Where is the New Born King? Great Beginnings Last a Lifetime.
Commitment to God and Church is Commitment to Your Formation
Pope Benedict XVI in addressing the Roman Curia shortly before Christmas recalled his meeting with families in Milan last year. In reflecting on that encounter, the Holy Father asked several questions. Please listen to these questions from your standpoint as a seminarian and your commitment to formation.
The Pontiff asks: “First of all there is the question of the human capacity to make a commitment or to avoid commitment. Can one bind oneself for a lifetime? Does this correspond to man’s nature? Does it not contradict his freedom and the scope of his self-realization? Does man become himself by living for himself alone and only entering into relationships with others when he can break them off again at any time? Is lifelong commitment antithetical to freedom? Is commitment also worth suffering for? Man’s refusal to make any commitment – means that man remains closed in on himself and keeps his “I” ultimately for himself, without really rising above it. Yet only in self-giving does man find himself, and only by opening himself to the other […] only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity. When such commitment is repudiated, the key figures of human existence likewise vanish” (Address to Roman Curia, December 21, 2012)
You have heard me say on several occasions now, that when it comes to your formation as a seminarian the Church celebrates the theological virtue of Hope in how she views you. Your very commitment to discernment and formation renews the life of the Church. Faith-filled Catholics inherently respond with joy when they meet seminarians, when they come to know you. You have experienced this. I suppose you even experience Hope in your discernment because of the ways in which the People of God support you.
The cherished title that you carry is indeed more than a title. It is a status in the Church. A status that indicates what you are doing with your relationship to Jesus Christ: a status that indicates how you are responding to God’s call within the life of the Church. No man can respond to God’s will completely and fully without the Church. As the Body of Christ, the Church has fully received and fully propagates the Gospel of Christ. Your reception of the Gospel today, your living out the Gospel today, and your desire to witness to the Gospel today is as a seminarian.
Some of you have possessed the title seminarian for some time and soon you will shed this as you are ontologically changed and ordained into the priesthood of Christ. Some of you will retain this title while being sacramentally configured to Christ as Servant at diaconate ordination this Spring.
For many of you, this has been a new role in the life of the Church. I enjoyed working with you new seminarians this past Fall. For those who came to us as a seminarian from elsewhere, you were learning how to be a seminarian of Notre Dame Seminary. For those who bear the title seminarian for the first time, you had to learn what a prayer life means as a seminarian, what it means to study philosophy as a seminarian, to surrender your will to the will of superiors, to follow rules that you have no control over, to be a brother to another that you had to choice of selecting.
For the returning seminarians, you would have to embrace docility in ways which might have been difficult. What will this new rector ask of me? What mistakes might he make – will I pounce at him when he makes a mistake or will I pray for my new spiritual father? Will I be able to let go of how we used to do things and embrace with a docile heart what I am being asked to do? How much I appreciated your patience and support last semester. You are good men to be serving.
Yes, this is an apostolic community! This must presume your ecclesial embrace – “that my immediate experience of the Church is through Notre Dame Seminary. I love the Church. I love Notre Dame Seminary.” The virtue of loyalty is indeed just that – it is a virtue. Man is not born virtuous, he is born good. He cultivates his human passions to be virtuous. This takes time. For a man to love the Church as a bride takes time. You are presently sons of the Church preparing to love her as a spouse. This takes time. Maybe a teenage son talks back at his mother. Maybe he ignores her rules and questions why he has to follow these rules. Maybe a teenage son from time to time is embarrassed of his mother in public.
A disobedient and selfish seminarian would be that teenage boy: a seminarian who thinks only about himself. He has created a church in his own mind and will only pursue this church rather than the one that his bishop is shepherding, one that his rector is supporting at the seminary. I am grateful that we do not have these teenage boys here at Notre Dame Seminary.
No, we have men! Men who love the Church and want to defend her, show her off to others, and be obedient to her. Your experience of the Church as a seminarian is through your seminary, through Notre Dame Seminary.
A son who grows to be a husband, is a son who commits himself to the virtues, growing in holiness, a man who is serious about his affective maturity; a man who cultivates his human sexuality as a gift from God; a man who embraces chaste celibacy, naturally ordered to a woman only then to bring that gift to the Church.
Then, as a priest, you lay down your life for the salvation of souls. Our people today are experiencing economic, racial, discriminatory, poverty, and familial challenges. We priests must not be seen as living in the ivory tower, removed from the concerns of our people. Rather, as fathers, we serve them, encourage them, shepherd them, teach them – in short, to love them.
Commitment to your formation today will prepare you for the joys and burdens of pastoral ministry tomorrow.
While the Holy Father’s address to the Curia was about family we can consider his words as a seminary family. In this new year, you ask yourself: “how will I make a commitment to my formation at Notre Dame Seminary and all that she is asking of me? The Holy Father explains: “Man’s refusal to make any commitment – means that man remains closed in on himself and keeps his “I” ultimately for himself, without really rising above it.”
What might this look like as a seminarian? Submarine formation! When a seminarian does not fully embrace priestly formation rather embraces his own viewpoints without being challenged by his formation advisor or spiritual director only to emerge after ordination with a personality, a mindset that is unfamiliar to the bishop.
In my ten years, I think we are seeing less and less of this. Why? Frankly because seminaries are creating atmospheres where seminarians can trust that they will not be victimized for sharing their ideas and viewpoints or being ridiculed when they do. This is the time in your formation where you can explore your passions about the Church, her liturgy, her sacred doctrines, the various pastoral practices, the evangelical praxis for preaching the Gospel.
My promise to you is to continue creating this environment. Evaluation interviews should not be a surprise. On the other hand, you, with a humble and docile heart, will allow the formators to share their thoughts and ideas about you while, at the same time, you discuss in freedom what is on and in your heart.
As spiritual father to each one of you, I hope you know that you can come to me at any time to discuss whatever is in your heart. Please trust that I have the discretion to counsel you without you fearing what might be used against you in evaluations. I hope you can have this trust of me and of the other priests and professors. If not, please come and let me know what I can do to make this a more apostolic community where you can enjoy freedom while also doing that hard work of formation.
The Holy Father again states: “Yet only in self-giving does man find himself, and only by opening himself to the other […] only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity. When such commitment is repudiated, the key figures of human existence likewise vanish.” Commitment and self-giving, gentlemen – the ball is in your court.
Great Beginnings Last a Lifetime
“Only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity.” A formation program that does not have suffering, is not a true formation program. A seminarian who coasts through the program without any challenge, is a seminarian not growing in holiness.
I think of my time in the seminary. I had four rectors in my eight years of formation. All four rectors challenged me, scolded me, and on one occasion with one rector, suggested I leave formation. All four rectors, still in active ministry, have told me over the years and as recent as this past Summer, they never thought or saw me in priestly formation. But each of them told me they saw someone who loved seminary life. That is true – I loved being a seminarian, I loved both seminaries where I was enrolled. And, did I have the roughest time moving year to year in discernment and formation. I bristled with authority; I balked at some of the rules.
I think what grounded me in seminary formation was a sincere desire to know Jesus Christ. I entered the seminary as a boy, immature, having such a limited, undeveloped relationship with Jesus Christ. After graduation from high school and coming from a family with little means, I attended a community college thinking that the Lord was calling me to marriage and to be an elementary school teacher. I did not have a car, so I would take the bus and spend most of the day at the college sometimes with an early morning class and a late afternoon class. This was a secular college. I would spend most of the time in the college library. I came upon the Catholic Encyclopedia.
I could not put those volumes down. For almost a year, I read, read, and read. About a thirty minute walk away was Saint Peter Church. What I read inspired me to get to a church for daily Mass and prayer before the tabernacle.
You see – I was thirsting for Jesus Christ. And even after daily Mass, prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, reading about our faith, it was not enough. I prayed over the words of the Holy Father this past Christmas: “Only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity.”
What type of suffering would I need? Well, in short, the Lord lead me to the seminary. What was to be asked of me by Christ and His Church would bring me from being a boy to a man. Seminary formation made me a man, and brought me to the priesthood. “Only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity.”
Each of you have your own journey. Don’t forget it. Embrace it. Please do not set your journey on cruise-control. Suffering for a seminarian is always redemptive. It begins with a full immersion into the spiritual disciplines of the Church. Your spiritual director counsels you on these practices. These spiritual disciplines drive you to the intellectual life – you are unsettled: “I need to know more about Christ, His Church, the sacred mysteries of our faith.”
The suffering requires a human formation that enables you to embrace formation with maturity, a man who seeks friendships within the community, a man who has capacity to live the schedule, a man who is self-motivated. In all of this formation, your heart is zealous to save the souls of God’s people as a priest. Pastoral ministry is the goal of all seminary formation. For a man called to the priesthood, you see your own salvation as related to the People of God.
Therefore, the years of seminary formation are years of significant, deliberate, and hard-working efforts. Indeed, “Only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity.” What joy does a seminarian find in his formation! A new ordained priest comes to understand what seminary life was all about – it makes sense. Maybe a pastor thinks back about his formation thinking if he just spent more time in prayer and study, things would be easier for him – but he does so with affection for his time in seminary life. A retired priest often embraces maybe some of those seminary practices that he may have bristled with as a young man.
I suppose I can summarize this in one expression: Great Beginnings Last a Lifetime!
Where is the Newborn King of the Jews?
May I suggest how this great beginning is initiated for each one of us. Taken from the Gospel of Matthew this past Feast of the Epiphany, the magi ask: Where is the newborn king of the Jews? The knowledge and science of the astrologers was not enough. The land and wealth of the shepherds was not enough. The human wisdom of the wise men was not enough. The power and majesty of being a king was not enough.
The magi moved from their own establishments, followed the sign given to them by God (a star), and followed what was put before them. The question they ask: Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
Where is this king in my life as a seminary? Where is this king at Notre Dame Seminary? Where is this king in the study of philosophy, languages, and theology? Where is this king among my brothers? Where is this king in my daily horarium? God brought you here. Now what do we do for Him? That’s right – everything we do at the seminary is not just for you, for me, for your bishop – it is for God. The priesthood of Jesus Christ belongs to God. Everything belongs to God.
Maybe this was one reason why the magi gave something back to God before Jesus. In addition to the formalities of seminary formation: cleaning the bathrooms, mopping up a spill, keeping my room clean, having respect for one another – these are ways in which we give back to God. It is a way to recognize God in our midst.
And so, in this Year of Faith, we seek out this King in our lives.
Go and Search Diligently for this Child
“Go and search diligently for this child.” Not bad advice however it came from King Herod. King Herod obviously had another plan on what he would do with the information that he had hoped would come to him.
His instruction to the magi was dead on – go and search diligently. This is what we do here at the seminary. We search Him out in our studies, prayer life, amongst brother seminarians, in the daily exercises of community living.
I know the days can be long. I know we can get on each other’s nerves. I know we would rather sometimes just want to leave. But the formation you receive in seminary life will bring you to priestly assignments with self-discipline. Believe me, the days are long in parish life, people will get on your nerves, and some days you just want to escape.
Spiritual Fathers for the New Evangelization – this has been the vision inspiring our formation program this past year. As fathers, you are men who possess or are being formed to possess a discipline of fatherhood that you are discerning if the Lord is asking you to live as a priest. Going and Searching for the Truth, for the Child Jesus, requires you to be a man.
Because once you find Him, once you are committed to Him – the Evil One wants to take this from you. King Herod wanted to know what the magi would learn so he could destroy this child Jesus, to destroy the Truth.
The Evil One does not want a holy, loyal, healthy, hard-working priest. The Evil One does want priests however – priests who are lazy, priests who are disobedient, priests who lead the faithful astray from the Truth, priests who bring scandal to the Church. No doubt – the Evil One does want priests: corrupted priests, priests addicted to pornography, priests who do not pray.
“Go and search diligently for this child.” You do not have to do this by yourself. The Church stands with you. The Temptor will lead us to other paths where we find the worldly child. Man inherently seeks the Truth and without the Church, the truth he seeks will not be fully discovered.
I thank you for coming back to Notre Dame Seminary for the Spring semester. Thank you for your commitment to work hard. Thank you for embracing every aspect of formation. Thank you for sharing your talent and time with your brother seminarians. Thank you for being open to your superiors, to me.
Where is the newborn king of the Jews? – the magi ask. We do not have to ask this question. He is here among us! He is among you!
Let’s make this a great semester. Let us praise the Lord and give Him thanks!
Very Reverend James A. Wehner, S.T.D.
January 15, 2013