I was invited by the Director of Seminarians/Vocations Director of my diocese to participate in a conference directed towards vocation directors. The workshops covered the four-pillars of priestly formation, involved the celebration of mass and the liturgy of the hours, as well as a good opportunity to connect with each other as brother priests from around the world. The USCCB is very motivated to promote vocations in an intentional, organized fashion, and it was evident in the speakers they had, as well as the various venues offered to support the clergy. Although it was run by the USCCB, the focus was largely on the universal standards within the Church in regard to the formation of priests in seminaries and prior to their formation in seminaries. The emphasis was not on getting “more” vocations, but being faithful to God in the right spirit as vocation directors, as well as seeking a good quality of priest – one who has reached affective maturity, and has allowed Christ to enter into the depths of each candidate’s soul, so as to map the interior geography of the spiritual life in order to lead others through such a difficult place to explore.
We had the privilege of listening to bishops and cardinals from both Canada and the United States – and I’d like to spend in this blog-post some time reflecting particularly on His Excellency, Chaput’s address to the vocations directors on one of the four qualities he is looking for in priests.
The good Bishop said many things, and this was certainly not the centre-piece of his presentation, however there was some good time spent reflecting on a growing tendency within candidates to cling to various “forms of the past” in an inordinate fashion. The inordinate or “unreasonable” clinging to the past was demonstrated in a seminarian who approached the Bishop, crying, because the Traditional Latin Mass was not offered at his seminary. The Bishop was clear, he did not stand in opposition to the Extraordinary Form, nor did he bar his seminarians from attending this mass when outside of the seminary, however the ordinary formation of the seminarians was to be in the Ordinary Form.
Already, I know for some, this post is likely generating frustration amongst some readers. Probably those who are somehow hoping that one day the Novus Ordo mass will be canned and replaced with the Traditional Latin Mass. I know that there is already a defensive spirit rising up in some, while in others a sort of glee and experience of some sort of vindication. What I’d suggest at this point is to both take a breath and settle down.
The Bishop was truly accommodating the Traditional Latin Mass devotion, and was in no way attempting to treat such individuals as lepers. It wasn’t so much the “form” he was speaking about, but rather the spirit behind it: nostalgia. While the Bishop did not see the Traditional Latin Mass to be the direction of where the Church is going, his primary focus was on the affective maturity behind the seminarian who cried because he could not attend such a mass in his seminary formation. Let’s examine the disproportionate reaction of that individual seminarian.
First, I don’t have much affection for the Traditional Mass, but I also do not have a spirit of antagonism towards it. I just simply look at it as another way to encounter our God that a minority within the Church finds helpful. I do not think that this minority should be marginalized. It should be supplied to common folks while recognizing that it offers the same substance of what is celebrated in the Novus Ordo mass. Second, I do believe that there are things we can do to fulfill a legitimate desire for increased reverence in the Novus Ordo – and that this topic needs to be explored more thoroughly amongst the various polemics that Cardinal Sarah recently spoke about. Third, none of the aforementioned points are meant to be addressed in a comprehensive manner in this blog – rather I would like to narrow in on the spirit of nostalgia that was spoken of by the good Bishop.
It must be said that any spiritual disease is by its nature not wedded by definition to some external. This means that people can be nostalgic about things both new and old – in the sense that there is an attachment that is unreasonable to some external, without a proper level of integration or internalization of that external in relation to God and the Church. Second, the nostalgia in regard to the past is a reality, observable and it should be corrected. It is not my concern to dive into the arguments in support of various externals that are being resurrected from the past – as legitimate or illegitimate as they may be. Rather, I would like to focus on the question: “why are people holding onto the past forms of worship or church-structure as if they are ends in themselves?”
Spiritual Diagnosis of Historical Nostalgia
There is perhaps a laundry list of reasons of why this might be the case. People generally, when meeting a crisis, immediately run back to what they are comfortable with and know. In this regard, when we are consumed by the numerical desolation of Churches with more than 70 or 80 percent of Catholics not practicing their faith – we might think that the solution is to return to the past because clearly what they were doing before the 60s was working. In logic this might be considered the fallacy of false-cause, where one connects an effect to a cause artificially – simply because the effect occurs after an event- and that is why the SSPX have such a following. It feels convincing, but fails to look deeply at the question at hand – a very complicated question that involves a fair assessment of the fluidity in our own culture.
The Church needs to adapt to the times without compromising its substance – and this applies to everyone on the spectrum, including those who think the “Glory and Praise” is still a “new hymnal.” Formation prior to entry into the seminary is undermined by the deformation that the secular culture has borne as a result of radical individualism, consumerism, and a growing agnosticism of indifference. Addictions to pornography are common, and finally now being recognized as an actual mental-health issue. Empathy is limited in some people as a result of a pattern of behaviour clinging too heavily on social media – which has also prevented people from reflecting on matters deeply – looking for quick information and sound-bites.
I would therefore like to suggest a direct correlation between the nostalgia for the past with the culture that has naturally led itself into this unhealthy disposition in many candidates for the priesthood. And by the way, I do not mean to suggest that such candidates should not approach such a vocation, but rather there needs to be a course-correction in their formation prior to and during formation. The connection between the culture and the nostalgia has to do with two main errors in the culture:
- Radical Individualism
Relativism is undoubtably something that exists both within the Church and within the culture. We need to be humble enough as a Church to be able to recognize that in attempting to extend a bridge to the culture, the Church at times saw this as a bridge out of the Church rather than inviting others into the Gospel. The irreconcilable dimensions of the culture were sought to be reconciled with the Church and a mixture of confusion and relativism entered as a result – in both subtle ways and sometimes very explicit ways. This leads to what we might call a “broader-scope” to moral truth, an accommodation of people’s fallen inclinations and ultimately a superficial spirituality. Instead of going deeper, we went broader. Let me stress that distinction: instead of plunging into the simplicity of the gospel, we sought to make things more complex through sin. That complexity and lack of depth has one spiritual impact on the soul: exhaustion. Many of the youth are tired. Why? Because they have to make personal decisions about every moral doctrine under the sun, and it is very difficult to find anyone who agrees. Furthermore, the heart yearns for simplicity, not complexity – and the heart wants to ultimately rest in a simple God.
So the heart of many millennials generally wants things to be simpler – and the wound on the soul of such persons is a wound of complexity and confusion. Complexity is not something to be embraced in the spiritual life, it is something to validate as a reality, but also to remedy through the simplicity and depth of the gospel. If a person is experiencing great complexity and confusion, the unhealthy way to seek to find freedom from such a plight might be to over-simplify things – especially on the external level. Or alternatively look at complexity as “reality” when in fact it’s an illusion that traps the soul. If one is so wounded by complexity, simplifying the interior life usually is what a person wants to do, but it is the hardest thing to do – and so we do what is easiest, and focus on simplifying the external world. What is simpler than rubrics that are followed, order restored to the liturgy, and a Church where everyone is simply on the same page about everything dogmatic. And while that type of simplicity certainly is a sign of unity with a simply United Triune God, accomplishing it through an external imposition of rubrics without the interior life – in tandem – will lead to nothing more than a type of rigidity that actually creates and supports all the unfortunate stereotypes of the so-called “traditional-Catholic.” Being naive and defensive against this as a possibility is just a sign of pride; the devil seeks to corrupt every movement- so that even if people do what is right, they will do it for the wrong reasons.
Is a desire for simplicity a good thing within the Church and in the priesthood? – absolutely. But we must go about it for the right reasons and in the right spirit.
Radical-Individualism is both the cause and the result of relativism – it keeps the unhealthy cycle spinning. It is the radical individual who thinks he can define truth around his own fallible, fallen mind. And in that he supports a culture which normalizes the pride of appropriating truth to himself, so that the person actually begins to think of it as a virtue, when in reality it is the deadliest vice. And in the midst of a world of complexity, man begins to think that because things are confusing he now has the conscientious right to define the truth according to His own judgment – exploiting confusion, rationalizing reality – especially in matters that have already been made clear by the Church and Gospel.
But the most basic problem that comes from all of this is the isolation it wounds the millennials with – and this should make us sad. It is common to experience youth who are growing up in divided homes, divorced and remarried families, with classmates who they can’t find any agreement and friendship is best maintained by avoiding any deep conversation. And so in both the domestic Church and the universal Church, along with the schools and cultures a lack of depth in communion with one another is felt, and we become isolated. This can actually breed within others a failure to even go deeply into prayer with God, and to share with him the very tender wounds that boil up in our own blood as a result of original sin, past sins, and the isolation of the culture we live in.
Perhaps this isolation is one of the reasons why addictions towards social media, and pornography have escalated. As a result of not having many people to connect, it becomes easier to express our emotive needs in a manner that doesn’t require the accountability of a face-to-face interaction. Things can be done with the veil or illusion of anonymity, and as a result young men are being immersed into an affective-illusion of communion, and given a temporary fix to simply “get by.”
Thus in such candidates you might see again a clinging to tradition, not primarily out of a desire to glorify the name of God (though that may be how the argument is presented), but rather out of a desire to heal one’s own isolation, through tangible experiences of solidarity with the past and in the present. That is perhaps why some men are crying when the simplicity and conformity (material sign of communion) perceived in the past are rejected without a lick of compassion or understanding. That doesn’t have to be the case, and in many good priests, often is not how it is approached. The rejection of these external practices is interpreted as a continuation of that isolation and complexity – and furthermore a rejection of their own person. That is not the right reaction – and it is certainly not the right reason for clinging to such external practices, especially from future priests. The motivation for the mass and priesthood should not be founded upon some narcissistic need to “heal my wounds” but rather first and foremost give glory to God and say the words that are truly helpful to one another. If we seek healing while being blinded to the true nature of our wounds we do a lot of damage. If we do seek healing, it should be out of a love for God and our neighbours.
Possible Healing Remedies
Perhaps for parents I would suggest building up the virtue of speaking about deep-matters with your children, so they are capable of having a deeper type of unity with one another. It is not enough to simply speak about the faith on a conceptual level, but also to delve more deeply into the very encounters and experiences of God in our life. This type of communication should be normalized so that it can build the virtue of a strong affective maturity both in relation to God and with others.
Men’s groups should be formed outside of the seminary and prior to seminary formation where men can discuss their love for God as a Father, Brother, and as Love itself in the Spirit. One does not need to venture into the broad waters of the world to find depth – it is already made known to us in the Creed – we simply need to explore it with depth rather than familiarity.
Chastity groups need to be formed so that the illusions that prolong the inner-healing and capacity for deep interpersonal relationships can be developed. Furthermore, to overcome interior shame for past sins, it might be helpful for such individuals to experience fraternity and encouragement and challenge in the external forum so that the shame doesn’t keep such men locked into the sin, resulting in a mediocre image of self that always leads to a return to the self-shaming behaviour. If I don’t measure up to much, I’ll act as if that is the case: sin.
Discipline and understanding in regard to the use of social media. The impact of social media can be a good one, especially if it is used in the way it ought to be. But when people use it to replace the legitimate need for interpersonal relationships – then it becomes unhealthy and builds a habitual way of relating that stunts the affective maturity and capacity for empathy. We do not want “de-facto” priests – we want priests who speak the truth with love – not with a repressed robotic demeanour – this will only wound the people in their distress. Furthermore, pulling men away from social media by actually inviting them into a deeper relationship, whereby they feel perused and wanted. It doesn’t help to merely criticize others, it may only drive them into the addiction further, reaffirming their isolation.
Lastly, and with special emphasis I would say the validation of their wounds from the culture is very much needed. This is unfortunately hard for the Church, because in doing so, there is some level of recognition that the past generation within the Church has made decisions that have negatively affected the present Church. And if there is no humility to admit that it is even remotely possible that decisions have been made that have hurt the Church – then there is no real spiritual foundation for a future Church. Every generation will sin in a unique way – lets not be embarrassed about it, let’s just own it so we can move on. Now in that regard, it might be helpful not to focus inordinately on blame, because that could actually reinforce a preoccupation with the wound rather than its healing. So the blame could remain a passive dimension or in the periphery of the validation. That is to say that in validating the candidate’s isolation as a reality that has been imposed upon him unfairly by the world we live in and perhaps his own personal choices, we prevent one major thing from happening: exaggeration. When a wound is not validated, the man will typically begin to exaggerate it – and by exaggerating it will only tear it open in a wider fashion. The exaggeration comes because he wants to be heard and listened to – and so he shouts about it, blowing it out of proportion. Then in order to prevent feeling like a silly radical in his thoughts he might find support in those who are head of him in this project to “be heard.” Overtime the exaggeration becomes a falsehood believed as true. Therefore it becomes a crystallized movement with communal support and validation in all the wrong ways.
If sincere validation is offered for the man, he will have the capacity to “move-on” to other topics. In being able to cease obsessing and looking upon his woundedness, not through a magnifying glass, he will be then able to see the trees and the forest. And in seeing things in a deeper context, he will not spend an inordinate amount of time looking at one truth isolated from others. The problem with only looking at one truth opposed to how all other truths hang together is that it will naturally foster a disjointed relationship between one doctrine and another – and this as we know fosters many of the sects that we encounter in our culture today.
Last of all, what is not needed, as already alluded to, is a reaction against such men – instead of looking at them as a threat, it might be better to see the legitimate wounds that cry out to the Church for healing. While such wounds can naturally enslave the soul to sin – if they are healed, they can lead to a great character in the priest who will be able to know the healing touch of Christ who does not want to encounter Him broadly but deeply, both through the Church, and in our prayer life.