The Triumph of Mediocrity or Love That Conquers …

The Triumph of Mediocrity or Love That Conquers the World 

This past Thanksgiving I had the opportunity to preside over the sacrament of marriage for Bill and Megan. I have known Bill since he was a young man in my home parish. However, I have had very little contact with him for last several years.

About two years ago, Bill called me to get some advice because of problems that he and his girlfriend were experiencing in their relationship. I asked a couple of questions in which his answers revealed that they were living together, not practicing their faith, and having sexual intercourse. I asked these questions in a non-judgmental way but in a clear, direct manner.

I asked Bill if he intended to marry Megan.  He responded that this was the intention, but they were now experiencing too many problems and he was not sure this relationship was going to work out. Without acting as a marriage counselor, I challenged Bill to re-asses why they were living together. Frankly, I told him that because they lacked sacramental grace of marriage and were not practicing their faith, problems would continue and become even more problematic. I asked Bill if he saw the love of God in her. And, if he did, he needs to give to God what he sees in her. He was stunned at the question because he never thought to look at her to see God even though Bill said that her beauty, personality, and gifts certainly came from God.

I reminded Bill that all love is God for God is love. If he loves Megan, he needs to live this love the way God wants this love to be lived. He asked me what he should then do.

Long story short, they registered at the local parish, celebrated the sacrament of penance, began attending Mass weekly, and lived as brother and sister. Eventually, Megan moved out of the house and returned home. Their relationship was strengthened and, according to their own words, they fell in love with one another all over again. I had the privilege of presiding at their marriage this past Christmas.

This pastoral experience challenged me to be faithful to Church teaching while at the same time leading this couple to the Gospel in a pastoral, careful, but deliberate manner.  I could have taken the low road and the path of least resistance, and presided at their wedding while they continued to not practice their faith and live with each other. Not every couple is going to respond in the way Bill and Megan did, but I had to do my best to show them that their love is rooted in God himself and there are ways in which this love is to be lived. They listened because one spoke. Again, rather than rocking the boat, I could have chosen mediocrity and let them proceed into marriage without them resolving their issues.

Trusting in God
As priests, we constantly ask ourselves if this marriage will last. One of the ritual questions that we ask at the wedding ceremony is this: “Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourself to marriage?” This question presumes that each person is approaching the sacrament of marriage in complete freedom and without reservation. Unless there are impediments, or outright mortal sin, it is difficult for a priest to not proceed with the administration of the sacrament.  However, there is a sense of judgment that the Church presents to the couple beyond the ritual question. Is each person free in order to pursue a lifelong commitment to marriage?

At some point, we surrender to God this uncertainty and pray for the married couple. But, there is a sense of responsibility of how to prepare people for the sacraments of the Church. In pastoral situations we often ask: will that teenager practice faith after they receive the sacrament of confirmation? Will that baby be taught the faith after baptism by their parents?  Will that young person after receiving their first Holy Communion continue to be nurtured in their faith by the family?  And, will all of these marriages that I have presided-over last and endure?

We do not have all the answers but we certainly have many questions. I suppose that by not having answers one could begin to think: should I even ask the questions? This can be a dangerous temptation that distorts what it means to be “pastoral” or how to pastorally respond to people in difficult situations.

When and how did Jesus know that Judas would betray him? Did Jesus make a mistake in choosing Judas? Somehow in God’s plan, freedom is always present and that freedom is abused – even by those closest to the God. Judas abused the freedom and chose to not live discipleship unconditionally. Therefore, why did Jesus choose him? More fundamentally, why even create a human race if God knew that man would initially fail? Redemption, as the Easter Exsultet joyfully points out, is the final victor.

What About Seminarians?
A question that we faculty members ask: will this seminarian who wants to be a priest remain faithful to his promises for the rest of his life?  Will that newly ordained priest remain a priest for the rest of his life? Will this newly ordained priest be compassionate in the exercise of authority?

The Church asks: can this seminarian be a shepherd who leads, or will he be a shepherd with a condemning voice? Will he be a shepherd or a judge? Can this seminarian lead others to Christ by preaching the Gospel fearlessly? Will the seminarian treat the priesthood as a popularity contest, never preaching the whole Gospel for fear of losing popularity?

The Church has high standards for all those who embrace the sacramental life of the Gospel. We priests are entrusted with the sacred mysteries of faith. The People of God expect that priests will completely and totally give to them the entirety of the Gospel as those priests have received it from the Church.

None of us has a crystal ball therefore we have to do our best in being thorough but in a judicious manner. Priestly formation is not an exact science. Without compassion, charity, and patience – would anyone ever be ordained?

What I am always so grateful for, is the high caliber and quality that you bring to the Church.  Your commitment to the spiritual life; your devotion to the Blessed Sacrament; your frequent celebration of the sacrament of penance; the seriousness by which you approach the liturgy of the hours; and your unconditional embrace of Church teaching and loyalty to the Magisterium – these are all attractive qualities. This caliber and quality is anchored in your understanding of the new evangelization. Your generation is making the standard of the new evangelization a lived reality, rather than a commercial brand.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable
When there is an unparalleled commitment and eagerness to live the Gospel and to teach the Gospel, how might the Enemy distract your efforts?  There is no doubt that when one pursues holiness, the Enemy will do everything to undermine our commitment to faith. How does your generation experience temptation? What distraction does the Enemy place in your life that undermines the pastoral ministry of the Church?

During a closed door meeting with religious superiors this past November at the Vatican, Pope Francis asked the superiors and wondered how many in consecrated life are living out their vows in a comfortable and serene way. Speaking to nearly 120 superiors, Pope Francis asks if some were living out their vows in calmness and peacefulness rather than directing themselves to the peripheral areas of life where so many people find themselves. The Holy Father asked what the purpose of vows are if they are not being lived in a bold and sharp manner. In a particular way, the pope asked if the vows are leading those in consecrated life to people who live on the edge of society.

The new evangelization is an evangelization that positions the Church to minister and shepherd people who are often on the fringe of society. Who are these people: the poor and suffering, the homeless, the unemployed, addicts, those in prison, those who live alone, and those who have lost hope. Discernment is an aspect of ministry – we discern in what way does this person need the Gospel, how do we get the Gospel to them, how does the Church’s mission assure that no one is left behind?

As seminarians, you are discerning what priestly ministry will look like in your life: priests who are bold shepherds who go to the fringe, to the deserts, to those who are living in darkness – these are the new evangelizers; priests who are able to shepherd people from darkness into the marvelous life of faith.

I wonder if in formation we too might seek out the comfort and peaceful lifestyle that can sometimes accompany seminary living. Thankfully, the People of God provide the material resources that enable the Church to provide you the time and space for your ongoing human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation. While this is not a luxurious hotel, nor should it be, we are provided with meals, living space, social space, exercise space, and a beautiful space for prayer and worship. As one of you told me – it feels like we live in one big mansion, each of us having our own room. We are indeed blessed.

But, we have to always have a deliberate awareness of how simplicity and evangelical poverty are being cultivated as true virtues, and not just something we give lip-service to. Might we become too comfortable with what is being given to us? If we do not keep this question before us, the sin of pride is manifested in the form of entitlement. Because the Church should provide you what you need in formation, one might then begin to feel entitled: I deserve this; I want more of this; why can’t the food be better; my room should have this.

After having the Church provide us three square meals a day (I realize some might challenge this assertion that three full meals are not given on weekends) and all the other arrangements that tuition subsidizes for the six to eight years you are in seminary, a priest could then walk into his assignment with unrealistic expectations of what the parish should entitle him to. Comfort then becomes a distraction to the edgy, sharp, messy, and hard work of pastoral ministry. As the old saying goes – these hands were made for chalices, not calices.

Of course, an unbalanced lifestyle then spills into our view of priestly ministry: mediocrity, not pushing ourselves, not rocking the boat, being too comfortable, apathy, and the path of least resistance. If we approached ministry with minimalistic effort then our days will look comfortable allowing me to return back to my comfortable quarters after a comfortable day.

Simplicity and evangelical poverty – this keeps us from not being distracted so that our eyes, ears, and hearts are disposed to the tangible realities of how we get our boots on the ground and meet the people where they are at.

Hence, our very approach to priestly formation while in the seminary is reflective of how that seminarian might approach priestly ministry.

The Sin of Clericalism
The work of priestly formation can be rugged and grimy; it pushes us to look under every rock, to expose into the light whatever darkness we have in our life. The seminary is the safe place to pursue ongoing conversion. I, along with the other formators, have attempted to create an environment of trust that allows you to be honest with yourself, before God and His Church, addressing the aspects of your life that could prevent a healthy, holy, joyful living of Jesus’ priesthood.

I would like to return to the address of Pope Francis to the religious superiors. He made some observations about seminary formation. First, the Holy Father sated: “To avoid problems, in some houses of formation, young people grit their teeth, try not to make mistakes, follow rules smiling and just waiting for the day when they are told – good, you have finished formation.  This is hypocrisy that is the result of clericalism which is one of the worst evils.”

These are very strong words from our Holy Father.  I suppose mediocrity in seminary formation can be a grave temptation for all of you; to simply fulfill the responsibilities in a quiet way without truly embracing the spirit of conversion.  It is interesting that the Holy Father refers to this hypocrisy as a result of clericalism, which he then describes as an evil.

I remember when I first was appointed vocation director in Pittsburgh a seminarian in theology announced that he did feel the need to write papers since this was something for younger seminarians. The rector of that seminary called me to address this matter. So, I drove to the theologate to find out why he was dispensing himself of this responsibility.  He told me that he fulfills all of the other aspects of priestly formation and that he should not have to be asked to write papers since he was an older student. I responded that fulfillment of all seminary responsibilities was an expectation, not a burden. This seminarian did not have any academic struggles. He did not believe he should be held to the same standards therefore he was released from the seminary.

I am so impressed with how all of you so easily go about the expectations of priestly formation.  These are very long day, however, the payoff is a joyful, competent priest who is able to address the concerns and joys of the faithful. However, I am sure there are many times you are tempted to simply complete the basic requirements of what is being expected of you rather than going the extra mile, which is what God wants for all of us.

The words of the Holy Father challenge us to take every opportunity now in this moment of your life so that you are truly prepared to embrace a life of service and ministry.

Creating Little Monsters
Secondly, Pope Francis challenges us formators when he states that formation is a “work of art, not a police action. We must form their hearts; otherwise we are creating little monsters.  Then these little monsters mold the people of God. This really gives me goose bumps.”

Dear sons of the Church, these words pierce my heart because we do need a rule of life and we do need you to practice obedience. However, if I as Rector focus only on the rules and discipline, Pope Francis tells me that I might be responsible for creating little monsters. This is why all of us faculty members have attempted to create an environment of trust, where you are able to have the freedom to express your opinions so that we can better the formation program here. If you feel that you do not have the freedom to go about your formation and remain silent rather than confront the expectations of conversion, then the words of our Holy Father come true. We then do form monsters only to be unleashed on the People of God which who bring scandal and injury to them.

Creating little monsters. I would ask in your own conversations with each other to talk about what you think the Holy Father means about this.

Pope Francis calls this clericalism, which he describes as one of the worst evils. What does he mean by this? For me, it means priests and seminarians who think the priesthood belongs to them rather than to Jesus Christ. It is God who calls and He is the one who wants his priesthood to be lived in a certain way.

And so we ask in our discernment: Jesus – how do you want your priesthood to be lived?  What must I change about myself so that I can live your priesthood the way you want it to be lived?  Jesus – what do I need to embrace in my heart so that I can be the priest that you want me to be?  These are simple but profound questions. These are questions that you are asking and these are questions that I ask of myself.

Pope Francis suggests to the superiors that the seminarians and priests never forget that we are sinners. That we are in need of God’s grace; that we are in need of His mercy and forgiveness.  This recognition can impact the way in which we will minister to others; the ways in which we develop eyes of mercy and eyes of compassion.

I titled this conference: “The Triumph of Mediocrity or Love that Conquers the World.” Mediocrity triumphs when we become lazy: when we do not want to change anything in our personality or lifestyle.  Let’s not rock the boat – let’s take the path of least resistance.  What is the result of such thinking?  This can be seen in poor preaching, a weak spiritual life, a priest who lives off of the good will of the faithful.

Mediocrity triumphs from priests who treat their parish like a business, and treat their parishioners as appointments. What does this look like in a rectory?  The priest who gets up in the morning to celebrate Mass, which follows with a casual breakfast, which then follows with gossip among the staff about parishioners. Then, it is lunch time.  Following lunch, he may find time to take a nap or to do some exercise. Then it comes to dinner time. There might be a finance council meeting in the evening, but then after that, he spends the rest of the evening watching television. The triumph of mediocrity. Except for the gossip, everything he did is necessary but is he pushing himself or simply going through a checklist?

Or, maybe he is a very disciplined priest who prays the holy hour, celebrates Mass every day, does spiritual reading, and then it is time for lunch. He then uses the afternoon for physical exercise and for more spiritual reading, he is praying the entire liturgy of the hours, and then he goes to bed early. In such a schedule, he never made time to minister to the people. This can also be seen as a triumph of mediocrity.

Our spiritual lives as priests are given over to the People of God. As St. Francis once stated, the people of God are to be seen as our superiors. When is there enough time to pastor God’s people? Mediocrity is really a type of pride. It is when the priest thinks about himself before thinking about the needs of the Church.

Love That Conquers
The solution to this form of pride and clericalism is the love of God that has filled our hearts and compels us to share this love in the form of priestly ministry. Love is the identity of a priest. If you have not done so, please read Blessed John Paul II’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, and Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Both write about this power of love. Read these documents through the lens of a seminarian preparing for a life of priestly ministry.

Your love for God is what allows you to say “yes” to God. Pride prevents a total self-giving to God. The temptor does not want another priest or he wants only mediocre priests – the ones who can do harm to the Church, ones who will really not save souls.

Pride can burn away the love in our hearts. We choose ourselves over God. We choose our preferences over the boldness of what seminary formation requires, what priestly ministry requires.

When I was home this past Thanksgiving, it was announced that pastor of my home parish was leaving the priesthood to get married to one of the parishioners who recently was divorced. This all broke while I was home. The parishioners were stunned and hurt. Of course, so many started saying to me that they wished I could be their pastor. Most of the parish knows me well. My vocation is firmly grounded in that parish and community. On Friday night, I walked the streets of the neighborhood, streets I walked every weekend for years after I was ordained working the diocese.

About 1:00 a.m. in the morning, I went into the church. I have keys to the church and know the alarm code. The pastors always allowed me total access to the church. I sat before the tabernacle with a temptation in my heart or an invitation from the Holy Spirit. Is the Lord asking me to come home to be pastor of the parish? My bishop is very generous with my priesthood – he has allowed me to take two assignments outside of the diocese: here in New Orleans, and recently in Columbus, Ohio. I knew that if I picked up the phone and called him asking to be pastor of Most Holy Name Church, he would grant this to me. I already calculated that the parish could have a pro-tem administrator that would allow me to complete the Spring semester at NDS.

I had this all figured out. Was this God or pride at work? I put in the same situation in February 2012. After three years at the Josephinum, Should I accept the invitation to be rector of NDS or take on two more years at the Josephinum? Was this the work of the Holy Spirit or my pride. In this case, it was clearly God. Mediocrity would have kept me back at the Josephinum to ride out two more years, keep the ship from rocking, and coast to the finish line. That sounded appealing. But, no, the Lord and His Church brought me to you.

Now, only after two years, should I return to Pittsburgh? Pride or God? I sat in the church with grandiose dreams of how I would save the parish riding in on my high horse. Pride or God? It was hard to distinguish. I left the church and would return back to NDS two days later. When the taxi drove me into our campus, I felt stupid and joyful. A tear welled-up. I was so happy to be home. The stupidity was the recognition of pride.

I spend Sunday afternoon in the chapel here and thanked the Lord for removing the plank in my eye and heart. I celebrated the wedding of Bill and Megan, experienced a parish community losing their pastor, and recognized zeal in heart to be a pastor again. All blessings that were almost obscured by the sin of pride.

Love conquers pride: the love of God and his Church; the love of the People of God; the love of our responsibilities in the present moment. The enemy does not possess this love nor does it want us to possess it.

Many manifestations of pride obscure the love of God. The one I have asked us to consider is mediocrity. Please pray about this and see if and where this might be present in your hearts and ask God to give you the grace to remove such temptations. My responsibility as your pastor is to assure that mediocrity is not institutionalized in our programs where we are simply meeting the basic principles of formation without striving for excellence. I promise you my commitment to not tolerate mediocrity in the way in which we execute priestly formation. Thank you for your commitment to strive for holiness without any hesitation.

Blessings to you all and thanks for your efforts that make this apostolic community a thriving, joyful seminary. Let us praise the Lord and give Him thanks.