As some of you might know, I spent the last three months in Rome as a scholar in residence at the Pontifical North American College, writing a book and lecturing to the seminary community there.
One of the reasons that I returned in mid- May was to be in Chicago for the priesthood ordination of a number of men whom I had taught at Mundelein. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older (May 24th marked my 24th anniversary as a priest), but I feel compelled to offer some words of advice to this class of new priests — as if they haven’t already heard enough from me in the classroom!
All priests are shaped by the times in which they come of age. You belong to that generation of priests that follows the greatest crisis in the history of American Catholicism, the Long Lent of the clerical sex-abuse scandal. You are not responsible for this mess, but, fairly or not, you will carry a good portion of its burden. You will experience a scrutiny that previous generations of priests never did.
When I was ordained, a concern of our teachers and spiritual guides was that we would fall prey to clericalism and come to expect privileges and perks from a society that held us in unrealistically high esteem. This will not, I trust, be your problem. My suspicion is that a number of you might even be reluctant to wear your Roman collars publicly, for fear of being mocked or ridiculed. You might be reticent about ministering to young people or even associating with them.
Here’s my advice to you: This is, in fact, your moment, and you should seize it. I can assure you that, from the day of your arrival at the seminary, you were impressive. In the immediate wake of the scandals in 2002, there was great concern among seminary faculty and administrators that numbers would plunge. Who, after all, would want to sign up for a form of life that was regularly subjected to bitter critique and that seemed, in the eyes of many, to be dysfunctional?
And yet you came. No one could possibly accuse you of seeking an easy life or hiding from your problems. Your very presence and perseverance in the seminary constituted, therefore, a vivid sign that God stubbornly, in season and out, calls people to the priesthood. Don’t lose the dedication that brought you to and through the seminary during a remarkably dark time; instead, deepen it, broaden it, strengthen it.
Especially now, be strong and holy priests. Remain focused on prayer, both private and public; live your lives with integrity, realizing that you are a priest both when people can see you and when only God can see you; preach with energy and panache; love your people the way parents love their children. The many institutional changes that the church has made in regard to the protection of children are, obviously, indispensible, but they will never, by themselves, constitute an adequate response to the scandal. What is crucial is the decency of your generation of priests. Don’t think of this as an unfair expectation, but rather as a thrilling opportunity.
Use new media
On a somewhat brighter note, you also belong to the generation that is witnessing an explosion in communications technology. When I was coming of age, cutting edge communications meant telephone, radio and television. I can remember a freshman math class that I followed at Notre Dame in 1977, which included a segment on computers. The professor took us into a capacious room filled with a number of consoles the size of small automobiles. This was “the computer” that we were trained to work on.
The times they have a-changed. We now have the Internet, iPhones, iPods, iPads, pod-casting, YouTube, blogs, e-mail, etc. We can now communicate with an efficiency and range that would have boggled the minds of Billy Graham, Charles Coughlin or Fulton Sheen. Take advantage of all of this; seize it for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus told us to preach to “all the nations,” and Second Vatican Council specified that the primum officium (first duty) of the priest is to proclaim the Word. Today the average parish priest — even without buying radio or television time — has the capacity to get the message out seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and around the world.
You could spend your time criticizing the way these new media have been abused (and there is plenty of ground for that critique), or you could use them pro-actively, sanctifying them for service to the church. So mount a web site, get something on YouTube, start pod-casting your sermons, post advice on Facebook, tweet daily. I realize there is always the danger of superficiality, but Fulton Sheen faced that same danger 50 years ago and met it with enormous intelligence and creativity.
I know that certain people might think me crazy for saying this, but I really believe that now is a great time to be a priest. Some of the holiest saints have emerged during periods much like our own, fraught with difficulties and rich in opportunities. Don’t shrink from any of it, brothers. Ad multos annos!
Barron is the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. For more of his writings visit www.wordonfire.org.