Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Conversation with a Survivor

This morning I concelebrated the 6:30 a.m. Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Malden, MA with Fr. Richard Bakker, SMA, a Dutch priest who prepared to be a missionary in Africa, but was conscripted by the Dutch Air Force as a chaplain three weeks before his intended departure, and who then spent his life teaching French and Greek in seminary.

He grew up in Amsterdam, and was eight years old when WWII began. He lived just a five minute walk from the house where Anne Frank and her family hid. He told me how of the 253 Jews in his neighborhood, only three survived the war. "I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. All the children I played with were killed." His father was a Dutch diplomat in England who brought his family to the Netherlands for a vacation during the summer of 1939, and wasn't able to return to England because the war began. At the age of eight, he was told by his father to never speak English again. "I thought it was stupid! I didn't know Dutch. My father said, 'Don't even say stupid. It's English!'"

He recalled with great fondness how the Dominican sister who taught him in kindergarten (he repeated that grade because his language skills were so poor) told him, "Here, I'll help you learn Dutch." At the time he probably thought she was just being kind. She may well have been trying to save his life, and the life of his family.

He told me a story of Edith Stein. In 1939, the Carmelites moved Edith and her sister, Rose, from a convent in Germany to one just across the border in the Netherlands, which was a neutral country. When she arrived, it was cold, and the Carmelites didn't have the heat on. "Begging your pardon, sisters" Edith asked, "Why have you not turned on the heat?"

"We don't have heat. Holy poverty, you know."

Edith discovered the abbot of a local monastery was German, and she spoke to him of the Carmelites' situation. Soon they had a heating system. It worked for over sixty years, until a couple of years ago. The Carmelites still were very poor, and couldn't fix or replace it. "Let's ask for Sr. Edith's intercession," the Carmelites said. Sure enough, the heat came on again, and has worked for the last two years.

"I didn't talk about the war for decades," Fr. Bakker told me. "Then one day I was asked by a rabbi I know to speak at his synagogue about the war. A woman sat crying in the back throughout my talk. Afterward, she came up and said to me, 'It's all true. I lived in Amsterdam during the war, too.'"

Many, many Catholic Dutch men entered the seminary after the war. "There were 72 in my minor seminary class alone! But of the 18 men I was ordained with, all the others left and got married." As in this country, many Catholic soldiers during the horrors of the war made promises to God. My mother once told me a long time ago, when my father was still working as an engineer and had to fly occasionally to Europe or Japan, how guilty he felt about flying at all. "Why?" I asked. "Because during the war, when he was navigating B-25s over Japan, and so many of his friends were being killed, he promised God that if he was spared, he'd never fly in a plane again." How many other Catholic men made promises along the lines of, "Get me out of this hell, and I'll become a priest." Who knows how many of them who survived kept their promises? I've heard enough stories to believe their numbers were not insignificant.

People often look at the exodus of priests that occurred after the Second Vatican Council and blame it on the Council itself, or in the way it was interpreted. But men who entered the seminary after the war and were ordained in the early to mid-50s would have had been priests for 10-15 years by the time of the Council. They might have been in their early to mid-40s; still young enough to be husbands and fathers, and mature enough to realize the choice to become a priest may not have been entirely free.

Some people will think I'm just making excuses for men who should have persevered, or who gave in to human weakness, or who just decided that being a priest was too hard, or no longer fulfilling.

Rather, I think it's sad that we - or at least I - haven't heard their stories. Why did they become priests in the first place? What happened that made them choose to leave? These and other questions, as well as the answers we could glean, could go far in helping us help young men today discern their vocation. Such a discussion could also help us improve our seminary formation process, too, so that we don't experience another exodus in the future.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Priestly Pastoral Formation: Theology Lite?

Fr. Michael Sweeney, O.P., the co-founder of the Catherine of Siena Institute and current President of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, once told me that pastoral formation in Catholic seminaries is often looked upon as "theology lite." I think I know what he means, and I think he's correct. Prior to my working for the Institute, my understanding of pastoral theology was shaped by my experience of my formation in it. When I went through seminary, pastoral theology consisted of courses like, Confessional Ministry, Liturgical Celebration, and Pastoral Counseling. These were the 'how-to' classes; how to preside at Mass, how to baptize an infant, how to hear confessions, how to listen well and apply moral theological principles to particular situations.

These are all necessary, good skills that a priest should have. But a lot was missing, particularly surrounding the issue of pastoral governance, which, as Pope John Paul II said in his 2004 ad limina address to the bishops of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, "is directed both to gathering the flock in the visible unity of a single profession of faith lived in the sacramental communion of the Church and to guiding that flock, in the diversity of its gifts and callings, towards a common goal: the proclamation of the Gospel to the ends of the earth."

In preparation for the one-day workshop Sherry and I gave at St. Patrick's Seminary, Menlo Park, CA, I reviewed the 2005 Program for Priestly Formation which I've linked in the title. The document calls for the personal, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation of the men in our seminaries in this country. Here are the attitudes and competencies that are the goals outlined for pastoral formation:

a. A missionary spirit, zeal for evangelization, and ecumenical commitment

b. A spirit of pastoral charity, a quest for justice, and an openness to serve all people

c. A special love for and commitment to the sick and suffering, the poor and outcasts, prisoners, immigrants, and refugees

d. Demonstration of appropriate pastoral and administrative skills and competencies for ministry

e. Ability to exercise pastoral leadership

f. Ability to carry out pastoral work collaboratively with others and an appreciation for the different charisms and vocations within the Church

g. The ability to work in a multicultural setting with people of different ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds

h. A commitment to the proclamation, celebration, and service of the Gospel of life

i. Energy and zeal for pastoral ministry

Of course, I have to ask myself how well those goals have been met in me, not only as a result of my initial formation, but also as a consequence of my ongoing prayer and post-ordination formation!

Beyond that, however, I think it is interesting to note that governance is not specifically mentioned in this context, although it is alluded to in points d.,e., f., and g. But f. is the only point in the entire document in which charisms are mentioned, and even then, it could refer to the gratuitous gifts given to the baptized or the charisms associated with religious orders. This lack of a focus on governance, and the role of charisms within it, is unfortunate for several reasons:

1) Pastoral governance, unless it is taught well (including information on discernment of charisms), will degenerate to administration, and few men feel called to priesthood so that they can be involved in parish budgets, capital campaigns, work contracts and personnel issues. Perhaps even fewer are competent administrators.

2) The discernment of their own charisms is important for seminarians who are considering the priesthood. In addition, if they are able to discern their own charisms, they will be better able to help the laity discern theirs. Without understanding their charisms, priests may not recognize the need for gifts among other staff to complement their own. Or, they may be threatened by the different gifts others have.

3) Each act of governance is concerned with community and mission. We build community for mutual support of personal mission as well as for the support of the parish's mission, and the active pursuit of the parish's mission will undoubtedly help build community. Unless pastors understand the fullness of the meaning of governance, their focus may become community without reference to mission, and few will have an idea of how to discern the call given by God to the community as a whole.

4) The only reference to governance apart from the governance of the seminary itself links governance, priestly spirituality, conversion and mission!
"For priests, the specific arena in which their spiritual life unfolds is their exercise of ministry in fulfillment of their mission. The life of priests in the Spirit means their continuous transformation and conversion of heart centered on the integration or linking of their identity as configured to Christ, Head and Shepherd (Pastores dabo vobis, nos. 21-23), with their ministry of word, sacrament, and pastoral governance or leadership (Pastores dabo vobis, nos. 24-26)." Program for Priestly Formation, 23.

If a priest does not properly understand governance, his spirituality will be stunted, his conversion incomplete, his identity threatened by competent lay people (especially those involved in lay ecclesial ministry). Moreover, his mission to sanctify, teach and govern the laity so that they can take Christ to the world will be unfulfilled or misunderstood.

These are just some initial thoughts, and not complete by any means. Paragraph 23 from the PPF might be worth a blog post in and of itself!

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