The end of the retreat was on Saturday, however Sunday and Monday we spent our time touring various areas of significance in Portugal. If you would like to see some of the pictures and places, you can visit my facebook page here. What I would like to reflect on are a few things St. Ignatius teaches about retreats, the graces received, and the temptations that often follow a spiritually beneficial retreat.
Jesus teaches us in scripture that the seed (which represents His word) is to be planted into our soul in “good soil.” Otherwise, the goodness of receiving His message becomes a grace received in vain. It sometimes happens that while on retreat there is a vivid spiritual battle that a person experiences, however more often than not, the devil is not able to touch us or distract us or undermine the essence of the graces that God wants us to receive on retreat, so long as we enter into the retreat in the right spirit, and the guides of that retreat are in communion with the Church and God’s will. This is a “period of grace” which may not always feel good, but often allows the soul to find itself being enlightened, purified and consoled.
The devil, if he is not permitted to act will attempt to undermine such graces prior to the retreat. This is primarily why I asked my pastor, Fr. Jim to offer a blessing prior to my departure, as I need that protective grace that enables me to avoid entering into the retreat with the wrong attitude, with a closed heart, or a proud disposition. None of us will do this perfectly, but there is an overarching type of openness that is necessary for a fruitful retreat. Furthermore, if such graces are received well, the devil will attempt to undermine such graces after the retreat. Perhaps the retreatant will return to work with only negativity looming around him from others, or perhaps his own family and friends will not support the changes that the graces prompted in him. Furthermore, there may be an inordinate amount of temptation, impulsive thoughts and passions aroused. If the retreat was beneficial in a quiet way, the retreatant might find it unnaturally difficult to sustain that silence to continue to improve his prayer life. If the retreat offered great fraternity and friendship amongst fellow Catholics, we may find ourselves isolated, betrayed or tempted to unhealthy habits amongst friends.
The devil perhaps was unable to prevent the word from being sown in our own soul, however, he can attempt to undermine its growth, to discourage its development. This is why we are taught by spiritual masters, like St. John of the Cross, that when a soul finds itself in spiritual consolation, it should not become forgetful of impending desolation. Likewise, a soul that is desolate, must not forget the previous times of consolation, and therefore hope for future peace. However, if the soul is excited in such graces, a lack of spiritual sobriety may develop, whereby the soul of that individual may completely revert to a naïve disposition towards evil. He has become “used to” the good and sweetness of the Christian life, that he never wants to return to the desert where we must confront the devil in all his deceptions. This is the bitter side of the Christian life! The goodnews is that, whether we are in the dry heat of the desert or the cool refreshing waters of being a beloved child of God, Christ is all the same with us, and willing to help us. But it is “us” that is being tested in regard to perseverance, especially when the affectively consoling experiences are no longer there and the sacrifice of prayer becomes more real, and more purified.
How can the laity help priests when they return from a retreat? It sounds odd, but priests depend upon a parish to encourage us towards holiness of life. Sometimes amongst ourselves, as priests, we enable and water down the graces we have received. Sometimes we domesticate (in a negative sense) the wild call of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and revert to a luke-warmness. However, sometimes the laity encourage priests to get drunk at receptions, to buy lofty and expensive items to become “relatable” and to swear or demean the sacred to present themselves as “down-to-earth.” IN all of these things, we find the counterfeit of humility, which is baseness. And in baseness we find pride – the true uprooting of God’s mercy and righteousness from within our own soul.
How can the laity help then? Perhaps by first of all not encouraging sin amongst their priests. Praying for their perseverance as they return from their retreat – and to demand from their priests a greater holiness so that they can truly be confident that the priest is leading them, provided we become as holy as God wants us to be. Furthermore, holding a priest accountable to a life of holiness is akin to a child correcting a parent. It stings the parent greatly, especially if there is truth to it – but such a sting is nothing more than the ego being chastened. If it is done in sour-judgment and the air of superiority, it might not bear fruit and actually encourage sin or further rebellion, despite the words of our Saviour to follow the truth, regardless of the hypocrisy. Nonetheless, our spiritual children have a right to ask for good spiritual food to be provided for them, and should speak up when they are not being nourished by an adequate spiritual life in the priest.
When I attended a retreat for vocation directors in Boston, one of the themes in discussion amongst priests was a general lack of fraternity amongst brother priests. It’s a sad reality, but it naturally arises as a result of a Church that is often affected by relativism and individualism. Both promote a type of isolation amongst clergy, since we are called to be united in “mind-and-heart.” If our mind is different, we will also love things that are contrary if such a divergence is in contradiction with true doctrine. That therefore fosters amongst clergy a lack of peace, envy, competition, backbiting, harassment, and gossip. Just like the rest of the world and every other work-place, the priesthood is subjected to “politics.” This shouldn’t be a shock to the laity, but it might be for some. Priests are affected and enslaved to concupiscence just as much as the laity, and yet because of our role in leadership we are automatically (by some) thought to have risen above it. Yet we merely need to look to scripture to see how this was often the converse. Priests therefore are not needed in the Church as much as priests need the priesthood for salvation. It is the high ideal of serving God in such a self-effacing manner, that brings death to our pride, if we do not water down the idea, and replace it with an acceptance of baseness as a sort of compromise. This call, as such, is given to us so that we can confront the beast within that does not want to submit to God’s Church, but rather our own idea of the Church in this very small moment of history.
In some countries it is different. One of the topics that came up during our conference pertained to clerical attire being worn in a visible manner in public. For the Irish this was incredibly important. For years they had been supressed by the government, and therefore the protestant-government wanted to destroy the Church by first attacking the visible dimension of the clergy, which fostered a greater consciousness about the Church in the public sphere. We know that even Canon law addresses a duty to remain visible in public. For the Irish priests, this prohibition was a shaming act, that did not promote the good-news, extended thus to all the people. For some, however, wearing clerical attire is discouraged silently by the witness of some and the laity are at times even indoctrinated to believe that by not wearing one’s collar we are attempting to emphasize how priests are not “better than the laity.” This of course could send the passive message that the collar means exactly that, which it does not. It’s a lie. Clericalism isn’t an external, clericalism is an Spirit. True clericalism is defining which laws we’d prefer to follow, even after making an oath of fidelity. We think we are entitled.
We also spoke about Free-Masons in Portugal attempting to only correlate the visible Church with evil, and then to drive all its good dimensions out of other people’s awareness. That is to say, that if someone had to think about the Church, it would hopefully be in a derogatory manner, only emphasizing the failures of priests, but not its treasury of grace. It is a strategy that involves psychological warfare against the Church, attempting to “brand” in other people’s minds that the Church is dangerous, starting with her priests. This would make sense, especially amongst communist groups who would want to undermine the Church as the most significant enemy to communism, as we see in the witness of St. John Paul II, and the intercession of our Blessed Mother after the world was consecrated to Russia. Quickly after we saw the fall of communism in Russia, the Berlin-Wall’s fall, and so much more. Yet, many of the lies of communism had already been spread throughout the world. The devil, of course is the primary agent in all of these attacks, and to attack the Church, one always first attacks the priest, as St. Jean Vianney clarified when offering a Catechesis on the priesthood. St. Jean Vianney would have grown up in a Church where priests were greatly persecuted, and most definitely not permitted to visibly wear the collar, until later. He remembered having secret masses celebrated in people’s homes, growing up as a child. This further promotes isolation amongst priests, placing a target particularly on the backs of those who are visibly present in the public sphere, especially when all that is correlated in the Church in the western world seems to be the sexual abuse scandal. While such abuse is a terrible injustice, it is also unjust to only understand God’s Church as being correlated to this reality. Meanwhile, we have the Eucharist, the sacrament of forgiveness (reconciliation), and so much more. By wearing our collar we can begin to correlate the Church with its good. How many times have I walked into Walmart, Canadian Tire, pubs, and in various public places, being naturally approached to have someone’s confession heard, a blessing imparted, a prayer request given. Yet those who wear the collar in public might be few in the regions in the west, not by an oppressive government but perhaps a compromise to the culture’s expectation, a response to the shaming of clericalism and an embarrassment in regard to the sexual abuse scandal. There could be other reasons as well – perhaps some that are good that I am unaware of. Nonetheless, it takes courage to wear the collar, but also humility, to insure that it not be worn to be honoured, but rather be at the behest and service of others as a Spiritual Father must. The collar than can actually prevent clerical isolation as well. When a brother priests sees one another wearing the collar, he could be comforted and encouraged by his willingness to witness in public, just as when one sees a nun in a habit, or a lay person wearing a visible sign of the Christian faith, such as a crucifix. Such signs communicate a concrete, visible sign of unity, and being on the same team! We likewise do not accuse Muslim women of being arrogant in wearing a type of veil in public, so why would we have the low-esteem in clergy or religious to assume something entirely contrary to its very signification?
Another solution to this problem of isolation amongst clergy who find themselves trying to be faithful to the Magisterium was for priests to reach out to lay-men to find that fraternity. Although the context of the priesthood is not shared, it is nonetheless important for priests to find fraternity with other men, especially those who are of the same-mind in regard to the mind of the Magisterium. This is crucial when a priest is isolated from other such clerics. It will foster accountability amongst them, where we may be tempted to compromise to “survive” socially within the circle of priests we find ourselves in. These lay-men can help keep us in union with God’s will, especially if they do not have a naïve vision of the various battles that exist amongst clergy. While it is nonetheless true that such friendship does sacrifice to some extent the paternal dimension in the priest, by finding himself corrected or encouraged in the light of truth, that friendship is not contrary to the paternity of the priesthood because it will uphold it to be of utmost import to the salvation of the priest-himself.
Some of the American priests I met (in Boston) mentioned how they would be moved to opposite-ends of the diocese to isolate them from each other, and to promote support for one another. The Irish priests mentioned something similar when I spoke with them during our Fatima retreat. Such priests must make it their duty to get together when they can, and combat this divisiveness. It must not degenerate into a negative group of complaining priests, but rather a group that supports and encourages each other to keep remaining faithful. This will help prevent disobedience to the Bishop and warped view of pastoral practices in the diocese born of cynicism and sour-judgment. Obedience after all is an important aspect to a priest’s vocation and salvation. If we do not remain obedient to the Bishop, why would the laity be obedient to the pastor?
Returning to the original point of this blog – as I return to Canada, I do not believe it will necessarily be “easy” and if it were, I would have little to offer at the Altar during mass as a victim-priest. Anticipation of that difficulty is important, although it is beyond our control. St. John of the Cross often taught that the cross the person receives will often be something that itself was not anticipated. That is to say that while suffering can be anticipated in a general way, the actual type of suffering, if deep, will involve an absence of understanding in the mind of such a person. The reason for this is that suffering must not only be applied to man’s senses, but also his soul, where there is an absence of surrender even on the level of the will in regard to man’s comprehension. This is where faith can grow, and the pride that clings to one’s own judgment inordinately can become a thing of the past.
I may be making some changes – that will likely not be noticed by many – but if they are, might seem threatening to others, as others become comfortable with what I usually did prior to me leaving. This means that I cannot be summarized so easily and unfortunately others will have to adapt to a (hopefully) better version of myself.
In summation, when I was ordained five years ago, I had a great deal of zeal. That zeal became somewhat discouraged by resistance in others and my failure in acquiescing. I am not going into detail about this, because in silence, I think it is better to offer it up as a sacrifice pleasing to God, and in purifying my own self of my pride. Nonetheless, I think compromises were made in my own spiritual idealism, pertaining to my pastoral work and my own private spiritual life. I understand the voice of this discouragement not coming from flesh and blood, but ultimately a rather big-bully named Satan. I seek to defy this negative, discouraging voice, by recollecting in my own calling from Jesus Christ, as a Child of the Father and elect servant of His holy mysteries. It is in this relationship that I find myself protected from his tactics, and therefore, need not fear anything. For if God is our Father, whom shall we fear? If I am bold, it is therefore not in honour of my own willfulness, but in honour of our Lord’s own goodness who stands by me in all trials. And I hope to encourage the laity and brother priests to take up the same weapons and tools that faith supplies.