You are the Salt of the Earth-You are the Light of the World:
Living the Season of Lent as Seminarians
I proposed for you at the beginning of the academic year the formational theme: Disciples of the Lord: Missionary Priests for the New Evangelization. Considering the unique pastoral challenges of our dioceses, the theological vision of Pope Benedict XVI, and the anniversary of the Second Vatican Council as well as the anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this Year of Faith speaks to our hearts and our desire to be faithful disciples and missionary in our evangelical efforts.
This formational theme — Disciples of the Lord: Missionary Priests for the New Evangelization – is what I propose to be a guiding principle in your discernment and formation. Each of you will indeed flesh this out in your prayer, discussions with your formation advisor and spiritual director, and in your imagination of how you may see yourself as a priest, a spiritual father of the Church.
Let me provide another context for this theme. In the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Jesus teaches his disciples about the mysteries of the Kingdom of God in his sermon on the mount. The Beatitudes frame his teaching as well as express God’s promise that when we hear, embrace, and live what the Beatitudes call for – we indeed not only manifest the Kingdom in other people’s lives, but our own call to holiness is initiated.
At this point in chapter five, disciples have already been called forth and are following Jesus. Matthew tells us that people were coming from Syria, Galilee, Jerusalem, Judea, the Jordan, and from the Ten Cities. People were hearing about these amazing events and took it upon themselves to seek out Christ.
The disciples have travelled far to see and hear Jesus. They were missionary in their desire to find Christ. Is this not the first stage of being missionary – to seek out Christ? We cannot be sent by Christ unless we have first sought him out.
I reflected with you at the beginning of the year the three moments of discipleship: being an eyewitness; being transformed by what and who we see and hear; and then eagerly and zealously sharing this with others.
Seminarians are disciples. You have seen and heard Christ – not in some vague, studious manner. Maybe you heard about Jesus and then sought him out. What is presumed is that a seminarian has already seen himself as a disciple before coming into the seminary. Yes – seminary life will deepen the intimacy of discipleship but it cannot create it.
And so, each of you have your own unique testimony of what you have seen and heard from Jesus Christ. Secondly, each of you have been touched by the Holy Spirit in a way that has made you a “man of faith.” Conversion, transformation, putting on Christ and taking off the old man – this is a tangible effect of the “act of faith.” This has already happened to you before coming into the seminary. Yes, your conversion will be deepened as you embrace the discipline of seminary formation.
Finally, you have already been evangelists – men who actively or passively been proclaimers of God’s Word by the example of your life and the ways in which you have shared faith with others.
Discipleship does not end when one comes into the seminary. Being a new seminarian, a seminarian about to be ordained to the diaconate and priesthood, or a seminarian advancing from year to year in his formation – discipleship should be a front-and-center goal to everything we are doing here.
A disciple is a mature man. A seminarian is a mature man. You know that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit even when we people get in the way of God’s plan. Jesus invites us into his relationship with the Father. The prayer of Jesus becomes our own prayer. The Lord’s Prayer positions us to have a unique relationship with Jesus.
Jesus teaches us how to be good sons of the Father. His Lordship and being our Savior – both rooted in the mystery of the Incarnation and later fulfilled in the Paschal Mystery – draw us into his own life. Not as spectators – but a brother who is teaching us obedience to God the Father.
Disciplines of Lent
I know you have already discussed with your spiritual director how you will live the disciplines of Lent as a seminarian and as one who belongs to this apostolic community. Without disrupting those plans, let me offer some thoughts about how our discipleship to the Lord is deepened as a seminarian considering the three Lenten disciplines associated with the three priestly promises.
1) Fasting for Celibacy. Self-denial is an aspect of our growth in virtue. Living the chaste life requires that we deny what our disordered passions often desire for self-fulfillment. We examine our conscience, we confess our sins, we discern with our spiritual directors, and we report to our formation advisors our capabilities in living chaste celibacy.
What you are discerning is if celibacy is being given to you as a supernatural way of loving. Chastity is the virtue by which we live a healthy sexuality. Man is called to love and to be loved. Chastity is the virtue we cultivate to love in a holy, healthy, and generative manner. An unhealthy chastity leads to narcissism – embracing vice for self-fulfillment; a false sense of loving oneself. Hence pornography, masturbation, promiscuity become acts of selfishness in which man falsely seeks a fulfillment which only leads to emptiness, loneliness, and a false sense of self.
For you seminarians, you are living a chaste lifestyle as a Christian man who is being loved by God, who loves himself and his neighbor with eyes of faith seeing the image of God in the other. You are asking: Lord, are you giving me the supernatural gift of celibacy to love as a priest, to be a spiritual father for your people, to offer the sacrifice of the Mass for the salvation of souls?
I would like to propose how the discipline of fasting can help you in your discernment. We heard earlier this week in the Book of Genesis how God looked upon his creation and saw that it was good. Using the temporal goods around us to promote the dignity of our God-given nature speaks to our anthropological view of creation.
Yet, fasting from “goods” can create a space and time in which greater goods are received. If celibacy means that God may want us to love and to live in a manner that does not deny our human nature rather in a manner specifically ordered to the way Jesus loves as High Priest (potestas sacra), then what “goods” may I need to sometimes set aside in order to pursue a supernatural way of loving?
These goods may be texting, facebooking, tweeting, and other social media. Goods may involve certain structures in my daily horarium, my routine and the people I usually hang with, or good habits of exercise, study, and personal time for self.
I am not asking that we deny ourselves of these things or habits, rather to discern if fasting from these or other things might create some more time for me to love and live my celibacy for others during this season of Lent. Sacrificing one good to create space for another good.
For a diocesan priest – this love allows me to be ready to serve my people in whatever pastoral situation they find themselves. This means I must constantly discern that there are no obstacles, humanly speaking, that could prevent me from ministering and loving my people. I even have to discern if there are certain goods that may need to be sacrificed for greater goods to be in my life.
For a religious – how does celibate love enable me to live the rule of life more faithfully and more generously? How am I more brother to my Order?
Fasting for celibacy. What may I want and need to fast from in order to promote the supernatural gift of celibacy? How can my celibate love draw me more closer to this seminary community rather than away from it?
2) Fasting for Obedience. As sons of the Church, a lot is being asked of you. Maybe some of what is being asked of you may not specifically be assisting your discernment and formation. However, as sons of the Church – you belong to a family. Some family practices or even family “rules” may seem obsolete or unimportant. But, because mom is asking this from us, we do it because we love her. As a teenager being expected to come home at a certain time, certain chores being asked of us, attending family functions in which we have to tolerate a certain uncle or cousin, or observing a family tradition that was fun when we were kids but seems silly as an adult. Yes, we may protest to our mother asking her to reconsider what is being asked of us. We may even have better ideas about how to go about a family routine. Discussion, questions, and conversations are all a part of what it means to be a family.
Speaking until I am blue in the face, I have strenuously brought to your attention that Mother Church sees seminary life not as a parish, not as a retreat center, not as a college dorm, not as an educational institution – but an apostolic community. Men called forth by the Holy Spirit to take on the challenge of discernment as a family of faith in a specific time and space. This family too has certain traditions, practices, and customs.
Fasting for obedience. Mother Church is asking a lot of you. In your observance of Lent, how might fasting increase in me the virtue of obedience? I would like to propose an interior discipline of fasting for obedience. This interior habit is not blind obedience rather an attitude that externalizes itself as one who is always “ready and willing.” A son of the Church who loves Mother Church and will therefore take on responsibilities in a way in which another might quietly whisper – see how he loves her!
This interior quality of obedience will fashion itself into a habit that a priest brings to his spouse. The pastoral situation may be messy, chaotic, tense with emotion, a flock resistant to church teaching, or a setting in which you feel a lack of confidence. As spouse to this Church, the priest lays down his life for he knows that his life belongs to God, his priesthood to Jesus Christ.
Fasting for obedience. What attitudes, dispositions, approaches, inclinations need to be discerned in order for me to grow in obedience? Are there certain “goods” I live in promoting obedience that may need to be fasted from in order to allow greater goods into my life?
3) Fasting for Prayer. Every act of fasting brings us closer to God and His Church. Fasting ultimately creates a space for me to give back to God the blessings He has given to me. I often assign fasting as a penitential act when hearing confessions. I ask the penitent to use the time that one is fasting, for example from a meal, to pray – to read scripture, offer a moment of contemplation, to offer an act of piety.
You men are men of prayer. I am inspired by the ways in which you cultivate a strong prayer life. It is never about quantity but quality – as is with every relationship. So, you and I ask frequently – what is the quality of my prayer life? How present am I to God in my prayer?
Discerning with my spiritual director, how does the act of fasting increase the quality of my prayer life? Maybe fasting reveals certain weaknesses in my resolve and therefore I pray that my commitment to self-denial is more steadfast. Maybe fasting reveals some new ways by which I can structure my day therefore my prayer life brings to God’s attention questions about how changes need to take place in my life. Maybe fasting reveals a certain appetite for holiness that I have not tasted before hence my prayer will need to take this up.
4) Almsgiving for Celibacy. Acts of charity externalizes a core Christian belief – the fundamental option for the poor. The Church’s pastoral life is inspired by our going out into the deep waters of culture to bring the Gospel to those who struggle most with life. However, the Church is not just another social, charitable organization among others. The salvation of souls is the goal of our charity.
As already noted, celibacy is the manner in which a priest loves the people to whom he serves. Requiring everything good in our human sexuality and denying everything that contradicts the good of our sexuality are human acts, deliberate acts requiring the exercise of freedom. The call to be holy is a deliberate call by God. The call to be a saint comes to us from Christ and His Church. To freely respond to this call reveals the best of what it means to be human.
This freedom needs to be exercised here in this apostolic community – in the “now” and “present.” While we rightly think about those people we enjoy serving back in our parishes, in our apostolates, and our expectations in the future, after ordination, what about here in the seminary?
Almsgiving for Celibacy. How do I share my celibate love with my brother seminarians? Almsgiving is an act of charity that expresses my recognition of my love for the other (agape). My recognition of the other’s dignity, the dignity of God. My Christian faith moves me to not be complacent, to ignore the other in my midst.
The fecundity of celibacy is rooted in a generative love. A love that creates, sustains, and produces. We do not always see the fruits of our celibacy in the other but this does not disqualify the supernatural love I am to have for the other.
And so, how might I love a brother seminarian in the act of almsgiving. Can I give time to a seminarian who I do not know? How have I welcomed new seminarians? Seminarians who do not have a vehicle – how can I share my car with them? Can I widen my circle of friends to include other seminarians? Maybe a seminarian who does not have many friends – might I be a friend to him?
Almsgiving should not be an act to make me feel good rather an act of love in which the other receives something good. I see God in my brother and I hope he sees God in my actions.
5) Almsgiving for Obedience. Saint Paul’s canticle in Philippians rings out in our prayer – that Jesus was obedient to the Father, obedient unto death. While we can theologically reflect on the movement of the will and the movement of the intellect by which obedience is lived, the spiritual gift of obedience is that our life belongs to God hence whatever He asks of us, we can give since it belongs to him.
Salvation is pure gift from God to us – we cannot earn it. Rather, we are saved because we embrace with faith the Gospel of life. Living the way in which God calls us to live, is living the beginnings of our salvation. From the pagan who offers sacrifices out of an anthropological intuition to the sacrifices called for in the Old Covenant, man inherently recognizes whatever blessings we have from God are meant to be shared and given back.
Obviously, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, offers the perfect sacrifice for the atonement of our sins and for the redemption of all creation. Baptized into this mystery, the Christian, with the eyes of faith, approaches the events of human nature with a generous heart of self-giving.
Almsgiving for obedience. How can a seminarian see that his time of study, sitting at a desk, researching and reading, is an act of charity to God? How can a seminarian understand that when he is asked to participate in a community function, the greater good is his presence? How can each member of this community demonstrate a respect for building, property, facilities, in a spirit of gratitude? Without putting my nose up, how can we choose to remain for meals rather than going off campus in order to choose being present to others?
This is the same love a priest has for his parish, for the parish grounds and buildings, his solicitude for the material goods of the parish. This is a virtue – one that begins here. Almsgiving for obedience is really an act that expresses my appreciation for the goods entrusted to me or the goods that I enjoy because the Church is taking care of me. An attitude of gratitude – gratitude too is a virtue. This virtue is required of us in the present moment.
6) Almsgiving for Prayer. The practice of charity flows from our relationship with Jesus. Our spiritual disciplines flow from our desire to be with Jesus in prayer. Pope Benedict’s post-synodal exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (2007), that was released six years ago this month, reflects on the intrinsic relationship between the spiritual life of a believer and the charity that we practice. As a matter of fact, the Holy Father sees the evangelization of culture caught up in this relationship. A charity that is not founded on the mystery of the Eucharist is a charity that lacks full-force. A spiritual life that is not qualified by acts of charity, is an underdeveloped, immature spiritual life.
Almsgiving for prayer. How might a seminarian during the season of Lent see how his desire to be an evangelist, a missionary priest, a spiritual father is caught up in an efficacious prayer life where the love of God is flowing into the heart of a seminarian and how he is giving himself over generously to the demands of the spiritual life?
How am I preparing for Morning Prayer, Mass, and Evening Prayer each day? How present am I to the Lord when being asked to sing at Mass? What is my posture at Mass and prayer? Many of us gave hours over to Mardis Gras being present to family and friends – how might I give myself over to the Lord with the same joy and eagerness I devoted to parties?
Almsgiving for prayer. The love we have for God impels us to be good to Him but giving our Lord the same due reverence that we give over to temporal or social activity.
Ascending to the Mountain of Easter
Lent requires a lot from us. The triple penitential acts of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, also are purifying our conversation to live the three priestly promises of celibacy, obedience, and ecclesial prayer.
From seminary formation to the expectations of Lent – when we throw ourselves freely into the experience of conversion, we come out of the experience as stronger men, better Catholics, and well-prepared to embrace our discipleship. For you men called to the priesthood – formation will prepare you with a mature, loving heart to take up the work of the Church as a spiritual father of God’s people.
Reflecting on Lent, the Ceremonial of Bishops states: “The annual observance of Lent is the special season for the ascent to the holy mountain of Easter. Through the two-fold theme of repentance and baptism, the season of Lent disposes […] the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery […] The faithful, listening more intently to the word of God and devoting themselves to prayer, are prepared through a spirit of repentance to renew their baptismal promises” (249).
The ascent to the holy mountain of Easter. The Church sees our journey going up a mountain. A mountain that requires a climb, one that requires us to be in spiritual shape. A climb that will require the use of tools and the requisite knowledge to use those tools. A climb that presumes we know how to climb. Lent is getting us into shape.
The Church says to us in the Ceremonial that Lent also prepares us through a spirit of repentance to renew our baptismal promises. One of these promises always strikes me as profound by the language the Church chooses when asking us to renew our faith. The new English translation has tightened up the questions.
Do you renounce the lure of evil so that sin may have no mastery over you? The lure of evil. What lures a seminarian today? What lures a priest today? Renouncing this lure is required so that no sin has mastery over us. The implication is that sin, in fact, can and does have mastery over us when we choose to live in a manner contrary to the Gospel. This is why you and I are eager in our conversion – not out of a selfish fear, but a fear of not being saved.
The Church indicates that in order for us to freely renew this baptismal promise at Easter, a spirit of repentance is required. Reject what is evil and choose what is good. But I again ask – what lures a seminarian today? What seduction does the Evil One bring to a seminarian that can bring him confusion or even distract the entire seminary community?
As I said to you in my last rector’s conference – the Evil One is a vocations director of sorts. It wants more priests – not less priests. But, it wants unholy priests, priests disobedient to their bishops, priests who are not chaste and pure, priests who do not pray anymore, priests who are narcissistic and selfish, priests who are lazy and live off the Church. Yes, indeed, the Evil One wants more priests.
Lent requires a lot of work. It is worth it. We are called to be saints. In doing so, Jesus makes promises to us. Promises that we call the Beatitudes. How blessed we are when we live the Gospel.
Beatitudes for Seminarians
Preparing to live the three priestly promises while embracing the three Lenten promises. Whew! Is it worth it? I am already being asked to live a long day of discipline from early morning prayer, studies all day, meetings in the evening. Is there ever any time to simply discern? Yes – these are natural questions we all ask. I promise you that every generation of seminarians ask these same questions. No seminary is perfect – the schedule constantly needs to be discerned by us administrators.
But, at the end of the day the Holy Spirit is in charge. Docility to the Spirit and trust of the Church as she is present to you through seminary life will pay off.
The Beatitudes represent God’s promise that the work of becoming a saint is hard work but worth it. So, I end this conference praying the Beatitudes taking license with those Beatitudes as the Lord speaks to you and I.
1) Blessed is the seminarian who is poor in Spirit! I am naked before you, Lord. I cloth myself with Jesus Christ. I embrace poverty in my formation so I can do your will. I am poor before you in my studies, on my knees in prayer, in the chapel worshipping you, at the table with brother seminarians, following the directives of my superiors.
2) Blessed is the seminarian who is sorrowful! My sin saddens me and angers me. I am disturbed because of how I sin as a seminarian, sins even committed here on this campus. I am sorrowful when I permit sin in my life as an excuse. I am sorrowful for not taking advantage of my formation or for not working as hard as I should, not being grateful for what the People of God have given that allows me to be a seminarian.
3) Blessed is the seminarian who is lowly! I seek no power or status. I know that being a seminarian sometimes puts me in the spotlight. I am lowly and will not live the bachelor life. I seek no freebies and am grateful when people are generous to me. I seek the life of simplicity. I am lowly so that the Lord may increase in me – that others see in me the Christian life.
4) Blessed is the seminarian who hungers and thirsts for holiness! I thirst to be a saint and I hunger for the truth. This is so evident in how I live the horarium and my personal rule of life. I am learning how to fast for other people’s intentions; offering my divine office for them; and performing acts of charity that does not seek attention. The self-denial practices make me hunger even more for holiness.
5) Blessed is the seminarian who shows mercy! I see the face of God in my brother seminarians, in my superiors, and the faithful therefore I pray for their success and faith. I am a compassionate man who wants to be a man of reconciliation. I frequent the sacrament of penance and allow God’s mercy to fashion in me a contrite heart and a heart that will show mercy to sinners when they seek forgiveness.
6) Blessed is the seminarian who is single-hearted! I have no agenda but to serve you. I only want to save souls. I am a determined seminarian. I am not lazy or apathetic. I give it my all because the goal is to be with you. I do not let ideology or the short-comings of others to distract me from you. My focus on you, Lord, does not however pull me away from the community rather brings me closer to it for this is what you want, this is where I find you among other disciples.
7) Blessed is the seminarian who is a peacemaker! I am a man of the Church, a man of his word. My actions and my presence bring a sense of calm to others. I want all of my actions and words to bring peace to situations, to conversations, to situations that can be tense. I am not a gossip; I do not throw others under the bus – I try to help people and when I see another going down the wrong path, I will speak up and help him. This is the type of priest I want to be.
8) Blessed is the seminarian who persecuted for being holy! Sometimes this persecution comes from within the Church. A family member who does not understand my vocation. My different way of living causes questions from my friends who mock me. Even priests who think I am trying to act like a pre-Vatican II priest. Maybe I get persecuted because I really do want to be with the poor, I am not faking this. Lord, I do need to be authentic. I need to be myself and when others don’t accept me, I know you do.
9) Blessed is the seminarian who is insulted because of you Lord – the Kingdom of God is theirs! Lord, I live my celibacy, obedience and prayer as gifts you have given to me. I live them joyfully and the best way that I can in order to pursue holiness. My life, my faith, my Church all stand in contradiction to the enemy and those forces that want to take down the Church. I will not fear; I will have courage; I trust in your Spirit. My life is yours. My vocation is yours. The Kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed Lent. Let us praise the Lord and give Him thanks.
Very Reverend James A. Wehner, S.T.D.
February 15, 2013