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Xavier Rynne II: Letters from the Synod on Youth Vol. 15 – October 23

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Italian synod observer Federica Ancona speaks during small group discussion at the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican. Photo: CNS photo/Vatican Media



After more than two and a half weeks of speech-making and conversation, Synod-2018 begins to grapple today with the product that will help define it. On Tuesday morning, the Synod fathers will be presented with a draft final report, which they will then have a free afternoon to read, reflect upon, and discuss privately. The days following will be spent in refining the draft final report, which will then be voted on Saturday, paragraph by paragraph, a two-thirds majority being required to adopt each paragraph.

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And while all this is going on, there will be more synodal end-game activity: on Friday, the Synod fathers will elect fifteen members of the Synod’s permanent council and they’ll also offer suggestions for a theme for the next ordinary general assembly of the Synod, which will presumably be held in 2021. There is considerable interest in Synod-2021 being devoted to the topic of women in the Church and in the world. And while that would indeed be a worthy subject, I’d like to suggest a different possibility: a Synod on chastity.

The Catholic Church is suffering today from a crisis of chastity, the virtue that St. John Paul II defined as “the integrity of love.” The meltdown of chastity in the world under the pressures of the sexual revolution has now, unmistakably, corrupted the Church; that corruption has deeply damaged the Church’s evangelical mission by making Catholicism vulnerable to the lethal charge of hypocrisy. There is widespread and legitimate anger today over the failures of bishops, priests, and consecrated religious to live their vows of chastity with fidelity. But lay Catholics should also take a close look at our own failures to live the integrity of love, and to be witnesses in the world that sex is sacred, as Bishop David Konderla put it in these LETTERS.

Chastity has, of course, been a tough one for humanity since that unfortunate afternoon in the Garden (after using that phrase, whose origin he thought obvious, Father Richard John Neuhaus was once asked by a New York Times reporter, “And what garden would that be, Father?). So the temptations of the flesh and the sins that follow from succumbing to those temptations are nothing new. And surely there have been other lascivious moments in history, as some of the “decorations” down the road in ruined Pompei (or a good history of Regency London) attest.

This moment of ours is different, however, because of the ubiquity and celebration of un-chastity that surrounds us. Off-brand sex in its various forms, each of which is a counterfeit of genuine love, used to be private, even furtive. Now it has been industrialized and, in politics, weaponized. It saturates the Internet, the world of advertising, and popular entertainment. Just about every statistical indicator tells us that our culture’s descent into license is doing severe damage to individual lives and the social fabric of the West. Yet the defense of what was once considered indefensible, because it was humanly degrading, now threatens to unhinge virtually every western democracy.

Bishop David A. Konderla of Tulsa, Okla. Photo: CNS photo/Dave Crenshaw, Eastern Oklahoma Catholic

Pope St. Paul VI warned of the “smoke of Satan” entering the Church. And while there are many conjectures as to what precisely he meant, it’s hard for anyone with a biblical sensibility not to think that the Evil One, who got all this started back in that Garden, hasn’t had his hand in clerical sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance, the damage they have done to victims and  the demoralization they’ve caused throughout the world Church. That the Catholic Church has been vulnerable to some of the most destructive outcomes of the sexual revolution does not mean, as some at this Synod would have it, that the Church’s teaching is wrong and must be changed. It does mean that the biblical and moral truths the Church bears about the integrity of love have been poorly taught, inadequately received, and weakly defended. And that weakness is most destructive when it characterizes those charged with protecting the flock against wolves, some of whom have now been shown to be false shepherds, both personally corrupt and cogs in a network of corruption.

And all that suggests to me the importance of a Synod on Chastity.

Such a Synod would help demonstrate to the world, and to a lot of angry people in the Church, that Catholicism is serious about reforming what is corrupt and broken in its life by going to the root of that corruption: a failure to live the truth about love. Such a Synod could focus attention on the many important pastoral initiatives (including Theology of the Body-inspired catechetics, young adult ministries, and marriage preparation programs) that have helped armor the people of the Church, beginning with Catholic children, against the assaults they inevitably encounter in an unchaste culture that celebrates its unchastity. Such a Synod could lift up before the world a nobler vision of human possibility than the false anthropology of self-assertion that underwrites the aggressiveness of the sexual revolution: it could offer the world, through the prism of the Cross, the possibility of self-gift, including the gift of self in chaste love, married or celibate.

Pope St. John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council by summoning the Church to be a more winsome, effective, evangelical presence in the modern world. Pope St. Paul VI, in Evangelii Nuntiandi, tried to put an end to post-conciliar drift and confusion by refocusing Catholics’ attention on John XXIII’s summons. Pope St. John Paul II called for a “New Evangelization” in which every Catholic understood himself or herself to be a missionary who went into “mission territory” every day. Pope Francis spoke, in the early days of his pontificate, of a “Church permanently in mission.” The living parts of the Catholic Church today are those that have embraced that evangelical imperative.

But even in the living parts of the world Church, the failures of bishops and priests to promote, defend, and live the integrity of love has become a major obstacle to announcing the Good News, as has the insouciance of too many lay Catholics about Catholic sexual ethics. A Synod that challenged everyone in the Church, in every state of Christian life, to understand that chastity is the virtue that allows us to live with the undivided heart we all seek, might go a long way to accelerating the reform the Church badly needs if it is to be salt and light in an increasingly jaded world determined to defend the practices that have left it jaded.

The Catholic Church is regularly charged with being obsessed about sex. The truth of the matter is that it’s post-modern culture that’s sex-obsessed. What the Catholic Church is obsessed with is love: the love that, as Dante put it at the end of the world’s greatest poem, “moves the Sun and the other stars;” the love that took flesh in the womb of Mary of Nazareth; the crucified love that demonstrated the divine will to redeem; the resurrected love that brought the humanity of the Risen Christ into the life of the Most Holy Trinity. It is hard, these days, for many to see that Catholicism’s true passion is for love. A Synod on chastity – a global Catholic reflection on the integrity of love, and on how living love in integrity makes for happiness and beatitude – might help those whom we are called to evangelize to see more clearly what we’re really all about.

 George Weigel


As these LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD continue to offer testimonies on vocational discernment and priestly formation, we turn today to the keynote address given to the U.S. National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors by Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, at the NCDVD’s annual meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona, this past September 17. Cardinal Collins spent many years in seminary teaching and priestly formation and has been a tireless promoter of priestly vocations in his episcopal ministry in Toronto (not least over pancakes at “Fran’s,” a diner near St. Michael’s Cathedral). The first part of his keynote address, “Becoming Fire,” appears today; the second half of the address will appear tomorrow. XR II


Thomas Cardinal Collins

I have long been intrigued by a story from the days of the Fathers of the desert. A young monk – one might almost say, a seminarian – who is discouraged, approaches one of the venerable elders, and laments that despite all his efforts at holiness – fasting, hours of prayer, following the rules of the community, and so on – he has made no progress, but is overcome with a sense of desolation and fruitlessness.  Not only is he not advancing in holiness, but he is slipping further into sin. The old monk looked at him, stretched out his hands, and flames shot out of his fingers. He said: “You must become fire.”

I believe that this story is instructive for all of us as we seek to be better disciples of Jesus, daily growing in holiness, and particularly for those who are called by Jesus to fulfil the mission of his apostles, and to help invite others whom he is calling to discern their vocation, and to enter formation for the holy priesthood. We must become fire.

If we who are bishops and priests do not become fire, and if those preparing for the priesthood do not, but instead become trapped in the dark and cold embrace of the world, the flesh, and the devil, then we are bound for destruction, for the lake of fire that is described in the Apocalypse (Revelation 20: 13-15), and we fail those entrusted to our pastoral care. As we are all aware, that has happened since the days of Judas, and is much in the news now. If the flame entrusted to us at Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination flickers and dies, or is abruptly extinguished, and the darkness of evil envelops the priest or bishop, then havoc is wrought upon the most vulnerable, and the splendor of the Holy Priesthood is sullied, and hidden from those whom God is calling to be priests of Jesus Christ. Satan entered into Judas, the light went out, and it was night (John 13:27-30).

So we must become fire.

I propose to reflect upon four facets of the scriptural theme of fire, and to apply them to the priestly life and to the ministry of encouraging and guiding those who are called to the Holy Priesthood. I will also make a few observations about how some priests and bishops have gone over to the dark side, but that must not be the focal point of our thoughts or actions. It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. Evildoers must be held accountable, and we do indeed need to know how not to end up in the Lake of Fire, and devote appropriate attention to that, but as Bishop Sheen used to say: it is better to fill the box with salt than to concentrate on the pepper. We focus on virtue, not vice; on light, and not darkness. We would be naïve not to take note of the wickedness of Babylon, whose discord and darkness is destroying this earthly city through which we are passing, and has clearly infiltrated deep into the Church itself, but our hearts must be set on the fiery, dazzling beauty of our true home, the heavenly Jerusalem.

And so we must become fire. How do we do that?

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston participates in small group discussion at the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican. Photo: CNS photo/Vatican Media

I will propose these four facets of the theme of fire that can focus our thoughts, move our will, and guide us in our actions:

The Fire of Sacrificial Love: This is a common theme in scripture. The sacrificial offering is totally consumed by fire, as we must be by our priestly mission. We are not to hold back, but to give our lives fully to Christ and his people, a fact that is also symbolized in the ordination rite when we lie prostrate before the Lord during the Litany.

The Fire of Purification:  This is a frequent theme in both Old and New Testaments. Fire destroys that which is evil, which must be burned away. And gold and silver are tested in fire (Sirach 2:5; I Peter 1:7). If we are to serve the Lord, and to invite others to do so, we must experience constant purification, and live in a spirit of repentance. Let the weeds and chaff within our hearts be thrown into the fire. We are currently going through a great and life-giving purification in the Church. The scandal is not that we become aware of evil in the Church, and to our shame so does the world around us; the true scandal is that evil occurs in the Church, and it is at its worst when it is hidden. The truth will set us free.

The Fire of Pentecostal Zeal. God came down in tongues of fire upon the apostles, cowering in fear, and they were granted apostolic zeal, that boldness which we see in the Acts of the Apostles. The early servants of God were on fire with the Gospel. So must all disciples of Jesus, and especially all who are called to the Holy Priesthood.

The Fire of Majesty and Mystery.  Every priestly vocation begins at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-12), in the presence of the majesty and the mystery of God. A vocation is not a career, but a personal call to the service of the Lord God and of his people. It is sublime, and it is divine. Profound awareness of the majesty of the Lord who calls us must penetrate to the depths of our souls; if it does not, then priesthood and episcopate can become worldly, and can be corrupted.

I will offer some reflections on these four facets of the biblical theme of fire, and will seek to draw from them some practical suggestions for our life as priests or bishops whose mission is to invite candidates to discern whether God is calling them to the holy priesthood.

The Fire of Sacrificial Love

The theme of sacrifice is constant throughout the Old Testament and is deepened in the New Testament. The sacrificial offering is placed upon the altar and is consumed by fire. To this day, in sacramentals of our Catholic liturgy, we have reminders of the Old Testament vision of sacrifice, as in vigil lights which burn until all the wax is consumed, and in incense which is burned as a sign of worship and prayer. This is an exact continuation of ancient sacrifice: “Let my prayers rise as incense before you, O Lord” (Psalm 141:2).

The offering itself, the victim, is to be the best that the person can give to God. We too must give the best we have to God. Candidates for the priesthood, and priests and bishops, vary greatly in what they may have to offer, but whatever it is, it must be the best they have. No left-overs for the Lord, or for the priesthood. And each day we do not offer scraps of time to God in prayer, but quality time.

The offering is then totally removed from the control of the one who offers, by being totally burnt up before the Lord as a sacrificial gift. There is no holding back, no clinging to that which is consumed by fire. In a slightly different context, Ananias and Sapphira learned the hard way in the Acts of the Apostles that you do not hold back what you have freely offered to the Lord (Acts 5:1-11).

Sacrificial fire speaks to us of the totality of the gift of love: everything is offered, and nothing is held back. In the sacrificial love which is prefigured and symbolized by the fire of sacrifice, our lives are offered completely to the service of God and our neighbor. How many false gods and earthly distractions are jockeying for a place in our lives, so that we offer ourselves to God half-heartedly, not whole-heartedly? But Jesus, recalling Deuteronomy, commands us: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30; Deuteronomy 6:5).

Two wise guides to a priestly life of whole-hearted sacrificial love are Bishop Sheen, in The Priest is Not His Own, and Cardinal Manning in The Eternal Priesthood. Priests and bishops are to be self-sacrificing, consumed by love of God and neighbor in selfless ministry, until at death they come before the Lord, and hope to hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Their prayer must be that of John the Baptist, Christ “must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). What must most of all be burned away on the altar of sacrifice is selfishness and ego.

When the sacrificial fire goes out in a priest or bishop, then he begins to put first his own wants – not his needs, but his wants. He wants control, or adulation, or a comfortable life, or worldly success, or popularity, or satisfaction of his lusts. Outwardly going through the motions of priestly or episcopal service, and saying all the right things, his actual conviction is that Christ must decrease, but I must increase.

A life of self-sacrifice does not mean ignoring our legitimate human needs. It is no doubt important, and a humble recognition of our frailty, to take vacations, and to remember that we are not to be workaholics.  We need a mix of work, prayer, and relaxation, and a proper use of the goods of this world. A sacrificial life includes awareness that none of us is the Messiah. But when the fire of sacrificial love goes out, we can become self-indulgent. If individual priests, or groups of priests, live self-indulgent lives, then we should not be surprised if shocking instances of abuse occur. Self-indulgence is the culture in which both sexual and financial corruption flourish.

When the fire of other-centered sacrificial love flickers, or goes out, we can also turn inward, and exalt the ego. A priest can become a star: a narcissistic star. The parish revolves around him, and he is beyond rebuke. People become dependent not on Christ, but upon the priest, an addictive situation that can destroy a parish. But as St Paul says: “what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (II Cor. 4:5). I remember reading a book that aptly summarizes narcissism: The Object of My Affection is My Reflection. That is toxic in the leader of a community, bishop or priest, especially since he is called to be a spiritual father, and a spiritual shepherd who must be ready to sacrifice even his life for his flock. I recommend reading the description of the poor parson in the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. He was a shepherd, and not a mercenary. He did not run off to London to advance his ecclesiastical career, but stayed at home, visiting his parishioners far and wide. Christ’s teaching, and his apostles twelve, he taught, but first he followed it himself.

So when we are accompanying potential candidates for the priesthood, and when we are presenting the priesthood to them, we must stress the fire of selfless, sacrificial love: humble, unassuming, other-centered, sacrificial love. Watch out for signs of self-indulgence and narcissism. If a candidate’s inner motto is “my hands are for chalices not calluses,” get rid of him.

And watch for positive signs of humble service, concern for others, and unassuming hard work. The priest is not his own.

Because it takes time for signs both positive and negative to become evident, it is good to have a lengthy period of discernment and formation, to allow hidden problems to surface before ordination. A program of discernment and formation is more like a crock pot than a wok: it takes time. That is why in my own diocese and seminary I have lengthened the process: more time before entry into the formation community: a year or two in the associates program, four years of College Seminary for some, plus a propaedeutic year, and four years of theology, and a parish internship too. Can’t we speed it up a bit? No. No. No. As the title for a great book on time management puts it: If You Don’t Have Time to Do It Right, When Will You Find Time to Do it Over?

Sebastian Duhau, a synod observer from Australia, attends a group discussion at the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican. Photo: CNS photo/Vatican Media

The Fire of Purification

We must become fire, and the fire of purification allows that to happen, for it burns away our sinfulness. As the book of Sirach says: “My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, remain in justice and in fear, and prepare yourself for temptation… Gold and silver are tested in the fire, and acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation” (Sirach 2:1, 5).  St Paul speaks of the coming of the Day of the Lord: “each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done (I Cor 3: 13).

We are all sinners, and as Isaiah says, men of unclean lips. In his great vocation experience in the temple, described in Isaiah 6, God purifies his lips and his life with sacred fire, and makes him ready to be sent. “Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me!” (Isaiah 6: 6-8).

To concentrate our minds, and to keep everyone on the straight path, it is good to remember the fire and brimstone that obliterated Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24), and the Lake of Fire in the Apocalypse, which is the second death, the death of mortal sin, and which is the destiny of those who are unfaithful to their call (Revelation  20: 10-14). It is a good practice to pray, not only in the Rosary, but all the time, the prayer: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are most in need of your mercy.” Mercy is founded on a recognition of the reality of justice, of right and wrong, of the fact of sin, and of repentance.

Our actions have consequences, as is evident in so many parables of the Gospel, such as that of the rich man and Lazarus. We sometimes forget that Jesus begins his ministry as John the Baptist did, with the words: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near at hand.” And at the end he speaks of the separation of the sheep and the goats. This is sharp, and clear, and calls for a decision. We should listen to the prophet Malachi, who warns the people about the coming day of judgment: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…” (Malachi 3:2). Paul helps us to live rightly in the present moment when he speaks of the time to come when “the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (II Thess. 1:7-8) . Any one of us who is tempted to lapse into complacent self–indulgence will be shaken by that vision of the fire of judgment, which is the ultimate sign of accountability.

Disastrously, a toxic sentimentality in which both the call to repentance and the vision of judgment are obscured, has entered into the Church, and never more so than in the few decades following Vatican II, from the seventies to the mid-nineties. There was a blurring of the clear lines of morality, a creation of a distorted and highly subjective concept of conscience, and a popularization of a subversive proportionalism and relativism. It is no coincidence at all that this was the very period, we now clearly realize, in which most of the devastating incidents of priestly and episcopal abuse that are now in the news took place. Designing policies and other things to deal with this abuse is surely necessary, and largely has already been done. But that is radically insufficient. We surely do not need a policy to stop us from engaging in self-indulgent evil that leads to the Lake of Fire. All Christians, but especially bishops and priests, need to listen to and act on these simple words of Jesus: Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near at hand.

It is also true that when the moral and spiritual demands of Christianity, or of the priesthood, become no more than an ideal, much to be praised in honeyed words, but with no practical relevance, and held to be impossible to actually live, then individually and as a Church we have become gnostics. But neither Christianity nor the priesthood is an abstract ideal; by God’s grace, and only by God’s grace, every single one of us can actually become a saint. Vatican II spoke of the universal call to holiness, not the universal call to mediocrity. With a vision of the purifying refiner’s fire to keep us honest, we are challenged every day to be happy, healthy, holy priests. Nothing less than that. That is the reality of the priesthood.

All of us in pastoral ministry, and especially we whose mission it is to accompany those whom the Lord may be calling to the priesthood, need to live repentant lives. Just as a personal suggestion, I recommend that at the elevation at Mass, when we raise the Host and the Chalice, we pray quietly: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” And we need to get to confession frequently.  Every day, may the fire of purification burn away within us all that is unworthy of Christ.

As we consider applicants for the seminary, we need to look for a repentant and contrite heart. Certainly no-one is worthy of the priesthood, and everyone is a sinner, and humanly imperfect. We can talk glibly about being sinners, but in ourselves, and in those considering a vocation, it is vital that the fire of purification actually be burning brightly, that we truly (though, of course, without scrupulosity) be aware of the geography of our souls, and that we trustingly resolve, despite our weaknesses, and by God’s grace, to actually live a life of holiness. This is not an impossible ideal, despite our frailty. In fact, consciousness of our weaknesses leads us to know our need for God, and to realize that we will be faithful and spiritually fruitful as priests, not because of our own efforts but because of the power of Christ. We should listen to that great sinner and saint, St Paul, in II Corinthians: “a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (II Cor 12: 7-9).

[To be continued tomorrow….]

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