my memories of Archbishop Flynn

Flynn-1I meant to write a post about my experiences with Archbishop Flynn last week, but instead chose to prioritize posting audio from some of his retreat conferences.

And as I began to think about him, I struggled with conflicting emotions, given the circumstances of recent years. I’m not writing today as a journalist but as a friend. I’m not here to point out his shortcomings, still less to explain them away.

Over the years, I told Flynn a number of things about the abuses happening in the seminary. He always listened, but he never offered a word of response and never promised to do anything. He allowed me to be vulnerable in this way, but would never reciprocate.

I love him still, and I love him sorely.

I remember his arrival in the Twin Cities vividly, because I was in my first year of seminary at the time.

As I became acquainted with him personally, and particularly as he served as my spiritual director for two years after I left the seminary, I became more familiar with the warmth of his personality; it was inseparable from his commitment to prayer. The words which G.K. Chesterton once attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi could have come from Archbishop Flynn:

Be not troubled in your thoughts, for you are dear to me, and even among the number who are most dear. You know that you are worthy of my friendship and society; therefore, come to me in confidence whenever you will, and from friendship, learn faith.

Saint Francis of Assisi, as quoted in G.K. Chesterton’s Life of Saint Francis, speaking to a friar struggling between humility and morbidity

His warmth of character and his sense of humor made me comfortable in his presence.

What is the meaning of comfort? How does it come about? Certainly not by reasoning and reckoning. Advice and argument are no comfort: they leave us cold. They leave man alone in his need and suffering. Nothing comes to him from them. But comfort is full of life; it has an immediacy and an intimacy that makes all things new. To comfort, you must love. You must be open and enter into the other’s heart. You must be observant; you must have the free and sensitive heart that finds the paths of life with quiet assurance; you must be able to discover the sore and withered places. You must have the subtlety and strength to penetrate the living center, to the deep source of life that has dried up. The heart must combine with this source of life, must summon it to life again so that it can flow through all the deserts and ruins within.

Monsignor Romano Guardini

He also had a great love for the priesthood, and for the celibate life as Christian witness. His presentation to the seminarians about celibacy was the best thing we received on the subject.

Defining celibacy only as giving up sex is just as unrealistic as seeing marriage [only] as giving up all other women. Neither marriage nor celibacy is liveable without a commitment of love so deep as to cause one to want to give up all else.

Bishop Harry Flynn, “Celibacy: A Way to Love”, Address to the 1990 World Synod of Bishops

He wrote me a good number of letters over the years. A few highlights from the correspondence we shared:

Every once in a while, it is good to step back from our intended paths and give some thought to what we are about…. I am convinced that the unhappiness that seems to pervade in so many hearts in today’s society is because people do not take time to listen to the Lord, and the Lord will always tell us how much he loves us, but he will always keep us on the right path.  (May 13, 1996)

Keep searching for the will of God. Our Lord will let you know what His will for you is, and then have the courage to embrace it.  (May 29, 1997)

I want to impress upon you once again the importance of prayer in your everyday life. Find some time when you can be alone with our Lord. Then ask Him what He wants to do with your life, and then learn to listen for the answer, and you will find it within your own heart…. Our Lord has a plan for you, and eventually that plan will be revealed to you, and you will have the courage to embrace it, and do it, whatever it might be.  (December 23, 1997)

Now the archbishop has moved from one life to the next. From my point-of-view, the transition seems like the fulfillment of the kind of life he lived.

Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we ‘live.’

Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, paragraph 27

May you find the life you so often reminded us to seek, Archbishop Flynn. And may the angels lead you into Paradise.

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn

After learning that Archbishop Flynn had passed away last Sunday, I came across some audiocassette tapes from one of his annual vocation retreats at Villa Maria in Frontenac, Minnesota. I attended in December of 1997.

I’m making his four conferences from that retreat available online on my SoundCloud site.

He was an exceptional man, priest, and retreat director.

May the Angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs greet you at your arrival
and lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem.

May the choir of Angels greet you
and like Lazarus, who once was a poor man,
may you have eternal rest.

In Paradisum

the governance of the seminary (part two)

Is there a spirit of harmony and ecclesial communion among the formation faculty members? Do they show a sincere sentire cum Ecclesia? Do they give a good example of priestly living?

Another million-dollar question, which seems applicable to any Catholic institution of higher learning.

As I look back on my seminary experience, this was perhaps the thing that surprised and saddened me the most. In 1994, when I entered, I was naive, passionate about my faith, and to a large extent unaware of the ways in which acedia, pride and politics could turn the Church into a battleground. I had graduated from Franciscan University of Steubenville a year earlier, which, for all its merits, does not prepare one for the experience of entering a house divided against itself.

I’ve often described the seminary environment as being like the home of a couple contemplating a divorce. One of the spouses is losing patience with the other, and while unready to pack the bags — for all sorts of reasons — remains on the fringes of the relationship in an attitude of resentment, and the children become pawns in a subtextual battle that is played out on every front. To be a seminarian in the community of the seminary was like being a child in a dysfunctional family, with Rome as one parent and the American Catholic Church as the other.

I often wished that the faculty could put aside their agendas when they stepped into the classroom or when they sat down to write an evaluation of the seminarians, but it really seemed beyond the capacity of some of them. I never found myself, to my knowledge, on the receiving end of hostility from the faculty, which I guess indicates that it was possible to avoid conflict by careful diplomacy. Others were less fortunate, receiving written evaluations with reservations because of things such as a desire to receive Communion on the tongue. One faculty member actually took the evaluation of a classmate as an opportunity to launch a visceral attack on the pastor of the seminarian’s home parish. (To his credit, when notified about this, Archbishop Flynn required the faculty member to make an apology to the pastor).

At any rate, when seminarians feel the need to walk on eggshells, one can’t help the impression that the Gospel mandate of charity has been left on the sidelines. During my leave of absence, I wrote the rector of the seminary and gave him a copy of a book by Cardinal Ratzinger which I felt really spoke to the situation: Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today. I thought that an essay at the end of the book, which was a homily delivered by Ratzinger at the seminary in Philadelphia, would be a great centerpiece for a seminary retreat.

sound priestly formation and clear priestly identity

From many points of view, clear priestly identity and sound priestly formation are necessary correlates. (PPF, 10)

Amen, amen, and amen.

celibate today, dating tomorrow

A couple of incidents from my first year of seminary are good illustrations of this statement. I think of my very first meeting with my Teaching Parish supervisor. We went out to lunch to get acquainted. The man who was my supervisor, an associate priest in a suburban parish, made this comment as we drove back to the parish after lunch. “If the Church decided to drop the requirement of priestly celibacy, I would be dating tomorrow.” Not exactly the sort of comment that edifies a new seminarian.

Now, to be fair to the seminary, this guy (who had only been ordained for two years) was not one of the designated Teaching Parish supervisors. I had been assigned to the pastor, but the pastor decided he was too busy for this and delegated the responsibility to the associate. The seminary knew about it, and initially did nothing about it. However, as additional stories came back via some of the “pastoral incidents” (ministerial reflections that seminarians are required to produce about their Teaching Parish experiences), the director of the Teaching Parish program apologized and, after my leave-of-absence from the seminary, offered to assign me to a new Teaching Parish, which was a great improvement.

The point of the story is that this newly-ordained man did not seem well equipped to handle the commitment to celibacy. And, not surprisingly, he left the priesthood a couple of years ago. Without an integral commitment to celibacy, the priestly life is bound to be a pretty unhappy one.

clear about the discipline, but not the motivations

The seminary program that I attended was quite clear about the fact that no change to the Church’s requirement of priestly celibacy should be expected anytime soon. But apparently a number of guys entertained that illusion. And, as I remember it, although we were told not to expect any change in this regard, there was very little in the way of presentations that highlighted the beauty and prophetic witness of celibacy. I clearly remember a rector’s conference about priestly vocations in which we spent more than a half hour examining the statistics about the decreasing number of vocations in the U.S. and about how, with the number of priests reaching retirement age, even with a recent upswing in the number of newly ordained men, the Church would still be facing a growing deficit. After painting this grim picture, the rector gave a brief presentation about priestly celibacy, in which he basically just read the canonical requirement that men in the Latin rite are expected to embrace the discipline of priestly celibacy. Not a word about motivations, not a word of encouragement… just a statement of the facts. And then the conference ended. The only really positive, compelling presentation about priestly celibacy that I remember from my days in seminary — and it was an excellent one — was delivered by Archbishop Harry Flynn himself. His talk was not just a pious, spiritual conference, either… he also talked realistically about the challenges and the various real and legitimate human needs that need to be met to live celibacy well. Part of what made the presentation compelling was the integrity of it — Archbishop Flynn clearly loves his priestly vocation and has a great esteem for priestly celibacy. I wish there had been more presentations — and more witnesses — like this. I’ll discuss this more when I get around to discussing the human and spiritual dimensions of priestly formation.

a temporary call to celibacy?

Another memorable incident from my first year of seminary was a session with my seminary-assigned spiritual director about priestly identity. We were having a discussion about celibacy and vocational discernment. In the course of the conversation, this priest told me that he believed that some men in the priesthood had a temporary vocation (to celibacy). I raised an objection, and his response was something to this effect: “Well, then, how do you explain all of my friends and classmates who got ordained and then later left the priesthood to get married?” I was not prepared to respond to this, and frankly, I was pretty upset. The forum of spiritual direction was not the place, I thought, for the directee to have to make a defense of Church discipline, or to come to the defense of men who had decided to leave the priesthood. Without bringing up the particulars of this incident, I went to the director of the spiritual formation program at the time, asking for a new spiritual director. I simply said that things “weren’t working out” and that I would like to try another director. My request was denied. During a visit with the Archbishop, I mentioned my situation and he advised me that, in addition to seeing the seminary-appointed director, I had his permission to go across the street to see a priest at the college seminary who had been my director before entering SPS. I was grateful to Archbishop Flynn for this allowance. I might have done it on my own, but to have his blessing meant a great deal to me. I didn’t want to treat the formation program in a cavalier way, but sometimes things were so crazy that as a seminarian, I felt required to make a choice between compliance with the seminary’s wishes and acquiring the kind of formation the Church was asking for.

Some might think that I’m simply airing my personal grievances, but that is not my point. My point is that the PPF is making a great observation that sound priestly formation is an important aid to clear priestly identity. Of course, it’s very possible for a man to have a clear priestly identity without sound formation… the number of good, healthy priests coming out of the Saint Paul Seminary over the past ten years are an eloquent testimony to this. But I’m not sure if I would credit the seminary for this phenomenon. Trial by fire is not the only way to grow in a sense of one’s vocation.

why a visitation of US seminaries?

Before diving into the heart of the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for the present visitation of US seminaries, it’s worth examining the introduction to this document, which clears up a few misconceptions that have circulated in the media.

not sex-obsessed
The focus of the visitation is not one-dimensional. It takes a integral look at all the factors that are important to the formation of healthy, well-balanced priests. The introduction to the Instrumentum Laboris reveals that the apostolic visitation is designed to focus on three major areas:

  1. the intellectual formation of seminarians, especially as it relates to fidelity to the Magisterium and the principles of moral theology laid out in John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor
  2. criteria for admission of candidates
  3. the programs of human and spiritual formation aimed at ensuring that candidates can faithfully live chastity for the Kingdom

not a punitive measure
Some in the media have treated the visitation as though it were some kind of Inquisition, but the Instrumentum clearly states that this visitation is being made at the request of the US Cardinals and the President of the USCCB, following a meeting with John Paul II and the Roman Curia in 2002. “The Visit is a service to the American Bishops, and the Holy See offers it to them as a help.” So it’s a bit silly to characterize this process as some kind of punitive measure on the part of Rome against the Church in America.

not an effort by Rome to micro-manage
The tone of the Instrumentum Laboris is realistic and respectful, clearly stating that such a visitation is not The One Answer to improving programs of priestly formation, and underscores the fact that “the primary responsibility for the correct functioning of the US seminaries and houses of priestly formation belongs to the competent Ordinaries, be they Bishops or Major Superiors.” It then quotes from John Paul II’s Pastores Gregis, his apostolic exhortation on the role of the bishop:

each Bishop will show his concern above all by selecting with great care those charged with the training of future priests and by establishing the most suitable and appropriate means of preparing them to exercise their ministry in a setting so fundamental for the life of the Christian community. The Bishop will not fail to visit the seminary frequently, even when particular circumstances have caused him to join other Bishops in making the at times necessary and even preferable choice of an interdiocesan seminary. A genuine personal knowledge of the candidates for the priesthood in his particular Church is indispensable for the Bishop. On the basis of these direct contacts he will ensure that the seminaries form mature and balanced personalities, men capable of establishing sound human and pastoral relationships, knowledgeable in theology, solid in spiritual life, and in love with the Church … When the time comes to confer Holy Orders, each Bishop will carry out the necessary investigation.

From my own experience, I would say that this is a very wise focus. When I entered the seminary in 1994, it was during a time when the ordinary of my archdiocese was very rarely present at the seminary, and for this reason — among others — morale was suffering.

When a new coadjutor was named for the archdiocese, Archbishop Harry Flynn, there was palpable excitement among the seminarians. (The University of Saint Thomas, on the other hand, immediately gave tenure to a good number of the faculty members teaching at the seminary in the spring of 1995. I think UST suspected these individuals would not remain under Flynn’s leadership… individuals such as Sr. M. Christine Athans, BVM, Dr. Thomas J. Fisch, and Sr. Katarina Schuth, OSF, who are still listed as professors emeritus and emerita on the Saint Paul Seminary website, as of October of 2019).

When Flynn became the ordinary, after my first year of seminary, the seminarians were very impressed with the approach of our new archbishop. He was frequently present at seminary events, took time to speak with each seminarian, knew everyone’s name and would remember stories about each of us. During a particular crisis of morale at the seminary, during my first year of formation, he made himself available on the seminary premises for individual appointments with seminarians who wanted to meet with him. All of this was indicative of a man whose heart is clearly that of a pastor, who has a love for the priesthood and the Eucharist, and is committed to the next generation of priests. The rise in the number of strong, healthy priestly vocations in the Twin Cities is due, in no small part, to the efforts of Archbishop Flynn. He is a priest’s priest with the heart of a shepherd. Some would have liked him to move more quickly and aggressively to address problems at the seminary, but he has taken a more measured approach, not firing people but filling vacancies with very well-chosen and well-qualified individuals. His recent choices for the positions of rector (Monsignor Aloysius Callaghan) and vice rector (Fr. Peter Laird) are very positive signs for the future of the Saint Paul Seminary.

In my next post, I will lay out the eleven major areas of formation that the visitation is designed to address.