I. Introduction: Msgr. Rohlfs’ First Rector’s Conference
Many years ago, I and another seminarian were driving from the Mount down to Washington. While we were on I-270 we began to discuss what the future would be like. We wondered what kind of parish we would be assigned to, how we would get along with our fellow priests, and how we would find our way in a Church that seemed to be so very divided. It wasn’t that we were unenthusiastic about becoming priests – quite the contrary – but we also knew that every day wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. To put it more properly, we knew we’d face challenges in our service as priests in a world that was growing more and more secular and even hostile to religion.
Along the way, my fellow seminarian made this startling comment: “You know,” he said to me, “the clerical culture is dying.” “Oh,” I anxiously asked him, “what do you mean?” “Well,” he said, “the priesthood is not as gentlemanly as used to be.” And he went on to speak perceptively about how rectory life and relationships among priests were changing, and how the position of the priesthood in Church and society was also changing. “It won’t be particularly comfortable,” he said, “but eventually there will be better priests because of this.”
My companion who spoke so prophetically was Steven P. Rohlfs. It was the prototype of his future Rector’s Conferences and I was the only seminarian present to hear it.
II. I Have Come to Light a Fire
As it turns out, his words were indeed prophetic and I recalled that conversation as I reflected on today’s Scripture readings. The Word of God doesn’t promise us a comfortable, cushy future. Instead, it throws down the gauntlet.
For example, we would readily agree that priests should preach prophetically – that they should bear witness to the Gospel and the teaching of Church wholeheartedly by both word and example – and not water down what the Church’s teaching for the sake of popularity. But today we have fair warning. The prophet Jeremiah bore witness to God’s revealed truth, and for his trouble he was thrown in a cistern. Come to think of it, all the prophets had to suffer for speaking God’s truth. Bearing witness to Christ’s truth will regularly take you beyond your comfort zone.
The reading from Hebrews also upbraids us in our comfort. Just when we might be tempted to get comfortable in our sins, we are told “to cast off every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of our faith.” This reading stresses not comfort but our need for integrity and endurance by reminding us of how Jesus endured the Cross & the opposition of sinners. For anyone who wants to bear witness to Christ, endurance and victory in the struggle against sin are essential.
And then, in the Gospel, Jesus tells us that he has come to light a fire, that he came to be engulfed in the baptism of his Cross, a prospect that caused even the Incarnate Son of God to experience anguish. Jesus came to bring upon the earth the fire of divine love, a fire that purifies us of our sins, refines our virtues, and inflames our hearts with that love which surpasses every other love. Even so, Jesus’ witness to his Father’s love caused division; so will it be for us. People often tend to be divided when it comes to the great questions of the day. But the greatest question any person, family, or society can confront is: Will we follow Jesus Christ? Is he the truly “the way, the truth, and the life?” Many no longer accept Christ or any form of religious faith; sadly, the faith of many Catholics has grown cold, and society itself no longer makes much room for religious and religious values… As a result, evangelizing, bearing witness to the Gospel, is not for the faint of heart. Not everyone will greet your message as words of spirit and life!
III. Application to Seminarians at the Beginning of a New Academic Year
Now, this might seem like a pretty stark message to get the new year rolling, is it a way of scaring the new men and discouraging those of you who have returned? It’s not my intention to do either. Think of it this way. If it were your first day at West Point or Annapolis, you would be mighty surprised if the first lesson consisted of tips on how to get along in the Officers’ Club. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important, very important, to relate well, very well, to relate with those around us. But the first message in a military academy is all about integrity, endurance, a true camaraderie for the sake of winning the battle. You have enlisted to be leaders in the most decisive battle of all – the battle of life over death, good over evil, truth over error … a battle not just with historic consequences but eternal consequences. The integrity, endurance, and true camaraderie recommended in today’s readings seem tailor made for the beginning of a new seminary academic year.
And here’s something else. Pope Francis has been saying a lot of things about spreading the Gospel. He famously told us that the Church should not be “self-referential” – i.e., so caught up in its own internal debates and problems that it fails to go out into the world to light the fire of Christ’s love. He also decries clericalism and clerical ambition on many occasions, often enough that all of us get the idea he’s talking to us personally. We may not like to hear this but he’s doing us a favor. Priests hung up on getting recognized have a hard time helping others recognize Jesus. Clericalism is essentially self-referential. Healthy priestly friendships and camaraderie, good fruit from our priestly work – those things focus single-heartedly on the Church’s mission. The Pope also told us shepherds, bishops and priests, that we need to smell like our sheep. (Well, I certainly hope that my sheep use good cologne!) His point is that we need truly to know our people, to listen to them and love them, to walk with them in their daily journey … so that we can have the relationship and the credibility needed to impart the Gospel to them, to light in their hearts the fire of God’s love, and to give them reasons for their hope in Jesus Christ. This too is a big part of your formation – to ensure that your personality is ‘a bridge and not an obstacle to Christ.’
So, as this new year of formation and study begins, I urge you, as I must daily urge myself, to focus on the mission – the mission of spreading the Gospel like a wildfire. Heed the call of Pope Francis to be missionaries without borders, especially those limits we place on the Lord’s grace by giving too much attention to ourselves. See this time of formation as a time of grace when you can become equipped to become the priests the Church needs as she engages in the New Evangelization.
I entrust you and this new academic year to Mary, the Star of the New Evangelization. May her example, her prayers, and her maternal love accompany you every step of the way in the year ahead. May God bless you and keep you in his love.