During his years as bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI had the talent of being very frank about naming sin and calling people back to fidelity. Yet at the same time he modeled that fidelity with a kind of personal warmth that revealed its beauty and disarmed the people who heard him. He spoke several times about the “silent apostasy” of so many Catholic laypeople today, and even many priests; and his words have stayed with me over the years because he said them in a spirit of compassion and love, not rebuke.
Apostasy is an interesting word. It comes from the Greek verb apostanai – which means to revolt or desert; literally “to stand away from.” For Benedict, laypeople and priests don’t need to publicly renounce their Catholic faith to be apostates. They simply need to be silent when their baptism demands that they speak out; to be cowards when Jesus asks them to have courage.
My focus today is on the kind of priests we’ll need in the next few decades. So let’s begin by facing some facts. As much as we American Catholics love our country, we live in a nation that’s rapidly changing. Our culture is becoming something quite alien right before our eyes; something different in kind, not merely in degree, from anything in our nation’s past. American life still has a reservoir of biblical content. And compared to other developed countries, most Americans are still very religious.
But it’s also true that our nation is more and more unfriendly to Catholic belief in its laws, court decisions and political life. The spirit of the nation is shifting. And most American Catholics, even if they’re aware of the problems emerging around us, are not equipped to deal with our new realities.
I’m not here today to talk about politics. But I’d be untrue to our topic without at least mentioning the obvious. The election we face next month will determine a great deal about the nature and direction of American life over the next decade. Politics involves the exercise of power. Power always has a moral dimension in shaping the pastoral terrain where we serve and lead our Catholic people. And that pastoral terrain does very much concern us as priests. It also determines the character and skills our future priests will need.
Catholic leadership in the secular world belongs to laypeople, not to clergy or religious. The visible role of the priest in public affairs – if by “public” affairs we mean political affairs — should normally be small. It’s very dangerous for the Church to identify herself too closely with any single political party. And it’s not our business as pastors to tell anyone to vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. In fact, as I’ve said elsewhere, both of our current major presidential candidates are very distressing news for our country, though for different reasons. No faithful Catholic should feel comfortable this election season in either major political party – Democratic or Republican.
But that doesn’t really excuse priests from dealing with the implications of public debate. The problem is that the Church teaches moral truth, and truth has obligations for human behavior – including the social, economic and political kind. The Church is not a political organism. But her witness for charity and justice always and unavoidably has practical consequences. And the legal pushback against her public witness on issues like abortion, sexuality, marriage and the family is likely to be increasingly hostile as time goes on.
It’s the job of Catholic laypeople to change the thinking of their political parties and their political leaders with the tools of their Catholic faith. But it’s the job of priests to give their people those tools – to form Catholic laypeople to think and act as disciples of Jesus Christ, in a manner guided by the teaching of the Church. Catholic laypeople should be the leaven of Jesus Christ in our nation’s life. They can’t do that unless priests are first the leaven of Jesus Christ in the lives of their people.
If we want to know the kind of commitment a new generation of priests will need in the years ahead, we can find it right in the Acts of the Apostles.
Note that the title of the book is the Acts of the Apostles. Not the Good Intentions or the Elaborate Plans of the Apostles, but their Acts. Words are important. But they mean nothing unless they’re backed up with action. Christ said he loved us. Then he died to prove it. He said he would rise from the dead and give us new life. Then he really did it. And when the first Apostles said they believed in Jesus Christ, they acted like they meant it, because they did mean it — and then they proved it by turning the world upside down with the Gospel.
A handful of simple and imperfect men made the greatest revolution in history – a global revolution of God’s love.
What makes the Gospel convincing in any age is the zeal of everyday Christians. And if that’s true about the power of our everyday Christians, then it’s doubly true about our priests – without whom there is no Eucharist, and without the Eucharist there is no Church. The health of the Church depends directly on the spirit of her priests. So priests need to be more than simply honest or diligent or even faithful. They need to be consumed by a love for God, a love for their people and a love for the Catholic faith.
And that kind of love – a passion to give ourselves to something greater than ourselves — cuts against the very nature of the noise, distractions and consumerist addictions at the heart of modern American life.
I know that many, many good people have labored very hard in their evangelization efforts over the past few decades, sometimes with great results, and their sacrifices need to be honored.
But as a Church I think we’ve made a basic mistake in underestimating the gravitational pull of consumer culture, the power of new technologies to shape the appetites and thinking of our young people, and the corrosive effect of American materialism on our memory as a believing community, and on our ability to experience the sacred and transcendent.
At the same time, we’ve overestimated the compatibility of Catholic faith with American liberal democracy. As voices like Stanley Hauerwas and the late Avery Dulles warned us years ago, we’ve tried too hard to fit into a culture where we don’t finally fit. And the results are predictable. What can the words “Jesus Christ is Lord” or “Christ the King” mean to a young person raised in a culture committed to personal autonomy and deeply suspicious of authority and hierarchical structures? What kind of influence can biblical revelation have in a culture where only science and technology count as real knowledge?
There’s a deep vein of practical atheism coursing through American consumer life that deadens the soul to a desire for holiness and discourages the hope for anything beyond the horizons of this world. But it’s a problem we can easily miss because we imagine that the religious roots of our country still help to determine its course. In 2013 Gallup polling, 75 percent of Americans surveyed voiced their support for a greater influence of religion in national life. And that sounds wonderful. But many of the same people who responded so positively on the survey had no personal interest in religious faith.[i]
In other words, “Americans want religion,” as one headline read, for “everyone but themselves.”
As of 2014, 23 percent of adult Americans described themselves as atheists, agnostics, or persons with no religious affiliation. This was up from 16 percent in 2007. “Nones” are now the fastest growing religious group in the country, with nonreligious congregations (nicknamed godless churches) appearing nationally. And they’re increasingly organized as a political voice focused on “elevating science over belief” and keeping government and religion strictly separate.[ii]
The obvious lesson is this: Our parishes, schools, hospitals, universities and other brick and mortar structures mean nothing if they’re empty.
It’s dawning on many of us that the place of the Catholic Church in the United States is much more precarious than we’d like to think. And the number of people who self-identify as Catholics nationally, some 80 million persons, is profoundly misleading. In fact, we – and by “we” I mean Catholic adults in general and leaders in my generation especially — have done a bad job of forming and keeping our people. Sacramental practice and Mass attendance are declining, and young people are not stepping up to take leadership in the Church in the way their parents and grandparents did. Plenty of exceptions do exist, but overall, the picture is not good.
We need to realize that we’re a minority. That means we need to think of the Church in America as a missionary Church, and every priest as a missionary priest. Additionally, we can’t count on the continued financial health of the Church in our country if our active Catholic base diminishes over the next generation – which is already happening. The Church we have in the United States is already too institutional and heavily bureaucratized, and we can’t sustain it.
So having said all that, and now that we’re all suitably uneasy, we need to balance these concerns with our strengths. Compared to the Church in many other countries, our priests, lay leaders, parishes, diocesan programs, renewal communities, finances and patterns of religious practice are strong. The Church here is healthier, with more energy and better leadership at many different levels, than nearly anywhere else in the world.
As a result, we still have some time and freedom to do something about our problems. But we need to be realists. The conflicts facing the U.S. Church over the past several decades – external and internal; from immigration reform to issues of religious liberty; from abortion to marriage and family life – will continue for the foreseeable future. These struggles will require an example of leadership to sustain our people and draw others to the Church. And that example has to start with our priests.
So what kind of priests do we need?
We need hungry men – good men dissatisfied with the meagerness of what the world has to offer them and starving to build something better. Starving to live for something more than themselves. These men may not know exactly why or what they want from life. And it’s your job to help them find it. But we can be absolutely sure that they’re out there, a lot of them. Because what the world feeds the modern heart can’t sustain a meaningful life.
We need men who can step back from the narcotic haze of American life and see its sins and weaknesses, as well as its opportunities, for what they are. We need men willing to be an unpopular but creative minority. We need men who will be missionaries and leaders; men who are on fire for Jesus Christ and have the courage to prove it with their own suffering; men who aren’t afraid to preach the truth of the Catholic faith wherever God leads them. It’s a demanding profile. But it’s hardly a new one. And it’s informed every period of renewal and greatness in Christian history.
We need to “do” the Church differently in the coming decades. How will we build a truly integrated, multi-ethnic Catholic identity? How will we educate our people in the faith if we can’t sustain our schools? How will we really cultivate more priestly vocations? How will we build new churches? Who will take the place of dying religious communities? These are huge strategic questions pressing in on us right now — today. And the people best equipped to think about these things and lead others to think and act on them are, again, our priests.
As a result, I think priests today and in the years ahead need at least four things. First, they need help in understanding and developing the inherent leadership skills God gave them. One of the ironies of being a priest is that God calls us to be the leaders of our people – and then too often nobody in the Church actually teaches us how to do that. The formation of those practical, human leadership skills needs to start in our seminaries and continue throughout priestly life.
Second, priests need real fraternity – a proper, intimate, brotherly spirit of mutual support, something like the best qualities of religious life, but tailored to life in the world. They also need equal and honest friendships with committed lay people. In the years ahead, “loner” priests – the kind of men we all know; men who find a safe spot within the eccentric limits and habits they build around their priesthood like a fort — simply won’t survive. The world will be too heavy on them.
Third, priests need purification. Priesthood, like Christian marriage, is a radical choice – all or nothing. But all of us who are priests can sometimes tend to accumulate the junk of a comfortable life; the habits and pleasures that dull the purpose we committed ourselves to on the day of our ordination. As priests, if we want our people to live Jesus Christ vigorously and courageously, why would they do that if they don’t see it, and admire it, in us?
Fourth and maybe the hardest thing of all: Those of us who are priests need to rid ourselves and our seminarians of any nostalgia for past forms of Church life. It’s the only way we can be free to imagine the future. And part of that future means recognizing, encouraging and supporting faithful lay leadership — and getting out of its way so it can develop.
Pope Benedict spoke to this in 2009 when he stressed that the Church needs ”a change in mindset, particularly concerning lay people. They must no longer be viewed as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy, but truly recognized as ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity.”[iii] Laypeople are not second class citizens in the Church; they’re equally called to holiness, leadership and evangelization. And accepting that truth does not diminish in any way the decisive importance of the priest as the shepherd of God’s people.
The most urgent need for the Church in our day is a rebirth of faith and the missionary spirit in her people. But that will never happen, and it can’t ever happen, until we priests ourselves have a renewal of zeal. Priests need to be the men Christ called them to be – his friends and disciples – and priests need to call those of us who are bishops to be the same. If we can accomplish that priestly renewal together as a Church, with the grace of Jesus Christ, then God can achieve anything through us. God already did it once in a way that refashioned the world. That’s the reason we’re here today.
The challenges we face as a Church today can seem very hard, especially in vocations work. But even a hard truth is beautiful and good because it liberates. It frees us from our illusions of security and control and helps us to see reality as it really is. It forces us back into the arms of the God who created us to be his sons, his disciples and his friends; the God who will never abandon us and will always, ultimately, bless our efforts in his service. If we don’t believe that right down to our cell structure, we shouldn’t be here.
I want you to go home tonight and reread Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. It’s an extraordinary testimony to the power of God’s loving and renewing presence in the world, even when we don’t understand his actions or his seeming silence. There are no unhappy or fearful saints, and we need to remember that in our work. “Nobody can go off to battle,” Francis writes, “unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand. If we start without confidence, [we’ve] already lost half the battle . . . Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil.”[iv]
People typically see Pope Francis as a man formed by the example of Ignatius Loyola and Francis of Assisi. And of course that’s true. His spirituality is clearly Jesuit, and his desire for a pure and simple Church close to the poor is clearly Franciscan. But his hunger for God and his confidence in God’s grace also have another source.
In a 2013 homily to the general chapter of the Order of St. Augustine, Francis asked the delegates to “look into your hearts and ask yourself if you have a heart that wants great things or a heart that is asleep. Has your heart maintained [Augustine’s] restlessness or has it been suffocated by things?”[v] The trust, the passion and the restlessness in this Pope’s own heart mirror the great Augustine who saw that our hearts can never rest until they rest in God – the God whom Augustine longed for as life’s “sovereign joy.”
Jesus Christ changed the world with no resources, no five-year plan and only 12 very different and difficult peasant Jews. More than 300 years later, Augustine – one of the greatest minds in human history – encountered the same Jesus Christ and wrote his Confessions and his City of God as the Roman world fell apart and barbarians laid siege to his own diocesan See.
The hunger for God is written on every human heart. The world can dull it, but nothing can kill it. So have confidence in the work the Church has tasked you to do, and know that bishops like me keep you every day in our encouragement and prayers.
Somewhere today some young Augustine or Paul or Thomas is starting to ask himself what his life means, whether there’s a God, and where he can turn to feed the hunger and ease the restlessness in his heart. Be the answer to that man’s questions by the example of your own lives. Be the integrity and wholeness so bitterly lacking in a deceitful and fragmented world.
Jesus didn’t need many men. He needed the right men. The priesthood doesn’t need many men. It needs the right men. When each of you was called to the priesthood, God remade you in persona Christi. The more fully you live that truth, the more truly you radiate it to the men you encounter who are searching for God, the more profoundly you’ll draw others to share in the same joy. And that’s how the renewal of the Church and the remaking of the world can begin.
[i] “Americans Want Religion – For Everyone But Themselves,” The American Interest, June 6, 2013
[ii] Laura Meckler, “Secular Voices Raise Their Voices,” Wall Street Journal, June 4-5, 2016
[iii] Comments to a convention of the Diocese of Rome
[iv] Evangelii Gaudium, 84-86
[v] “Pope says Christians should have restless hearts like St. Augustine’s,” Catholic News Service, August 28, 2013
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