Thursday, November 15, 2007

No higher vocation than ours

A little while back the following piece appeared on the community listserv. It was written by Fr. James Gillis CSP in The Tarsian [which, I should add, is a rather delightful, if unusual name!], the Spring or Fall 1949 issue. This was the journal of the Preparatory Seminary in Baltimore. It's worth a read, despite (because of? :) the rather "pre-Vatican II" sounding language! [My initial response is appended at the end.]


Father James Gillis, C.S.P.

The Superior General in his latest News Letter reports that in one year three novices have left us to join the Trappists. He adds that the Abbot of the Cistercians in Utah informed him that candidates have come to them from "many" orders. There is no cause for regret in that fact. On the contrary, the Paulists -- and I dare say the others -- are happy to surrender to the Cistercians those who feel that God calls them to a different life than ours.

I say "different", not "better" or "higher". In Catholic teaching there is no higher or holier vocation than that of the apostolic priesthood. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains quite clearly (II-IIae qu.179-182) the contemplative life combined with the active life is more meritorious than the contemplative life alone. Contemplation with teaching and preaching is better than mere contemplation. The saint says, "it is better to communicate the fruits of contemplation to others than merely to contemplate."

Those who are preparing for the most perfect life that man can lead on earth, the kind of life chosen by the Saviour for Himself and His apostles, should cherish a firm conviction that the way to the highest sanctity is open to them not less than to those who prefer the cloister. It would be difficult to imagine St. Peter or St. Paul leaving the world to remain permanently in the desert. But it would not be difficult to imagine their reply to one who should attempt to lure them into life-long solitude with the argument that they could be more holy and serve God better in the desert than in Corinth or Philippi or Ephesus or Rome. It is true that sin abounded in those cities, but as St. Paul says, "where sin abounded, grace did more abound" (Rom. 5:20). The wickedness of the world was not a deterrent but a stimulant to the sanctity of the apostles. Indeed the vice of the world was the occasion of their virtues. "Have confidence," says our Lord, "I have overcome the world while remaining in the world." He overcame the world while remaining in the world, As with him, so with his apostles.

Such is the theme upon which our patron St. Francis de Sales (amongst others) loved to dilate: holiness may be achieved in any walk of life. There is no life in which greater holiness is required than that of the priest in the world. Where holiness is required it is, of course, possible. Our Saviour demands of His priests and apostles no less perfect a life than that of those whom He calls to the cloister.

In our form of life, therefore, emphasis should not be laid upon the fact that parochial and apostolic activities add to the difficulty of prayer, but upon the more pertinent fact that Divine Grace will be dispensed in proportion to that difficulty. We are all familiar with the saying "cui multum datur, ab eo multum quaeretur" which may be roughly translated, "God expects generosity from those to whom He is generous. But where He demands generosity, He provides the wherewithal to be generous.

So, whatever may be the motive of those who abandon the strictly apostolic duties of the priesthood (or the prospect of them), it is to be hoped that they do not act from a mistaken opinion that a lesser sanctity is expected in our form of life than in some other, or that the means to achieve any degree of sanctity, even the highest, will be wanting to those whom God has called to the highest and greatest of all earthly careers, that of priest and apostle.

My thoughts: Yes, they sound "pre-Vatican II" but I think the heart of the matter is right on the money. And while the Council may have reminded us that all are called to this high degree of holiness, I don't think it detracts at all from the laity to emphasize that there is a special way in which the Lord calls men to serve His Church as priests. As someone who feels called to that life -- and certainly in my work with young people as they try to discern God's call in a very noisy world, this approach, I think, speaks to our generations in a way, perhaps, that priests of a previous generation might not identify with, and might simply remind them of the clerical caste-ism that the Church (rightly) moved away from after the Council.

It was this sense of challenge, of high adventure in following the Lord that, I think, really came out in the USCCB vocation video "Fishers of Men" (which just won an award), and, I think, that it is this sense of high adventure that tends to attracts men to the priesthood these days.

Of course, this sense of the high-adventure of discipleship (countercultural in so many ways today) also applies to all the baptized as well (and again, when presented this way, in my experience, young people respond!) ... Fr. Gillis writes above that the greatest of calls includes "priest and apostle." I wonder how much we really develop that latter call -- apostleship -- among all believers, especially the laity. All are missionaries, as the Council taught, as the Popes have reminded us. How do we actually equip them to develop their skills to serve the mission of the Church --- in the world, which is their proper role especially (again, as the Council taught) -- how are they formed? Are our communities places where all are taught to discern their vocation and God's call? These are the kinds of things that energize me about ministry in today's Church.

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