by the Most Rev. Donald W. Trautman, STD, SSL Bishop of Erie
Saint Vincent Seminary Latrobe, Pennsylvania
May 6, 2011
Archabbot Douglas, Dr. James Maher, Father Justin, Members of the Administration, Faculty and Staff, Brother Priests and Deacons, Consecrated Religious, Seminarians, Family and Friends of our Graduates—and especially our honored Graduates:
Tonight each graduate echoes the words of St. Paul to the Philippians: “I give thanks to my God … praying with joy.” After successfully completing the academic program at Saint Vincent Seminary, our graduates can easily identify with these Pauline sentiments of giving thanks and rejoicing. Each graduate can personalize and paraphrase the words of Saint Paul and say: I give thanks to my God … praying with joy because of my partnership in the Gospel … confident that the one who began this good work of my vocation will continue to complete it. Even though Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians while he was in prison, it is filled with joy. Eleven times Paul uses the word “joy” in this letter. Joy pervades the entire letter, and joy pervades our graduation ceremony tonight.
I commend and congratulate those students who have successfully completed their degree programs. They deserve our recognition and applause for their academic achievements and especially for their patience and perseverance in formation. Tonight flashbulbs go off, people shake the hands of you, our graduates, and you will hear over and over again that one word: congratulations. But behind that word lies a deep meaning. All your gifts and talents, all your abilities and skills, come from God. They are gifts of God to you. They are signs of God’s love for you. Tonight we give thanks and praise to God for the Lord’s grace and guidance to you. You know you have not reached tonight’s success on your own. Acknowledge with gratitude all who mentored you and supported and prayed for you. There are many who share in that word of congratulations: the Benedictine community of Saint Vincent, teachers, spiritual directors, relatives, friends.
I join you, our graduates, in giving thanks. I express profound gratitude to Archabbot Douglas, Father Matro and the Board of Trustees for bestowing an honorary doctorate upon me. I am truly humbled and honored by this award. To God be all honor and glory. I am proud to be associated with Saint Vincent Seminary and the charism of the Benedictines. For the past 21 years I have seen firsthand in the Diocese of Erie the exemplary ministry of priests who are graduates of Saint Vincent. I have witnessed the benefits of their formational and educational program at Saint Vincent Seminary.
Saint Paul speaks of the Philippians as “partners with me in grace”. He speaks of their “partnership for the gospel”. Using that same image I address you as partners—co-workers of Christ —and I ask this question: What are God’s people looking for in seminary graduates? What are the expectations of God’s people for priests today?
First, they are looking for co-workers of Christ who are sincere, authentic, genuine. We must be what we say we are—no playacting. We must be co-workers of Christ, brothers of Christ, humble servants. When you baptize, Christ baptizes; when you anoint, Christ anoints; when you absolve sin, it is the Lord who absolves.
Be sincere, authentic, genuine—no phoniness. A long time ago, in fact centuries ago, Saint Ignatius of Antioch put it this way: Do not have Jesus Christ on your lips but the world in your heart. Let Jesus be the priority, the center of your heart.
Be sincere, authentic, genuine—that also means recognizing your powerlessness. With Christ you can do anything; without Christ you can do nothing. To be an effective, grace-filled disciple means first to be aware of your weakness, your powerlessness. Then God can work through you. Look at the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. What gifts did she bring, what resources did she possess? She described herself as a pencil in God’s hands.
People are looking for priests to listen, to really listen and not pretend you have all the answers. Whether a person is dying or angry, upset or crushed, if you listen, you are always a success. Listen with love and patience and have a compassionate heart.
What are people looking for in today’s priests? They are looking for you to be men of faith and hope. Saint Teresa of Avila wrote: Let nothing disturb you. How do we cope with conflicts coming from our service to the Church? How do we respond to discouragement and disillusionment and disappointments?
We have much in common with those co-workers of Paul who served at the beginning of the first millennium. In his writings, Paul describes what he and his coworkers encountered in promoting the gospel—hardship after hardship, struggles of every kind, discouragement, disappointment, disillusionment, attacks from with the Christian community and attacks from outside the Christian community. All of us can relate to these feelings and experiences. In our day and age we face the same obstacles. We all need a sense of satisfaction and happiness in our ministry. We need support, we need affirmation, we need hope. We cannot accept our vocation to serve as Christ’s co-workers without being wounded. There will be scars and sufferings from our ministry. There will be the pain of rejection, the pain of being misunderstood, the pain of criticism, the pain of frustration. There will be times in our ministries of struggles, hurt, failure, weariness. We can often experience burnout, dejection, sadness, heartache. Does anyone appreciate us? Does the Church value us? At these moments we need hope, Christian hope. We need to ponder Saint Paul’s words to the Romans: “Rejoice in hope, be patient under trial, and persevere in prayer” (Romans 12:12).
We need hope; but what is hope? What do we mean by Christian hope? Christian hope is not blind optimism. It is not putting on rose-colored glasses and pretending that things will automatically get better. True hope is possible only if there are grounds for hope, foundations for hope. The grounds for Christian hope are God’s eternity, God’s goodness, God’s promises, Christ’s resurrection. Christian hope is not naive—it doesn’t hide from tragic situations. Christian hope is realistic. It faces the situation head on. Christian hope is the oxygen of the soul. Without this spiritual oxygen, we cannot survive in the Christian life. Christian hope is the art of perseverance. Christian hope is the courage to be in the circumstances where we find ourselves. Christian hope is courage under pressure. Christian hope is faithfulness in the midst of struggle.
Teresa of Avila understood that kind of hope. She gives us good spiritual advice in these words: “Let nothing disturb you, nothing cause you fear; all things pass, God is unchanging. Patience obtains all: Whoever has God needs nothing else, God alone suffices.”
These words do not simply come from a moment of enlightenment but from her lifelong struggle to live hope, to trust in God.
I am convinced that the most needed virtue for our times—the most needed virtue for priests—is Christian hope.
When Our Lord ascended into heaven, he paid all of his disciples the greatest compliment possible: He entrusted his mission and ministry to us. He gave into our hands the continuation of his work of preaching and teaching and sanctifying. When I ponder the Ascension, I see the great humility of Christ. Christ knows all about us. He knows how feeble and fallible and fault-filled we are. And yet, he makes us his ambassadors, his representatives. Christ has confidence in us, and we need to recall his words: “Know that 1 am with you always, until the end of the world.”
One of my favorite prayers comes from Psalm 18, verse 30: “With you, 0 Lord, I can break through any barrier; with my God I can scale any wall.” These Psalm verses reflect confidence in God, confidence that enables courage to face life’s difficulties. Our Lord prayed the Psalms often. They gave Jesus strength and courage.
It is truly amazing the number of times Jesus talked to the apostles about courage. Recall the incident of the apostles in the boat on the Lake of Galilee. The waves were pounding the boat and Jesus came to them in the darkness of the night, walking on the water. He says to the frightened apostles: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27). Jesus speaks the same words to the Jewish official Jairus: “Do not be afraid” (Luke 8:50). Again, speaking to the apostles after the miraculous haul of fish he said: “Do not be afraid. From now on you will be fishing for people.” When Jesus was preaching to the crowds, he said: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more” (Luke 12:4). In another sermon to the people, Jesus says: “Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7).
On the night before he died, at the Last Supper, Jesus says to his apostles: “Do not let your hearts be troubled … Have faith in God; have faith in me.” And he repeats the words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” What is Jesus saying? Why this emphasis? It is clear from these references that a constant theme of Jesus’ preaching was courage under persecution, courage under pressure. Jesus wanted to give his followers confidence and courage to meet hostility and to carry the cross.
Jesus is always trying to lighten our fears. When he comes in Holy Communion, he assures us that he is giving us everlasting life. That is a great assurance because the greatest fear we have is fear of death. Christ is more faithful to us than we are faithful to him. The Lord never abandons us. He is always the Good Shepherd searching out the lost.
We are not alone. In the Old Testament, God said to the people through the prophet Isaiah: “Do not be afraid for I am with you” (Isaiah 43:5). That theme was repeated by Christ over and over again in the New Testament. Jesus tells his disciples just before he died on the cross: “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage. I have conquered the world.” Jesus, by his victory on the cross and in the tomb has had the last word and we need to have confidence in Christ—a confidence that will give us courage to face all of life’s difficulties.
We need to recall an incident in Saint Paul’s life. Paul was in the midst of an angry mob. The text of the Acts of the Apostles tells us: “The dispute grew worse and the commander feared that they would tear Paul to pieces.” The commander ordered his troops to rescue Paul and take him back to headquarters. “That night the Lord appeared at Paul’s side and said: “Keep up your courage.” Those are the Lord’s words for our graduates this evening.
As for the future, strive to live the words of Saint Paul to the Philippians in Chapter 2: ” … be blameless and innocent … without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine like the stars in the sky.” Let your light shine.
Be sincere, authentic, genuine. Be humble servants and co-workers of Christ. Be men of hope and courage.
Finally I note, from the Gospels it is clear that Jesus devoted most of his time and energies not to healing the sick or preaching to the crowds, but to the formation of the leaders of his Church. You, our graduates, have been in that same formation program. Be grateful to Saint Vincent Seminary and say with Saint Paul: I give thanks to God … praying with joy.