This address was delivered at the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, Houston, Texas, April 13, 2010.
I am here to pay tribute to you, the priests of the United States. You stand on the front line. You meet the angry or confused or troubled people at the Sunday Masses in your parishes and missions. You have to try to answer their questions about the worldwide crisis caused by priests and bishops around the world. You are the ones out there in the parishes whose hearts break at the anguish of our people over the robbed innocence of their children. And you weep inside over the desecration of something so beautiful, so cherished as the priesthood is to all of us. You are the ones who meet the children and the families, and try your best to walk with them in their search for peace and healing. You are there where the wound is.
I know that all over this country, in small towns and large cities, there are priests who stay up all night in a hospital waiting room with a distraught family whose teen-age daughter lies near death from an automobile accident. I know that there are priests in rural dioceses, like the priests I knew in Oklahoma, who drive hundreds of miles both ways to one or several mission churches on Saturday evenings and then have three Masses on Sundays with baptisms, counseling, youth groups and parish gatherings in the afternoon and evening. I know that there are priests, like so many articulate and well-read priests I know in San Francisco, whose constant thought is how they can respond better and more effectively to the needs of their people. You are the priests who have persevered when your heart sank over an admired and gifted classmate who was removed from ministry because of allegations of abuse. You are the men who worked generously and in a spirit of faith to cooperate with and support your bishop even when at times that may be difficult. You are the men who have defended and held on to the church in the face of anger, bitterness and controversy.
You are the men who have seen the parishes and schools and hospitals close and disappear but have resolutely served the people in living faith. You are the priests who, unseen, and unknown to anyone, slip quietly away for an hour of prayer to make intercession for the church and for the world and in that encounter have discovered the only—and the real reason—to persevere. Brothers, you are the priests of the United States, a body of men who do not seek praise or acclaim and who walk faithfully with the Lord in a time of searing and seismic testing.
We are at a critical point in the life of the church. Here and there commentators are beginning to compare it to the magnitude of the crisis of the Reformation. This is not the place to raise these cosmic issues. But I do believe it is the place to raise the question every priest must confront today. It is the question first raised by the Jesuit Karl Rahner: “Why would a modern man want to become or remain a priest today?”
This great theologian tackles the question with stunning simplicity. He begins be saying that for him, it is not the great works of the church in the service of justice and peace, the great universities and the great movements and programs. “Rather,” he says, “I still see around me living in many of my brother priests a readiness for unselfish service carried out quietly, a readiness for prayer, for abandonment to the incomprehensibility of God, for the calm acceptance of death in whatever form it may come, for the total dedication to the following of Christ crucified.” Then this great scholar mentions those who inspire him to persevere as a priest:
I think of my friend, Alfred Delp, who with his hands chained in a concentration camp, signed the paper of his final vows. I think of a brother priest who for long hours in the confessional listens to the pain and torment of unimportant people…I think of a brother priest who assists daily in a hospital at the bedside of death…I think of a brother priest who as a prison chaplain proclaims over and over the message of the Gospel with never any sign of gratitude. I think of the brother priest who (in a parish) with tremendous difficulty and without any clear evidence of success plods away at the task of awakening in just a few people a small spark of faith, of hope and of charity. These and many other forms and acts of renunciation, known to God alone, are still what is decisive in the priesthood.
But there are men like these who have lived in and come from our own American dioceses. Think of Emil Kapaun, a priest of Wichita, Kansas. In a prison camp in Korea he stole food from the commissary at night for his starving men knowing that he would be shot on sight if discovered. Depression and futility gripped many of the men in his unit. A Protestant chaplain with a wife and children at home was severely depressed and Emil knew he would die if something didn’t change. He deliberately said things to make him angry knowing that the experience of anger would bring him out of himself. It worked, and the man lived to return to his family. Emil tried everything to keep the men positive and hopeful. The men who got dysentery, he carried on his shoulders to the latrine and cleaned them. Eventually he got phlebitis and the guards took him off to die. The last thing his men heard was Emil assuring the guards he held no animosity or hatred for them.
Stanley Rother, whose bishop I was at one time, was a priest of Oklahoma City. He volunteered for the mission we had in Guatemala. He served the people with great dedication, teaching them their faith and instructing them in the social doctrine of the church. He carried on his ministry as priests he knew and worked with were murdered. His own catechists and parish leaders were abducted and murdered. Told that he was on the death list, he was urged to return to Oklahoma, which he did. But there only a short time, knowing clearly that it would mean certain death he decided to go back to Guatemala. He told his parents, “The Shepherd can’t run. I have to go back.” Father Rother was killed shortly after his return.
All over this country there are men like that. All over this country there are priests putting their hand in the hand of Christ and giving themselves to Him each day in humble, strenuous and unsung service.
Jack Isaacs was a San Francisco priest. He was very gifted and widely read. Seeing that he was extremely talented I asked him if he would like to be sent for higher studies. He said he would prefer to work in a parish and preferably a poor parish. He asked to go with the St. James Society and spent five years in the altiplano. There he lived in a remote and difficult place for five years. There was no electricity and it was difficult to live in such an altitude and in such isolation. But he embraced it and invested himself in the service of the people. When he came home, he asked to go to an extremely poor parish where there was no rectory. I told him that we would get a condominium for him. But he insisted on living in the one room sacristy attached to the church so as to live more like the people he was serving. At the age of fifty he died of cancer and when I left his mother after visiting him the day before he died, I said to her, “ You are the mother of a saint.” Jack Isaacs was an American priest.
Peter Lynch had been a priest over fifty years in the San Diego and San Bernardino Dioceses. He was sitting at a discussion table with a group of priests at a meeting on ministry in today’s world. One younger priest said to him, “Pete, if you were starting over as a priest today what would you do different?” He said, “I would pray more and be easier on the people.”
Last week I was at the Maryknoll house near San Francisco. A priest, 85 years old, had just left to go to Yucatan to celebrate the Holy Week Liturgies twice each day: in the main parish church and in an outlying mission church. Joseph Guetzloe, a Divine Word Father, was pastor of a Japanese community in San Francisco. When the Japanese were forced to move to segregation camps during World War II, Father Gutzloe asked to go with them. He voluntarily spent all the war years there with his people. A young priest, ordained one year, wrote to me about his experience during that first year and said, “ I have been looking for the lack of success in the lack of technique and finding it in the lack of holiness.”
Priests like these are in every diocese in this country. I have worked as a priest and bishop with priests in three dioceses, given retreats for priests in every part of this country, worked with priests from all States of the Union in connection with my work with the U.S. bishops’ conference, and I can tell you that there are humble, faithful, priests expending their talents and energies in serving Christ and his people everywhere in the United States. I have seen them. Even so, we know that we have come now to a perilous and critical point in the life of the church and in our own lives.
The cataclysmic avalanche of the sexual abuse scandal is a profoundly troubling experience for every priest. It touches not only the perpetrators and those so gravely hurt by them, but it is now engulfing the papacy itself and eroding the leadership and credibility of the bishops in the church. It forces us to ask the question of Karl Rahner, “Why would a modern man want to become or to remain a priest today?” How can an American priest persevere in the midst of such a shattering trial? How do we priests and how does the church persevere in time of severe trial?
Rahner gave one answer he found in the lives of brother priests. The authentic Catholic spirit, however, must also seek the way on a darkened path by turning to the Word of God. And for me one of the most powerful answers as to how we persevere in crushing trials is found in the last discourses of Our Lord in the Gospel of John, chapters 14 through 17.
These words of Jesus are spoken to a troubled church and to very troubled and confused disciples. They were at the breaking point. Everything they knew was changing. They had an ominous sense of disintegration and loss. It was dark and they were in a dark night themselves. In many ways, we are those disciples and we are that church now.
But the Lord Jesus shows to them and to the church a path in the time of darkness and of crisis. He begins by giving them a forthright commandment: “You are not to let your hearts be troubled.” This is not an exhortation. It is a command. As the Lord unfolds his message, he explains that in the trouble and the crisis they confront, where disaster seems inevitable and there is no solution, with the Father and the Spirit, he will be with them. The basis of their trust is not that everything will turn out well. The basis of their trust and their power to persevere will be the unshakable truth that the Spirit will be in them, and will be another Paraclete. This means that He will be near them, close to them. He will be in them, and He will heal their radical loneliness because He will be with them forever. They will never be alone again no matter how impossible the situation seems to be. The Lord Jesus goes on to command them to abide in Him, in fact, to abide in His love. To abide is to persevere, to remain, to continue, to endure—not in his power, or his wisdom. The command is to abide in His love, to be fixed in his love as a spoke in its hub. To know that He loves us, to experience and to believe that He loves us, is with us, is within us. This is how the Bible teaches us to persevere in darkness and in trial.
This is perseverance coming from deep inner springs of living water found only in a life of serious and faithful prayer. Perseverance comes from a deepening interior communion of persons—of the priest with Jesus Christ crucified and risen, a union of love in the service of life. Perseverance comes from the deepening experience and conviction that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are giving themselves to me in eternal and infinite love. Indeed, St. Teresa says that prayer is being with him whom we know loves us. This kind of prayer is the ground of perseverance in trials.
And so, I come back again to the question, “Why would a modern man want to become or to remain a priest today?” The deepest and most enduring reason why a modern man would want to become and to remain a priest is the person of Jesus Christ. In the depths of every authentic priest echoes the word, “Do you love me more than these?” These times and our situation lead us in a powerful way to confront that question. In some ways, it is the only question that really matters. If our love for Jesus Christ is truly genuine, then there must stir within us the desire to be like him. We see this in Paul, “My one desire is to know Christ Jesus and the power of his resurrection, and to share his sufferings in growing conformity with his death.” (Phil. 3:10) St. Augustine said that the essence of religion is to imitate him whom we adore. To love is to be like.
We priests and the Catholic Church are in a moment of humiliation and some degree of helplessness. We are that man in Psalm 63: “O God…I seek you, my soul thirsts for you…as in a dry, weary land where there is no water.” This is why I firmly believe that this is one of the best times to be a priest. It is a time for us, like the Apostles in Acts, to give thanks that we are counted worthy to suffer something for Christ. It is not a time for us to be the martyr-victim but the martyr-witness. If anything is emphatic in the Gospel of John it is that the Lord Jesus freely, knowingly and willingly invested himself in the Mystery of the Cross. This is surely a time when every true priest is invited to freely and humbly embrace what Christ Our Lord freely accepted. We priests and the whole church are being called to evangelical humility and to a purer faith. It is time for us to embrace this providential call with robust generosity and with a solidarity that binds us together as priests in a uniquely difficult period of our history.
In light of all this, I would like to make some additional observations. First, the great temptation of the People of God in the Bible is to doubt God’s power. Exodus says, “The Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord with us or not?’”(Ex.17:7) Abraham and Sarah doubted. Moses doubted. Peter doubted. Thomas doubted. It is our temptation now. We ask, “Is God going to do anything about this?” “Is there any way to heal this?” The besetting temptation is to set limits to Providence. “Could God be working in a situation like this?” It takes a very firm and living faith to be able to grasp and internalize the truth spoken by St. John of the Cross at a similar time of disaster for the Church. He said, “The Lord in every age has always revealed the treasures of his wisdom and his Spirit. But in these times when the face of evil bares itself more and more, so does the Lord bare his treasures more.” (Sayings of Light and Love, #1)
For St. Bernard, John the Baptist is the great image of the priesthood in the Gospel. He is the friend—the friend of the Bridegroom. An important role of the friend of the Bridegroom was that he was responsible for the joy of the guests at the wedding feast. This is how Christ presents himself in the Resurrection accounts: he is the minister of consolation. He consoles Mary at the tomb, He consoles the disciples locked in fear in the upper room, he consoles Thomas in his doubts. This is our role as priests—to console the Holy Church of God in a time of intolerable pain and suffering. We are called to be the ministers of consolation and of evangelical hope. And so once more the question, “How do we persevere in such a catastrophic situation? What makes it possible for us to be the ministers of consolation to the weeping Church?” Many things could be said but I mention a few here.
I was a seminarian when Fulton Sheen was ordained a bishop. I was choir director for the Mass and had to go early to the church to get things set up. When I arrived an hour or so before the Mass, I saw in the empty church Fulton Sheen sitting alone and silent in a small, side chapel before the Blessed Sacrament. This example I commend to you, dear brothers, at an exceedingly painful time—to drink the waters of hope and endurance, of patience and perseverance from the pierced heart of the One who knows what it is like to be me. I recommend that you give an hour each day to personal prayer—to being with Him whom we know loves us. It is in this kind of prayer that the Holy Spirit can impart interior peace, which enables us to endure in the face of overwhelming and unsolvable problems. This kind of prayer imparts the fortitude and the living hope that makes us begin again each day and enables us to give to others the consolation we receive. Paul puts it this way, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the utterly merciful Father, the God whose consolation never fails us! He consoles us in all our troubles, so that we in turn may be able to console others in any trouble of theirs and to share with them the consolation we ourselves receive from God.” (II Cor. 1:3-4)
And so, in a difficult time we should not forget that the great works of God have been accomplished in darkness. The people fled Egypt in the darkness; they crossed the Red Sea in the darkness; the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the darkness of night; He gave us the Eucharist and the priesthood in the darkness of the Last Supper; he died on the Cross when the Gospel says “darkness covered the earth.” He lay in the darkness of the tomb. On the third day, He rose again in the darkness, and the empty tomb was discovered “early in the morning while it was still dark.” God is at work even in the darkness.
What John of the Cross describes as the dark night of the soul has in our time become the dark night of the church. John explains that the dark night is a bewildering experience, it strips away all the visible supports. It brings a helpless, sinking feeling. But it is only truly the dark night when it is accepted as coming from God and borne in faith. The believer and the church who pass through the dark night in faith are led to the loss of everything secondary and to discover that God is not who they thought he was and they are not who they thought they were. It is the discovery that God is beyond everything we can articulate or conceive and it is the experience that we do not control God. The dark night is dark because God is infinite light overwhelming our limited capacities. It is in the experience of the dark night that the believer and the church come to know that God is all. This dark night of the church is a divine pedagogy teaching us painfully that we are incredibly poor and utterly dependent on God.
It is precisely in this situation of diminishment and suffering that we are brought to a new understanding of one of the most important truths of the Second Vatican Council, and it is with these words of Gaudium et spes that I leave you: “The Church firmly believes that the key, the center and the very purpose of all human history is found in her Lord and Master. She believes that beyond all changes, there are things which do not change, and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ who is the same yesterday, today, yes, and forever.” (Gaudium et spes, #10)