Facing Your Parental Fears

Parents worry about their children. It’s just part and parcel of being a parent.

We’re afraid they’ll make the wrong choices, lose out on opportunities, or have to endure needless suffering. We just want our children to be happy, safe and well.

A call to religious life can be especially terrifying because so few of us have any direct knowledge or experience in that arena. The unknown is always frightening.

In an article I wrote for Area of Effect Magazine*, I recently noted:

Both of my sons have chosen different paths from mine. My eldest is working toward an academic career as a folklorist. My younger is in seminary preparing for a life of teaching. Neither of these is a road I’d choose to travel and both seem risky. Wouldn’t accounting or business be more stable choices?

It turns out that I’m not the first parent in history to worry about my children’s choices. Thomas Aquinas, the theologian and philosopher whose work has influenced Western thought for nearly a millennium, faced serious opposition from his family. At nineteen, he declared his intention to join the Dominican Order. His family kidnapped him and kept him locked in the family castle for nearly a year trying to get him to change his mind. It would have been easy for Thomas to give in.

To keep the article family friendly (it was about Disney’s Moana after all) I didn’t tell the part about Aquinas’ family locking him in a room with a naked prostitute. The legend says that Aquinas was so incensed that he chased the poor girl out with a fire poker.

The details on that may have gotten exaggerated in the telling, but we do know that Aquinas is recognized as one of the great Christian theologians. His parents fears nearly changed the course of western civilization.

Like marriage or a career or a mission trip around the world, a religious vocation is both a journey and an adventure. In the article at Area of Effect, I trace Moana’s journey and her parent’s fears. Like all good heroes her success is bought at the price of risk and hardship. Yet, if she hadn’t taken the risk, her people would have been destroyed.

Will your child be the next Aquinas or Mother Theresa? Will they live a life of heroic virtue? Maybe or maybe not. If you block them, you may find yourself in the shoes of Chief Tui (Moana’s dad) — standing in the way of the future that needs to be explored by our courageous and virtuous sons and daughters.

* Area of Effect is a print and web magazine which explores topics of faith and life through the lens of popular fandoms.

— Dad of Evan

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Insights from a Sister’s Father

There have been a couple of great vocations posts over at Aleteia in the last few months and I thought they were worth passing along. Both were written by Matt Wenke and they give insights into his journey as a parent who saw a child called to religious life.

The first is called When I prayed for vocations, I didn’t mean God could have my daughter! What I appreciate about the piece is that Matt is utterly candid when he talks about how he felt.

If other men’s daughters expressed an interest in the convent or the cloister, I wouldn’t have questioned it at all. I would have been respectful of their choice and genuinely happy for them. “What a noble and beautiful vocation!” or, “What a meaningful life with a holy purpose!” I no doubt would have thought.

When I heard of my own daughter’s interest in the cloister, my immediate thought was, “Oh, my gosh, I hope you get a vacation… how often can you come home to visit?”

Isn’t it sad that my first thought wasn’t about Nora’s vocational fulfillment and spiritual well-being? My initial thought was that I might be missing my daughter’s presence in my home, and her gentle, delightful company.

His honesty continues as he lays bare his struggles with giving his daughter up to God. Take a few moments and read the rest of his story.

Recently he published a companion piece called So your loved one has become a religious…now what? This is written from his new perspective a little further along the journey.

One of the consolations, he’s found, is that he has been able to experience his daughter’s community.

Best of all, the Sisters graciously welcome us at the monastery twice per year for three day visits — with very liberal visiting times. These visits are a joyful reunion, punctuated by her prayer times, to which we are invited and in which we love to participate. In the chapel, we have a chance to praise God together, and get a sense of Frances Marie’s everyday life.

Ironically, in “losing” our daughter to a cloister, our “family” has grown! It is an absolute pleasure to “touch base” with the entire community as part of our visit. The sisters have become true family to us. Our concerns and burdens are theirs and theirs are ours. In the parlor the sisters show themselves as joyful, even playful women of all ages; they are witty and funny, seriously prayerful, reflective and wise.

As with the first article, there is much more to Matt’s story. It, too, is worth the time to read.

–Dad (of Evan)

 

 

Feeling Discouraged

According to a study released in 2011 a little over half of those who were ordained report being actively discouraged from their vocation by a family member. Beyond that, it is difficult to say how many potential vocations have been lost because someone who was discerning was steered onto a different path. In some ways, it seems like we are our own worst enemy when it comes to recruiting and forming new religious.

There’s a certain amount of speculation about why parents might be so selfish. Some point to cultural changes, or poor liturgies, or unbridled capitalism. I suspect there is truth to these ideas, but I think they tend to paint parents with a broad brush and ignore the very real experience of the parents.

Rachel Watkins writes about her experience of having a daughter enter religious life over at the Sioux City Diocesan Vocations site:

We will experience the same feelings and concerns most parents feel but in a different way.  We miss our children deeply and worry about them.  This worry is especially true of parents whose children are missionaries abroad.  And while their needs are taken care of by their dioceses or orders, we have concern for their well-being and support them financially with as much as our incomes allow.  Our lives can seem almost easier with the care they receive from their dioceses or orders but that is not always the case.

In truth, ours can be a difficult lot.  This is not to discourage anyone from encouraging their children to listen for God’s call.  My daughter does not know about what concerns me.  I say it only in an acceptance of the fact that our child’s choice is atypical, making us as their parents also uncommon.  Our children have chosen Christ first and foremost for their lives and their loves.  We could not be more proud, could we?  However, we know that this choice comes at a cost rarely understood.  We often find ourselves at a loss.  We may stumble when trying to tell others what our children are doing.  A teacher, a plumber, an at-home mom, even a tattoo artist, is easily understood but a monk, nun, consecrated or a priest?  These often require an explanation that extends longer than the line at the deli will allow…

…We do our best as parents to answer all the questions.  However, quite honestly, after a while, it can become distressing.  Some of the questions and comments we can receive are so negative.  My husband and I joke darkly to each other that we might have had a better reception if we had announced her decision to join a traveling band of jugglers rather than a recognized order in the Church.  In the end, all these questions come down to this: Why would anyone choose a priestly or vowed religious life?

In the face of these kinds of objections, it is understandable if parents begin to doubt the validity of their child’s vocation call.  They aren’t villains, just parents who are in uncertain territory. It is natural that they’ll want to know how their child’s decision will impact their lives. Vocations – like any other life choice a child makes – will have an effect on the family.

The Eastern Dominican Vocations page offers some thoughtful advice to those discerning a Dominican vocation. It starts in a wise place, inviting the discerner to explore their parents’ objections:

Have you listened to your parents’ reasons? Before you try to explain the mystery of a vocation to them, allow them to tell you what their concerns are. These reasons could range wildly. They may think that you don’t really listen to them or honor them. They may want you to have a “normal” life that would include marriage and their expected grandchildren. They may think that you have abandoned them and won’t see them. They may think that you need to have several years of experience after college before you can make a decision. They may think that a religious community is full of misfits, or that religion is a scam. They may think that you will be happier and be more productive in doing just about anything else than becoming a religious.

From there, it goes on to offer several concrete suggestions for engaging in dialogue with parents. It ends on a very encouraging note:

Parents often feel bonded with the brothers in their son’s formation, and they come to realize that their son has many, many brothers. The brothers themselves look with affection on the parents of one of their own. In a sense, parents don’t lose a son so much as gain many, many sons!

(Kit and I have certainly felt that way about the Paulists. We have enjoyed meeting many of the seminarians and priests and frequently joke about all of our new “sons”.)

Answering the call to religious life raises questions for parents and we – those discerning and the Catholic community at large – owe it to them to take their concerns seriously and do our best to accompany them as they undertake the vocations journey with their child.

 

— Dad (of Evan)

Oh The Places You’ll Go — As A Missionary

Athenry Priory East Window courtesy of Andreas F. Borchert via Wikimedia CommonsAs we’ve noted before, the preparation for the priesthood goes beyond just academic and theological work. In fact, those things exist to equip the seminarian to act in the world. The USCCB Program for Priestly Formation puts it this way:

The Church continues to place the highest value on the work of priestly formation, because it is linked to the very mission of the Church, especially the evangelization of humanity: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). Our apostolic origins, which bind us in communion with the Lord and his mission, motivate those who engage in the ministry of priestly formation, underscore the urgency of their task, and remind them of their great responsibility.

A big part of priestly preparation is having opportunities to participate in the mission of the church through real ministry. During the Paulist novice year, the students engage in social service at soup kitchens, shelters, and other social service sites. As they move further into formation, the opportunities for service grow.

Next spring Evan will be joining a Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) mission to Ireland. This mission trip will work with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and will be ministering to both Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. Therese Aaker posted a few thoughts on her trip to Ireland last spring, explaining the need for ministry to Catholics:

Generally, people there are bitterly angry about the Church. They’re angry with God at best, and indifferent toward Him at worst. They grew up in Catholic schools, but without good catechesis; they know very little about Church teaching. Most sadly, they do not know the Person of Jesus. All they know of the Church is its corruption — and as a result, my generation there is absent from the Church entirely. 

A quick Google search of “seminarian mission trips” turns up several mission trips both in the US and beyond its borders – including a mission trip to Perdue University. In each case, the primary purpose of the mission is to serve as a bearer of Christ’s love. Yet, at the same time, the missionaries are growing and developing in faith and charity as they prepare to enter priestly ministry.

If you have a moment, I’d ask that you offer up a prayer on behalf of all of the missionaries serving around the world.

— Dad (of Evan)

 

 

 

 

Bless Me, Father — A Review of Sorts

dvdSome parents object when their son declares an interest in a vocation. There are lots of reasons given, but I suspect that the root of the problem is lack of understanding of the priesthood. For too many of us priests are remote, mysterious figures who occupy some other plane of existence. We don’t see them as human beings. Fortunately, it’s easy to get past that – just spend some time getting to know the priests in your life.

Last year we suggested taking a priest to dinner as a way to better understand your son’s vocational journey. That advice still stands, but it may not always be practical or possible. A few months ago I stumbled across a bit of light entertainment which gives a surprisingly good insight into priestly life.

I was poking through the used DVDs at a local music store and came across the British comedy series Bless Me, Father. A quick check on Wikipedia gave me reason to believe it was worth watching and the price was much lower than retail, so I snatched it up. Kit and I watched all 21 episodes over the summer and found them to be both charming and honest.

The story – which was written by a man who had been a priest – centers on a newly ordained priest assigned to a small parish in post-war London. It begins with his first time hearing confessions in the parish and traces his life through most of his first year. The parish pastor is a clever old Irishman by the name of Fr. Duddleswell. Together they deal with a neighbor who runs a nightclub and is a bookmaker on the side, the bookmaker’s black Labrador,  the local Mother Superior who completely lacks sympathy and empathy, affairs of the heart, affairs of the parish, and Mrs. Pring the rectory housekeeper.

coverWe were so taken with the series that I dug a bit and found out it was based on a series of books which had been published in the 1970s. Fortunately, they are available as e-books. The first two Bless Me, Father and A Father Before Christmas served as the direct inspiration for most of the episodes.

There are a couple of interesting takeaways from both the books and the series.

First of all, they are set in the 1950s, so they are steeped in the Catholic world prior to Vatican II. This becomes most obvious in the area of interfaith relations. Fr. Duddleswell talks about his Anglican counterpart as a “doubtfully baptized Anglican layman.” Yet, most of what goes on in the books could be taking place at any parish in any part of the world. Fr. Duddleswell and Fr. Boyd deal with all the same human fears and failings as every other priest – and they do so with a wonderfully pastoral approach. There is a particularly touching episode in which Fr. Duddleswell contrives to find a way to comfort a child who is fearful that his grandfather is damned to Hell. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but I will note that Fr. Duddleswell’s solution is clever, compassionate, and colors juuusst inside the lines.

Secondly, Fr. Boyd is honest about his insecurities and fears in the books and it is clear that the author is writing from his own experience with only the smallest of embellishments. He meets up with old friends – including one who left the seminary to purse an outside life. He visits his family in the second book and we learn about his upbringing and vocation. We walk beside him as he struggles to understand his feelings for a pretty, young nurse when he is hospitalized for an extended period. By the end of the two books I had tremendous sympathy and respect for both of the priests.

The books are authentically Catholic throughout, fully faithful to the teachings of the Church and also authentically human, fully faithful to the characters. Reading them is about as close to spending a year with priests as you could get without actually moving into the rectory. If you want to better understand the priesthood, you’ll find your time well invested with this series.

News from the Paulists!

Evan pointed out that the blog hasn’t been updated in a while.

He’s right.

I’ve missed several important events in the life of the Paulist Community. So, let me (with a firm purpose of amendment) get the blog up-to-date on a few important things.

Let’s start with this great article over at First Things about the oldest living Paulist priest, Fr. James Lloyd. The article highlights his years of service including time as a television host and seminary rector. I found this tidbit about his training as a psychologist.

Upon his return to the United States, his opportunities increased, as he earned a Ph.D. in psychology from New York University—a degree he believes enhanced his ministry as a priest. A philosopher by training, Fr. Lloyd had been instructing people in the faith with a classic theological approach. But while this logical process was effective in many cases, it ran into trouble with people who responded, “I can’t believe what the Church teaches.” Fr. Lloyd discovered that the reason these people couldn’t accept Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, was due not to intellectual factors, but to emotional ones. Deep resentments and unconscious biases had built up over many years, making them unable to see what Fr. Lloyd was teaching. He had to approach people differently, exploring their emotional worlds. That’s where his psychology degree paid off.

By combining sound psychology with traditional Catholic spirituality, Fr. Lloyd was able to remove the brambles in these people’s lives, which were blocking their path toward truth. Once those obstacles were removed, the logic of the faith became clearer, and reluctant souls under his care began flowing back into the Church once again.

The article concludes with this encouraging paragraph:

Speaking as a priest who has lived almost a century, he concludes, “I’m surprised the seminaries aren’t bulging with young men who want to have a wonderful and enriching life.” Fr. Lloyd feels blessed to have lived one.

Over at Paulist Press, they inaugurated the Elequenta Perfecta award, which was instituted “to celebrate people in communications who take their vocation seriously, live their faith life and can serve as an inspiration to others.” The award was given to Jeanne Gaffigan for her work as the writer and producer of The Jim Gaffigan Show. The cable-based sitcom chronicles the lives and foibles of a fiercely Catholic family living in New York City. Jeanne sees the program as a vehicle for sharing the faith:

She said the couple tries, “in our own imperfect way, to present a household of faith in one of the most culturally diverse places in our country.” The television show is loosely based on their experiences working in the comedy field and raising children in a two-bedroom apartment in New York.

Speaking of Paulist Press, just yesterday Paulist Press was awarded the Lumen Ex Libris by the Vatican Publish Office. Well done!

Finally, the biggest news happened back in September when Matthew Berrios, Steven Petroff and Stuart Wilson-Smith were all ordained as transitional deacons. This major milestone is one of the last before priestly ordination. Please keep them in your prayers as they finish this last year of training and formation before assuming their duties as priests.

–Dad of Evan

Priests/Monks, Nuns/Sisters – What’s the Difference?

The Catholic church has two-thousand years of history behind it. In that time we’ve developed a highly specialized language. Like all jargon it can be confusing — for those on the inside and the outside alike.  (Spend ten minutes with your local IT or medical professional and you’ll know what I mean.)

Even simple things, like the designation of certain roles in the church, can be perplexing. Do you know the difference between a nun and a sister? What is a monk? Are all monks priests? Are all priests monks? What about Deacons?

In the spirit of simplification, let me share a way to think about the different roles of religious life in the church.

Broadly speaking, religious vocations in the Catholic church can be categorized as “contemplative” or “active”.  Those who are called to a contemplative life live apart from society in a monastery or cloister.  A recent Aleteia article explains it this way:

This usually involves living and working within a designated “enclosed” space, off-limits to all but priests, medical personnel and workmen, and leaving the enclosure only for medical issues or business involving the monastery. As with monks, a nun’s “work,” aside from what helps to materially support the house, is prayer, which is ongoing throughout the day and offered for the sake of the Church and the world.

Like many things in the church, there are shadings and variations of how the general norms are applied. A post over at CatholicEducation.org clarifies the rules with regards to cloistered nuns:

In some cases, the cloister restrictions are not as strictly enforced. Some orders of nuns, while technically cloistered, conduct works of charity or education, interacting with the public. For example, the Visitation Sisters are technically cloistered nuns but teach school.

On the other hand, those with an active vocation are called to live in the world and provide direct service.  Perhaps the most famous of these would be Mother Teres’a Missionaries of Charity.

As a general rule, if you see a woman wearing a habit or some other distinctive mark of religious life, you’re probably seeing a “sister”.  The term “nun” is more often reserved for those living the contemplative life.

Similar rules hold true for monks, priests and friars with a couple of additional complications. Priests can be attached to the local diocese — these are called “secular” or “diocesan” priests.  Or, they can be attached to a particular community or order — think “Franciscan”, “Jesuit”, or “Paulist”.  Or they can be monastic — think “Benedictine”.

Aleteia summed it up this way:

Diocesan priests do not take vows of poverty and may possess and inherit property.

Priests vowed to a religious order (like the Franciscans, Dominicans, etc) or a monastic community (like the Benedictines or Cistercians) do make vows of poverty, surrendering any income they generate through their works to their superiors. So a Dominican writer earning profits from his books will turn those royalty checks over to the Order of Preachers. A Trappist writer will turn his earnings over to his abbot or prior, for the benefit of the whole community.

In an order or a monastery, some of the men may be ordained as priests which allows them to perform the sacraments, while others are brothers who have taken vows.  The Aleteia article goes more into depth of the various shadings of meaning.

If you meet someone in religious life and are curious about the details of their particular calling, the best and simplest way to learn more is to ask them.  The overwhelming majority of religious I’ve met are more than happy to tell you all about their vocation.

— Dad of Evan

Spiritual Direction

Did you know that all seminarians are required to have a spiritual director?

Do you know what a spiritual director does?

I certainly didn’t when Evan started his journey of formation.  A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about the role a spiritual director plays in formation and how everyone might benefit from having one.

Back then I summed it up by saying:

A spiritual director is a guide to interior growth and renewal, not counselor or therapist.  The discussions center on the relationship between the directee and God.

You might still wonder what the personal experience is like.  (Which brings me to the point of today’s brief post.)

On a recent Busted Halo broadcast, Fr. Dave Dwyer talked with producer (Brett) about the experience of interacting with a spiritual director.  If you’re interested, it’s well worth your time to give it a listen.

— Dad (of Evan)

Advice from a Seminarian

A few weeks ago an article entitled The Inside Scoop on Seminary: 3 Things You Should Know Before Entering turned up in my feed.

It makes interesting reading, so I’ll encourage you just to follow the link above and see what those “3 things” are.  I will tell you that I shared the article with Evan and he said it was pretty consistent with his experience — and the experience of his Paulist brothers.

What is most encouraging about the article is the end.  After dispensing insight and advice, the author finishes with:

In short, be the man God made you to be and then He’ll make you into the Priest He wants you to be. Don’t worry about anything, because if Jesus Christ wants you to be His priest, then no power on earth or in hell can stop that from happening.

— Dad

Holy Acolytes!

254px-Solomon_Abraham_The_Acolyte.jpgA few days ago the Aleteia blog ran an article about a group of deacon candidates who were being installed as “acolytes”.  This reminded me of a piece we ran a couple of years ago about the “minor orders” and their role in priestly formation.

Back then, I wrote:

During formation, the candidate would go through the four minor orders — porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte. The progression through the minor orders was a bit like gaining rank in the military, each of them brought the candidate new responsibilities.

I went on to point out that two of the orders — lector and acolyte — are still used today in formation for both priests and deacons.  What I failed to do was to explain these to important offices.

You may already be familiar with lectors — those who read a portion of the scriptures at Mass — but it may surprise you to learn that this can be a formally instituted ministry.  The Code of Canon law (the law which governs the Church) states:

Can. 1035 §1 Before anyone may be promoted to the diaconate, whether permanent or transitory, he must have received the ministries of lector and acolyte, and have exercised them for an appropriate time.

§2 Between the conferring of the ministry of acolyte and the diaconate there is to be an interval of at least six months.

These ministries are important steps on the way to ordination as a deacon which, in
turn, is an important step on the way to priestly ordination.

Lectors, as you would expect, are tasked with reading the scriptures at Mass.  This practice goes back to the Jewish church where the scriptures were read as a matter of course in worship.  In the early days of the church, it was necessary to find someone who had sufficient education to be able to read.  The origins of the office are found there.

Candidates for the priesthood or deaconate are installed as lectors (typically) by a bishop.  In a lector’s installation, he is given a lectionary or book  of Gospels while the bishop says, “Take this book of holy Scripture and be faithful in handing on the word of God, so that it may grow strong in the hearts of his people.”

There are lay lectors as well, of course.  Men and women who have been identified as fit for this service to the church.  They are not instituted by a bishop, but rather trained at the local parish.  They fill the role  of lector, but are not formally installed in the ministry.

The role of the acolyte is somewhat more complicated and represents a more technical level of service during the Mass.  The General Instruction of the Roman Missal — the book which outlines all of the rules and rubrics for Mass– explains the role of the acolyte this way:

The acolyte is instituted for service at the altar and to assist the Priest and Deacon. It is his place principally to prepare the altar and the sacred vessels and, if necessary, to distribute the Eucharist to the faithful as an extraordinary minister. In the ministry of the altar, the acolyte has his own proper functions, which he must carry out in person.

It goes on to list specific duties including carrying the thurible if necessary and purifying the vessels used for the Eucharist.  There’s a nice summary of the duties at CatholicAcolyte.com.

Acolytes are instituted by a bishop, who places the sacred vessels in the hands of the candidate and says “Take this vessel with bread for the celebration of the eucharist. Make your life worthy of your service at the table of the Lord and of his Church.”

People often express surprise at how long the process of priestly formation takes.  To someone outside of the Catholic church it can seem a long road, indeed.  Yet there are milestones as the young men move through their training and find themselves growing in both skill and dedication.  Lector and acolyte are two of the more visible milestones and it is worth remembering that each plays an important role in both formation and service to the people of God.

–Dad

 

The Miracle of Priesthood

prayer-card-jesus-prayer-for-vocations

 

 

As it turns out, today (April 17,2016) is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.

Over at Aleteia.org Deacon Greg Kandra made vocations the focus of his homily.  He leads off with a quote from a letter that he received from a friend in Philadelphia:

“This morning we received devastating news at Mass. Our beloved Augustinian pastor has been diagnosed with liver cancer that has spread to his lungs. The priest who told us said that he was visiting him yesterday when a cousin came into the hospital room and told him that they are all praying for a miracle. His response was, ‘I have already received a miracle. I am a priest.’”

This is probably the best – and most honest – answer to those who have an objection to a man entering the priesthood.  Ordination is an extraordinary event and being allowed to share in the priesthood of Christ in a special way is, indeed, a miracle.

Deacon Greg speaks with great reverence and love about his own call and ordination as a permanent deacon and talks of it as an on-going source of grace and blessing in his life:

Surveys tell us again and again that clergy and religious report among the greatest job satisfaction in the world.

That’s because it’s not a job. It’s a vocation.

As that priest in Philadelphia knew: it is, in fact, a miracle.

Finally, he suggests ways of introducing young men to the idea of the priesthood.  The best advice he gives is that you should ask God if you (or someone you know) is called.  He points to Pope Francis who advises young people to “Ask Jesus what he wants and be brave!

In an address to seminarians in Rome this week, Pope Francis outlined the appropriate way to respond to God’s call — to be all in and not “half-way” priests.

“We respond to this vocation in the same way as the Virgin Mary does to the angel: “How is this possible?” Becoming “good shepherds” in the image of Jesus “is something very great and we are so small.”

“Yes, it is true, it is too great; but it is not our work! It is the work of the Holy Spirit, with our collaboration,” Francis said in his address to the College, adding spontaneous comments here and there to his prepared speech.

“It is about humbly giving oneself, like clay that is to be moulded, letting God the potter work the clay with fire and water, with the Word and the Holy Spirit.”

It is true that “at the beginning intentions are not completely righteous, and it is hard for them to be so. All of us have had moments when our intentions were not completely righteous but in time this changes with everyday conversion. Think of the apostles! Think of James and John. One of them wanted to be prime minister and the other a minister of the economy because it was a more important role. The apostles’ mind was elsewhere but the Lord patiently corrected their intention and in the end the intention of their preaching and martyrdom was incredibly righteous.”

So, on this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, take a moment to ask God to call those whom he chooses to the priesthood and offer to be the bearer of that message if you can.

Giving Up For Lent

Last night we were having dinner with friends and the question came up.

“What are you giving up for Lent?”

We went around the table sharing the sacrifices we’d planned and pretty quickly we had a list of the usual suspects; chocolates, sweets, fast food, alcohol, and swearing.

That conversation and this post on a Mormon blog have gotten me thinking about the character of Lent and what is means (or should mean to me.)

The danger of Lent is that it too easily becomes a mirror.  We undertake the disciplines of Lent because they are good for us.  We eat less or cut out sweets or alcohol because they are distracting us from God, but also because they are bad for us.  Or we engage in various prayers and sacrifices on the premise that God see us in a more favorable light or might be more inclined to grant our requests.

Both of these approaches are comfortably uncomfortable because they keep the focus on us.  Even if our intention is purely to grow closer to God, we risk navel-gazing so long as we think our will power makes any real difference to the sacrifice.

As I get older, I’ve begun to understand that Lent isn’t about giving something up.  It’s about giving up.

Monestir_de_Montserrat_vista_Roca_de_St._JaumeOne of my favorite saints is Ignatius of Loyola.  As a young man, he dreamed of being a valiant knight.  He had read romantic stories and his head was stuffed with images of himself, sword in hand, vanquishing foes.  To me, it seems that he was a 16th century fan-boy.

His life took a dark turn on May 20, 1521 when he was part of a Spanish force fighting the French at Navarre.  A cannonball wounded his legs — one of the quite badly.  He was shipped back to his parent’s castle to recover.  While convalescing, he had two books to keep him entertained — a book on the life of Christ and a book about the lives of the saints.  As he read and re-read them he gradually shifted his focus from glory for himself to bringing glory to God.

After he healed, set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Before going very gar, he stopped at the Abbey of Santa Maria de Monsterrat.  There, in the chapel, he held a solitary night-long vigil at the altar.  This was common for those about to be knighted, but Ignatius had a different idea in mind.

When dawn came, he took of his sword and laid it on the altar.  He literally disarmed himself, surrendering to God.  He was giving up.

Ignatius went on to become one of the great figures in salvation history. He eventually founded the Society of Jesus which we know today as the Jesuits.

So, maybe instead of giving something up for Lent, we should follow Ignatius’ example and just give up.

— Kevin

Pope Francis on Formation

At a conference sponsored by the Congregation for the Clergy, Pope Francis shared a few thoughts on the formation and role of priests.

One thing that he said struck me as particularly important:

“A good priest is first of all a man with his own humanity, who knows his own history – with its treasures and wounds – and has learned to make peace with it, gaining a profound serenity, characteristic of a disciple of the Lord,” he said. “Human formation is therefore needed for priests, so they may learn not to be dominated by their limits, but rather to put their talents to use.”

The idea of that priests are in need of human formation is important and I think that many people don’t see priests as human.  Each priest is a man who has his own particular set of limitations and talents.  Some are great homilists.  Others are gentle and thorough confessors.  Others have the gift of communicating the Gospel to a wider audience.  Still others toil quietly in administrative jobs behind the scenes.

Whatever their gifts, these men need to take the time to understand themselves and find their place as servants in God’s kingdom.  Pope Francis’ words on human formation emphasize that formation goes well beyond theological training and the practicalities of being a priest and pastor.  The process of formation — in a way that doesn’t seem to exist in secular training — addresses the totality of the person being formed.

Advice for Discerners — And A Thought for Parents

One of the blogs that I follow regularly is “Co-Author Your Life With God“.  The author, Sr. Marie Paul Curley, describes the blog’s purpose this way:

…interactive, accessible exploration about discernment as a spiritual art that helps us the everyday Catholic discover and live God’s will.

It’s worth remembering that just as all of us have a vocation, all of us have an obligation to discern God’s will for our lives.  And discernment is an on-going process.  Sr. Marie’s posts give great insight into discernment in general and, at times, into religious discernment specifically.  Her storytelling approach resonates with me and I always look forward to what she has to share.

Today she posted about dealing with disapproval from your family.  The whole piece is worth reading, but I found her conclusion to be particularly powerful.

Our vocation is a sacred calling that is too important to let the resistance or disapproval of family and friends stand in the way. Countless priests, brothers, and sisters had to go against their parents wishes to follow their vocation. (The family of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s family kidnapped and imprisoned him to prevent him from following his vocation in the Dominican Order.) This is not an easy path to walk, but if we possess sufficient maturity and have discerned well, it is more important to follow God’s call than to give in to our family’s opinions. Jesus himself called his disciples to leave their parents and families behind to follow him.

Thinking about this in light of Pam’s recent post from a mom who struggled with her son’s vocation, it occurred to me that the parents of a discerner have a difficult task.  We have to cooperate with God’s grace, without trying to force it one way or another.  We have to create a space within ourselves — and within our relationship with our child — that will permit everyone involved an inner freedom.

This involves an abandonment of self; a great letting-go which allows God to grab the wheel and steer our lives.

Fortunately, we have a great model in Mary.  Her consent to God’s plan, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word”, is nothing less than willing assent to abandon herself to God’s will.

May we all have the grace to follow her example.