Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Priesthood and Spiritual Motherhood

On Mother's Day Weekend, I was asked to address the Spiritual Motherhood of Priests Retreat on the topic of the Priesthood and Spiritual Motherhood.  Here are my remarks:

I am Fr. Kyle Schnippel, Vocation Director for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.  I originally hail from the northern reaches of the Archdiocese, as I say, where the faith is still very much alive.  I am very honored that my mother drove down this morning to be here as part of this retreat.  As every priest knows, he would not be at the altar without the loving support of his mother.  I’m very lucky in that not only my mom but my whole family was very supportive of my vocation to the priesthood and continue to pray for me as I do for them.  In fact, Grand-Baby Schnippel #19 is due any time now.

However, my task today is to reflect on three interrelated topics to set the stage for launching this apostolate: The Importance of the Priesthood, Spiritual Motherhood and ‘Why this apostolate?’  I will visit each of these topics in due course of my reflections this morning.  I have been given an hour to share my thoughts, which is probably about 45 minutes too long!  But nonetheless, away we go.

On the question of the importance of the priesthood, we begin not with the priest himself, but in the very nature of the human person, all the way back to the creation of Adam.  As Adam was created in the Garden of Eden, there was an incompleteness, a lack within the self, for he was out of relationship.  In His infinite wisdom, God recognizes that ‘it is not good for the man to be alone, let us make a suitable partner for him.’  And God sets out to create all the plants and animals for the man to name, yet none are suitable, none are reflections of God Himself, until, at last, bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, Eve is created from his very side as the one suitable partner in all of creation.  Man was created for the transcendent, there is a longing for more at the very core of who we are as human beings.  As we use our thought to reflect on the nature of the world around us, we see that there is more than meets the eye.  Nature itself reveals the fingerprints of God and points us to both the source of all creation and the goal of all creation.  In this recognition, we hear the echoes of St. Augustine’s great awareness: ‘You have made us for Yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You!’

This plays out repeatedly in the Scriptures, but perhaps never so clearly as when Jesus, following the Sermon on the Mount in Chapters 5-7 or Matthew’s Gospel begins to go around Galilee performing miracles and forming his closest disciples.  As He looks to the crowd that follows after Him, as he visits the towns and villages, Saint Matthew reports that ‘at the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.”’[1]

Isn’t this interesting that the most often quoted passage that speaks of the need of praying for vocations to the priesthood follows Jesus recognizing the hunger in our hearts of the transcendent?  This shows the connection that exists between this longing and Christ establishing the priesthood as His continual presence in the Church and the World after His Ascension.

For, right after He commands us to pray for shepherds after His own heart, Jesus then calls the Twelve forward to begin forming them in the mission they will have after His Resurrection.  At this point, Chapter 10 of Matthew’s account of the Gospel, Jesus sends the twelve only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, commissioning them to share in the program that He had begun over the previous chapters of the account.

By the end of the Gospel, that mission is no longer just to the lost sheep of Israel, but it has become universal:  ‘The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”’[2]

Jesus commissions the Eleven here (and soon to return to Twelve with the addition of Matthias) to take His mission to the world, specifically as priests, for it is the priest that blesses and sanctifies, it is the priest who has the specific mission to teach, it is the priest who consecrates the Eucharist, Christ’s enduring REAL presence still here among us in this very chapel.

Hence, we are able to reflect on the priest as a living icon of Christ.  He is to be a window through whom we are to see into the very mystery of life in Heaven, where there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage (hence celibacy).  As a man, he personifies the life giving mission of Christ by giving freely of himself outwardly so that others might have life.  He stands as a sign of contradiction, just as Jesus himself did: present in this age by guided by the things of the age to come.

Why Priesthood?  Because we instinctively know that there is more here than meets the eye, and by catching sight of the priest, we are offered a constant reminder that all of us have a destiny awaiting in heaven should we simply move away from our self-centered tendency to live for Christ, and Him alone!


If that is why it is important to have priests, why is it important to have spiritual mothers of priests?

Again, as with all things, we turn to the Scriptures.  Tradition is pretty strong that after the Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord, Mary was taken in by John to live with him and he was her ‘guardian’ so to speak.  So even though Mary is only present in his account of the Gospel twice, those two instances are of vital importance.  We will look at each one and then a few instances from history as we turn to part number three of these reflections.

Mary has only two speaking lines in the entirety of the Gospel according to John: ‘Son, they have no wine.’ and to the servants: ‘Do whatever he tells you.’  Both occur during the Wedding Feast of Cana as Jesus turns a large amount of water into a large amount of wine, and good wine at that. 

These two lines of our Blessed Mother have been reflected on countless times through the ages to show Mary’s role of intercessor before Her Son, which I certainly do not want to diminish here, but I would rather like to focus on them from a different perspective, trying to take a step back and look at what is happening in the thread of the story of Jesus at this point in the Gospel.

This is still very early in the Gospel narrative, just chapter 2 of John’s account and it seems to take place prior to the events that are related in the synoptic Gospels as far as Jesus’ public ministry goes.  As we turn back the page to Chapter 1, what do we see?  Jesus is slowly starting to amass a following and has started to invite specific followers to join Him in his peripatetic wanders.  Andrew and Simon; Philip and Nathanael have started to journey with him and are hinted that they are attending this wedding with Jesus.

As Mary sees her son return to their native place (Cana is a short distance from Nazareth) and that he has brought disciples with Him, she recognizes that His Hour is now approaching.  It is time for Him to begin to fulfill the Mission that has been laid down for him from the foundation of the world.  The light must shine into the darkness and the cosmic battle that will play out over the rest of the Gospel narrative takes up the first act, as it were, after the initial prologue of Chapter 1. 

We see in Mary’s gentle invitation to Jesus ‘Son, they have no wine…’ as her invitation to Him to begin to say yes.  In a sense, this is her gentle push out the front door, giving her assent to this Mission.  How many times do we need that gentle little push from mom to get out the door (have to admit, my mom’s wasn’t always gentle!) and get going on what we have been called to do?  Mary gives us a model of how to do so, both in this gentle little reminder and in her follow up instruction to the servants.  ‘Fine, if He won’t listen, I’ll make Him go!’

The lesson is, of course, don’t cross your mother!  Or, if we just followed what she asked us to do in the first place, wouldn’t we all be happier?

But a mother’s wisdom is deep and profound, both for that child and for the rest of the family.  There is a rather curious little encounter back in Matthew’s account of the Gospel, again at the end of a period of Jesus performing a set of miracles and other events and in the midst of a further set of teaching.  At the end of Chapter 12, Jesus’ mother and brothers ‘appeared outside, wishing to speak with him.  But he said in reply, “Who is my mother?  Who are my brothers?”  And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.  For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister and mother.”’[3]

Does this somehow indicate a slight towards Mary?  It certainly seems to on first glance.  Rather, I think one way of interpreting it is to look at this passage in a way that Mary is helping to form the rest of the (extended) family to embrace the call that their relative and friend has embraced.  Remember, she has a unique insight into this from His Birth that the rest do not have.  Therefore, not only does she help Him to understand His mission, as we saw in the previous episode from St. John, we also see that a mother helps others to understand the mission given to her son.

Once again, if you want to ‘persuade’ someone, don’t go to that person, go to their mother.  She knows how to press his buttons better than anyone else!

One final look at an episode from the Gospels, and this one is fairly universal.  The key moment in Jesus life is Crucifixion.  This is truly the lens through which His entire mission and ministry is understood.  And, once again, we see Mary present by His side.  At that most traumatic moment of His life, either struggling with the acceptance of the Cross or reigning as the King of Heaven, there is Mary, standing to his side, in love, in support, in quiet encouragement of embracing the Mission given to Him by His Heavenly Father.

Once again, how completely human of the whole picture, and how much we are able to relate to this simple act of support to our own lives.  How many times do moms sit on the sidelines of soccer practices?  How many times do moms wait patiently while her child is out later than expected?  How many times do moms quietly pray when she knows her child is going through a particular trial or ordeal?  What our physical moms do, now we are able to turn and look to see our ‘spiritual moms doing the same thing.


And hence we turn to part three as to why we need this apostolate.

Christopher Dawson, the great English historian and anthropologist, remarked that whenever anyone mocks or challenges the ‘Church,’ the one they are really attacking is the Catholic Church.  Now, they hardly have the decency to pretend otherwise as the attacks on our Church have grown stronger and more direct over just the last few months.  And our priests and bishops will be forced to lead the charge against it.  If they (we) are not strong and firm in our convictions, we will not be able to lead you in the contest we face these days.  It is as simple as that.

The Anchoress who blogs for Patheos, an online religious portal, wrote a while back under the provocative title: ‘Don’t pray for good priests!’  We do not need ‘good’ priests right now, we need excellent priests, we need holy priests, we need courageous priests.  And this is where your prayers can come in.

We got a bit of flack a while ago in the Vocation Office when we put out a program that had a simple quote from St. John Vianney on the priesthood.  It went something like ‘There are no bad priests, just priests who’s people haven’t prayed hard enough for him!”  And while certainly even priests are free to turn aside from the grace offered by Christ through the intercession of the faithful, there is an indication of the familial dimension of our faith in this statement.  As the priest stands and offers the Sacrifice on your behalf, you offer your prayers and intercessions on his behalf.

Do not think these are empty prayers or unneeded prayers, they are very much needed.  As I was given the title of this talk, I was asked to explain what was contained in the document that introduced this concept to the Church.  On the eighth of December, 2007, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the Congregation for the Clergy released the following document: ‘Adoration, Reparation, Spiritual Motherhood for Priests’[4]  As I looked at it earlier this week, I thought, ‘How am I going to fit a 40 page document into an hour talk?’

Well, then I, umm, actually read the thing.  It contains mostly stories of the impact that this type of prayer has had on priests and bishops over the centuries.  If you Google ‘Congregation for the Clergy Spiritual Motherhood’ it will be the first result to come up and I will have this copy available in the back during lunch, but I would like to share a few of the stories told in this document.

Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, d.1464, had a dream one night.  He entered a small chapel and despite the tiny size, more than 1,000 nuns were praying in unison.  Standing together, each one had her hands raised in prayer, carrying the soul of a man, woman, child; some together held a city or even a nation.  He was struck with divine bliss as he saw one elderly nun who held him in prayer, with all ‘the wrinkles of his age; he saw the blemishes of his soul and his life in all their clarity.’  His guide through this dream gently explained “Now you see how sinners are sustained and carried and, in spite of their sins, have not given up loving God.”  The basement of the little chapel was filled with nuns who carried in their hearts the souls of those who had ceased loving God, interceding that the ember of faith might be rekindled in them.  Cardinal Cusa turned the Bishop’s Castle into a convent for Benedictine Nuns, where they remain to this day.

The little village of Lu, northern Italy, outside of Turin, was also noted.  Roughly 150 years ago, the mothers of this small village got together in a shared desire that one of their sons might become priests.  Gathering together every Tuesday for Adoration, they interceded before our Eucharistic Lord for priests, even to the point of offering their sons for this holy vocation.  Every ten years, the sons and daughters of this little village of a few thousand who have become priests and/or religious return home to see one another.  At last count, they numbered over 300, some of whom have even now been beatified.

One final story.  Archbishop Schnurr tells the story of preparatory work that he was involved with in the lead up to World Youth Day, Denver.  At one point, they submitted the plans reworking and expanding the schedule of World Youth Day from just a weekend event to the week long event that it now has.  As the comments came back from the dicastry in Rome, the Cardinal overseer questioned the program that was submitted.  ‘There is no time for fun in this program!’  Then Father Schnurr remarked: ‘Eminence, we submitted a number of things, but your staff removed them all.’  The Cardinal replied: ‘They are teenagers, they can’t be on their knees all the time!’  So the schedule was reworked and times of celebration were included.  This Cardinal, whose name I simply could not remember nor was Google any help in finding, was a rockstar during World Youth Day, kids flocked to him, even though he spoke only Italian and Spanish.

I mention him because his mother was told after her first child that she would never be able to have another child.  This son of hers was her 20th and last child.  His cause of canonization was introduced the same day as Pope John Paul II.  For those who trust in God’s providence and care, God will reward with greater generosity and care.

We have briefly discussed the need for the priesthood in our day and age as a way of responding to that deep need for the transcendent that exists in our world.  We have looked at how Mary, Mother of Jesus and Mother of priests, stood beside Her Divine Son during the key moments of His life, reflecting on the events that she witnessed in the silence of her heart.  We have looked at how religious and laity have prayed for priests down through the ages.

It is now our turn to take up the call.  Unless we have the courage and conviction to ask for a miracle, it will never happen.  Pray for me and my brother priests, pray for us to be courageous and wise shepherd; bold and daring preachers, compassionate and gentle confessors; that the tides of the enemy that seek to wash away the Church may once again be turned back by the rock solid faith which you exhibit this day.

God Bless and please be assured of my prayers for you.

[1] Matthew 9:36-38
[2] Matthew 28:16-20
[3] Matthew 12:46-50
[4] http://www.catholicpriest.com/docs/adoration_for_priests.pdf

No comments: