Prayer: anchor in storm of distractions

Archbishop Aquila

Did you know that we see hundreds if not thousands of advertisements a day? In fact, the consensus among marketing researchers is that you might see or hear as many as 4,000 per day. We are bombarded by messages and at the same time we are confronted with St. Paul’s message to the Thessalonians – “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).

This column is the third and final installment in the series I have written about Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), which aims to inspire all people to holiness. As I explained in the previous column, this week I am reflecting on the sections “In Constant Prayer” and “Combat and Vigilance.” I have chosen to focus on these specific sections because they address how Christians should interact with and view the world we live in. And questions about our worldview are especially important as the truth becomes harder to discover with the flood of information we experience.

Pope Francis dedicates the last section of his chapter on holiness to the theme, “In Constant Prayer.” Like St. Paul’s exhortation to pray continually, this sounds impossible, and it would be if we had to rely on our own weak powers of concentration and strength. But we know that “with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26). This challenge is so important that Pope Francis says: “I do not believe in holiness without prayer” (GE, 147).

The battle that each of us faces every day and every minute is between the immediate surroundings of this world and the supernatural realities that are simultaneously at work. We tend to focus on what we can see and forget about what we cannot see. Pope Francis writes, “The saints are distinguished by a spirit of prayer and a need for communion with God. They find an exclusive concern with this world to be narrow and stifling, and, amid their own concerns and commitments, they long for God, losing themselves in praise and contemplation of the Lord” (GE, 147).

Being in continuous prayer does not mean reciting prayers at every moment or always experiencing intense emotions, rather it means remaining in the presence of God in whatever we do. We make God the end of every action, thought or word. The Holy Father cites St. John of the Cross to describe this way of living: “Try to be continuous in prayer, and in the midst of bodily exercises do not leave it. Whether you eat, drink, talk with others, or do anything, always go to God and attach your heart to him” (GE, 148).

The secret to remaining connected to God in every moment is one’s relationship with the Holy Trinity. When you know in your heart that your most fundamental identity is as a son or daughter of God the Father, you are able to spend time in silence, resting in the presence of the Holy Spirit and attentively listening to his Word. “In that silence, we can discern, in the light of the Spirit, the paths of holiness to which the Lord is calling us,” (GE, 150) Pope Francis says.

The time spent encountering each person of the Holy Trinity is what sets our hearts on fire and heals us. It deepens reality and enlivens our experience of it. The Pope draws upon a beautiful experience of St. Therese of Lisieux to describe how a community can be transformed in this way. “One winter night,” St. Therese recalls, “I was carrying out my little duty as usual… Suddenly, I heard off in the distance the harmonious sound of a musical instrument. I then pictured a well-lighted drawing room, brilliantly gilded, filled with elegantly dressed young ladies conversing together and conferring upon each other all sorts of compliments and other worldly remarks. Then my glance fell upon the poor invalid whom I was supporting. Instead of the beautiful strains of music I heard only her occasional complaints… I cannot express in words what happened in my soul; what I know is that the Lord illumined it with rays of truth which so surpassed the dark brilliance of earthly feasts that I could not believe my happiness” (GE, 145).

The Holy Father also recognizes there is a constant battle waged by the devil to draw us away from this God-centered way of living. At the beginning of Chapter Five on spiritual combat, Pope Francis makes a point of saying that when we speak of the battle with evil, the Church is not just talking about confronting a worldly mentality or striving to overcome human weaknesses (cf. GE, 158-159). Satan is real; he is “a personal being who assails us” (GE, 160). This is demonstrated, the Pope explains, by the sheer destructive power of the evil one in the world around us.

At the same time, we should not be intimidated by the battle, since we know that Jesus conquered sin, death and Satan through the cross. “Those who choose to remain neutral, who are satisfied with little, who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord, will never hold out” (GE, 163). The key is to engage in the fight by depending on Jesus, cultivating all that is good, true and beautiful, deepening our prayer life and growing in love.

As we begin the less structured time of summer, I pray that you will fortify yourself with the armor of continual prayer, so that you and the people you influence will be drawn closer to Jesus Christ. I invite you to grow in your devotion and attention to the Eucharist and to pray the Rosary with your family. May Pope Francis’ words in Evangelii Gaudium inspire you to take up this challenge. “Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner, borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil” (EG, 85).

COMING UP: The priesthood is more than just a job

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In October, the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region will be held at the Vatican. On the agenda: a discussion on the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood in that region, due to a particularly dire lack of vocations. The news has reawakened discussion on priestly celibacy in general, and whether the time has come to relax the requirement on a wider level. And so, I figured it was time to revisit the subject here, as well.

To set the tone, I’d like to begin my discussion with a very short quiz:

Q: Why does the Roman Catholic Church require lifelong celibacy for ordained priests?

  1. Because sex is bad, dirty and evil, and our priests should not defile themselves;
  2. Because we don’t want to have to support priests’ families out of collection funds;
  3. None of the above; or
  4. Both of the above.

The correct answer would be C, none of the above.

So why, then? Why on earth would these men have to give up the possibility of marriage and children, just because they want to serve God as priests?

Priestly celibacy is a discipline of the Church, not a doctrine. It could change. The rule has already been relaxed in relation to married Episcopalian priests who convert to Catholicism. In this era of widespread priest shortages, and even wider-spread scandals, should we consider expanding that exemption, and remove the requirement of priestly celibacy entirely? Wouldn’t a married priesthood encourage more men, and perhaps healthier men, to respond to the call of God?

Perhaps. But at what cost?

Discussions about the elimination of priestly celibacy are not new. They’ve been around as long as priestly celibacy itself. One of the periods of particularly spirited discussion on the subject was in the late 1960’s. In response, Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical entitled Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. In it, he explained the reasons for the Church’s long history of priestly celibacy, and he enumerated three “significances,” or reasons, for the tradition:

Christological: The priesthood isn’t just a job. It is a state of being. It encompasses his entire existence. It places a mark on his soul — a mark that will follow him into eternity. The priest is ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by another bishop, in an unbroken chain that goes clear back to the apostles. And through that sacramental ordination, and the power and grace it conveys, the priest stands in persona Christi —  in the person of Christ. He has the power to consecrate the Eucharist — to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He can forgive sins.  And so, standing in the person of Christ, the priest seeks to be like him in all things. He imitates Christ’s life, which includes Christ’s celibacy.

But, you say, Christ also had a beard. Does the priest have to imitate that, too? How far do we have to take this whole imitation thing? Well, the question we must ask is: What was integral to Christ’s ministry? Was celibacy integral? What would it look like if Christ had married and had children? He would have had to work to support them. He would have had to provide them a home.  No iterate preaching, moving from town to town. Jesus was not going to be an absentee husband and father. It was the freedom of celibacy that allowed him to give himself totally to the service of the Father and the Father’s children. So yes, I’d say it was integral. The beard, not so much.

Ecclesiological:  This basically means it is about the Church. Our understanding of a priest is not that he’s a single guy, a bachelor. He, like Christ, is in fact “married” to the Church. You’ve heard all that talk about how the Church is the “bride of Christ.” We really believe that. And the priest, standing in persona Christi, likewise becomes the Bridegroom, giving his life for the Church, and especially for the part of the Church he serves. He doesn’t just offer his “workday” to us, the flock.  He offers his life. He serves us as a husband serves his wife. (And we the faithful, as good “wives”, should likewise be going out of our way to love and care for our priests.)  His attention and affections are not divided between his bride, the Church, and an earthly bride and family. He has far greater freedom than a married man — freedom to not only serve his flock, but to pray and meditate and to grow closer to the Christ whom he represents on this earth. Which then prepares him for further service to the flock.

Eschatological: This means it’s about the next life. Remember my last column, about the Poor Clare Sisters who make the radical choice to live this life as if were already eternal life, focusing only on Christ? Well, priests participate in that too. Scripture says that, in Heaven, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage. (Mt 22:30) Priests and consecrated religious foreshadow that here, reminding us that everything that happens in this life is just a prelude to the life to come.

And so, for all of these reasons, I oppose the wholesale elimination of the requirement of priestly celibacy. I realize that we already have exceptions. I know several of those “exceptions,” and I think they are wonderful people and wonderful priests. But I think they would acknowledge the difference between the exception and the rule, and that the loss of priestly celibacy would change our understanding of the character and charism of the priesthood. The priesthood would be increasingly perceived as just another career choice — one to be entered and left at will.

And whatever the priesthood may be, it is definitely not just another job.

Featured image by Josh Applegate on Unsplash