In the Church calendar August 4 is officially designated as the Memorial of St. John Mary Vianney, Presbyter. Because August 4 landed on a Sunday this year the feast was not universally celebrated, yet the Holy Father marked this 160th anniversary of the death of the patron saint of parish priests with a letter addressed to all of the priests of the Church.
St. John Vianney, also known as the Curé of Ars (curate or parish priest of Ars, the small French village of under 300 souls), lived in a situation – post-revolutionary France – that was less than ideal for a Catholic parish priest. That being the case, it is not difficult to see the natural tie-in between St. John and priests in today’s world who are, on a daily basis, living with the fallout of another revolution, the cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the child of that revolution – the immoral and sometimes criminal actions of their brother priests.
The days of priests seen as larger than life characters on the silver screen – Bing Crosby as Fr. O’Malley in Going My Way and Pat O’Brien as Fr. Connolly in Angels with Dirty Faces – have been replaced by their depiction in works like Spotlight, the film about the breaking of the story of the cover-up of the sex scandals in the Archdiocese of Boston.
Vilified by any and all who adhere to Chesterton’s observation that “any stick is good enough to beat the Church” these good men have taken the brunt of the public backlash against the Church and Her mishandling of these terrible events. In this climate how easy it would be for good priests to lose heart and be drawn to a sense of resignation and despair. For that reason Pope Francis writes to them as a father to thank them for their faithful living out of their vocation and to encourage and support them in their work.
Francis begins his letter by speaking of pain – primarily the pain of the victims and families of the victims abused by priests, some of whom were men of great prominence in the Church – but also of the pain of those priests who “embody spiritual fatherhood capable of weeping with those who weep.” These priests, who have done nothing to deserve it, experience “situations that are often hostile, isolated or ignored, even at the risk of their lives.”
Francis encourages these priests to see these as times of “ecclesial purification” where God is “breathing forth His Spirit in order to restore the beauty of His Bride, caught in adultery.” He exhorts them to “remain faithful to God’s will” in order that they might become “more joyful and humble, and prove, in the not distant future, very fruitful.”
I pondered these words this morning as I sat with my wife, Ann, at the Rocky River Panera and looked across the table at the “not distant future.” Jeff Lindholm ’16 is a seminary student at John Carroll University and Borromeo College. I taught Jeff, and Ann helped him with his college essays, and occasionally we get together to catch up and see how his vocation is progressing. Jeff is one of nearly 40 young men currently in the Borromeo/John Carroll diocesan seminary program – a very healthy number for a diocese of our size.
These young men can have no delusions about how the world sees them, yet they are following a call that, if they stay the course, will lead to priestly ordination and a life-long battle against a societal prejudice over which they have no control in a situation not of their making.
To witness Jeff’s enthusiasm for his summer work with young people, his excitement about his studies of philosophy and theology, and his enflamed love for our Lord in the Eucharist is to be given hope in the renewal of the Church in the “not distant future.”
Young men like Jeff and his seminary brothers cannot but be buoyed by this heartfelt and fatherly letter of Pope Francis to his priests throughout the world. In reading it they can take solace in the fact that they are not alone in their journey (as Francis points out, Jesus and Mary are with them every step of the way), and that the Vicar of Christ knows their struggles and cares deeply for each of them. It is our job then to do the same as we pray for all those who hear God’s call to leave everything behind and willingly bind themselves to the Cross of Christ.