3 Best Practices for Human Formation – 2008

In my conferences for this formation term, I am focusing on the “best practices” for priestly formation. In today’s conference, I would like to spend some time offering a rather extended reflection on the “best practices” of human formation.

Human formation is certainly a basic of what we do here. At Saint Meinrad, I would say that we have given this dimension of priestly formation particular emphasis and not without just cause. Often, we have heard the injunction of our late Holy Father Blessed John Paul II that the personality of the priest forms an effective bridge to the possibility of ministry.

The pope’s words in Pastores Dabo Vobis give us insight into how we must initially proceed in seminary formation. “The priest, who is called to be a ‘living image’ of Jesus Christ, head and shepherd of the Church, should seek to reflect in himself, as far as possible, the human perfection which shines forth in the incarnate Son of God.” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 43)

As a bridge, the priest must understand the dynamics of his own life and personality as well as any man can. He must know what motivates him and what he finds life-giving. These insights are not always at the surface of the human personality and are not always evident in a pronounced way in the daily engagements of seminary and priestly life.

In my reflections today, reflections that I hope will take us back to the basics of priestly formation and give us some new insights in doing so, I would like to focus on the qualities of the human personality that I see as essential for quality formation to take place. All authentic human persons display these qualities, even if they may need to be engaged more explicitly in the work of seminary formation.

St. Ireneaus famously commented that the glory of God was the human person fully alive. This certainly seems to be an insight in keeping with the message of Blessed John Paul II. We might paraphrase by saying that the work of evangelization is accomplished readily, even passively, through the expression of authentic human living. Is the new evangelization, that is, the re evangelization of the holy Church, dependent in our age on reclaiming authentic humanity? I would say that undoubtedly it is.

What are the essential qualities of authentic human being? First, I would say a kind of groundedness; second, an authentic generativity; and finally, a sense of gratitude.

First, I would say that the well-formed human personality is grounded. This groundedness is related to the spiritual practice of humility. Humility is a virtue often misread in the life of the Church and even more so in the world. Our social climate promotes pride, even a false pride, in one’s accomplishments. The social order tells us to do what it takes, even to the point of lying about ourselves, to achieve the ends that that same social order has established as the authentic markers of success, wealth, power and popularity.

The great teachers of our spiritual tradition, however, speak of a need to cultivate the virtue of humility as the antidote to the ills of the age. In the words of St. Therese of Avila, “We shall never learn to know ourselves except by endeavoring to know God; for, beholding His greatness, we realize our own littleness; His purity shows us our foulness; and by meditating upon His humility we find how very far we are from being humble.”

Our Holy Father Pope Benedict has remarked:

Do not follow the path of pride, rather, follow the path of humility. Go against the current trend: do not listen to the persuasive and biased chorus of voices that today form much of the propaganda of life, drenched in arrogance and violence, in dominance and success at all costs, where appearance and possession to the detriment of others is openly promoted.

What is this humility to which our Tradition testifies? It is simply telling the Truth about one’s self. Humility is being grounded in the Truth. When we speak of the new evangelization as a re-evangelization, we must speak the Truth about the Church, about its condition in our local communities, about its condition in my heart and soul.

Humility requires that I tell the Truth about myself to myself, that I stop presenting false images about my piety, my holiness, my worth to myself, whether those images are inflated or whether they are detracting. Spiritual pride is expressed in hypocrisy, that is, trying to convince myself and others that I am better than I am. Spiritual pride is also expressed in lies about my self-worth, my failures and my lack of virtue.

Humility is telling the Truth for good or ill. And when we know the Truth, it will set us free. When we acknowledge the Truth, we are already expressing a new evangelization in our lives. Ultimately, this Truth reveals to us that we cannot effectively preach to the nations what we ourselves are unwilling to admit and ultimately believe.

Knowledge of self is therefore essential to fulfilling the evangelical commission. We can hardly expect the nations to listen when we ourselves have become confounded internally by the cacophony of false messages presented by culture, social conditioning and the persistent voice of false ego.

When we learn to tell the Truth about ourselves, one thing is revealed. We are not alone. We are not only in the presence of others, we need others. Blessed John Paul II said:

Of special importance is the capacity to relate to others. This is truly fundamental for a person who is called to be responsible for a community and to be a “man of communion.” This demands that the priest not be arrogant, or quarrelsome, but affable, hospitable, sincere in his words and heart, prudent and discreet, generous and  ready to serve, capable of opening himself to clear and brotherly relationships and of encouraging the same in  others, and quick to understand, forgive and console.”  (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 43)

An essential aspect of the new evangelization, both internal and external, is the reawakening of the need for reference to the other. The human person is a social being. We have lost this insight by too close attention to the ranting of the false philosophers of individualism and atomism. To quote the poet John Donne: “No man is an island, entire of himself.” We know this when we are humble enough to be honest. We desire to reach out to others when we realize that those embracing arms are also embracing our truest selves.

When Blessed John Paul II speaks about the nuptial meaning of the body and affective maturity, he is proposing to an age inebriated with false messages of isolation, the essential truth that lies in the heart of each one, the truth of our need for one another. The maturity we seek to authentically exercise the holy priesthood is affective maturity and that affect cannot be directed toward the contemplation of self.

Affect that only loves the self as an object is narcissism. True love always considers the other. We only penetrate the truth of the human mystery in the presence of others. Our brothers and sisters are an essential part of our mystery. This is the new evangelization and an insight as ancient as the seventh day of creation.

Grounded means knowing who I am and how I am, that is, I am always in the presence of others. Going back now to the business model proposed at the onset of these reflections: What are the best practices for human formation? Practically speaking, how can we achieve our goals in making the priest an authentic bridge through his human personality?

We might begin with the acknowledgement and cultivation of true friendships. Many of us have experienced a new awakening of friendship in the life of the seminary. I have made lifelong friends among my former classmates and now fellow priests. Many of us learn, in a very different way, the true meaning of friendship here that is grounded, not only in common interests and fellow feelings, but in an authentic spiritual bond that we often gain only in the context of formation.

Friendships often become deeper and more profound in seminary and priestly life. We depend upon our friends as authentic markers of our ability to reach out to others and as true barometers of authenticity in ourselves. Friends confide in each other. They challenge each other. They support each other, often through common activities and pursuits and often by being authentic mirrors to the reality of the pursuit of vocation.

Friends help me in discernment. They do this because they know me deeply. They know me deeply because I have shared deeply with them. Friends pray together and are not embarrassed about the spiritual aspects of their relationship. Friends put up with one another, as St. Benedict says, by bearing their weaknesses of body and spirit and personality.

Authentic friendship is a true act of humility and, therefore, a truly divine act. The ability to make and maintain authentic friendships is a sign of the seminarian’s ability to be true to the vocation of being configured in Christ, who said to his disciples, “I no longer call you servants for a servant does not know the mind of his master. I call you friends” (John 15:15). Friends learn from one another. They lean on one another. Friends love one another in affective maturity. In the context of a celibate house of formation, friendship is a true and authentic expression of sexual integration. As Pope John Paul has mentioned:

We are speaking of a love that involves the entire person,  in all his or her aspects – physical, psychic and spiritual – and which is expressed in the “nuptial meaning” of the human body, thanks to which a person gives oneself to another and takes the other to oneself. (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 44)

Because the friendships that we develop here are true and deep, we feel their loss more keenly when a friend decides that formation as a priest is no longer his calling. There is great sadness in this loss of daily society and the support we feel in our meaningful friendships. The sense of loss is real, however. It is a sign, indeed a sacrament, of the gap formed in the life of every celibate person.

Our keen experience of that loss is also a blessing. It demonstrates to us that we have gained the ability to cultivate loving friendships and thus we can do it again and again. In the old days, we often spoke in religious communities of particular friendships, that is, intimate relationships that were exclusive. Obviously, this can be detrimental not only to the individuals, but also to the life of the community. However, the ability to make deeply committed friends is positive, so I say, have particular friends, only have many of them.

Another best practice in human formation in a seminary is counseling. I am a firm believer in the power of counseling to make a profound difference in the life of the seminarian and the future priest. In my seminary formation, I frequently had recourse to our counseling center. It is a productive way of carrying out one’s formation.

Even today, I occasionally see the need to visit with one of the sisters. Even the rector cannot always be right. Even the rector needs another head, another opinion, another voice. Counseling is a relationship that assists us in asking the right questions and seeking the right answers in areas such as relationships, sexual identity, public personality, addictive and compulsive behaviors, etc.

Often, new seminarians are referred to see one of our counselors. This does not mean that something is wrong; it means that something could be better. That holds true for everyone in this room today. Every seminarian, indeed every faculty member and administrator, can benefit from the periodic use of our counseling center.

We are truly blessed at Saint Meinrad by our dedicated and professional sisters. They have devoted their lives to our service here. They have taught us the central place that counseling has in the world of modern seminary formation, as was evidenced by the John Jay Report that appeared this past summer. Seeking counseling is not weak; it is responsible. It is responsible to do everything in our power to make ourselves the best men and the best priests we can be.

I know that there is also some cultural bias against mental health care. While understandable within particular cultural contexts, it is necessary for priests working in this country to be comfortable with the process of counseling, not only for themselves, but for those whom they will serve.

Another best practice in being a grounded person is acquiring appropriate manners and etiquette skills. My grandmother was a great lady of manners and she had a saying that, in the innocence of my youth, I never quite understood. She said, “Anyone who would put a fork into a piece of bread would kill a man.” At first, I considered her observations about correct behavior to be a bit over the top.

I have come to realize, however, that, first and foremost, the priest is a gentleman and there are two tried-and-true rules for a gentleman’s behavior. One is that he behaves like a gentleman at all times, even when no one is around to see him. Two is that he presumes that everyone he meets is a lady or a gentleman as well and he treats them as such.

G. K. Chesterton once said of Charles Dickens that he was a great man because the mark of a great man is that he makes other men feel great. Truer words were never spoken. Being a gentleman requires consideration, consideration of my own behavior and words and their impact upon those around me and consideration of others.

This also requires a good bit of forethought. Being a gentleman is not an act; it is a habit and, as such, comes second nature to us. For priests, we might say that being a gentleman is pastoral. Correct manners involve who we are as priests. Far from being unmanly, the rules of etiquette teach us how to be real men.

Another best practice for groundedness is what I might call a functional extroversion. All of us have different personalities. Statistics show that many who are attracted to various forms of religious life are introverts by nature. Natural introspection is a gift that helps nourish our lives of prayer.

Being a public minister in the Church, however, requires an extension of my social skills. I cannot be an effective priest if I cannot talk to people. I cannot be a good priest if I have to run to my room every five minutes because I am too shy to meet the public. I cannot be a priest if I cannot mingle in a crowd. Do I always like to do it? Perhaps not, but you must learn to do it, often at the expense of great energy and personal cost. This is essential.

When we meet one another in the corridor, there must be an acknowledgement of the other person, even if it is only a simple “Good morning” or a nod of the head. If I routinely meet others without greeting them, I cannot function as a priest who is called to be an agent of unity. Simple social interactions, such as carrying on a meaningful table conversation, anticipating the needs of one another at table, looking attentive in class or in presentations, are basic human skills.

If it costs you something to practice these basic human skills, then offer it up. They must be mastered. Nonchalance in simple social engagements leads to others thinking that you simply do not care. Here, we may know how odd you are and give you a pass. In the parish, your lack of proper social engagement will be read as callousness or worse. You never have a second chance to make a first impression. Make the most of it by practicing here.

I will conclude this section with the words of Pope John Paul II:

Human maturity, and in particular affective maturity, requires a clear and strong training in freedom, which expresses itself in convinced and heartfelt obedience to the “truth” of one’s own being, to the “meaning” of one’s  own existence, that is to the “sincere gift of self” as the way and fundamental content of the authentic realization of self.

A second quality of the human person that the seminary calls us to perfect is that of generativity. A fully alive human being is not only grounded; he or she is also generative. A great deal of ink has been spilled in recent years concerning the generative aspect of priestly ministry. There can be little doubt that there is a quality of generativity that must be a part of who we are as priests.

In the words of Archbishop Sheen, “‘Increase and multiply’ is a law of sacerdotal life no less than biological life.” (The Priest is not his Own, 57) That generativity does not begin in some distant time; rather, it must begin now. You aspire to be called “father.” What kind of life are you going to offer the community now?

Archbishop Sheen goes on to enumerate several ways in which the priest demonstrates generativity in his life and ministry. One is convert making. Another is fostering vocations. Obviously, convert making touches directly on the quest of the new evangelization. Perhaps it would be a fruitful discussion for a later conference, because I believe we give short change to the task of convert making in the Church today.

In this conference, I would like to focus on fostering vocations. Certainly, we have heard enough of this in our dioceses and religious communities. We know how to speak about vocations. All of us here, I am sure, could offer eloquent testimony to the action of God in our vocational lives, unique as they are. We know how to attract young people to the priesthood and religious life. We know, to some extent, what motivates them.

I would like to take a bit of a different angle on this question, however, and talk about the way in which we foster vocations here in the seminary, among ourselves. How does each of you foster the vocations of his brothers here? How do we all purposefully help sustain the call that has been given to each and that has brought us to this crucial juncture in discerning God’s will in our lives? How do we act as spiritual fathers and nurturers of one another’s vocational journey?

I would say we must first begin by fostering a life in community that is life giving and not desiccating. What is this community of formation about? It is about prayer. It is about study. It is about cultural challenge. It is about service. Vocations can only be fostered here when we are authentic about the nature of the community.

I cannot be generative in fostering vocations if I never challenge the cultural expectations of the larger society. I cannot foster vocations if I denigrate the importance of prayer through my idle talk and bad example. I cannot be generative about vocational life if I never offer any example of service or even meaningful conversation to those who live with me in this community. Let us all ask ourselves these important questions concerning the generativity of our lives together:

  1. Do I frequently ask my brothers to pray with me outside the established times of prayer in the community?
  2. Is my table conversation at each meal edifying or do I engage in silly banter for the purpose of amusing others?
  3. Is my recreational activity life-giving or do I often succumb to the popular culture?
  4. How much time do I spend isolated in my room using the internet or watching television?
  5. Am I quick to volunteer my services for house or class projects?
  6. Do I do the least I need to do to get by?
  7. Do I murmur and criticize the faculty, administration and my fellow students behind their backs?

These are a few questions. There might be many more. Are we asking these kinds of questions? Are we bringing concerns we have about the generative quality of the seminary to the rector or the vice rector? It we aspire to be called “father,” which we do, what kind of father do you want to be? Do you desire to be a father who is honest and open, who gives himself freely to prayer, who is willing to listen? Or do you desire to be a father who is backbiting, deceptive, critical and engages in unmanly gossip and idle talk?

If we focus on the quality of generativity in our priestly formation, which we must, let us resolve to continually be fine tuning our means of attaining this essential quality. Then we are fostering vocations here. Nothing can kill the tender vocation faster than a barbed word or a misplaced criticism.

When looking for some best practices for generativity, I will consider three: Cultural enrichment, an open door policy and listening. First, cultural enrichment. In your time at Saint Meinrad, you will undoubtedly hear two things from the rector. Every rector, after all, has his little catchphrases. The first is the need for a spirit of arête to penetrate the life of the community. Arête, in Greek, means habitual excellence.

As seminarians and as priests, we should be striving to express this excellence in everything we do. Excellence means never settling for the mediocre in ourselves or in our communities. It means constantly challenging what is here. It means practically implementing a strategic vision for how things can be better. It means communal conversion in the most concrete sense.

The other expression you will hear from me is “raise your gaze.” The poet T. S. Eliot wrote these words describing the condition of modern culture in The Wasteland:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Eliot’s point is this. The cultural point of reference of modern humanity is decidedly in the dust, focused on what Blessed John Henry Newman called the fanciful or the popular. Our cultural icons today are earthbound. The music, the literature, the art we engage drag our consciousness into the dust where fear reigns.

We are caught in a quagmire of sexualized, materialized images of what is supposed to be important in life. We have lost sight of the transcendent in an eternal contemplation of ourselves. We cannot think ourselves immune to this contagion here. We are all products of our commercialized culture.

Where do you spend your time? How do you enrich yourself culturally? Are your cultural imaginations buried in the stony rubbish of our modern prejudices? An example of this is Facebook, Twitter and other social networking tools. Who cares what people are having for lunch? How much time do we spend following the inane daily activities and incidental musings of our hundreds of friends, when our minds and imaginations might be better engaged?

Raising our gaze means looking up from the immediacy of a navel-gazing popular culture and seeing our true citizenship in heaven. As priests, our lives are supposed to point toward the transcendent and the meaningful in the material, not to the material as an end in itself.

Raising our gaze means trying to find cultural expressions that are generative – music, literature, theater and art that are engaging for the long run and not merely satisfying for the length of a reign in the Top 40 or until the final bell is sounded in the wrestling match. Engaging a more generative culture is not snobbish or elitist. It is human. Just because you do not understand something does not mean that it is worthless. It merely means that there is an invitation.

A second generative best practice is the open door policy. The open door is an invitation for others to come in. While it is true that we must at times have some privacy to pray, to focus on study and complete projects, we also need to invite others in. This is perhaps related to the functional extroversion I spoke of earlier. A good practice is to have your door open for about one hour a couple of nights per week.

An open door policy encourages all of us to be more open to hospitality. Needless to say, the hospitality offered need only be our company, but we need to be willing to offer our company without reserve on occasion. It is good practice for becoming the public person that the priest must necessarily be.

An open door policy also encourages another good priestly (and human) value, cleanliness. Brothers, there is little to no excuse for living in a room that is not ready for visits almost at a moment’s notice. Dirty or extremely cluttered living spaces indicate two things: one, a lack of personal care and perhaps even good hygiene. Second, a lack of stewardship and care for the property of others. For the most part, of all us will spend the rest of our lives in borrowed living spaces. Keeping those spaces habitable for the next occupant is an essential formation question.

Connected to the open door policy is the final generative best practice, listening. In a culture inundated with aural clutter, listening is often the most important aspect of what we do as priests. As all of you are aware, one of the first charges I give to our new seminarians is “being here.” Attention is a key aspect of seminary formation.

It is also the first step of obedience. Obedience begins with quality listening and that must be practiced early in our lives of formation. The practice of good listening begins with a willingness to listen, an open ear and an equally open heart. After ordination, many of you will realize that good confessions, good counseling and, often, good teaching depends upon the ability that people have to tell their stories and the willingness of the priest to listen to those stories.

Sometimes that is all they need. Listening is a sign of respect and active listening indicates a real interest in the lives of others. Listening is also the first stage of empathy and compassion. St. Benedict, in the prologue to the holy Rule, encourages his disciples not only to listen but to incline the ear of their hearts. Listening opens our hearts to the needs of our brothers here. It makes us worthy to be called brothers to one another. If we aspire to that spiritual fatherhood of which we hear so much, then the first quality of a good father is to pay attention, to carefully listen to those for whom he has spiritual care.

The final quality for human formation that I would like to focus on today is gratitude. Our sense of gratitude for our lives, our vocations, our education, our formation, our friends, indeed for everything, draws its energy and power from one source, Jesus Christ. When I was growing up as a Baptist child in the South, in Sunday School we had a song, “O How I Love Jesus.” The words are not difficult to remember:

O how I love Jesus! O how I love Jesus!
O how I love Jesus! Because he first loved me!

Our sense of gratitude comes from our acknowledgement of who we are, the enlightenment we have received in a true spirit of humility. We are sons and daughters of God. We are a people picked up by the Good Samaritan, the Lord. We are those who have received, completely without merit and without cost to ourselves, the love of God who cared so much for the world that He gave his only Son to be our savior. As St. Paul reminds us in the Letter to the Romans:

While we were still helpless, Christ died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. (Romans 5:6-9)

Gratitude for so great a love spills over for us in the perpetual sacrifice that makes present this divine gift in a neverending way, the Holy Eucharist. Eucharistia, thanksgiving, is the source and summit of our lives as Christians. Our appreciation and celebration of the Eucharist tells us how to live. Just as Christ Jesus mandated that we love God and love our neighbors, so our appreciation of the gift of redemption and the gift of the Holy Mass must inform our daily lives.

Brothers and sisters, this is not rocket science. Saying “thank you” is easy if our hearts are truly attuned to what we have received. What are the best practices for gratitude? Simply saying the words, for a start. Writing thank you notes is another important best practice. I do not mean thank you emails. I mean notes sent through the mail or placed in our community mailboxes.

Every year I receive dozens of notes from thoughtful seminarians who want to express their gratitude for what they have received in formation or in a class. This is so important. How could we go through four to six years of formation without ever acknowledging with sincere gratitude what we have received here? I keep every thank you note I receive, because each one is a testament to what we are doing here: instilling a sense of purposeful thankfulness for the gifts God has given us.

Another best practice is a purposeful meal prayer. When we pray the meal blessing privately, let it not be perfunctory or trite. Let it be heartfelt and meaningful, even if it’s only for grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. Even the base animals offer signs of gratitude for what they have received at the hand of others. Our failure to do so places us on a lower level. Only lives steeped in sin could be as base as that.

Brothers and sisters, today I have presented some values and attitudes for our common life that touch on the qualities of a well developed human person. I began this conference with a brief discussion of the new evangelization as a re-evangelization. When we dare to become better people, we proclaim the Good News to a world often drowning in mediocrity. As we gather insight on the issue, we can do no better than to turn to the insight on St. Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians:

He gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the  holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and  knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ, so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from  their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming. Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16)

In our pursuit of these lofty goals, we must turn to the aid of the saints, and in particular Our Lady, as we say….

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