Renewing God's house

Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
(Columbia Magazine, May 2000)

 

Every genuine love story is a great love story; and every great love story creates new life. Real love is always fruitful. It's never barren. Marriage is a love story. The love of husbands and wives bears fruit most obviously in the lives of their children, but also in many forms of Christian service . . . and also in the witness which their love provides to other people.

So too with the priesthood. The priesthood is a love story. Priests are called to be fruitful, but in a different and profoundly important way. They nourish the Church with their lives. They create a witness of radical service, and a legacy of "spiritual children" and apostolic works.

The point is this: The community of faith is not so different from the individuals who live and love within it. The Church is the bride of Christ -- and that love needs to bear fruit. The new life which the Church brings to the world is salvation in Jesus Christ, through preaching and teaching the Gospel, and offering the sacraments. This is why, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit . . . "

Jesus was talking to us -- to all of us . . . but in a special way, to His priests. If a priest does not actively share his love of Jesus Christ with others, it diminishes in his own heart. Priests who do not live that love and share it, lose it. And no priest can be happy without it. That's what St. Paul meant when he wrote, "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel." It's not that God "punishes" those who do not preach God's word, but rather, the joy of Christ's presence can only be had by sharing Him with others. The priest, like any parent or any lover, "gets" by giving away. So if Baptism indelibly marks every Christian as a missionary, Orders takes that vocation even further, intimately and permanently configuring a man to Christ Himself, the greatest Lover of them all. It's that simple.

The world needs Jesus Christ as never before. As a Church in the first years of a new era, we find ourselves in the midst of a powerful, secular, educated, economically successful and bitterly divided society. Make no mistake: We live in mission territory. This is the new Areopagus. This is the kind of environment John Paul II had in mind in 1985, when he spoke to the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Listen to his words: "You must help the Church respond to [the] fundamental questions for the cultures of today: How is the message of the Church accessible to the new cultures, to contemporary forms of understanding and sensitivity? How can the Church make herself understood by the modern spirit, so proud of its achievements, and at the same time so uneasy for the future of the human family?"

And hear this passage from Crossing the Threshold of Hope: "Against the spirit of the world, the Church takes up anew each day a struggle that is none other than the struggle for the world's soul . . . As the Year 2000 approaches, the world feels an urgent need for the Gospel . . . " If Jesus Christ is the answer to the world's longing, and the priest is His primary minister of word and sacrament, then the implications are clear. Each of us should reflect long and prayerfully on the meaning of the "new evangelization" -- the idea that a new missionary spirit needs to be born in each of our hearts, and if it is, that God will use it to win the soul of the world to Christ. But above all, we should ponder how to better form and support our priests. That's only proper, because there's no Gospel witness without the Church; there's no Church without the Eucharist; and there's no Eucharist without the priest. We need more priests -- good men who are well formed; men who love Jesus Christ and His people. That's the first and most urgent step in renewing our Church.

Of course, if it stops there -- no matter how many good seminarians we attract -- we fail. Because ultimately, if there's no Church without the Eucharist, and no Eucharist without the priest . . . there are no priests without families on fire with Christ. Families who help their sons hear God's call; who affirm and support and encourage the priests who already serve them; who live their lives in a way which proves to our priests that their sacrifices make a difference.

Therefore, what I pray God allows us to help Him build in our country over the next decade, is not just an old way of seminary formation with a new vocabulary and an updated marketing strategy, but something true to what the "new evangelization" really is -- a communion and mission of the whole Church, ordained, religious and lay, each respecting the other, each serving the other, all serving the Lord by bringing the Good News to the world, and the world to the Good News.

That's the equality of the faithful: each unique; each complementing and completing the other; altogether in service; and on fire with God. I hope in 20 years we can look back on the Great Jubilee and say, this is where God began something new. And if we can, then like Simeon, we can go home to Him in gratitude and peace.

Over the past year, I've come to know all of our seminarians here in the Archdiocese of Denver quite well -- and all of them are outstanding men. In a very practical way, an embodiment of the new evangelization can already be found right in our Colorado backyard, in Denver's Redemptoris Mater Missionary Seminary. These young men from the Neo-Catechumenal Way have come from all over the world to be our sons and brothers in service to our Church. They're our future priests now, just as deeply and truly as the seminarians who were born here in Denver. And that's a sign of the Holy Spirit, who uses all the new apostolic and renewal movements in the Church today to create a kind of "holy restlessness" in our midst, and shake us out of our complacency. Complacency is the enemy of mission. It's the enemy of the Gospel, and the enemy of the Christian life.

All of these men have led me back in prayer to St. Francis of Assisi. Not because I'm a Capuchin, but because they remind me of Christ's words to Francis to "repair my house." These seminarians are the new Francis. God will use them -- and the laypeople and religious who work alongside them fraternally -- to renew His house. In fact, in some ways, I think Francis is the paradigm of Church renewal for every age. He lived in a time at least as complicated as our own. Society and the Church were in upheaval. The feudal system was falling apart. For most of his life, Francis was lost in that confusion. But in his experience of faith and prayer, he came to some basic insights. And these gave him freedom, and enabled him to live the Gospel life with simplicity and clarity in such a way that he not only was converted himself, but became a leader of conversion in the Church and society.

The insight of St. Francis was very simple, and every priest and seminarian would do well to ponder it. He experienced God as a loving Father. And knowing that a father would not give his son a scorpion when he asks for bread, he began to live in a world where he believed in the love of God and reflected it himself as a trusting child. Of course, this led to his identification with Christ, the Son in whom we become God's children. Francis desired to make the way of Jesus Christ his own way as well.

Because of this relationship with God as Father and Christ as Brother, Francis began to encounter people in a new way. They were sisters and brothers to him, because they were sons and daughters of God, and sisters and brothers to Jesus Christ.

St. Francis called on his brothers to live the Gospel simply and honestly. He used the words "without gloss" or sine glossa in his Testament. Francis understood that the Gospel wasn't complicated . . . but it was demanding and difficult. The theologians and lawyers of the day had written commentaries. They were called glosses, which would either explain away the demand, or argue away our responsibility for following the letter of the Gospel. Francis wanted none of that. He wanted the real thing, not a counterfeit. He wanted love, real selfless love, not a collection of caveats, excuses and qualifiers. He wanted to be dependent on nothing but the loving care of God.

That's what we need to focus on in the days ahead . We're entering a new millennium, and it's vital for us to become new women and new men; new parents and new families; new parishes and new priests . . . to put away the conflicts of the past, and to give ourselves absolutely to God.

If we can model that to our young men . . . then the "vocations crisis" will take care of itself.