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Priestly Renewal and Holy Thursday

I recently preached a parish mission for a priest friend down South. I decided to base my talks on Robert Cardinal Sarah’s book God or Nothing. Going through the book for a second time only increased my appreciation for the spiritual depth of its reflections on the life of the Church and in particular, on the need for believers to truly embrace a life of total dedication to God. Cardinal Sarah speaks with affectionate candor about what he received from the French missionaries who evangelized his native Guinea. They were heroes who joyfully did their duty, day in and day out, in a faraway land, with the fervor and endurance of the Apostles.

I was struck by something he said about his time in the seminary:

When I think back to my seminary years, I remember a large number of rules that helped us to control our instincts. For example, it was positively forbidden to take even the smallest snack outside of meals. In the superiors’ view, someone who could not obey that strict dietary rule did not have a vocation; indeed, he was not capable of controlling one of his natural needs. This discipline of body was essential in the discernment of future priests. I have not forgotten that it was absolutely forbidden to go to the dormitory outside of the hours prescribed by the rule. Our entire days were considered in terms of a discipline of the mind and body. This asceticism was understood as a path of sanctification and an imitation of Jesus.

Rules governing the seminarians’ behavior were strict in the 1950s. After the Second Vatican Council, most seminaries did away with these restrictions in the name of treating the men with a more mature, more adult approach. (I will let the reader decide if that worked out or not.) My experience was that there were few rules such as Cardinal Sarah describes during my time in the seminary in the 1980s. Reading the Cardinal’s recollections, I see the great value of what he describes. Discipline, self-sacrifice, and self-control were instilled by dietary and sleeping rules. The message given was that men training for the priesthood could not truly be “other Christs” for the flock if they did not have mastery over their own lives. The seminarians were called not simply to obey the rules, but to come to understand and to embrace the reason for the rules. The path of holiness is trod one day at a time by those who know they are not perfect and need restrictions in order to be free of mere whim and instinct.

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Renewing priestly promises

Recalling his childhood, Cardinal Sarah describes his reaction to observing the daily prayer life of the French missionaries who converted his family and his village to the Faith:

Every day, the Holy Ghost Fathers lived by the rhythm of the Divine Office, Mass, work, and the rosary, and they never shirked their duties as men of God. As a small child, I told myself that if the Fathers went to church so regularly, it must be because they were certain to encounter someone there and to speak to him with complete confidence. Obviously, my ambition was to be able to encounter Christ, too. When I entered the seminary, I was able to accept the difficulties because of my certainty that one day I would encounter Jesus in prayer, just like the missionaries.

How often do we think about difficulties in life as the means to encountering Christ? What many would now see as arbitrary and even cruel rules governing the daily lives of seminarians in the 1950s were not arbitrary or particularly cruel; they were demanding and even irksome, and intentionally so. The priesthood is a great gift from the Lord, but its proper exercise is hobbled by an undisciplined approach to daily living that makes prayer and work secondary to whatever else one might decide do that day. The casting off of rules is only a seeming liberation when the result is that a priest does not pray enough and does not make sacrifices to be more like Christ in dealing with people. Of course, all of this holds true for the faithful in general. We are all called to holiness in Christ.

On Holy Thursday, priests are invited to renew their priestly promises at the Chrism Mass. The bishop asks them: “Are you resolved to be more united with the Lord Jesus and more closely conformed to him, denying yourselves and confirming those promises about sacred duties towards Christ’s Church which, prompted by love of him, you willingly pledged on the day of your priestly ordination?” The priest is reminded that being united and conformed to Christ is his life, and that his sacred duties demand self-denial prompted by love of Christ. The reality is that none of this will come to fruition unless the priest is properly formed and consistently struggles to respond to his high calling with everything he has. The good news is that it is never too late to start again.

Which brings me back to the subject of food and sleep and all the other instinctive human behaviors. The renewal of the priesthood, of each priest in particular, does not begin without a clear recognition that the arduous effort to put on Christ and live in him is quite humbling and often annoying. Certainly that is why the seminary where Cardinal Sarah was trained taught the young men that a worthy priest is formed by learning calmly to put up with the humiliations and annoyances that gradually form him into a generous servant who more easily denies himself to serve God and his flock.

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Fr. Gerald E. Murray

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City.