DECEMBER 11, 2020 BY FR. PETER STRAVINSKAS
If one thing characterized priesthood fifty years ago (especially in Europe, even if less so here), it was the priest as a man of learning, that is, possessing a broad grasp of knowledge, a true Renaissance man — an in-depth knowledge of a few areas and a gentleman’s acquaintance with many, many more, so that he could have an intelligent conversation with just about anyone.
Priests were trained in seminary to be perpetual students and to set aside time for study as much as for prayer, which simply followed the Jewish approach to things. Orthodox Jewish observance of the Sabbath to this day is quite restrictive, but two things can and ought to be done with gusto: prayer and study. Interestingly, under the rubric of study, one finds included any discipline or science whatsoever, because all truth is one and should lead a person back to the Creator God.
As a professor of education and former high school teacher and administrator, I find it particularly sad to see a decline of education in general, but it’s even worse for priests and seminarians. Beyond that, we now encounter in all too many clerical quarters an almost full-blown anti-intellectualism. How often have you heard classmates complain about academic demands, ending their tirade with, “What do they want me to be — a saint or a scholar?” As though they were mutually exclusive! But recall St. Teresa of Ávila, who said that, if confronted with the mutually exclusive choice for spiritual director of a saintly priest lacking in theological acumen or a theologian lacking personal piety, she would always opt for the theologian.
Over ninety years ago, the co-founder of New York’s Dunwoodie Seminary theological journal, Father Francis P. Duffy, penned these lines: “Lack of faith is not our difficulty, unless it be that worst form of infidelity which fears to look at the truth. Our main drawback is a certain intellectual sloth which masquerades as faith.”1
What would he say today? For not too many decades ago, the priest was the best educated man in any parish; today, all too often, especially in suburbia, he is the least educated. This explains the hesitancy, the poor self-image, the lack of confidence, the resort to gimmickry. What is the solution? Embark on an intellectual self-improvement plan by becoming friends with the secular classics and the Catholic classics. During my last year of full-time high school work, I offered an elective to the ten best and brightest seniors we had: “The Catholic Intellectual Tradition,” which introduced them to two thousand years of great Catholic thinkers. They couldn’t get enough.
Seminarians can afford no less than high school seniors. Gain an exposure to and appreciation for literature, art, music; be able to use these in the pulpit, the classroom, and the confessional, not to impress but to teach effectively and memorably. If the best you can do is cite the latest films or rock tunes, you’re selling everyone short: your audience (young and old alike), yourself, the Gospel, the Church.
If we want seminarians (and priests) to be scholars, we must facilitate their becoming students. The word “student” comes from the Latin verb studere, which means “to be eager for,” “to be earnest about,” “to take pains,” “to strive after,” “to be busy about.” Are you “eager for,” “earnest about,” “taking pains,” “striving after,” and “busy about” your academic life? You should be; indeed, you must be. To help you move in that direction, I would recommend your prayerful reading of an article by Dominican Father Basil Cole, entitled “Is There a Spirituality of Study?”2 His point is that study ought to be seen as integral to the life of a priest. If he is correct, and I firmly believe that he is, what should you be pursuing?
Learn languages. First, classical languages, which give you entrée to the minds of the greatest men in history and access to a worldview and mode of thinking logically and precisely which will put you in good stead for your whole life. Latin and Greek also serve as your personal introduction to the Tradition of the Church. On 16 June 1999, Pope John Paul, in his hometown of Wadowice, teased and chided the university students gathered to wish him a good night for not learning the classics and embarrassed them all by quoting from memory several lines of Antigone in the original Greek! Without these languages, you will be lifelong hostages to either ignorance or other people’s translations of these treasures of ours. Citing a remark of Cicero (Brutus 37, 140), John Paul reminded young lay people: “It is not so much a matter of distinction to know Latin as it is disgraceful not to know it.”3 Of course, it should go without saying that a man ordained for the Latin Rite of the Church ought to be able to lead the People of God in prayer in Latin.
Second, modern languages: You cannot imagine how pleased people are when you speak or even attempt to speak their language. Finding myself in New York City cabs more often than I prefer, I look at the driver and his name-plate, surmise his ethnicity, and then try to speak at least a few lines in his native tongue. Invariably, his face lights up. My effort tells him the Church cares about him; in a rather hostile, threatening, and uncomprehending world, immigrants need to know that their priests are concerned about them. Beyond that, languages introduce a person to different and enriching thought patterns and cultures – an important experience for any would-be minister of the Gospel.
Professional, academic preparation was also underscored in a 1999 circular letter of the Congregation for the Clergy, “The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium: Teacher of the Word, Minister of the Sacraments.” It reminds us:
We live in an information era characterized by rapid communication. We frequently hear experts and specialists on the television and radio. In a certain sense, the priest (who is also a social communicator) has to compete with these when he preaches to the faithful. Hence, his message must be presented in an attractive manner. His apostolic spirit should move him to acquire competence in the use of the “new pulpits” provided by modern communications and ensure that his preaching is always of a standard congruent with the preached word.
The document goes on to encourage us “to acquire a noble and dignified self-presentation and poise.” It spells this out in great detail when it asserts that “the human ‘key’ to effective preaching of the Word is to be found in the professionalism of the preacher who knows what he wants to say and who is always backed up by serious remote and proximate preparation. This is far removed from the improvisation of the dilettante. . . . Care should therefore be taken with the meaning of words, style, and diction.” (II, 2)
I could make another dozen suggestions in this category, but I think you get the idea.
In Pastores Dabo Vobis, St. John Paul underscored the centrality of study in the life of a seminarian. Listen carefully and take to heart his wise counsel:
Following the teaching and the indications of the Second Vatican Council and their application in the Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis, the Church decided upon a vast updating of the teaching of the philosophical and especially theological disciplines in seminaries. This updating, which in some cases still needs amendments and developments, has on the whole helped to make the education available a more effective medium for intellectual formation. . . .
It is necessary to oppose firmly the tendency to play down the seriousness of studies and the commitment to them. This tendency is showing itself in certain spheres of the Church, also as a consequence of the insufficient and defective basic education of students beginning the philosophical and theological curriculum. The very situation of the Church today demands increasingly that teachers be truly able to face the complexity of the times and that they be in a position to face competently, with clarity and deep reasoning, the questions about meaning which are put by the people of today, questions which can only receive full and definitive reply in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (n. 56)
Let me offer you an image about priests and pursuits of the mind: You know the intellectual level of the priesthood has declined when you go to a man’s room and find his shelves are filled, not with books, but with stuffed animals! Very simply put, gentlemen, your vocation as a seminarian is a commitment to study, to the life of the mind. Your study must be regarded as integral to your life of prayer. As St. John Paul urged other young people, “Do not be satisfied with mediocrity!” If you are not taking your studies seriously, be sure that that omission is the first sin you declare in your next confession. On a more positive note, call to your side all those saintly scholar-priests in our Church’s history; I am thinking of priests like Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, John Henry Newman, and the scholar whose centenary of birth we have been celebrating this year, none other than John Paul II.
Two final encouragements. First, never be afraid to say “I don’t know” when being asked a question for which you are unprepared. People do not expect their priests to be walking encyclopedias or human versions of Google. In fact, your honesty and humility will enhance someone’s estimation of you. Needless to say, go on to say that you will look up the question and return with an answer. In that way, you will prove true the adage that asserts, “Discimus docendo” (“We learn by teaching”). And, last but not least, never be intimidated or threatened by honest questions, especially those coming from the young. After all, the New Testament is filled with questions asked by Our Lord Himself and questions others asked of Him. Honest seekers should be appreciated because, if they are open, they can thereby be led to the truth, the truth who is none other than Christ Himself. And don’t forget that wonderful insight of Cardinal Newman: “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”
Let me sum up now what I have been trying to say. You undoubtedly know that St. Thomas Aquinas, receiving his basic education from the Benedictine monks at Monte Cassino, where he rarely opened his mouth in school, leading his less-than-kind classmates to tag him with the moniker of “the dumb ox,” referring to both his size and silence. Apparently, that unflattering epithet followed him to Paris and Cologne, where his master was Albert the Great. So impressed was Albert by a brilliant reflection of Thomas that Albert spoke prophetically a line that many of us learned even as children in grammar school: “We call him the Dumb Ox, but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world.” What made Thomas “bellow”? His ability to do theology on his knees. His study was prayer. May it be the same for each of you.
This essay was originally a homily preached by Fr. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan, on 24 October 2020, as part of the celebration of the centennial of the birth of St. John Paul II. Known to many, Fr. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987, The Catholic Response in 2004, and the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization providing financial assistance to Catholic high school students and serving as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.
- Thomas Shelley, “What the Hell Is an Encyclical?” U.S. Catholic Historian (Spring 1997), p. 93.
- ”Is There a Spirituality of Study,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review (March 2000), 23-30.
- Address to Participants in the “Certamen Vaticanum,” 27 November 1978.
About Fr. Peter Stravinskas
Fr. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization providing financial assistance to Catholic high school students and serving as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.