Preparing for the Synod on the Laity

Most deeply, the vocation of the laity in coming decades will be what it has always been: to evangelize the world. That truth may seem too obvious to mention, but it was missed in a recent survey taken to prepare for a coming synod in a large Midwestern diocese. On the list of concerns of the laity, the apostolic mission of the Church came in a poor last. One wonders if some other truths that seem too obvious to mention might not also have been forgotten. Chief among these is the specific way in which we are called to evangelize the world, by submitting to the heart transplant mentioned by Jeremiah: “I will take away their hearts of stone and give them natural hearts.” Our stony, unloving, self-centered hearts are artifacts of our own making. The hearts that truly belong to us are warm with generous self- abandon, hearts that love as Jesus did. Our ongoing need for such heart transplants (the metaphor is not too strong) must be the basis of all our thinking about the vocation of the laity.

That vocation has some special difficulties in our time and place. The conversion from selfishness to love is a profoundly counter-cultural move. For a selfish, individualistic pursuit of happiness, defined by each free individual as he or she sees fit, is central to all the habits of our hearts. It is not just a fringe benefit of our secular culture. It is the central, defining American concern, the goal of life. A contemporary American who wishes to love as Jesus did will thus find himself in direct clash with the central value of his secular culture. We face no small challenge in our call to be in the world but not of it.

Again most deeply, the route to our conversion in coming decades must also be what it has always been: a joyous and enthusiastic participation in the sacramental life of the Church. As we live out the life initiated in us at our baptism, as we cherish the ongoing, confirming presence of the Holy Spirit, as we celebrate and nourish that Presence in the Eucharist, as we heal sin and its lingering effects in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as we give ourselves over to the sexual intimacy of our marriages, we find ourselves gradually and profoundly converted. We move, slowly but surely, from a smug lack of awareness to a dawning realization of our ongoing need to be converted so that we might live. The amazing result is what St. Augustine so aptly referred to as “widening the circle of love.” As we love others, we bind them to us, thus building the Church. More deeply, we seduce them into loving also. And then the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper begins to come true: “With me in them and you in me, may they be so completely one that the world will realize that it was you who sent me and that I have loved them as much as you loved me” (John 17:23).

It is impossible to think about the vocation of the laity without also thinking about the vocation of priests. Despite the rosy presentation of the Vatican report in the media, it is no secret that the priesthood in our country is in serious disarray. I refer not to the shortage of priests, which is a blessing in disguise, but to the tragic characteristics that mark many of the young men moving, unchanged, from seminaries into ordained life. There is a notorious morale problem, especially among more recently ordained priests. One religious leader described it as “a certain psychological fragility,” by which he meant the inability to sustain commitments, to live peaceably with more senior priests, to counsel adults. Too many priests want to be youth ministers. They see no point in saying Mass every day. Their rate of alcohol and drug abuse is high. Their attitude is epitomized by one young priest who came before his diocesan personnel board to discuss his first assignment. He had to know whether the parish that he was asked to serve was located near a service garage for his foreign car.

A seminary student, commenting on the characteristics of the young men entering seminaries these days, confirmed what his rector had already said in public: “We assume that our candidates are no different from other young men of their society.” In the student’s words, “We are older than seminarians used to be — middle twenties. And so, we are pretty well set in our ways. We are looking for personal self-fulfillment in a priestly career, and come to the seminary to acquire the necessary job skills.” A master of novices in a large and well-known religious order seconded the motion. “Yes,” he agreed, “it’s much the same with us. Our novices say, in effect, ‘Look, I like me just the way I am. Don’t try to change me; just teach me what I need to know in order to succeed in my chosen career.’”One psychologist who screens candidates for a seminary believes that it is not possible for young men to resist the values of their culture, and that a conversion from narcissism to altruism would be masochistic, and hence not to be recommended.

I am not telling isolated horror-stories. When I repeated the seminarian’s remarks to a priest who travels the country giving priests’ retreats and renewal workshops, he exclaimed, “That young man’s words ought to be bottled and put on the market. He knows exactly what is going on in seminaries across the country.” The problem is not just that entering students are so deeply enculturated. More importantly, spiritual formation programs accept and even reinforce the individualism and careerism that are at the heart of our secular culture. I asked the seminarian what sort of spiritual direction he is being trained to give later on to his people. His reply: “Values-clarification and non-directive counseling. Our spiritual formation program is not based on a conversion model; it is based on a self-fulfillment model.”

Similar attitudes are common among university students as well as my own teen-aged children and their friends and the adolescent children of my peers — all of them products of Catholic schools and homes. We seem to have a whole generation of young people, formed by post- Vatican II religious education, to whom the very notions of conversion and sacrament are foreign. The worst among them are just like their secular counterparts: consumerist, materialistic, individualistic, self-absorbed. They seek the kind of self-fulfillment that Paul Vitz has so aptly laid at the door of some modern psychologists: the cult of self- worship. The better ones are committed to the liberal social agenda — to nuclear weapons control, to the relief of the poor, to the freeing of the oppressed. But even they find the Eucharist a meaningless ritual, and Reconciliation an outdated trip to the land of false guilt. They seem to be as secular in their motives as are their money-grubbing peers.

If we could ask one thing of our bishops, then, at the upcoming synod on the laity, it would be the renewal of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a renewal so deep and so broad that it will require fundamental reform in the spiritual formation programs of seminaries across the country. I have no reading on the frequency with which priests go to confession these days, but would be very surprised if their use (or disuse) of that sacrament were any different from that of lay people. That great sacrament has just quietly slipped away during the last twenty years. We do well, of course, to give up the mechanical, “laundry list” confessions and the burdens of false guilt. But a baby has been thrown out with that bath water — the baby of conversion, of the healing of our true guilt, of recognizing and then repenting of our deeply ingrained selfishness. The selfishness from which we need to be converted is so deep and so devious that we cannot see it in and for ourselves. Only an honest and sensitive confessor, met in frequent conscience-to-conscience dialogue, can lead us to its healing. Priests can see it in us, and reveal it to us, when they have first been led to see it in themselves, and have begun to repent. They can lead the rest of us along the path of conversion and healing because they are a little further along on that path themselves. Such men are sacramental persons. They are the sacrament of Holy Orders.

The difference between priests and laymen on this score is not just one of role and function. (It is noteworthy that many seminaries have recently become schools of pastoral ministry.) Priesthood is a sacrament, not a function. In understanding this simple truth, we can learn from the modern psychology of symbolism, especially that part that sees symbolic thinking as the mark of mental and emotional health and maturity. A priest is meant to be, in the depths of his person, a symbol of the inner life of the Trinity. In the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit love each other with perfectly ecstatic self-abandon. A priest, then, is pre-eminently a lover, one who enables us to believe in God’s love by his own love for us. Such priestly love can be most luminously evident in the Sacrament of Reconciliation when a priest, with the honesty and sensitivity, with the courage and patience of a lover, leads his people to repentance. But as a sacrament, he is not just a symbol. Sacraments effectively cause what they symbolize. They bring us into the Love that they symbolize, and bring that Love into us. That divine Love is incarnate in sacramental priests in the Sacrament of Reconciliation as they love their penitents. But priests don’t just show us how to love. They certainly do that. But they also effectively enable us to love, by freeing us from sin and bringing into our hearts the healing love of our Triune God, through the instrumentality of their own healed, and healing, love.

In sacraments, though, everything depends on the ac-curacy of the symbolism. Sacramental people have the power to cause divine love only when they correctly reflect it in their own loving. And so, if confessors are going to enable us to love as Jesus did, they must love that way themselves — and do so in a noticeable and attractive way. Seminary formation must, then, above all, teach men how to love. Their love will require a change of heart so deep, and so constant, that our best human efforts could not begin to bring it about. It needs divine healing. Not all the values clarification in the world, nor all the counseling, non- directive or otherwise, nor even the best psychotherapy available will serve. Valuable as these can be, they cannot touch the deepest stoniness that blocks our power to love. And so, the priests who must incarnate the love of God for the rest of us must themselves be far along in the process of conversion. They must be penitents themselves, and so confessors to each other. Wounded healers they will always be, but also healers who are in the process of being healed.

Implications for seminary formation are clear enough. It is one thing to accept young men into our seminaries whose attitudes are secular to the core, leave them as they are, ordain them as they are, and then wonder why we have so few priests and why those few are so psychologically fragile. But it is quite another thing to take them as they are and offer them four or five years of intensive sacramental healing, the healing we all need, the healing that reaches to the deep selfishness that makes us all so susceptible to the values of our secular culture in the first place. If, as the aforementioned master of novices said, we must accept careerist individualists into the priesthood because we wouldn’t have any priests at all if we didn’t, perhaps it’s time to think that we might be better off with none. Perhaps we should thank God that we don’t have more priests than we do, if the only ones we can have are those who put their foreign cars ahead of their people’s healing.

Indeed, as long as the notion of sacrament, especially of priests as sacramental persons, remains lost to our young men and to those who form them in the seminaries, our present confusion about requirements for ordination will continue as well. If priests are mere functionaries, i.e. ministers, and not sacramental persons, then what they are as persons doesn’t really matter. Then, why not married priests and women priests? Why not, for that matter, divorced priests, laicized priests, homosexual, bisexual, asexual priests? As long as one can perform the functions, one can be a priest. But if priesthood is a sacrament, something that one is and not just what one does, then what one is in the depths of his person matters very much indeed. If a priest causes the healing grace of Christ the Bridegroom to enter our hearts, by reproducing that very same love in his own heart, then the state of his heart is all-important.

There are, as there always have been, priests who are emotionally whole and who understand — and live — the paradox of Christian self-fulfillment, that we lose our lives in order to find them. Such men know how to love, and do it. They understand celibacy, too, as well as marital sexual intimacy. They can counsel adults. They can live peaceably with older — and younger — priests. They find daily Mass an awesome privilege, and are often overcome with a sense of the reality of what it is that they do. They welcome us to repentance of our deep and unrecognized selfishness. They enable us to love, and so to evangelize the world.

In short, there are now, as there always have been, priests who love as Jesus did. They lead us lay people into the healing sacramental life of the Church, because that is where they live. This writer has been blessed with the pastoral care of a whole series of such priests, both diocesan and religious, over a period of forty years.

May their tribe increase. And meanwhile, no substitutes, please.


  • Mary F. Rousseau

    Mary Rousseau taught philosophy at Marquette University and was a member of our Editorial Board. She passed away in 2012.

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