Thursday, October 27, 2011
Into Thy Hands: The Making of Great Men
“It is not enough that the Bishop know nothing of evil of the ordained, but he must have positive evidence of his uprightness.”
-St. Alphonsus de Liguori
"If it should ever be impossible to maintain the present number, it is better to have a few good priests than a multitude of bad ones."
-The Lateran Council
Into Thy Hands: The Making of Great Men was Sky View's first series of posts in 2010. Due to its length I have divided it up into two sections. This piece was inspired by Fr. Antonio Rosmini's book entitled, Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church. It was published in 1832.
Certain messages need to be repeated. As such, I like to repost Rosmini's insights at least twice a year. He unearths pastoral priorities and practices of the Catholic Church in the first millennium which led to a robust evangelization and widespread conversions. Going into the second millennium, these biblically and patristic (i.e. Church Fathers) based pastoral standards resulted in a flourishing of cultural activity and innovation. Unfortunately, during the latter half of the twentieth century, the Church departed from these effective pastoral priorities and practices. Nevertheless, it is evident that a renewal is slowly underway in the Catholic Church. Indeed, there are sparks of hope.
Millennial Imbalance of Canonized Popes:
Only great men can make great men. Great systems, great programs and great schools do not make great men.
Out of 265 popes, the majority of them have been good men and good leaders. Some prove to be great and only a handful turned out to be a real disappointment.
However, if one takes a look at the list of these 265 popes, one cannot help but notice something. If you were to divide the list of popes into two equal parts, you will see that the first half of this list is front-loaded with Saints; the second half contains just a few Saints.
For instance, in the first millennium of Christianity there were 74 canonized popes; popes who reached sainthood. In the second millennium, however, there were only 5 canonized popes. Out of all the popes of the first thousand years, about 54% of them were Saints (74 out of 139). In the second thousand years, however, there was a precipitous drop of saintly popes; a little over 4% of all the popes reached Sainthood (5 out of 119).
You might be asking: So what? The reasons behind the huge gap between the first and the second millennium popes will go a long way in explaining why the Catholic Church does not have the influence on civilization it once had.
As a matter of fact, Pope Benedict XV in 1917 asked a very important question in his encyclical, On Preaching the Word. Indeed, many Catholics are asking this same question today: Why is it that the Church in the twentieth-century does not enjoy the same success as the Church in the first three or four centuries?
Great Men Led To Rapid Growth:
After all, Christianity was legalized in 313 A.D. with Christians only making up about 10% of the total population of the ancient world. Just 50-60 years later, Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire. In just over 300 years, beginning with the Apostles, the Gospel spread like wildfire. The most powerful empire ever to exist went from suppressing Christianity and executing Christians to worshipping Christ and honoring the Saints. Soon thereafter a Christian civilization was born.
Pope Benedict XV goes on to remind us that Catholic Church in modern times possesses the same Sacraments, the same Gospel, and the same Holy Spirit as did the early Church. So, why do we have different results? Why is it that Christianity seems to be losing ground while Secularism appears to be making great strides?
The answer to this last question has a great deal to do with why the first thousand years of Christianity enjoyed so many popes who were Saints; popes who were truly great men!
Whatever can be said about the Popes of the last two millennia can be said of the Bishops and Priests as well. Like the father of a family, the Pontiff, the supreme head of the Catholic Church, quite often sets the tone for the rest of its members.
To ask the same question another way: What was it about the Popes of the second thousand years of Christianity that differed from their predecessors of the first thousand years?
Rosmini's 1832 Book:
A book published in 1832 titled, Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church,
points us in the right direction. It was written by a Catholic priest by the name of Fr. Antonio Rosmini. In his book, he unearths common pastoral practices of the early Church Fathers that had literally been forgotten. So novel (but yet so traditional) were his ideas that his book was censored by the Vatican. A year before his death, however, Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church was vindicated and no longer censored. Like most men ahead of their times, his ideas were treated with suspicion. With that said- and despite the opposition he merited from his book -he managed to win the favor of Pope Pius VIII, Gregory XVI and Pius XI.
The Original Seminary: Bishop's House
Arguably one of Fr. Rosmini’s most important points is this: “In the early ages of the Church, the Bishop’s house was the seminary of his priests and deacons.” He goes on to say the following:
• “It is to this system that we owe the eminent Pastors for whom the first six centuries of the Church were so remarkable. By means of this full and perfect system the sacred deposit of Divine and Apostolic doctrine was faithfully transmitted from one to another through informal and oral communication.”
• "They believed that the words of the Pastor, appointed by Christ to rule and teach the Church, derived a special and unique efficacy from the Divine Founder. This belief imparted supernatural life and energy to the doctrines taught, so that they made and indelible impression on men’s minds. As a result, there was a constant supply of great men…the Bishop of old diffused and reproduced himself in the young clergy, being to them teacher, pastor, and father; adding dignity to the compact body of the priesthood, and securing a healthy influence over the people."
Christ personally formed his Apostles not only by preaching and giving instruction but through informal conversations and spending time with them. During his three year public ministry Jesus did not rely on formal and systematic education. He did not send his disciples off to school. He took the responsibility upon himself to make them into his own image.
So that his Apostles and their successors could do the same, Christ conferred on them a special power. This power is none other than the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The fullness of this sacrament resided in the Apostles but was then transmitted to the Bishops. With this power, the Bishop not only to educated in the first several centuries, but he personally inspired, formed and guided his seminarians and priests. Truly, his house was the seminary!
Unfortunately, this responsibility of the Bishop ended up being delegated to other priests and professors towards the end of the first millennium. Seminaries and universities eventually took over what the Bishop used to do. Hence, the Bishop, who is endowed to form hearts and minds with the full force of Holy Orders, became less of a factor in this process of raising the next generation of priests. “The constant supply of great men” began to wane.
Holiness: Not Optional but Required
The second compelling point worth noting from Fr. Antonio Rosmini’s book, Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church, was that the standard for choosing priests and Bishops was one of knowledge and holiness; the emphasis being on holiness. This was the criteria used in the first centuries of the Church. “It may be truly said,” Rosmini writes, “that knowledge sprang from holiness, since the former was sought solely out of love to the latter; knowledge was sought after so far as it was essential to holiness, and no other knowledge was desired.” That’s right! Knowledge was to be sought for the sake of holiness. And holiness, in return, was a source of knowing God and his will.
In a letter to St. Timothy, who himself was a young Bishop, St. Paul reminds him to aim high in choosing Bishops. He writes, “A Bishop must be irreproachable.” That is, he must be blameless or faultless. This is a high standard. And only a holy Bishop can measure up to it. Such Bishops would be responsible for reproducing great men.
After the Apostles died, saintly Bishops known as the Fathers of the Church carried on the mission of proclaiming the Gospel. They were consumed with the desire to glorify God and to proclaim Christ-crucified to as many people as possible. In discerning the right men for the priesthood, the high standard of holiness continued to be the overriding requirement for new candidates. The Fathers of the Church understood that furthering the kingdom of God depended on it! Perhaps this can explain why, out of the first 50 popes, 48 of them were Saints.
Laying on of Hands: A Serious Matter
Centuries later St. Thomas Aquinas confirmed the standard of the early Fathers: “Holiness must come before Holy Orders.” Holiness is not just an absence of evil, it is something positive. Indeed, there are specific virtues, orthodox beliefs, and sound temperament to look for in a candidate. As St. Alphonsus de Liguori said, “It is not enough that the Bishop know nothing of evil of the ordained, but he must have positive evidence of his uprightness.”
So serious was this obligation of selecting the right candidate for the priesthood (and episcopate) that not a few Church Fathers claimed that the one who did the ordaining would have to answer for the sins of the ordained. In other words, choosing an unworthy priest or Bishop could not be chalked up to an administrative error, but it is something that would have spiritual consequences for the ordainer.
For instance, the fifth-century pope, St. Leo the Great, wrote the following to his bishops: “To impose hands lightly is to confer the sacerdotal dignity on persons not sufficiently approved: before maturity in age, before merit of obedience, before a time of testing, before trail of knowledge, is to be a partaker of other men’s sins and for the ordainer to become as unworthy as the unworthy man whom he ordains.” St. John Chrysostom, a Bishop and Father of the Church himself, reinforces this standard in the same century: “You who have conferred the dignity upon him must take the responsibility of both his past and his future sins.”
Off and on, over the centuries, this standard of holiness was relaxed for various reasons; but at a great cost. It took courageous reforming popes like St. Gregory the Great, St. Gregory VII and St, Pius V to insist that holiness be the most important criterion in determining Bishops and priests.
The Crisis: Evidence of a Departure
We are at a time in our Church’s history which calls for the renewed emphasis on holiness for seminarians, priests and Bishops. In the last 40-50 years, the Catholic population has nearly doubled but the number of priests has decreased considerably. In an article, State of the US Catholic Church at the Beginning of 2006, Fr. John McCloskey provides statistics to this effect:
- In 1965, at the end of the Council, there were 58,000 priests. Now there are 41,000
- In 1965, 1,575 new priests were ordained. In 2005, the number was 454, a decrease of more than two-thirds — and remember that the Catholic population in the US increased during these years from 45.6 million in 1965 to the 64.8 million of 2005, a rise of almost 50%.
- Between 1965 and 2005, the number of seminarians fell from 50,000 (some 42,000 of which were high school and college seminarians, while another 8000 or so were graduate seminarians) to today's approximate 5000, a decline of 90%.
The low number of seminarians and priests in the West is not the only indicator which calls for a new way of doing things at our seminaries and dioceses. Sadly, the priestly scandals, which were such a major source of shame for the U.S. Catholic Church in 2002, reared their ugly head in Europe just a few years ago. If there is any evidence that holiness has not been the highest priority in forming seminarians and in choosing priests, it is the scandalous misuse of the office of the priesthood and the toleration of that misuse. But like no other institution, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, especially in America, has begun the process of correcting past mistakes over the last decade; although much has yet to be done.
From this same crisis another challenge to the priesthood is making itself felt in a big way: And that is the increased responsibility of the parish priest. Young priests, not too long after being ordained, are becoming pastors of parishes in short order. A rector of a seminary informed me that the crisis of priestly vocations will peak in about ten years (around the year 2020). It will not be at all uncommon for your average priest to pastor two parishes. Even now, numerous are the reports from newly ordained priests of their overwhelming work load.
The Resilience of the Church:
If I can proffer some good news it is this: The Catholic Church, unlike other institutions, has the ability to renew itself. On the other hand, every single nation and every single institution has a mortality rate. Each one will pass away. But the Catholic Church is immortal; her very nature defies death; as such, she will endure until the end of time. Quite often throughout history, the Church looked mortally wounded. Indeed, her enemies were too quick to write her obituary. But new life was infused into her.
With all the discouraging news and setbacks we have experienced, I believe, nevertheless, that God is doing a new thing: He is awakening the Catholic Church; most notably, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. However, it is only when holiness comes before Holy Orders, as St. Thomas Aquinas said it must, that great men will multiply within the Church. When that happens, the Catholic Church will be that shining city on the hill, giving light to all the nations.
I would like to leave you with a memorable quote from Pope St. Pius X. He wrote this passage when boasting of Christ and his Church was not frowned upon. Just ten years before Europe would be ravished by World War I and just as the secular age was making itself felt, he said,
"Kingdoms and empires have passed away; peoples once renowned for their history and civilization have disappeared; time and again the nations, as though overwhelmed by the weight of years, have fallen asunder; while the Church, indefectible in her essence, united by ties indissoluble with her heavenly Spouse, is here to-day radiant with eternal youth, strong with the same primitive vigor with which she came from the Heart of Christ dead upon the Cross. Men powerful in the world have risen up against her. They have disappeared, and she remains."
Posted by Joe at 7:43 PM