As I wrote last week, I have been exceptionally blessed in recent years by the friendship of the faculty and students of the Pontifical North American College in Rome. What follows is the second part of a letter to five deacons of the College as they prepared for priestly ordination last year. I hope it may be of interest to others in this ordination season.
[The first part of my letter, written in response to a request from the deacons’ retreat-master, suggested that holiness is the crucial characteristic of a priest’s life, and that priests should nurture a lifelong interest in theology in order to reintroduce Catholics to the great adventure of Christian truth. The second part of the letter touched on two pastoral issues.]
Preaching. The greatest cross many Catholics today is the burden of Preaching Lite. This impoverishment of the pulpit reflects a general dis-interest in theology among the parish clergy. But it is also based on a false assumption — that people do not want substantive preaching. I recently watched that assumption crumble, right before my eyes.
A Polish Dominican friend was visiting Washington and, with the kind permission of the pastor, celebrated Mass and preached in my parish. My friend’s ten-minute homily — in serviceable but not elegant English — was full of content. He did not give a lecture; he gave a homily. But his ability to weave together the texts of the day (it was the Feast of the Holy Family), an acute analysis of the crisis of the contemporary family, and a reflection on Familiaris Consortio [John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic letter on the family] really had an impact. There was spontaneous applause after he thanked the congregation for their patience with his English at the end of Mass. And the applause (I later discovered, by asking) was not simply politeness to a foreign guest coping with linguistic barriers; it was a heartfelt expression of gratitude for my friend’s having broken open the Word of God in a compelling way.
Be priests for whom preaching is central to your ministry, not a peripheral obligation. As you prepare your homilies, I hope that you will look to the great biblical commentaries and sermons of the early Fathers of the Church. Discovering this treasure-trove in recent years has been a great gift in my own life, and I commend it to you. It’s not old hat. The biblical commentaries of the Church Fathers were one of the riches on which the theology of Vatican II was based. They have edge. And preaching needs edge on it.
You might also consider reviving the custom of preaching on the lives of the saints, which has great evangelical possibilities.
The Kids. Working with young people is almost an automatic part of a newly-ordained priest’s life. Please take it as something more than a rite of passage, to be endured until the next newly-ordained priest relieves you of this responsibility. Re-read the Holy Father’s reflections on youth in Crossing the Threshold of Hope. His great affection for the young, and his great hope in young people, is not romanticism; it was forged by many years of intense pastoral experience in Kraków. Young people want to be called to heroism, and there is no more heroic way to live today than living a Christian life to the full. There is also a generation gap that works to your advantage: young people today do not carry the scars of the ecclesiastical battles of recent years. They are open to meeting Jesus Christ. They are eager to meet Jesus Christ. Help them to do so.
There is undoubtedly much more to be said — about re-reforming the liturgy, about devotion to Our Lady and the saints, about not letting yourself get ensnared in bureaucracy, about the evangelization of the professions and public life. But time is now short, you have much more to consider in these days, and these strike me as the things I most wanted to say to you. I look forward to seeing you in the future, confident that, in the mercy of God, we shall always recognize each others as friends and brothers in Christ.
As always, in the Lord,
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.