Saint John Vianney and the priest today

CureDArsOn the memorial of St. John Mary Vianney, patron saint of priests, I’ve decided to pull a few passages from a letter to priests that was published by Pope Saint John Paul II on Holy Thursday of 1986. In this letter, the Pope reflected on the Curé D’ Ars and the value of his example for priests today.

The depth of his love for Christ and for souls

The Cure of Ars is a model of priestly zeal for all pastors. The secret of his generosity is to be found without doubt in his love for God, lived without limits, in constant response to the love made manifest in Christ crucified. This is where he bases his desire to do everything to save the souls ransomed by Christ at such a great price, and to bring them back to the love of God. Let us recall one of those pithy sayings which he had the knack of uttering: “The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus.” In his sermons and catechesis he continually returned to that love: “O my God, I prefer to die loving you than to live a single instant without loving you… I love you, my divine Savior, because you were crucified for us… because you have me crucified for you.” For the sake of Christ, he seeks to conform himself exactly to the radical demands that Jesus in the Gospels puts before the disciples whom he sends out: prayer, poverty, humility, self-denial, voluntary penance. And, like Christ, he has a love for his flock that leads him to extreme pastoral commitment and self-sacrifice. Rarely has a pastor been so acutely aware of his responsibilities, so consumed by a desire to wrest his people from the sins of their lukewarmness. “O my God, grant me the conversion of my parish: I consent to suffer whatever you wish, for as long as I live.” Dear brother priests, nourished by the Second Vatican Council which has felicitously placed the priest’s consecration within the framework of his pastoral mission, let us join Saint John Mary Vianney and seek the dynamism of our pastoral zeal in the Heart of Jesus, in his love for souls. If we do not draw from the same source, our ministry risks bearing little fruit!

The specific ministry of the priest

Saint John Mary Vianney gives an eloquent answer to certain questionings of the priest’s identity, which have manifested themselves in the course of the last twenty years; in fact it seems that today a more balanced position is being reached. The priest always, and in an unchangeable way, finds the source of his identity in Christ the Priest. It is not the world which determines his status, as though it depended on changing needs or ideas about social roles. The priest is marked with the seal of the Priesthood of Christ, in order to share in his function as the one Mediator and Redeemer. So, because of this fundamental bond, there opens before the priest the immense field of the service of souls, for their salvation in Christ and in the Church. This service must be completely inspired by love of souls in imitation of Christ who gives his life for them. It is God’s wish that all people should be saved, and that none of the little ones should be lost (cf. Mt 18:14). “The priest must always be ready to respond to the needs of souls,” said the Cure of Ars. “He is not for himself, he is for you.” The priest is for the laity: he animates them and supports them in the exercise of the common priesthood of the baptized—so well illustrated by the Second Vatican Council—which consists in their making their lives a spiritual offering, in witnessing to the Christian spirit in the family, in taking charge of the temporal sphere and sharing in the evangelization of their brethren. But the service of the priest belongs to another order. He is ordained to act in the name of Christ the Head, to bring people into the new life made accessible by Christ, to dispense to them the mysteries—the Word, forgiveness, the Bread of Life—to gather them into his body, to help them to form themselves from within, to live and to act according to the saving plan of God. In a word, our identity as priests is manifested in the “creative” exercise of the love for souls communicated by Christ Jesus. Attempts to make the priest more like the laity are damaging to the Church. This does not mean in any way that the priest can remain remote from the human concerns of the laity: he must be very near to them, as John Mary Vianney was, but as a priest, always in a perspective which is that of their salvation and of the progress of the Kingdom of God. He is the witness and the dispenser of a life other than earthly life (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, 3). It is essential to the Church that the identity of the priest be safeguarded, with its vertical dimension. The life and personality of the Cure of Ars are a particularly enlightening and vigorous illustration of this.

His intimate configuration to Christ and his solidarity with sinners

Saint John Mary Vianney did not content himself with the ritual carrying out of the activities of his ministry. It was his heart and his life which he sought to conform to Christ. Prayer was the soul of his life: silent and contemplative prayer, generally in his church at the foot of the tabernacle. Through Christ, his soul opened to the three divine Persons, to whom he would entrust “his poor soul” in his last will and testament. “He kept a constant union with God in the middle of an extremely busy life.” And he did not neglect the office or the rosary. He turned spontaneously to the Virgin. His poverty was extraordinary. He literally stripped himself of everything for the poor. And he shunned honors. Chastity shone in his face. He knew the value of purity in order “to rediscover the source of love which is God.” Obedience to Christ consisted, for John Mary Vianney, in obedience to the Church and especially to the Bishop. This obedience took the form of accepting the heavy charge of being a parish priest, which often frightened him. But the Gospel insists especially on renouncing self, on accepting the Cross. Many were the crosses which presented themselves to the Cure of Ars in the course of his ministry: calumny on the part of the people, being misunderstood by an assistant priest or other confreres, contradictions, and also a mysterious struggle against the powers of hell, and sometimes even the temptation to despair in the midst of spiritual darkness. Nonetheless he did not content himself with just accepting these trials without complaining; he went beyond them by mortification, imposing on himself continual fasts and many other rugged practices in order to “reduce his body to servitude,” as Saint Paul says. But what we must see clearly in this penance, which our age unhappily has little taste for, are his motives: love of God and the conversion of sinners. Thus he asks a discouraged fellow priest: “You have prayed…, you have wept…, but have you fasted, have you kept vigil…?” Here we are close to the warning Jesus gave to the Apostles: “But this kind is cast out only by prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:21). In a word, John Mary Vianney sanctified himself so as to be more able to sanctify others. Of course, conversion remains the secret of hearts, which are free in their actions, and the secret of God’s grace. By his ministry, the priest can only enlighten people, guide them in the internal forum and give them the sacraments. The sacraments are of course actions of Christ, and their effectiveness is not diminished by the imperfection or unworthiness of the minister. But the results depend also on the dispositions of those who receive them, and these are greatly assisted by the personal holiness of the priest, by his perceptible witness, as also by the mysterious exchange of merits in the Communion of Saints. Saint Paul said: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24). John Mary Vianney in a sense wished to force God to grant these graces of conversion, not only by his prayer but by the sacrifice of his whole life. He wished to love God for those who did not love him, and even to do the penance which they would not do. He was truly a pastor completely at one with his sinful people. Dear brother priests, let us not be afraid of this very personal commitment—marked by asceticism and inspired by love—which God asks of us for the proper exercise of our Priesthood. Let us remember the recent reflections of the Synodal Fathers: “It seems to us that in the difficulties of today God wishes to teach us more deeply the value, importance and central place of the Cross of Jesus Christ.” In the priest, Christ relives his Passion, for the sake of souls. Let us give thanks to God who thus permits us to share in the Redemption, in our hearts and in our flesh! For all these reasons, Saint John Mary Vianney never ceases to be a witness, ever living, ever relevant, to the truth about the priestly vocation and service. We recall the convincing way in which he spoke of the greatness of the priest and of the absolute need for him. Those who are already priests, those who are preparing for the Priesthood and those who will be called to it must fix their eyes on his example and follow it. The faithful too will more clearly grasp, thanks to him, the mystery of the Priesthood of their priests. No, the figure of the Cure of Ars does not fade.

(from the Letter of Pope John Paul II To All the Priests of the Church for Holy Thursday 1986)

See also:

Letter of Pope Benedict XVI Proclaiming a Year for Priests – June 16, 2009

Encyclical Letter of Pope John XXIII on Saint John Vianney – August 1, 1959

a groovy day in my spiritual life

On July 26, 1970, at the church of Saint John the Baptist in Excelsior, Minnesota, the Rev. Vincent O’Connor poured water over my forehead and baptized me in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

I’ve decided to make a point of celebrating the anniversary of my baptism. I guess Pope John Paul II thought this sort of thing was a good idea, as did a fourth-century saint:

We should celebrate the day of our baptism as we do our birthday! All Christians should reflect on the meaning and importance of their own baptism. – John Paul II, 1/12/1997

The first Christians had great spiritual celebrations on the anniversary of their baptism, which was the day of their dedication, the day on which they were consecrated to God. They took no notice of their birthday, for at birth we are not children of God, but rather children of Adam. So they celebrated the day on which they were made children of God, the day of their baptism. – Saint Caesarius of Arles (470-543 AD)

My mom is amazing. I’m the youngest of ten kids, and somehow she saved a box of various items from my baptism! I was digging through my books the other day and stumbled across all of this memorabilia… baptismal cards printed for the occasion; cards from godparents, family and friends; a telegram from my uncle; a burlap banner, complete with bright orange and green felt letters proclaiming a groovy Gospel message; a family Christmas card that was created after the event… My parents had the event filmed on Super 8 film and recorded on audio tape as well.

I have the script my parents wrote for the occasion (that’s right, they scripted the liturgy)… apparently it involved most of my nine brothers and sisters. And I have been given to understand that Fr. O’Connor played guitar during the celebration.

It was a tandem baptism, shared with good friends of our family, the Regans. Bobby Regan and I were both born around the same time, so the families decided to celebrate the baptisms together.

I was particularly moved by some of the notes I found among the archives:

from my godparents:
Dearest little Clayton,
We are so happy to be your godparents, and through you to reaffirm that we’ll go “one more round, mankind.” Your parents are beauties and you are blessed as they are blessed. Much love, Gordy & Grace

May he grow in wisdom, grace and age and be worthy of his earthly and heavenly family. Bob and Helen

from one of my aunts:
Dear Mary, Jim and children:
Thank you for a very wonderful day. It was an insight to generous, selfless, meaningful Christian lives. Gratefully, Pat and Gen

from a friend of the family:
Dear Mary and Jim,
Clayton has really come into a beautiful and loving Christian fellowship. He is a very lucky young man to have been received so well into his new community. John and I felt it an honor to be a part of your special day. Thank you for all the “giving” you have sent our way. Love in your family! Cynthia O’Halloran

and then the telegram from my uncle:

Stumbling across all of this is quite humbling. It’s hard to know how to express gratitude for such a great gift, given to me even before there was any way of responding. It reminds me of the very gratuity of God, the great economist of the heart… who doesn’t measure, or wait for any kind of response.

In his Letter to Families, John Paul II wrote profound things about the family as the lasting “horizon of one’s existence” and the relationship between human life and life in God:

It is for themselves that married couples want children; in children they see the crowning of their own love for each other. They want children for the family, as a priceless gift. This is quite understandable. Nonetheless, in conjugal love and in paternal and maternal love we should find inscribed the same truth about man which the Council expressed in a clear and concise way in its statement that God “willed man for his own sake.” It is thus necessary that the will of the parents should be in harmony with the will of God. They must want the new human creature in the same way as the Creator wants him: “for himself.” Our human will is always and inevitably subject to the law of time and change. The divine will, on the other hand, is eternal. As we read in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (Jer 1:5). The geneaology of the person is thus united with the eternity of God, and only then with human fatherhood and motherhood, which are realized in time. At the moment of conception itself, man is already destined to eternity in God.Letter to Families, paragraph 9

All I can say is that I am very grateful for my parents. It would have been easy for them to have seen a tenth child simply as a burden or another mouth to feed. But instead they chose to see it as an occasion of joy and hope, and left all of these reminders behind for me to discover later.

So here’s to forty-nine years of life in my earthly family, and in the family of the Trinity!

marriage and the possibilities of human love

This week, while sitting in a bakery, I picked up the June 30 edition of the Minneapolis StarTribune and read this sobering headline:

Weddings a less religious affair: Church weddings are now a minority, as Minnesota couples choose convenience over tradition

The cultural shift described by the article is very dramatic:

Religious institutions hosted only 22% of weddings in 2017, according to a survey by the Knot, a leading wedding news website. That’s a swift decline from the 41% in 2009.

Barns, ranches and banquet halls are among the top beneficiaries of the shift.

Catholic churches have been particularly hard hit. The number of weddings nationwide plunged from 326,000 in 1990 to 143,000 in 2018 — despite an increase in the Catholic population. In Minnesota, there are half as many Catholic church weddings today, with 3,100 last year, as in 1990.

In just ten years, the number of marriages performed by religious institutions has dropped by 50%.

And then this story of how it is playing out:

Even some couples whose first choice is a church ceremony often change their minds because of requirements. Raised Catholic, Emily and Joe Beckers expected to be married in a Catholic church. But the Maplewood couple was put off by the marriage preparation classes, which seemed too “faith based,” and the required weekend retreat with other couples. They also wanted a personalized wedding ceremony and worried that couldn’t happen.

There was even a bigger hurdle. Joe Beckers was divorced, and for the marriage to be recognized in the church, he would need to get an annulment of his first marriage.

The wedding plans shifted gears, and they ended up at Embassy Suites in St. Paul.

Said Emily Beckers: “We were able to tailor every detail to our relationship.”

God, the sacraments, and the church are fading in the minds of young couples. No longer are these things considered important to the success or vitality of their relationship. What matters more is the ability to make the ceremony a triumph of self-expression. Is it any wonder that marriages fail so often? They are little more than houses built on sand.

Pope Saint John Paul II was prophetic in his sense about the direction that marriage was headed with young people. He describes the dynamic delicately and profoundly in his play about the sacrament of marriage. One of the characters in the drama is an old jeweler, a man who prepares the rings for young couples. He represents the priest, the witness of the sacrament and the one who, in the person of Christ, offers the blessing on behalf of the Church.

CHRISTOPHER
When we took the rings I felt your hand trembling….
We forgot to pay attention to the face of that old man,
whom Mother told me about: his eyes are said to be very expressive.
It is not our fault that we read nothing
in his eyes; and he said little — things we knew anyway.
So do not be surprised, Mother, that his words left no trace
(things we knew anyway — we did not sense greatness),
and Monica’s trembling hands told me much more.
I was engrossed in her being moved, and in my own
experience of her being moved, which I shared fully
— and I saw us two deep down in our experience:
I think I love her very much.

MONICA
We were taken up with each other — how could we tear ourselves away…
He did nothing to fascinate us…
he simply measured, first, the circumference of our fingers, then of the rings,
as an ordinary craftsman would. There was no artistry in it even.
He did not bring us closer to anything. All the beauty remained
in our own feeling. He did not widen or narrow anything
…I was absorbed by my love — and by nothing else, it seems.

TERESA
This frightened me, however… Does the old jeweler not act anymore with the force of his eyes and his word? Or is it that those two are unable to feel that force, hidden in his look and his speech. Is it that they are different?…
What are you building, children? What cohesion
are these feelings of yours going to have beyond the old jeweler’s message
of which the vertical axis cuts across
every marriage in this world?

The Jeweler’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla

Clearly the Church has its work cut out for it if it hopes to be given the opportunity to assist young couples in preparing well for marriage in any kind of meaningful way… leading them beyond the fantasy and the sentimentality, toward the bedrock of a love that pours itself out selflessly on behalf of the beloved.

For more about the play The Jeweler’s Shop, click here.

Sister Miriam of the Lamb (Rosalind Moss) on the Eucharist and the Mass

On Saturday, January 12, 2008, Rosalind Moss (now Mother Miriam, OSB), spoke to the participants of the RCIA Hollywood program. She shared about her journey as a Jewish woman into the Catholic faith, and, in particular, about her discovery about the meaning of the Mass and the Eucharist.

Teaser:

“I’m Jewish. And I’m Catholic, because I believe that Jesus Christ… is the Jewish Messiah; in fact, he’s God. And He came to earth, and He died for our sins, and He rose to give us life, and He established a church, and it’s the Catholic Church, so I’m in it. And so the most Jewish thing a person can do is to be Catholic.”