am proud of each of you. I know first-hand some of you are struggling with discernment and with your formation. I thank you for being a seminarian and whatever God has in store for you, hopefully NDS has provided you the environment where your Catholic faith has grown.

New Beginnings

Indeed, there are new beginnings happening at the seminary. For some these new beginnings are at the twilight of your time here. 10 seminarians are graduating; 9 seminarians being ordained priests; 13 seminarians being ordained to the diaconate. Austin Ashcroft and Michael Dykes are discerning out and God opens a new path for them. Patrick Carr, John Bosco, Amado Ramos will be on pastoral year deepening their experience of formation among the People of God.

I appreciated the leadership of the SA this past year and look forward to the leadership of the new SA officers. I also appreciated the informal leadership by so many of you that make NDS a good, fraternal community.

The new faculty positions that include a vice rector, academic dean, director of pre-theology, director of liturgy, and director of homiletics will bring even greater leadership and direction to you. I am grateful to the archbishop for this counsel and approval of these new developments.

Some areas that I believe we need to reflect upon in the Fall is to tighten up the discipline of how we arrive for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. For example, eight seminarians came in late this morning. The number of permissions to be away from the formation program are significantly high. Off-campus weekday meals that many pursue do not reflect simplicity – following idols of the belly; a more shared responsibility for the campus needs to be considered as well. I would like to share some thoughts in the Fall about fraternal charity and fraternal correction – something that seminarians and priests should be offering to one another.

These are not major items for reflection but ones that will strengthen an already excellent program.

With all this said, we now point our attention to the Summer. Great beginnings last a lifetime. The great beginnings we experienced this past year will hopefully carry you into the Summer equipping you to embrace and continue your priestly formation.

Preparing for the Summer

1)   Relationship with Peers: if there are any disputes, apologies that need to be delivered, reconciliation that needs to occur with your brother seminarians – please do so before Summer begins. Let’s not carry any unresolved matters into the Summer. Brothers can argue and disagree but we always needs to end on a note of charity.

2)   Relationship with Faculty. The same with faculty members – if there is something you need to get off your chest, please do so. This includes me. I would not want any of you to carry into Summer something that is bothering you.

3)   Attention to Responsibility. As Saint Paul writes, let run hard to the finish line. Let’s not crawl over it rather end the semester successfully by fulfilling all of our academic and communal responsibilities.

4)   Establishing Formation Goals. Formation does not cease in the Summer. What goals have you established for the Summer. What practically would you like to see achieved in your discernment and formation this Summer? How will you be accountable to meeting these goals?

Summer Formation Plan

1)   Daily Horarium. Whatever your assignment this Summer, how will you get to daily Mass? Who and how will you get to the sacrament of penance? How will you find time before the Lord either before the tabernacle or at Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament? Discern now how your daily rule of life will be maintained.

2)   Time for Solitude. In the busyness of pastoral ministry, finding quiet time for solitude and reflection enables you to discern with the Lord how things are going in your assignment.

3)   Contact with Formation Advisor and Spiritual Director. I would encourage you to speak with your advisors to determine how communication can continue.  I am always available to support you. I will spend most the Summer at NDS and you all have my cell phone. If there is any difficulty or anything that you want to talk about – please contact me. I hope to contact each of you over the Summer to hear how things are going.

4)   Engaging the Intellectual Pillar. While you are not in formal studies, it is good to determine how you will continue to engage the intellectual pillar. Recreational reading, keeping up with the news, connecting with the local news at home – these are some ways. Knowing what courses you are taking in the Fall, maybe doing some reading for those classes will help in your preparations.

5)   Ecclesial Dimension of Vocation (Bishop, Vocation Director, Pastor). It is important during your time of formation that you are engaged with the life of the Church in your diocese. Sometimes newly ordained priests present themselves to their pastors and dioceses with ecclesial practices that are not being exercised in the diocese and therefore this creates tension in the presbyterate. This is not how you want to start off. A sense of humility must accompany your priestly identity. Remember – the priesthood belongs to Jesus, it is his priesthood, not ours.

Consider Seminarian and Potential Priestly Identity

1)   Social Situations. Please remember how you present yourself over the Summer when you are in the presence of parish staff, volunteers, young people and when you are in social situations. Your example by word and deed reflects not only on yourself but on NDS. You should be yourself but always remember that we need to present ourselves professionally. Pope Francis spoke about the lack of credibility that people often think about the Church because of the inconsistent manner in which Church leaders have gone about their own lifestyles.

2)   Always a Seminarian (family and friends). At family picnics, wedding receptions, when you are with friends – you are always a seminarian. There is never a moment when you cease to be a seminarian: no vacation from your vocation.

Exercising the Virtue of Temperance

1)   Use of alcohol. The use of alcohol at social functions can be appropriate when relating with people and enjoying the moment. However, if we are using alcohol for self-fulfillment then we are not seeing the moment as one for witnessing and evangelization. At parish or even family functions, please monitor your use of alcohol.

2)   Leisure vs laziness. Hopefully the Summer provides you some time for rest and recreation. Leisure time is the result of planning out your free time so that when it comes upon you, you can recreate and get the rest needed. Laziness is the result of poor planning of time. We really do not get the rest needed rather waste time in front of the television or computer. I recommend that you look at the calendar from week-to-week and anticipate when you might be getting free time and determine what might happen in that free time.

3)   Personal chastity. Being in new spaces and places, can create new temptations for you. Dealing with loneliness, stress, anxiety, lack of exercising, misuse of free time can lead to impurity with self, viewing pornography, or even acting out inappropriately with others. If there are even small signs, please bring accountability immediately to these moments: reach out to a fellow seminarian, contact your spiritual director, evaluate your prayer life, and certainly take advantage of the sacrament of penance.

Challenges for Seminarians

1)   Family Issues (marriages, siblings, financial, substance abuse, health). You may be returning home to situations you are unaware of and therefore may get pulled into family situations that may create some challenges for you. Some of you are already aware of some family matters and are creating boundaries about how you might respond.

2)   Family Perceptions about Your Vocation/Celibacy/Priesthood. You and the formation team have the occasion to measure your growth in formation. For those who do not have regular contact with you, some may misjudge your growth as pietistic, holier-than-though , and may even make uncharitable comments about celibacy and even the priesthood. Be patient and prudent. Sometimes people around us can be insecure about what is happening in our vocation because this may all be unfamiliar to them.

3)   Uninviting Priests/Parishes. It happens every year – seminarians who go home and experience from priests an inhospitable attitude. They may not be inviting you to assist at daily Mass, they may not invite you out to dinner, or they may be insecure about what is happening in your formation. Be responsible for yourself – you cannot control the actions of others. Let charity prevail in such cases. If you find yourself in a situation and want to get some advice, please feel free to call me. Please do not be antagonistic if you walk into such environments.

Great beginnings last a life time. Thanks for a great year and best wishes for a great Summer. You will all be in my prayers. Let us praise the Lord and give Him thanks!

Rector’s Conference
Very Reverend James A. Wehner, S.T.D.
April 17, 2013