Sunday, July 8, 2018

To Seminarians on the Way to Failure

The Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio 

To Seminarians on the Way to Failure:

Quite often, the passages of scripture that most strike me are those that I might easily pass over without much thought. At first glance, they seem to be a throwaway line or an unimportant detail.  One such line appears in the Gospel for the Mass of 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B).  Since it is a brief passage, I include it in its entirety here:

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.  On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offenseat him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:1-6 NRSV)

The line that most struck me was, "and his disciples followed him."  Of course, that is what disciples do, is it not? And yet, it is striking to me because he was leading them into an apparent failure. When the disciples followed him to Nazareth, they were not aware that it would end in disappointment. What amazes me more is that immediately after this failure, the Lord commissions the Twelve to go out two by two and announce to people that they should repent. He sends them to heal the sick and to cast out demons. One would think that the Lord could have chosen a better time to commission the apostles. Wouldn't it have been better to send them out right after they had witnessed a big success story? 

As I prayed about this passage, the thought occurred to me that I have always felt particularly blessed in my priestly assignments to be sent to places where--for the most part--the Gospel is welcomed, the Church is loved, and where conversions and vocations have flourished. It is very easy to follow the Lord into places such as these. But disciples follow the Lord wherever He goes, and sometimes, He leads us directly into seeming failure.  Of course, there is no better example of this than the Cross itself. Nobody looks at the Crucifix and immediately thinks, "What a great success story." The Cross is a scandal.  The martyrs who followed Christ to their gruesome deaths certainly did not appear to be successful. They looked like utter and complete failures.  This is where the Lord led them.

A few years ago, I read a biography of St. Edmund Campion written by Evelyn Waugh.  Campion was a Jesuit who was sent to Reformation England to provide the Sacraments for the Catholics who were clinging to the Faith. He attended a seminary in Douai (now France) where he was prepared for what was to come. The rector of the seminary there realized that they were forming future priests for a dangerous mission and he wanted them to be ready. He recognized that it was not enough simply to train them like every other priest had been trained before. These seminarians had to know what they were getting into. Ever since reading that, I've wondered (for I do not really know) if our seminarians are being trained for what lies ahead.  In Campion's case, the rector basically wanted these men to know the following: "You will be ordained. You will go to England. If you actually make it there without being arrested, you will be a hunted man from the moment you step foot on English soil. You will bring the Sacraments to Catholics. Eventually, you will be caught. You will be arrested, tortured beyond anything you can imagine, and then you will be executed."

In other words, they were being sent out--in a sense--to fail. As I think about the young men who these days apply to seminary, I realize that what was still around when I was first ordained has quickly dissipated. These men have been chosen by Christ to follow Him into towns where they will be rejected. This will require a lot of Faith on their part. It is so much easier to follow Christ into the towns where the crowds cheer for Him and welcome Him. It is difficult to follow the Lord to the places where He is rejected. 

We live in the shadows of great church buildings that were built at times when the crowds welcomed the Lord with great enthusiasm. Those church buildings now are often empty or converted into condominiums.  All around, the culture is rejecting the truth about God and about morality. If I were to give advice to a seminarian today, I would say that they should be prepared to be rejected and to appear to be a failure. Sure, there are still towns--parishes, colleges, various New Movements--where the Gospel is received with joy and with love. The present trajectory of things, however, suggests that increasingly there will be an ever growing number of places (academia, businesses, courts, etc) where Christ is rejected. 

When things get oppressive, there could be two possible temptations. The first would be toward discouragement. The other would be towards capitulation. Capitulation would be to try and water down the Gospel and its demands in order to make it more palatable to others. If this temptation comes, we should remember that right after Christ was rejected, He sent his apostles out to preach repentance. In other words, fidelity to the Truth of the Gospel is more important than being successful in the eyes of the world. The priest of the future will be ministering to a flock who themselves are experiencing rejection in their families, businesses, and culture. The flock will need to have a shepherd who is willing to lead them into unwelcome pastures.

Discouragement, on the other hand, would be to surrender and consider yourself beaten. "What's the point in preaching Christ if everybody says, 'No' to the message?" This is where the future priest must have a profound relationship with Jesus Crucified, to be conformed to the Mysteries that he celebrates. In those places where the Gospel is preached and rejected, the future priest will have to always have before his eyes the Crucified One who was spurned and rejected. Success in the priesthood will be measured not by statistical successes, but by conformity to Christ. When Christ was rejected, he did not quit. He continued. He continued all the way to the ultimate failure--the Cross. 

Seminary formation today can (and should) teach sound and creative methods of evangelization, but it also needs to place before future priests the possibility that they will be sent out into a largely unwelcoming world that is increasingly antagonistic to the Catholic Faith. They should know that if they remain faithful to Christ, they still might "appear" to fail. This, however, should not disturb them. In fact, it should be their boast. Jesus' mission trip to Nazareth appeared to be almost a complete failure. But the disciples followed Him. We should definitely rejoice when Christ is warmly received, but we should not fear rejection. 

"Follow me." This is the call that every seminarian and priest has heard deep within his heart. This profoundly personal and deeply penetrating invitation of Christ is at the core of our life. For most of us, I think we first heard it as a call to a great adventure, a laying down of life as we once knew it, for some great purpose. But, as we grow in that call, we realize that this "Follow me," is spoken to us from the Cross. "Follow me." "Follow me into the places that you do not want to go. Follow me into the towns that will reject me. Follow me to Calvary." To follow Him in the places where He is warmly welcomed and revered is awesome and encouraging! The invitation to follow Christ to the places where He is rejected, however, is a special sign of his esteem and his love for us and His confidence in us. We need not avoid them nor fear them. He has preceded us and has already secured the Victory. He has conquered. The path to victory is the Way of the Cross.  The path to resurrection always passes through Calvary. 

May the Lord give every priest and seminarian the grace to do that which He first asked of us at the beginning of our vocation: "Follow Me." Our glory (our true success) is to follow Him.

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