October 2, 1983
August 20, a year ago, I came here as the 18th president-rector of Christ the King Seminary in a 125 year history.
A year later, as I am installed, a number of accomplishments in the Seminary community stand before us as clear signs of our vitality today: We together have revised our By-Laws and expanded our Board of Trustees, redefined our programs and have been reaccredited for 10 years and increased our development efforts fourfold. All these accomplishments are a tribute to ourselves and to these who have preceded us.
In the course of these 12 months, I have received all kinds of advice – yes, even a quotation from the late Father Thomas Plassmann, a giant in his day at St. Bonaventure College and Seminary. His advice was:
“Don’t worry about the small problems; and there are no big problems.”
An installation such as this enable us to remember our past – my 17 predecessors here and their splendid achievements – to celebrate a living tradition of faith and theology and ministerial preparation, and to rededicated anew our energies to the pursuit of excellence in theological education and formation.
As we move towards the future, three questions especially concern me:
What might be the future shape of the Roman Catholic Church in America?
Does the Franciscan charism have anything to say about seminary education?
And what should seminaries– theological schools — challenge their students to do?
The Church of Pope John Paul II is different from the Church of Pope John XXIII who died 20 years ago last June.
In the early 1960’s the Roman Catholic Church in America appeared, on the surface at least, to be a rocklike center in the lives of millions. Since then, it has undergone profound change: millions of Roman Catholics have been torn from familiar moorings.
In the practice of Catholic social principles, there has been a shift toward stronger advocacy for the poor, bolder initiatives on behalf of human rights and grass roots involvement in Church-backed economic and political causes. Witness the interest in the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on War and Peace.
In theology and liturgy, uniformity has given way to pluralism, dialogue among the different churches and synagogues has replaced diatribe, dissent is now heard and diversity continues to mark the Church of the 1980’s. The laity are asking for and assuming more roles; women in particular are calling for a larger role in Church ministries.
And then there is one startling statistic: by the year 1990, there will be half as many active Roman Catholic priests in the United States as in 1980. And if we have read John Naisbitt’s Megatrends or Alvin Tofflers’sThird Wave, we may wonder – and rightly so – how the churches might best prepare their ministerial candidates to face the challenging trends that are beginning to restructure America in the decade ahead. Some call all this chaos while others think it simply the pangs of rebirth.
I dare not predict the future of the Roman Catholic Church in America, let alone the future of American society. Nor will I venture to forecast the role of theological education either in the Church or America. Forecasting can be a risky business. I think of the French mathematician and philosopher, the Marquis de Condorcet, who pronounced loudly in 1784 that there would be fewer and fewer revolutions. Ten years later he found out how wrong he was – he was guillotined in the French Reign of Terror.
The second question that concerns me is: Does the Franciscan charism, rooted in the life of Saint Francis of Assisi and an integral part of this Seminary’s history, have anything to say to us today about theological education? Indeed it does.
Artists and authors have created many images of Francis in the past eight centuries. Rembrandt van Rijn painted him; Gilbert Keith Chesterton eulogized him; and Kenneth Clark called him Europe’s greatest religious genius.
I believe that the Franciscan charism can be best expressed in three incidents from the life of Francis; the religious meaning of these three incidents enables that charism to speak meaningfully to theological education to day. The first incident took place at La Verna, not far from Florence, Italy, in 1224. Francis was praying to God and there he experienced the stigmata or marks of the crucified Jesus in his hands, feet and side. That incident symbolizes for me the depth of Francis’ spirituality, his complete indentification with her person of Christ – so much so that this identification was cut into his very flesh. Francis was a living Gospel to the 13th century.
Theology invites the student to enter ever more deeply into spirituality, into an identification of one’s life with the life of God. Theology students then must have a regular personal and communal prayer life, understand especially their own tradition of spirituality, recognize the inter-relationship between spirituality and human experience, seek out a director in their spiritual growth, and integrate their own liturgy and prayer into the life of the community in which they live. Theology must lead students to the living God.
The second incident, which captures the Franciscan charism, took place one day as Francis was praying before the crucifix in the tumbledown chapel of San Damiano near Assisi, Italy, in 1206. He heard Christ tell him: “Francis, rebuild my house which you see is falling into ruins.”
How can theology students build today’s Church? By understanding the Scriptures and their usage in preaching and in prayer. By grasping and celebrating the many aspects of liturgy. By developing leadership and communication and managerial and group process skills. By teaching the social dimension of the Gospel about justice, the papal statements about life issues, international justice, world hunger, poverty and medical ethics. By creating compassionate and prayerful communities, promoting friendship and openness among people, caring about one another like brothers and sisters.
The third incident which captures the Franciscan charism was Francis’ encounter with the leper. As Francis rode one day along a road, out stepped the leper. He started to ride away. But no! Francis slowly climbed down from his horse and embraced the leper. He saw in the leper the brokenness of human existence. A leper can be described as someone who lacks wholeness. So often in our own lives we experience this lack of wholeness – ugliness – in ourselves and in others. Sometimes we cry out to that compassionate Power beyond ourselves, God Himself, to embrace, to heal the “leper” (the ugliness) within ourselves, to make us whole. At other times we “ride away” (so to speak) from the “leper” in others, people whom we perceive as ugly, who lack wholeness. Theology students are challenged to embrace these lepers too, to heal the brokenness of their lives, to make them whole. A confrere of mine wrote: “The world has changed many times since Francis’s day and yet, sadly, so many of the same conditions and problems have returned in our own time.”
La Verna, San Damiano and the leper – three incidents which capture the Franciscan charism and empower that charism to speak meaningfully to seminary education today. These three incidents show that Francis was able to cut through all the trivial questions of this earthly life of ours and focus upon the essential questions of human existence: spirituality or life with God; community; and the brokenness of the human family and the human need for God’s healing power.
What should seminaries – theological schools – challenge their students to do? Roman Catholic seminary education today is faced with all kinds of questions. What form will ordained ministry take in the future? And lay ministries: What forms will they take, especially in the light of the projected decrease in the number of candidates for ordained ministry? What is the role of the seminary in the preparation of lay ministers? The ordained priest of tomorrow may be called upon primarily to be the facilitator and spiritual animator, enabler and to some extent, the educator of lay ministers. And what about racial, economic and sexual minorities. How should the seminary respond to these constituencies in the Church? How should the seminary promote a simpler life style in a church concerned with global justice? How better prepare students in the use of media, television, programmed instruction and other audio-visual methods?
Seminary education today is faced with still further questions about the students themselves. They tend to be older and their backgrounds more disparate than students 20 years ago. And they have been influenced by values not often in tune with our Judeo-Christian faith tradition. In our American culture, self-fulfillment, more often than not, is overemphasized at the expense of community needs. Commitments are not always taken seriously. Consumerism frequently is pursued and simpler life styles ignored. The so-called sexual revolution has challenged past understandings, especially the commitment to celibacy. Witness the public interest in the TV serialization of “The Thornbirds.”
In the midst of all these questions, we may wonder what we are called upon to do in seminaries – theological schools today. I think the greatest challenge of professors in seminaries and theological schools is to call the people they serve to life as well. I say this because there appear to be so many signs of death all around us in these final two decades of our own twentieth century.
One obvious sign of death is the one dimensionality of so many people and so many philosophical systems. The Soviet Union tyrannizes Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, to name a few, because their one dimensionality closes them off to every other philosophical system except dialectical materialism. Central and South Americans, Asians and Africans are brutalized and tortured by oppressive regimes, because they dare to challenge the one dimensionality of these regimes.
So many people have become so completely frozen into one dimension of life that they seem incapable of opening their own eyes to other dimensions of life, other points of view, other ideas. Many minorities know what it is like to be barred from a school, a neighborhood or a profession simply because they are a minority. They too are victims of this one dimensionality.
But the signs of death are even more subtle than these.
We should be afraid of men and women who allege that there is only one way to God, only one way to interpret the Bible, only one way to do this or say that. This kind of attitude usually begets tyrannies of one kind or another. It distorts spirituality and kills human relationships.
I would like to think that all of us who are engaged in the theological enterprise have a magnanimous spirit, a mind that is open to the many dimensions of human existence, open to the fullness of life. Not a mind that accepts everything willy-nilly – but a mind that is open-ended, because reality, our understanding of God, cannot be completely captured in definitions. And if we especially have a magnanimous spirit, a mind that is open to the different dimensions of life, we will challenge fixed ideas, and established structures, including our own; we will listen to people in other disciplines, other ways of thinking. We seldom live with an either/or; rather we will focus on the both/and.
Secondly, there is so much death on this planet of ours, because many people seem to have become self-centered. A recent poll highlighted this disturbing news. According to the poll, the driving force in people between the years of 18 and 25 is money. Self-concern seems to be the new passion of our time.
If the seminary’s product is simply an ordained priest or layperson of enlightened self-interest, then it is indeed dead. I would like to think our students leave here with sensitivity and compassion. For if they do, then the competence and skills that they developed here will reach out to that which alone is of everlasting value: The human person. The paradox is that we become ourselves to the extent that we go out of ourselves; we become ourselves, not in isolations but in relationships.
Finally, there is so much death around us because people lack imaginations. They seem incapable of formulating new images of themselves and the universe. They lack the imagination to break through the appearances, the surface, to that which lies beneath and beyond these appearances, reality, God Himself.
An artist, for example, takes the ordinariness of our own lives and so reshapes that ordinariness that he/she creates new images, new forms, new spaces. I would like to think that this is precisely what a masterpiece does, for example, da Vinci’s Last Supper or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The artist makes use of the way the eye or ear is “tricked” so to speak, to show us a new world of possibilities. By the combination of sound, color, light and line, the artist suggests what he/she can not show, calling upon the viewer to fill in the blanks, to discover reality afresh.
Today, unfortunately, many people try to kill imagination. For them, reality is nothing more than what they see or hear or touch. They only ask: What is, not what if.
But where would we be today if Copernicus, Columbus, Edison and Einstein never asked themselves: What if.
The imaginative person is not bound by “what is” but is able to restructure “what is” in such a way that he/she is able to go beneath and beyond “what is” to the rediscovery anew of reality of the true, the beautiful, the good, God Himself.
Seminaries then ought to challenge their students to develop magnanimous spirits, minds open to the fullness of life all around them; they ought to challenge their students to reach out beyond themselves to others and to let their imaginations wander creatively in such a way that they can go beneath and beyond appearances to new images of reality, to God Himself.
We come back, then, to the three questions I asked at the beginning of this address: What might be the future shape of the Roman Catholic Church in America? Does the Franciscan charism have anything to say about theological education? And what should seminaries – theological schools – challenge their students to do?
We here have only begun to answer anew these questions. I invite you, our Trustees, alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, in virtue of your own wisdom, to join us in pursuing more fully the answers to these three questions in our time.