It appears that few today believe the Catholic Church should continue business as usual. Loud voices on one hand call for movement—walking or running in the “paths of the Spirit”—toward a “new Church”. On the other hand, there are those who look with horror on this instability and change. Their solution is a return to celebrating the liturgy with reverence, perhaps in forms that predate Vatican II. They also frequently preach an option for local, small-scale community life patterned to some degree after St. Benedict.
“If it isn’t in motion, it isn’t alive!” cry the first. “If it isn’t changeless, it cannot be of God!” say the second.
This is not, of course, a sterile ideological debate. The present moment is rapidly influencing the future of the Church, even though there is no consensus about what is to be done. In the interim, while debates and discernment continue in various forms, seminarians become priests, parishes are torn to the left and then to the right and then back again, many people are frustrated and hurt and angry, and the flock is all too often confused or even dispersed.
There are so few authoritative and unifying voices that it sometimes seems that the Church is condemned to be just another political battleground between the red and the blue, the right and the left. But Jesus Christ is surely greater and more interesting than that! Surely he continues to bear within himself the seed of authentic unity. And the Holy Spirit, subtle and effective and infinitely creative, continues to work and stream forth.
In the midst of this, how can the Church prepare good shepherds for her flock? How can she avoid the sterile dichotomies between freedom and authority, or between “fresh new life” and “dependable traditional stability”, that lacerate the mystical body of Christ?
It is old news, I think, that our current seminary system is often inadequate and lacking. The seminaries designed after the Council of Trent served their purpose, but society and the Church’s self-understanding about its relationship with society are quite different today. This difference was already visible in many churchmen writing during the mid-twentieth century, and became macroscopically obvious during and following the Second Vatican Council. Liturgical and educational experiments ensued, often with disastrous results. Today, the pendulum has swung back toward more traditional proposals in many places, while in other places a reaction to the reactionaries has kept things more “liberal” and “open”, fluffy and formless. To this observer, both options seem ill-equipped to guide the flock without harming and dispersing it, either through excessive action or through paralyzed inaction.
Many parishes and communities approve of their priest because he is “one of the guys”. So, in some locales, priests aim to become enthusiastic about football and hunting and beer. In other company, they might also take up golfing and learn about the finer points of coffee preparation. Other communities want their priest to be “spiritual”, so he takes to wearing a cassock and perhaps grows a beard, while carrying around serious-looking breviaries. Some would like their pastor to embrace the use of highly amplified and approximately tuned guitars in Mass; but in that same parish there are also those who want nothing but chant and pipe organs—and the priest must smile at both.
And so the priests stumble along—left-right-left-right—like particles in Brownian motion.
One way forward, I suggest, lies in carrying out the formation of priests in a monastic setting. This might seem counterintuitive. However, it is less so than it seems.
In order to steer a course, a parish priest must have a strong character and a clear idea about the direction in which to lead, whatever the broader society may think (or feel). The willingness to row against the current is a particularly striking feature of the monastic life. In order to follow God, monks are willing to give up many things that society regards as important and essential. Perhaps most visibly of all, monks relinquish power. For love of God, they give up the power to generate physical life, the power to decide at what time they will eat or what they will do with money, even the power to decide with whom they share their life.
This is the opposite of a political approach to life. It is an expression of the deep trust that God provides infinitely more than any human wielding of power ever could.
Something similar must be true of the parish priest as well. He must be governed first of all by a trust in God, which persists even in the laceration that a non-Christian society inflicts upon his heart. In most situations it is simply not possible for him to please a majority of his parishioners (see above)—so he needs a better compass than the political temptation to choose to please the part of the community that he finds most appealing, or least objectionable. He needs a deep freedom, such as what a true monk possesses.
A parish priest also needs a special kind of patience in his desire to build and to make better. In order to avoid dispersing the sheep, he must be gentle and patient and be governed not only by the plans he wishes to carry out, but first of all by the desire to love and serve and shepherd his flock. All plans, even the best thought out plans, are too static to contain reality. All plans and all formation directives are provisory, because God’s action and human action in the world are ever new and ever surprising. The Creator has given human beings the freedom to choose their path forward, together with the responsibility to remain attentive to new signs of the Holy Spirit that indicate a necessary change, in order to walk toward greener pastures.
The parish priest must be able to take a long view, well beyond the three or six or ten years he expects to be in a parish. He must be able to see that his time of leadership is a brief moment in a centuries-old story. He must know how to build within that story and to not delude himself into thinking he can build something completely new—whether beside or in place of the old. This too is a monastic trait, gained by long experience living with the same clumsy group of humans in the same all-too-limited space. By staying mostly in their cells, and by building in continuity with what had been built before them, monks have many times changed the face of society. Parish priests can do the same, but they need to see their five-year-plans in a new way. They would be helped by seeing with the eyes of a monk.
Once a priest has left the seminary and is working in the world, he sooner or later will find himself in great need of a way to recover his spiritual center and to rest. Priests try many different ways to find rest, with varying success and some dismal failures. In the opinion of this writer, days of rest spent in a monastery are the best solution. Monasteries offer companionship and silence together—there are welcoming people around, but it is not necessary to speak to them. A simple nod of greeting, a smile, prayers and meals shared together, are powerful restorative forces for a man who has been drained by a week of intense conversation with needy parishioners. In the parish, his prayer is usually done alone, which often feels like rowing a solitary skiff upstream. Participating in the choral prayer of a large group of men is, instead, like floating with the current in a large and joyful craft, bright with individual voices and calm with the shared rhythm of breathing and singing.
Of course, the parish priest is not a monk. He loves the world, he loves the variety and the challenge, and the freedom to govern much of his life by his own best lights. Few are called to be monks. But there is a complementarity between vocations that is beautiful and enriches all. Families are well served by friendship with their priests, and a priest is nourished by his fatherly relationship with couples and their children. In a similar way, monks and parish priests need each other. They are peers in their common search for God, oarsmen rowing together. The monks remind the priest of his fundamental root, underneath all his administrative headaches, and they give him the repose he offers his parishioners the rest of the time. All of this remains rather theoretical for a priest who has not been formed in a monastic life, but is already lived experience for those fortunate enough to have spent their seminary days with a healthy monastic community.
The further question about how the relationship between seminary formation and monastic communities could be best articulated is beyond the scope of this article, and undoubtedly needs serious work and creative thought. The existing seminaries affiliated with monasteries—for instance, St. Vincent Archabbey in Pennsylvania, St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana, and Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon—are an important beginning and should be supported. They show a good way forward.
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