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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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pope's Prayer Intention for May

The Holy Father's general prayer intention for May is "that the laity and the Christian communities may be responsible promoters of priestly and religious vocations." 

Priestly and religious vocations will be plentiful in communities that take discipleship seriously, don't have a "don't ask, don't tell" religious culture, and that promote, model, and support achievement in their members.  


May the laity and the Christian communities be promoters of intentional, faithful discipleship, so that we may likewise be successful and effective promoters of priestly and religious vocations. 

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Impregnate the world with the Christian Spirit

The Pope met today with the Bishops of Paraguay on their ad limina visit. He spoke specifically about the vocation of the lay faithful and the formation required for the laity to fulfill their mission.
Yet in order for the Christian message to reach "the furthest corners of the world", said the Holy Father, "the collaboration of the lay faithful is indispensable. Their specific vocation consists in impregnating the temporal world with the Christian spirit, and transforming it in accordance with the divine plan. For their part, pastors have the duty to offer them all the spiritual and formative means they need".

"One significant aspect of the mission of the laity is the service of society through political activity". For this reason, "they must be encouraged ... to practice responsibility and dedication in this important dimension of social charity, so that the human community of which they are part ... may progress in justice, in honour and in the defence of true and authentic values such as the protection of human life, of marriage and of the family, thus contributing to the real human and spiritual benefit of all society".
from the Vatican Information Service

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pope's Mission Intention

The Pope's mission intention for August is particularly beautiful: 

"That the answer of the entire people of God to the common vocation to sanctity and mission may be promoted and fostered, with careful discernment of the charisms and a constant commitment to spiritual and cultural formation"

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Pope Benedict on Personal Vocation

I was searching for an unrelated quote today and came upon this wonderful bit by Pope Benedict on personal vocation and the priest's role in reawakening the awareness of personal vocation, mission, and the call to act in the history of the Church. Enjoy!
Every person carries within himself a project of God, a personal vocation, a personal idea of God on what he is required to do in history to build his Church, a living Temple of his presence. And the priest's role is above all to reawaken this awareness, to help the individual discover his personal vocation, God's task for each one of us. I see that many here have discovered the project that concerns them, both with regard to professional life in the formation of today's society - where the presence of Christian consciences is fundamental - and also with regard to the call to contribute to the Church's growth and life. Both these things are equally important.


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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Insufficient Bait - part 3

The third and final post on the missing piece in the effort to attract priestly vocations. Part one is here and part two can be found here.

Implications for Priestly Vocations
Why am I so interested in the image of the priest portrayed in vocational materials? I believe that some young men may not consider a vocation to priesthood if a critical aspect of priestly life is not lived fully by most priests and is not "advertised" in vocation promotional materials. That part of priesthood has to do with the royal ministry of Christ; that ministry of forming others, of governing the charisms of the laity and coordinating their use within the parish and in the mission of bringing Christ to the world.

Some young men may well be primarily attracted to the idea of bringing Christ to the faithful through the prayerful celebration of the sacraments. Others may feel called particularly to instruct the faithful through creative and insightful homilies, classes on Scripture, and through the proclamation of the Gospel in the RCIA process, for example. I know priests who would fall into those categories, and they're wonderful ministers. There are priests who spend as much of their time and energy as they can in pastoral counseling to individuals. They enjoy getting to know their parishioners, and there is a wonderful affection and even love shared between these pastors and the people they serve.

But is it not possible that there are men who are gifted by God to help form others – and who feel called to do so? These men could embody that part of fatherhood that calls forth the best from others and empowers them to take their place in the world and in their unique vocation. Many young Catholic men want to make a difference in the world. Some are called to do so directly, through working in the business world, in politics, in the fields of law, medicine, scientific research, agriculture, the arts, and more. But I believe there are also men who want to make a difference by empowering others to make a difference in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. They dream of seeing others realize their potential, and can imagine a multiplying effect as those enthusiastic disciples of Jesus touch the lives of those who have not yet met him and transform the worlds of business, politics, law, medicine, science, the arts – in short, the temporal world. Some of them may rightly discern a call to marriage, in which that empowerment will be directed toward their spouse and children.

But some might be delighted to find that dream fulfilled as a priest – if only they knew the whole story of what it means to be a priest.

While I enjoy teaching and am often awestruck at the opportunity to celebrate the sacraments with God's beloved people, I find my priesthood is not complete unless these help transform people into active disciples of Jesus who long to discern his will for their lives and use their gifts in his mission to the world. When that happens, it's a beautiful experience, and I know my priesthood – and thus my life - is bearing fruit.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Insufficient Bait - part 1

The vocations video, "Fishers of Men," produced by Grassroots Films for the USCCB, first came to my attention a few weeks ago when it was shown after Masses at a Church where I had helped present a Called & Gifted workshop. I was not able to watch it at that time, but I made a mental note to look for it. Shortly after I returned to Colorado Springs I was sent a link to the eighteen-minute long video in an e-mail from a friend.

It's a well-made video, with a stirring soundtrack, good production values, and wonderful comments from priests young and old who have joyfully embraced their vocation. It depicts priests being ordained, seminarians in the classroom and the chapel, priests engaged in pastoral counseling and presiding over celebrations of the sacraments, particularly the eucharist. But there's a crucial aspect of priesthood that's missing, and not only is it missing in the vocations video, it's missing from the ministerial lives of many, many priests.

Before I discuss what's missing in "Fishers of Men," I will take a look at some of what the Code of Canon law has to say about the obligations and rights of all Christians, of the laity in particular, and of priests.

The Basic Obligation and Right of all the Christian Faithful
Whether one is lay, religious, or ordained, we all have a common basic duty and the right to pursue that duty: the spread of the Gospel in obedience to Jesus' command to "go and make disciples of all nations…" (Mt. 28:19) This basic obligation is found in Canon 211 All the Christian faithful have the duty and right to work so that the divine message of salvation more and more reaches all people in every age and in every land. I would argue that this canon captures the reason for the Church's existence, and thus is at the heart of the mission and ministry of the priest. The vocation video title, "Fishers of Men," is a powerful image in conveying the mission of the whole Church.

The Obligations and Rights of the Lay Christian Faithful
For the lay Christian, the focus is particularly on the fish who have not yet been caught! The lay faithful are also called upon to improve the general health of the sea in which the fish live. Canon 225 deals with this in two beautiful paragraphs:

§1. Since, like all the Christian faithful, lay persons are designated by God for the apostolate through baptism and confirmation, they are bound by the general obligation and possess the right as individuals, or joined in associations, to work so that the divine message of salvation is made known and accepted by all persons everywhere in the world. This obligation is even more compelling in those circumstances in which only through them can people hear the gospel and know Christ.

§2. According to each one’s own condition, they are also bound by a particular duty to imbue and perfect the order of temporal affairs with the spirit of the gospel and thus to give witness to Christ, especially in carrying out these same affairs and in exercising secular function.

The lay person, whether a streetcleaner, businessperson, attorney, housewife, or rancher, is bound to help every person on the face of the earth encounter the risen Lord and help transform the temporal society so that it reflects God's purposes and the dignity given each human by the Creator.

An important question – the question that is behind this article – is, "How will this happen without a proper formation – that is, a formation that is suited to the complexity of temporal society and the tremendous variety of situations a lay person will encounter throughout their life?" The code begins to answer that in Canon 229 §1. Lay persons are bound by the obligation and possess the right to acquire knowledge of Christian doctrine appropriate to the capacity and condition of each in order for them to be able to live according to this doctrine, announce it themselves, defend it if necessary, and take their part in exercising the apostolate.

So a part of the formation of the lay person is an appropriate understanding of Christian doctrine. This ties in with the prophetic, or teaching, role of the priest in his ministry. But the understanding of Christian doctrine is also gained through the participation of the rituals that surround the sacraments. An appreciation for, and experiential knowledge of Christ is gained when we encounter his healing in the anointing of the sick and his power to forgive in reconciliation, for example. In the sacraments of vocation (Matrimony and Holy Orders), we experience his self-giving love and the call to lay down our life for others (cf. John 15:13) But knowledge of Christian doctrine, whether through experience or proclamation and catechesis is crucial if the lay person is to engage in the apostolate described in Canon 225 above.

This is where "Fishers of Men", and each vocation website I examined in preparation for this post, is lacking. The priestly, and, sometimes, the prophetic aspects of a cleric's life are considered, but without any real acknowledgment of that mission to the world in which the laity play such a crucial part. In other words, the royal ministry of the priest, which has to do primarily with equipping the laity for their mission to the world, is absent. Yet the successful engagement of that mission by the laity is a sign of the fruitfulness of the priest's sacramental and teaching ministries!

Tomorrow: The Obligations and Rights of Clerics

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Vocation Sunday

Sunday's Gospel shows us Christ, the Good Shepherd who calls his sheep by name. For this reason, it's celebrated as a World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Many of us will hear homilies about answering the call to priesthood and religious life, and certainly there is a need for generous responses to those vocations.

I will preach about the unique call or vocation given to each one of us. It is more than just a call to a particular state of life, like marriage, priesthood, religious life, single life. Every call from God is an invitation to service, and to love. Most of us receive a multi-faceted call. Having discerned a call to priesthood and religious life (which did not end when I received the Dominican habit, but continued throughout my formation) did not mean that I was finished discerning my call!

The call is continuous, throughout our life. The Lord calls us to lead us ever deeper into Life, into relationship with Him, and into new adventures of service of our brothers and sisters. As you may have read on an earlier post, people in business have a call to operate not in accord with the world, which often uses devious practices, but to be transparent and honest, and work towards goals that benefit as many as possible without doing injustice to anyone. A physician may have a call to bring healing not only through his or her skill, but also through the love and heartfelt compassion offered to the patient, along with prayers to God for their healing.

Sometimes we hear of a seemingly hopeless situation in our own city, and wonder what we can do to respond. Barbara Elliott, one of our splendid Called & Gifted teachers, is the president of the Center for Renewal (http://www.centerforrenewal.org/), a resource center she founded in 1997 for faith-based organizations working to renew the inner cities of America. She is the author of Street Saints: Renewing America’s Cities (Templeton Foundation Press, 2004) based on more than three hundred interviews across the country of people. These are often ordinary folks who saw unremitting poverty, high rates of felon rescidivism, drug and alcohol addiction and said, "Jesus does not want this," and did something about it.

The people highlighted in Street Saints are ordinary folks who responded to a call that came to them in the form of a sense that *something* needed to be done about a certain situation, and no one else seemed to be doing anything, so...
They use their experience, their savvy, their education, but most of all their prayer and the Lord's guidance to achieve what many thought would be impossible. They gather collaborators, often one by one, who bring their own competence and experience to the table. And in the answering of their call, they come to be who God has intended from all eternity they should be. They experience the "fullness of life" promised by Jesus.

Because that is part of what is implied in being called "by name." In Jesus' society, a name was more than a moniker designating you from someone else. It said something about who you were to be. So Jesus, we are told, means, "Yahweh saves," and indeed He does through Jesus. The Lord calls each of us by name. Responding to our vocations means that we have the opportunity to fulfill the Lord's dream for us, which often is a dream beyond our feeble imagination.

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Friday, February 9, 2007

Maybe We're not Crazy!

In an article in the Boston Pilot, Cardinal Sean O'Malley is reported to have told a group of Boston College students,

"Catholics are called to live their lives with a sense of vocation."

One woman at the event asked, “For those of us who aren’t called into the religious life, what would you recommend for us to do? I look around the room, and I know a lot of us are interested in serving in different ways but are kind of unsure of how that fits into the Church and developing the Church as the body of Christ.”

Every Catholic is called to holiness and to the communal mission of the Church, Cardinal O’Malley responded.

“Even our career choices have to be informed by that desire to serve God and serve the community,” he said. “Every single one of us has a calling in life that we must prayerfully discern and generously and courageously embrace in our lives if we’re going to make a difference.”

The laity is called to engage in public life, transform society with the values of the Gospel and witness to God’s love, he said.

Sounds like we're on the same page as the Cardinal. We must be reading the same documents!

By the way, the Cardinal has a blog, too, at http://cardinalseansblog.org/

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

We Are All Saved and We Have All Earned It But None of Us Are Saints Because That Wouldn’t Be Humble.


10 years of nearly continuous travel from parish to parish and thousands of personal interviews have given us a fairly good sense of typical ordinary-Catholic-in-the-pew’s worldview regarding intentional discipleship and our ultimate salvation -- at least among Anglo laity in the US.

(The worldview of the clergy is naturally very different but many clergy share in the assumptions described here in surprising ways. Priests are remarkably like human beings in this regard.)

The American church is huge and very complicated, so the culture I am about to describe would not include those groups of Catholics heavily influenced by evangelicalism (such as in the deep south), the charismatic renewal, traditionalism, lay movements or third orders, parishes that regularly do evangelism, groups with a strong social justice orientation or Catholics in “hotbed institutions” like Catholic universities or seminaries. Neither would this describe Hispanic Catholics, Vietnamese Catholics, etc.

The worldview I’m describing is common among ordinary-Anglo-cradle-Catholic-laypeople in ordinary parishes in the west coast, midwest, high plains, intermountain west and east coast.

Caveat: I am writing in a hurry and my tongue is rather firmly in my check. But I am also really describing attitudes what we have encountered over and over again in the field. There are remarkable exceptions everywhere but there is also, in our experience, a startling consistency across dioceses and regions.

The major premises could be summarized as follows:

  1. We are all saved and we’ve all earned it but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.

    A fascinating, if unlikely, mixture of practical universalism, Pelagianism, and work-a-day Catholic humility seems to have been absorbed by Catholics across the country.

    This homespun version of universalism runs something like this: *Decent* people are automatically saved because of their decency, and almost everyone is essentially decent or at least means well, which is basically the same thing as being decent. God would never condemn a decent person. Salvation is pretty much yours to lose and you can only do so by intentionally doing something really, really, not decent like mass murder and then not saying you are sorry.

    Pelagianism was an early 5th century heresy that held that original sin did not taint our human nature and that human beings are still capable of choosing good or evil without God's grace. Pelagius taught that human beings could achieve the highest levels of virtue by the exercise of their own will.

    The contemporary American version holds that human beings can attain acceptable levels of *decency* by their own efforts. We earn our salvation by not doing the really, really bad things we could do if we chose. In real life, it is pretty close to impossible for most people not to attain the minimum decency requirement. (See caveat above).

    Since basic decency suffices for salvation, holiness is completely optional, and is the spiritual equivalent of extreme sports. Authentic, salt-of-the-earth ordinary Catholics are appropriately humble and know their spiritual place. They do not pretend to be something they are not (see point #2 below).

    Note: the role of Christ and his Paschal mystery in this view of salvation is extremely obscure.

  2. There are two basic Catholic “tracks”:

    a) The “ordinary Catholic track” which includes 99% of us. Your parents put you on this track by having you baptized as a baby. This track can be divided further into 1) “good” or practicing ordinary Catholics; 2) “bad” or non-practicing ordinary Catholics; and 3) pious ordinary Catholics.

    All ordinary Catholics, good, bad, or pious, are saved through their essential *decency* or meaning well and nor screwing up horribly. (see #1 above). God does give extra credit for visible devotion or piety.

    b) The “extraordinary Catholic track”: priests, religious, and saints (.1%).

    God plucks a few people out of Track “a” and places them on track “b”. That is what the Church means by having a vocation.

    Priests and religious are also saved by being decent but the standard of decency is a bit more rigorous for them because they can’t have sex.

    Sanctity is reserved for the uber-elite: When someone becomes a saint, it is the mysterious result of spiritual genius or an act of God and is not expected of or related to salvation for “ordinary” Catholics (see #1), because God decreed they should be on a different track. Authentic, salt-of-the-earth ordinary Catholics are appropriately humble and know their spiritual place.

    c) There is no “disciple on the way” track. When many Catholics hear the phrase “intentional disciple”, they immediately think of the only known alternative to the “ordinary Catholic” track in their lexicon, which is that of the saint and is supposed to be reserved for the uber-elite. They naturally presume that the aspirant to discipleship is pretending to have been plucked out of the ordinary track by God and is, therefore, an arrogant elitist (see #1 above).

3. Corollary A: Widespread discomfort with “conspicuous conversion” because it violates #1 and #2. Sometimes referred to as “enthusiasm” or “pietism” or “Protestant”.

4. Corollary B: don’t ask, don’t tell because that’s what you do when we are all saved and we’ve all earned it--but none of us are saints because that wouldn’t be humble.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

On Vocation

The world is a mess. It is charged with amazing beauty, but also broken in countless big and little ways. Some are huge, like war and famine, poverty and disease, crime and injustice and environmental degradation. Some are smaller, but may loom even larger because they are closer to home: a friend or neighbor or family member, or even ourselves, battling cancer or mental illness or joblessness or frustration – or despair. And we know such suffering is multiplied many times over in the lives of people all around us, sitting next to us in the pews or walking the street outside.

Where is God in all this? And, perhaps more important, what is God doing about all this?

God has already done something amazing: he has come among us, taken on the human condition in all its limitedness and suffering by actually becoming one of us, a human being like us in every way but one: sin. He taught, and healed, and announced the Kingdom of God. And he drank the cup of suffering, all the brokenness of the world, to the dregs, all the way to the bottom on the Cross. There is no one who can say, anymore, “God doesn’t know what this feels like.” Because He does. He has literally walked in our shoes.

But God has done more than that; he has risen again, triumphed over death itself, and shared his very Life with us in the sacraments of encounter with the risen Jesus that he has given us, so that we need never be alone or unable to face whatever it is we have to face. And he has given us the destiny of sharing forever in that triumphant life with him in Heaven, where every sorrow earth has to offer is answered and healed by unending, limitless joy, haunted by no fears or shadows or shame.

But it doesn’t stop there. God has done even more. He hasn’t just offered us his life, his healing. He hasn’t just promised us Heaven when it is all over. He has commissioned us and sent us into the world in his name, here and now, to continue the work of restoration that he has begun, in all the places where we are. All of creation is to be restored to its original dignity, and he has made us his partners in this great work of redeeming and restoration.

Our vocation is our own personal path to the limitless joy that God offers – a path that will both heal and fulfill us, and make us channels through which God’s healing and restoration will reach the world around us, in ways we may not even be able to imagine. A vocation is a unique work of love to which God calls us, which only we can do. If we say no, if we don’t do it, it won’t get done. Some part of the creation, some people beloved by God will not encounter what God intends to give them without our cooperation. God will not save us without us; he will not save the world without us. Our part matters.

Now, looking within ourselves, we may object that we can’t possibly be the sort of people that God wants to do things. We’re too sinful, too broken, too ignorant, too proud, too fearful, too weak, too unreliable. Like St. Peter, we want to tell him: “Go away, Lord, I am a sinful man.” Like Jeremiah, even when God Himself tells us that we have a special destiny, a particular mission that he has selected for us, we want to plead incompetence and be excused.

But Jesus doesn’t leave Peter there; he tells him not to be afraid. And he tells us, too: don’t be afraid. I am with you. I have equipped you, and you will never face what I send you to without my help.

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