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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

The Roman Catholic Priesthood in San Francisco

God is unveiling the noble greatness of the Roman Catholic Priesthood in the Archdiocese of San Francisco - a local Church on the very periphery of the Pacific Rim, and at the same time, a cultural and technological crossroads for the world. Last August, I began at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University as Academic Dean. Each day begins in the silence of our chapel. In these moments of prayer, those rich paradoxes of human misery and Divine Mercy at work in this community of faith sometimes disclose themselves in ways that baptize me in wonder.

Although it appears that fewer men are pursuing the priesthood, there really has never been a shortage in vocations. On the contrary, there are always men who are willing to embrace a lifetime of celibacy for the sake of this noble calling, even in the lowest moments of history and culture. Still, if God always gives plenty of vocations to the priesthood and there seems to be a crisis in the priesthood, believers need to consider how we have been reckless about God’s goodness to us. This is of great importance: for how we treat the gift, we treat the Giver. We must find ways to protect and promote this powerful gift -- for the gift of the ministerial priesthood is the source of life in the Church and a sign of hope for the world.

Through the years, my work in seminary education has allowed me to meet some of the most remarkable people, at some of the most outstanding seminaries in the United States. In regards to the seminarians themselves, it would have been easier for these men to follow a conventional career path and, indeed, many excelled in the ways of the world - for the world never expects very much from young men. Yet God expects much, and this is what draws them. To respond to His call is always to step into a pathway of greatness - for He is great and they proceed convinced, on some level, that we who are in His image are fashioned for magnificent purpose.

Just as did Abraham and the prophets, these men stepped forward to be counted in the arena of life when others fled through portals of indulgence. Those seeking to hide their timidity accuse them of temerity. Those unwilling to serve deem them gullible idealists. Feeling called by the Lord, they made a radical decision to take time out of their lives to listen more closely to His voice. Something in their hearts has moved them to seek something more. This is what makes them remarkable, marked by a certain courage that is not afraid of what peers think or society judges, but charged instead with some singular conviction that boldly goes beyond convention into the uncomfortable regions of God’s love.

The most mature and gifted among them do not see themselves as heroes, but only as broken men loved by God, desiring to make some kind of return to Him for His goodness. Yet, I feel honored to be in their company and to accompany them a little while on their journey. Whether in Denver, Los Angeles or San Francisco, the witness of the seminarians whom the Lord sends has never failed to lift me up and has helped me glimpse the utter goodness of God. They do not come as finished products, and they constantly face difficult trials and disappointments. Sometimes, they go through dark periods where nothing makes sense. Yet, more often than not, those who persevere also encounter the Lord, and gain a wisdom and confidence that nothing in this world can take away. When priestly formation is successful, those who are enriched by such encounters with the Lord become His fiery icons in many cold dark places that need both light and warmth.

The various seminaries that I have served are also to be recognized for their faculties -- men and women of inspiring character, prayerful discipline and profound insight into the most difficult questions confronting humanity and the Church. Many have been my closest friends, and their spirit of sacrifice and service have provided important examples for me of what faithfulness to the Lord ought to be. Theirs is a hidden vocation: seminary professors fight many difficult battles to protect the integrity of the faith and the moral character of those entrusted to them. Their stories are often untold and remain only in the memories of their students, yet heroic sacrifices are not the less admirable for remaining unsung.

In a few cases, I am quite certain that God has permitted me to work with true saints both among faculty and seminarians. This is true of the seminarians and faculty at St Patrick's. As an institution, it has seen its fair share of tragedies and disappointments in recent years. Last year, Dr. Karen Chan, a wife, mother of young children, a very gifted scholar and an academic dean who served the seminary with maternal force and dedication, was tragically killed in a car accident. Only a few weeks later, the rector, Bishop Robert Christian, a beloved son of San Francisco, would suffer a heart attack and also die. In the face of this sorrow, the faculty and the seminarians have come together in an authentic communion of faith and understanding. A profound mutual concern and desire to build up and renew priestly formation is at work among us -- the Holy Spirit is doing something new and powerful in our midst, and signs of hope shine out in all kinds of small gestures and acts of kindness.

I write all of this because of the sometimes severe criticism that seminaries receive at almost every corner. The sting of abominable crimes and catastrophic failures in leadership has spurned blame, pointing fingers, harsh judgments and accusations. The temptation to deflect or lash out is always present, yet faith in our Crucified God demands meekness that goes against the cycles of dysfunction otherwise un-resisted. Indeed, the admonishments offered to seminaries can be a gift. Few rebuke seminaries as institutions in themselves. Most, instead, condemn failures to uphold the demands of the Gospel of Christ in institutions that were founded for no other purpose. Standards of accreditation in higher education are easier to embrace than is the standard of the Cross. At least for me, some criticism actually occasions insight into how much conversion I still need if I am ever to serve the faculty and seminarians in those ways that they not only deserve, but indeed, need today.

What conversion? A return to the dignity of the priesthood. Many blame seminaries for problems in the Church, and this is partly not without cause. Although John Paul II called for a reform of seminary life and many important efforts were made, the deep fundamental conversion of institutions and personal lives have rarely been embraced as they should. Too often we relied on programs more than we relied on God, correcting only external behaviors when a radical change of heart was needed. In so doing, we lost our way and need to come back to our senses. Somehow in the midst of the brokenness that is so pronounced today, we must return to the love of God the Father revealed in Christ Jesus -- a love inseparably implicated in our misery and unveiled in Holy Orders. The dignity of the priesthood comes from this merciful love, and any correction or rebuke is useful insofar as it helps us recover this dignity.

Conversion to the love of the Father is all about addressing our ignorance of vital sources of humanity. How can we ever know the Father's love if we despise fatherhood as much as we do in our culture? A love for the Father that ought to be in our hearts is not there -- and this is an abyss of misery for the modern person. Without this love, we forget the tender greatness that ought to characterize the way we relate one to another. The capacity to listen, to accept the initiative of another, to surrender with trust, all of this is robbed us, and so we regard paternal authority with suspicion, ready to condemn and accuse win when we glimpse the tiniest speck from our plank filled perspectives.

If there is no other figure as mocked or derided as is the family man, anti-religious cultural forces have unleashed torrents of bigotry against the priesthood too. The connection is that a heartless humanity cannot deal with fathers or men with any other kind of legitimate authority, and so disassociates, rejects and despises any figure who might unveil those primordial memories of humanity’s noble greatness. Together with this hatred of paternity, secular fanaticism has swayed most of America to regard celibate men - or any other kind of chaste male - as sociopaths. Roman Catholic Priests, spiritual fathers that they are, are objects of this social hostility and subjected to humiliations not unlike those of the Master whom they serve. The result? Victims of our mercilessness, twisted in hellish irony, we render the tenderness of a mother's womb unsafe for the most vulnerable while shamelessly shaming the infirmed and aged into suicide, all the while bloviating clichés about dignity and personal choice.

A rediscovery of the vital role of integrity, courage and fatherhood for human thriving is needed if we are to restore the sense of dignity that belongs to the priestly vocation. Conversely, as priestly dignity is restored, our own identity, courage and integrity just may find some healing. Yes, there is a sense of identity that only a father can give, and hostile to a father's love, we have forgotten the truth about ourselves. We are not the sum total of our failures and evil does not define what is most true about humanity even in our current context. Rather, we come from love and are made for a love that not even death can diminish. This is why Christ died for us and every Catholic priest is ordained so that the love of God the Father revealed by Christ might be made present again in our midst.

To work for the dignity of the priesthood is to believe that a spiritual space for tender graciousness with one another can be restored. There are challenges to this work. While the commendable efforts of many seminary faculties continue unnoticed, failures in fatherhood by many in the Church have made the gift of priestly vocation difficult to recognize. While a growing number of theologians and philosophers help men discover firm ground on which the weight of their existence rests enough to offer it in service, many others, in even the highest echelons of the Church, call into question the gift of priestly celibacy or otherwise obscure the meaning of priestly ministry. Yet, this battle for the priesthood and the struggle for integrity that issues from it are on the frontlines of Christ's work in the world today.

This is why the Holy Spirit continues to raise up men who have been entrusted with the gift of a priestly vocation, and with good faculties, many discover that devotion to Christ and service to the People of God are filled with a mysterious meaning and purpose, changing everything, making all things new. Indeed, they taste marvels too great for this present life to contain, even in the setting that is the technological oligarchy of the Bay Area. Here, so many great questions about the future of humanity and its need for salvation represent themselves with astonishing force. Here, a culture's nihilistic self-hatred often spews neglect of all that is beautiful and noble; and, yet, for all this, humanity's deepest wounds ache for healing. Rather than walking away in discouragement, the men of St. Patrick's continue their journey to Holy Orders, quietly engaging their studies with a mirthful under current for which I can offer no compelling psychological or sociological natural explanation, save that of a beatitude that only God can give.

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