Sunday, January 1, 2017

Advice to a young seminarian - part 5

Letter to Robinson K. Russo, continued…
I suppose we old fellows are always urging the young not to waste their youth. It didn’t work for me, but times are different. The world seems to have grown old. When I was a boy, all the stay-at-home mothers as if on signal would open the doors up and down the block and the houses would empty of their seven or eight children under the age of 12 like bats out of a cave at sundown and the mothers would shout after them, “…and don’t eat anything you find growing in the woods and be back in time for dinner.”  (The fussbudgets would want them home for lunch.) Now there are one or two children in a hover-parent household and things are said like, “Now put on your shin guards and your safety helmet and kiss your stepfather goodnight.”  Things have changed. Parents hover. The government hovers. Quite literally. Drones.
I suggest that you see the movie “Snowden.” See it twice. I don’t want to make you paranoid, but just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Everything you do and say and especially everything you put in writing is public. Everything. Every human being alive is on public display in this frightening age. Most people are fairly dull. Not you. You are interesting because you are committing your life to something that most people think is crazy. You are going to have people in your life who are extremely interested in you because you are preparing to be old when you are young. You will be an elder, a priest, God’s personal representative and the clergy incarnate as far as some people are concerned.
I remember a young woman who had been praying two rosaries a day for one of my friends. When he left the seminary, she had a nervous breakdown. It wasn’t his fault. He wasn’t even ordained yet. Heaven forbid that he should have done something to cause such hurt. He hadn’t, as far as I know. Most of the interest in us is positive, but not all of it. I am amazed at the people in my life who have been out to get me. I remember one person who accused me of the misuse of funds in a whispering campaign. I built a parish hall adjoining the church with a large sum that I had inherited. The money had been clearly designated for the parish, not for me, but I was free to use those funds as I saw fit. We needed an accessible hall for the sacred sacrament of coffee and doughnuts after Mass.  The hall was a huge success. The person who wanted me gone started telling people I had used money designated for the elevator. That would have been a criminal use of designated funds. After I cleared it up, that person started some other whispering campaign.  (Notice how cleverly I am not giving away the gender of that person? I wouldn’t want to rat her out.) That person dramatically left the parish three or four times.
A few years back when I was the bishop’s liaison for Icelandic-speaking charismatic groups here in the diocese of Frostbite Falls, I caught a group spending charitable funds for personal use. They reasoned that this money was given to help the poor and they were poor. Ironclad reasoning, no? One of the major beneficiaries of this charity asked some of my parishioners to go through my garbage and personal papers in the hopes of finding something incriminating. When I was informed of the plot, I assured my informant that my garbage and my personal papers were one and the same thing. 
Another helpful anecdote. Years ago, a colleague went on vacation back in the South American country whence he came. There he made the acquaintance of some interesting new friends. He assumed he had a certain anonymity in such a distant place. Well, his new friends decided to keep in contact with him. His new friends were not involved in anything illegal, nor was he, but as a priest, an elder, he probably should have thought twice, or maybe three times about his vacation conduct. He went away for a while to a place where they send priests who need to think about things for a bit. It is amazing how some people love to see a priest laid low by scandal or gossip. Not most people but certainly some people. Among our Protestant brethren there are people called clergy killers. Not literally but figuratively. There are people who will dislike you simply because you are not your predecessor. If you have five or ten of these, they can get rid of you or any pastor by simply making his ministry impossible.
Formerly, this wasn’t a problem for Catholics. We had a fairly unbreakable tenure. You were usually pastor until they carried you out feet first. You may have been a doddering old fool, but you were the doddering fool people knew and had put up with for years. Catholicism wasn’t all about the priest back in my youth. It was all about the Lord. You put up with the priest, and besides, with the priest facing the altar, you didn’t even have to look at his ugly mug. You were there to pray. Things have changed. The usual maximum tenure for a pastor is 12 years these days. You are evaluated at six years and then you get another six if it’s going well. This system gives a huge opening to clergy killers. If you like the parish there will be things up with which you must put. You would think this is a bad thing. In some ways, it is. In other ways, it can be a great blessing.
We live in transient world, everybody is moving somewhere. So are you. Your job is to help strengthen a community of which you are not really part. Your absolute focus must be on the Lord and the spirituality of the parish. So, you make enemies. Get used to it. A person who has no enemies in a business like ours is not doing his job. As Dorothy Day put it, our job is “ comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Just make sure that the discomfiture you cause is for the sake of the Lord, and not just because of your personal agendas, or worse, irritating personality.
Some may think that this is all too discouraging. On the contrary! This is part of the heroism of the priest’s life. Christ hung naked on the cross. The public nature of the priesthood is part of being crucified with Christ. It is part of the sacrifice you will make in order to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. You, like the first disciples, are invited to give up something that most people take for granted: privacy.  You, even now are asked to take up the transparency of holiness. He and His Bride are worth the sacrifice.
Next week: Alcohol

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Advice to a young seminarian - part 4

Continued from last week…

More elderness. I often think back on what little I can remember of my youth. How I wish I had known then what I know now. But then again, if I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t know now what I know now. Is that clear? I suppose I am saying that I learned what little I know in the school of hard knocks. My favorite prayer in the Breviary is “O, Lord save us from the sins of our youth and stupidity.” Learn from my stupidity. I didn’t take school seriously until I was in my last year of college. I majored in classical Greek and minored in Latin. Sounds scholarly, no?

The truth is that I was going to major in psychology so that I could help people. The registration line at the Big U. was blocks long. An old Jesuit looked at my transcripts, saw that I had taken some Latin in High School (required) and told me that Classics majors went to the front of the line. Bingo! I was a Classics major. (I was famished at the time.) I signed up, went to lunch and said I’ll change it next week. The flesh being weak, I never bothered to change and found that I liked Greek and Latin, even though I wasn’t terribly interested in working at them. 

Many parties, beer bashes, political demonstrations (it was the 60’s) and a religious conversion later, I finally got interested in learning things. Because of an unfortunate incident on a dance floor, I decided that the requirement of priestly celibacy in the Latin rite of the Roman Catholic Church made a lot of sense, and so I had weekends free. I spent them in the library basement among the research stacks and there developed a lifelong fascination for Sacred Scripture and its meaning in the original cultures and languages. My point is this: don’t waste your education. If you are not ultimately called to the priestly life, you can waste your time and energy later. Right now, learn! You’re never going to have this chance again. You will have plenty of time later, if you are not ordained, to be an adolescent who does stupid things. Right now, you have to start being an elder. It may sound boring. Don’t be boring. Laugh a lot, be a good friend to good friends. Just don’t be an idiot like I was. I ultimately learned Latin and Greek pretty well, thanks to our Blessed Mother.

Years ago, on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I went to a Mass at the seminary from which I had graduated at the invitation of some seminarians in my parish. I walked in the basement door and, mind you I am about as mystical as block of cheese, I do not have visions or hear voices. However, as I walked in the door, I hear a voice that was so nearly audible, that I turned around to see if someone was there. The voice said, “You’ll be teaching Latin and Greek here at the college seminary next year.” I walked into the sacristy and the dean turned around and, without so much as a “Hello,” said “Do you want to teach Latin and Greek here next year?” I said, “Sure.”  I had no qualification whatsoever except that I haphazardly majored in the subjects and I was willing to work cheap. I was there for almost 25 years and I really learned Latin and Greek despite myself.

Take Latin. Learn Latin. I used to call my course remedial thinking. Latin and its grammar structure are a wonderful intellectual exercise. I can communicate in French and Italian, but I can actually speak Spanish, albeit with a rather odd Puerto Rican accent. I did take a year of French, but I never studied Italian or Spanish. Spanish is just Latin badly spoken and I can do that! Latin provides an understanding of grammar and so doing, it provides an insight into human thought. A world of languages is open to you if you can understand the concepts of grammar. Latin may well be the venerable language of Western civilization and the Latin Church, but the overwhelming reason to take Latin is that opens a world of learning. Take Latin! Among the things it opens up is the grammar necessary to learn Greek.

Take Biblical Greek. That sneaky Jesuit and my need for a burger combined with the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe, made my life inestimably richer. To read the New Testament in the language in which the Holy Spirit wrote it is a treasure I cannot begin to explain. The gift of Biblical Greek in my life has been a gift that I am able to share with everyone who loves Scripture. Part of your job as a priest is to teach. People in our times want to know the Scriptures. They will come to you. Don’t fob them off with a few platitudes and a nice thought. Believe me. They will go elsewhere. Bathe yourself in the Scriptures. To do that, you have to know Greek and a little Hebrew. By this I do not mean a short Israeli.

Learn Hebrew. My Hebrew stinks. It is worse than my French, which can confuse the Almighty Himself. Still, after a few years I was able to muddle through a page and see what the text was getting at. Learn Hebrew, at least a little. Latin, Greek and Hebrew are not that hard. Every three-year-old in Rome spoke Latin and in France even the children can speak French! If you take these courses and have questions call me. They are much easier than Classics professors make them out be.

In short, go to class. Do your homework. So you miss a few frat parties.  I didn’t miss many of them but now I can’t remember them. You, or your parents or someone are not paying untold thousands of dollars so you can hang around with the cool kids throwing up out of a dorm room window, not that I ever did such things. You, or someone, are paying for an education. Get it. If you still want to be an idiot you can be one later on. Besides, the cool kids I still know in my old age are either in a treatment program or dead. Oh, yes. And some of them are judges and lawyers. But they tend to be sober. At least now. This is a joke. I don’t mean it. I have nothing but profound respect for our legal system and those who maintain it.

Much more next week.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Advice to a young seminarian - part 3

Continued from last week…
You are aspiring to be a priest, a word derived from a Greek word, presbyter, which means someone who is older.  I imagine you are somewhere around 20 years old. I can’t even remember 20, but it was the sixties after all.  People will get all excited about your decision to study for the priesthood, and not always in a supportive way. I suspect that some of the elements are different; some are the same as when I was thinking about the priesthood at that young age. You are living in what may be a post-Christian world. I have heard from some of my former seminary students that when they announced their intention to study for the priesthood people would say, “Why? You’re not gay.”  I have heard of grandmothers who become angry when their 1.8 grandchildren talk about a religious vocation. “What? Will I have no great-grandchildren?” They were not generous enough to have large families, nor were their children. So the weight of their dreams falls on you. Believe me; people will try to dissuade you from even thinking about the priesthood. 
I remember standing in the street outside the parish church with a young girl who I suspect had no interest in me except as a grade school acquaintance, tried to reason with me about how foolish it was to go to seminary. My own godmother took me aside and actually said, “You know, you don’t have to do this.”  People tried to dissuade me for religious reasons. I was involved in the beginnings of the Catholic charismatic renewal when I was just 18 and participated in a wonderful ecumenical prayer group. One day a very important member of the group who hated Catholicism came up to me and said, “Thus says the Lord: you will not do this thing!”
I said, “You mean the priesthood?”
She said, “Yes!”  I left the group. Apparently, she was a false prophet.
When I was in graduate school we had a pastoral quarter a time in which we served in different ministries in a kind of internship. The program was very heavy on psychology and group analysis. The director of the program in which I was enrolled was a liberal Protestant minister, very respected. He believed deeply in marriage. He was on his second or third try at it. His end of the year counsel for me was “…to shack up with some girl in Sandburg Village” for a year before I continued on to ordination. Why Sandburg Village? I have no idea. I did not take his sage advice.
Every one of these helpful people could not imagine why a person in his late teens or early twenties would consider the possibility of celibacy. Why would a normal young man even contemplate denying himself what they regarded as the greatest of pleasures and normal relationships for a chimera, and illusion like the Kingdom of God?  Now it’s almost humorous to contemplate from the perch of my old age.
The life of pleasure and possessions eludes most of the people who try for it. That Methodist minister, who encouraged me to commit adultery for a year for my own good, never seemed to find the happiness and permanence he sought in repeated marriages. Perhaps it worked out for him eventually.  I don’t know.
People tried to keep me from wasting my life. They could not conceive that life might have some purpose beyond the acquisition of property and sexual relationships. Faithful marriage and family life are certainly among the greatest blessings that God gives, but the people who urged me to give up the fantasy of the priesthood were pursuing fantasies far less real. I wonder how many of them ever found what they were looking for. 
An old priest who was my pastor during my diaconate year called me down to the office. He said there was someone in the office who wanted to see me. I walked into the small reception room and there I saw a defeated looking middle-aged man in a drab suit coat. He tried to sell me insurance or stock or something. I listened to his spiel and took his brochures and solemnly promised to read them, assuring him I would call him if I were interested. I went back into the rectory hallway and Father Casey told me, “He used to be a priest.” He had left the priesthood looking for a “normal” life. Remember that normal is just a setting on the dryer. People will tell you that being a priest is not normal. They are absolutely correct. The priesthood is larger than life. All those people who try to convince you to live a normal life don’t live normal lives themselves because there is no such thing. 
To hear God calling and to answer is the surest path to happiness I know. I have met a lot of unhappy priests. Don’t think I am saying that priesthood is the path to happiness. Hearing God is the path to happiness. The priest who doesn’t have a real spiritual life is an unhappy priest. He is not hearing God.
The priesthood is not an easy life. But then again, no life worth living is easy. The priesthood is a sacrificial life. Marriage and family are also sacrificial, if you do them right. The people who urged me to give up the idea of priesthood had seen too many Doris Day movies and happily-ever-after sit-coms. To think that a worthy life is not sacrificial is just asking for trouble. The path to happiness is sacrifice, as Jesus taught us, “There is more happiness in giving than in receiving.” (Acts 20:35)
The question is what sacrifice is the Lord asking you to make? Don’t fool yourself. To marry when you are not called to marry, or to marry someone whom God has not given you is surely a prescription for misery. The world is full of divorce lawyers and the people who pay them. You don’t choose a vocation. It chooses you. The Lord says, “You have not chosen me. I have chosen you.” (John 15:16) That applies to every one of us.
More on elder-ness next week.