Tag Archives: priesthood

A Feast Day for Discerners: Ss. Clelia Barbieri and Henry II

13 Jul

When I hear people say things like “God told me this” or “I think the Spirit is saying that,” I just shake my head. The Lord doesn’t work with me that way. In fact, more often than not, my prayers are generally met with yawning silence – or at least what I interpret as yawning silence. In my head, I know he hears me. In my heart, I know he answers me, one way or other. But in my day to day experience? Crickets. Mainly crickets.

That was especially true when I was struggling with my vocational direction in the years after I joined the Church. At first, it seemed obvious: I was young, single, male, devout – and the Church needed more priests. So, duh, go to seminary, already! Become a priest! Q.E.D. (or something else equally Latin-y for emphasis)!

Not so fast. I met roadblock after roadblock, despite praying up a storm. “God, here I am,” I’d complain. “Ready to come to the Church’s rescue! What’s the holdup? Why the hassle?” (chirp, chirp) It seemed like he wasn’t answering my prayers – that he was ignoring my generous offers to pursue ordination or maybe just overlooking them. But, that couldn’t be: He’s God, after all. What else could possibly be going on?

Then I met Nancy. We fell in love, married, and welcomed a van full of terrific kids over the years. “Ah,” I said to myself after some time. “Now I get it.”

Sound familiar? Maybe you, too, had a turbulent vocational journey. Maybe your path was equally serpentine and mystifying – maybe it still is now. Or maybe yours was more like a beeline. Regardless, today is your day – our day – for today we commemorate a couple saintly intercessors with definite discernment fortes, although with opposite emphases.

St. Clelia Barbieri is from the “God told me” side of vocational assuredness. She was born in 1847 near Bologna, Italy. Hers was a pious, working class family, but their poverty meant that everybody had to chip in. Hence, the youthful Clelia received training from her mother in spinning, sewing, and weaving, although the training was coupled with a thorough grounding in the Faith and sound habits of prayer. She grew up toiling alongside her family while contemplating the things of God, and so when she asked her mother, “How can I become a saint?” she already had her answer.

She was already doing it.

Because of her solid early formation and spiritual maturity, Clelia was allowed to make her first Holy Communion when she turned eleven (at a time when most Catholics had to wait until near adulthood), and she began experiencing spiritual ecstasies and rhapsodic episodes. Even so, she carried on as before in her labors, and her selfless charity and cheerfulness made her a favorite among her co-workers and peers.

Clelia rebuffed all offers of marriage, choosing instead to become a lay leader in the Christian Catechism Workers movement, spreading the Gospel among the sick and poor.  A coterie of like-minded women in the movement gathered around Clelia, and in 1868 the saint – a mere 21 years old – organized them into a community dedicated to prayer and apostolic works.

This band was the nucleus of what would become known as the Little Sisters of the Mother of Sorrows, a religious community that not only outlasted Clelia’s premature death from tuberculosis on July 13, 1870, but has continued to thrive in Italy and around the world. St. Paul VI beatified Clelia in 1968, and St. John Paul II canonized her in 1989.

So here’s a women who seemed to have no doubts whatsoever about her religious calling from her youngest years – a vocational assurance that led her to become, according to her Vatican biography, the “youngest founder of a religious order in the history of the Church.” Fine – and we count on her prayers for clarity and discernment as we bumble along in our own more pedestrian spiritual meanderings. But is there anybody else up there that we can, you know, relate to more? Some saintly somebody that has a history of fits and starts more comparable to our own?

Why, yes, you’re in luck – and his feast happens to coincide with Clelia’s.

It’s St. Henry II, ruler, warrior, and religious reformer. Of royal German blood, Henry was groomed to rule, but he had a natural disposition oriented to prayer and piety. He inherited the imperial title in 1002, Pope Benedict VIII crowned him Holy Roman Emperor in 1014, and Henry did his best to balance the demands of his office with the demands of the Gospel until his death in 1024.

Yet, Henry’s true vocation was to the married state, though not fatherhood. In 998, he wed Cunigunde of Luxembourg (herself a saint) and Henry was truly devoted to his queen. Yet, it was a childless marriage, and there’s some speculation that the couple’s lack of issue was due to their taking vows of perpetual continence. This would help explain the tradition that Henry, exasperated by the demands of statecraft, sought to abandon his throne by vowing obedience to the abbot of St. Vanne at Verdun. “The abbot accepted the emperor’s obedience,” reads Coulson, “but, in return, commanded him to go on ruling the Empire.”

It’s because of this story that St. Henry has been adopted as the patron of those rejected by religious orders. Nonetheless, despite apparent vocational wavering this way and that, Henry persisted in pursuing holiness and he won the crown of sanctity – even in the midst of bearing the crown of rulership.

That’s the kind of perseverance at the heart of all Christian callings, regardless of whether we’re Clelias with straight vocational trajectories, or Henrys with jagged ones. It’s summed up well in the first reading from Henry’s memorial Mass today. “You have been told,” writes Micah, “what the LORD requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Now there’s a divine directive that we can bank on, crickets or no crickets.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Fathers Stay Put: Of Paternity, Stability, and Canon 522

22 Sep

“Efforts must be made to restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance.”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

Read more…

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Grafted In: Of Priests, Vines, and Moving On

23 Jun

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“The priest is not a priest for himself, he is a priest for you.”
~ St. John Mary Vianney

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Of Giving Shots and Making God

21 Sep

“Do not neglect the gift you have.”
~ St. Paul

Our skills lab for nursing fundamentals starts at 7:00 a.m., and so students frequently have trouble staying awake during our tedious PowerPoints and videos. We try to keep them engaged – regaling the students with hilarious anecdotes from our own years as staff nurses, for example – but there’s only so much you can do to make things like bed baths and body mechanics interesting.

nursing-practice-shots-nurse-oceancity'10-275Nobody sleeps on injections day however. Eyes are open wide; attention is rapt. “This is important,” their demeanor suggests. “We’re learning to give shots.”

They’re right – it is important. Of course, we think that everything we teach our beginning nursing students is important, yet there’s no denying that shots are different. Not only does it involve the administration of potent medications – important enough in itself – giving shots also involves jabbing strangers with sharp objects.

The surprising thing, however, is that the teaching part isn’t all that difficult – in fact, it’s actually a lot of fun. Each new detail is like a revelation to the students, and we nursing instructors get a kick out of seeing their reactions. We put syringes and needles in their hands – wonder of wonders! The students watch us demonstrate proper technique by administering injections to manikins – fascinating!

And then the moment comes they’ve all been waiting for: Stabbing a needle into a vial of fluid, drawing up a mock dose of medication into a syringe, and giving that first shot – into an injection pad, granted, but still an honest-to-goodness shot!

It’s all very Montessori-esque and kinesthetic, as the learning unfolds manually, hands on, and not solely by way of abstract whys and wherefores. After the students’ initial lab experience, they will practice – lots of practice, on the manikins and injection pads, and maybe oranges and hot dogs – and they will make the skill their own. Eventually, each student will provide a return demonstration (on a manikin), and only those students who perform the skill safely will be permitted to attempt a real injection on a real patient.

Frankly, that’s when the true challenge comes for the nursing instructor. Teaching shots in the lab is one thing; coaching students to give actual shots to people they’ve just met is quite another.

We’re teaching injections right now at my school of nursing, so all this stuff was in the back of mind when I was at Mass the other day and our assistant pastor reminded us that he’d only been ordained for a year. Thus, a little more than a year ago, Father would’ve still been in the seminary chapel, practicing the Eucharistic Canon as a transitional deacon, and anticipating his first real Mass on ordination day. It got me thinking: What an exciting and strange thing it must be to teach men to say MassDoubt-427x276. What an exalted privilege. And lots of fun to boot – probably one of the best parts of teaching future priests.

Sure, seminaries have to instruct men how to preach and teach, how to counsel and collaborate, and how to run a parish – the Code of Canon Law demands as much, and it’s what you’d expect. But lay people and deacons receive formation in such matters as well, and they often carry out those duties as a part of their ministries. What sets priestly formation apart, among other things, are those dimensions that are specifically geared to the “sacred power (sacra potestas)” conferred at ordination – which, for the priest, includes especially the power to confect the Eucharist. The power, that is, to make God.

For that’s what the word “confect” means – to put something together. In the case of the Mass, it’s the priest putting together bread and wine, along with his spoken words and intention, and, voila!, there’s God himself on the altar! It’s a miracle every time, regardless of how routine it might become for us – or even for the priest. And that’s where I was thinking the parallels between teaching nurses and teaching priests are particularly noteworthy.

I mean, I was already picking up on a correlation in the instruction arenaboth groups of educators guiding their respective students in the mechanics of future privileged duties, and delighting in their charges’ anticipation of the day they themselves would be able to fulfill those duties. Moreover, there are additional similarities with regards to the interior preparation naturally accompanying such practical instruction – instilling in our students the attitudes and dispositions that will facilitate a lifetime of service to the people entrusted to their care.

Finally, there’s also a parallel with regards to the day – for the nursing student, the first real shot; the priest, the first real Mass. No more pretending in the lab or seminary; no more dry runs and rehearsals. This is it – the time has come. The new priests will surely have rattled nerves considering what they’re about to undertake. Do seminary instructors have to coach their students at that point like I do mine? Urging them to project a confidence they don’t possess yet, relying instead on our confidence in them?

But that’s about it with regards to the analogies, I’m afraid, for there’s no comparing the actual tasks at hand. Giving a shot correctly and well – even the first time – is imperative for the recipient and the student nurse alike, and for obvious reasons. But saying Mass? Calling down the host of heaven, and traversing millennia 22bprhoadespopeJPII478to drag into the present Calvary’s awful paradox; holding up created matter, and commanding it to become the Creator himself – this is what the priest does, even that very first time he stumbles and falters his way through the Eucharistic Prayer.

And he’ll be doing it again and again, probably daily, and for the rest of his life. I know nurses can lose touch with the passion for care and service that drove them to nursing school in the first place, and we have to actively guard against that. Do priests have to do the same? Can they forget, in other words, their first love?

Pope John Paul II thought so, which is evident in his apostolic exhortation on priestly formation, Pastores Dabo Vobis. “Live the mystery that has been placed in your hands,” St. John Paul wrote, calling to mind the charge given priests in the Rite of Ordination, “when the offerings of the holy people for the eucharistic sacrifice are placed in his hands.” That mystery is the Lord Jesus himself, of course, who is the source and summit of the Christian life, and whom the priest is directed to enflesh in a particular and irreplaceable way through his life and ministry. The Pope continued:

For this to be so, there is need for great vigilance and lively awareness. Once again, the Rite of Ordination introduces these words with this recommendation: “Beware of what you will be doing.”

“Beware,” the Rite warns – these are dire matters indeed.

Please join me in praying for our priests. We all require the medicine God provides us through their hands; they, in turn, deserve our unflagging support and gratitude.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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