DENVER—He calls himself a “basket-case sinner.”
Raised a Catholic, the youngest of seven children, Lawrence Young was always the most religious of his friends. But through his high school years in Newark, Del., his conscience became subtly eroded, and after graduation he found himself caught up in the “party scene” at a state college, he said.
During the summer of 1989, at age 20, Young was living with a group of guys in a beach house in a little “party town.” His friends appeared untroubled by their indulgent lifestyle, but Young was torn up inside — a “basket case.” But that was before Cor Jesu.
“The hound of heaven was just chasing me down,” Young recalled. “I was disillusioned with the whole party scene, and I became more and more convinced of the desirability of God's ways.”
As he began to pray, certain things started coming back to him: the daily rosary he recited with his dad before school, the family's faithful attendance at Mass, the support from his strong church youth group. And the desire to become a priest.
It's been nine years since that turning point. Young is living in Denver now, sharing a house with another group of guys. You can catch them playing sports, hiking around in the nearby mountains or having snowball fights in the winter. Most of their days, however, are spent in silence, prayer, the study of Latin, spiritual reading and instruction in religious life, as they live the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Young — you can call him Brother Young — and his 10 companions from throughout the United States are members of a new religious institute of men known as Cor Jesu, or “Heart of Jesus” in Latin.
“In the wasteland of broken, hurting people out there, we need the heart of Jesus,” said Brother Young. “We need love today more than ever. Cor Jesu seeks to bring people back again in a fresh way to the beating heart of Jesus Christ.”
Traditional in religious practice and faithful to the magisterium, Cor Jesu seeks to take the charism of St. Ignatius and the early members of the Society of Jesus, and to “translate it for our time and, hopefully, beyond our time,” according to Cor Jesu founder and rector Father Anthony Mastroeni.
“The charism in sum would be a commitment to be identified as an intimate friend and companion with Jesus and the Most Blessed Trinity,” said Father Mastroeni, a diocesan priest and theology professor from New Jersey. “The heart of Jesus is the center of the whole plan of redemption. It is through the heart of Jesus that we return to the Father and receive the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Through Jesus we go to the Father, and the apostolic result, the fruit, of that — because he calls us not only servants, but friends — is to spread the faith.”
Catholic apologist and Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio said he is not surprised that the charism of the Jesuits is being lived out in different communities. He said that men who would have been attracted to the Jesuits in former times are now joining other communities.
“If you can't find [the charism] where it should be found, it's good to find it somewhere,” he said.
Cor Jesu is a sign of hope “after so many years of disappointment,” Father Fessio said. “It is not surprising that zealous, manly young men are attracted to a new order which is enthusiastically faithful to the Church's perennial tradition of priestly and religious life.”
One way the order will live out the charism of friendship with Christ is to provide a “rigorous defense” of the Gospel of Life, an issue that did not even figure into the 16th century, said Father Mastroeni. “We're totally committed to that,” he said.
Catechetics a Priority
But primarily, Cor Jesu priests will specialize in catechetics — providing young people, especially high school age and older, with the foundations of faith, which so many are lacking today, he said. The priests will also be trained to preach the faith in a clear and convincing way. Finally, they intend to offer spiritual direction and what Father Mastroeni calls a “heroic availability” to the sacrament of reconciliation.
“The catechetical challenges are formidable,” Father admitted. “Young people for the most part are uncatechized. Many are from dysfunctional or broken families. They are growing up in a totally secularized environment. For the past 30 years the Church has lost considerable influence in public life.”
But despite being raised in a culture of death and during what he calls the “first pornographic presidency,” young people today do look to a strong Pope for vision and example, he said.
The new order, under the official name Societas Cordis Jesu, Fontis Vitae et Sanctitatis — the Society of the Heart of Jesus, Font of Life and Sanctity — has begun with the blessing of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, who last August granted canonical status to the community as a “public clerical association of Christ's faithful.” The archbishop also arranged for the men to move into his diocese and live in a former convent attached to Sts. Peter and Paul parish.
“The men of Cor Jesu witness to the sacred name they bear through their great love for the Church,” said Archbishop Chaput. “I believe they will be a prophetic voice for the Catholic renewal that is continuing to grow and spread.”
Franciscan Father Benedict Groeschel said he hopes Cor Jesu will be “one of the premier new communities” that offer young people an opportunity to lead fervent and dedicated Christian religious lives.
“Anyone looking for a way to assist the Church in these difficult times would do very well to consider assisting one of these communities,” he said.
Father Groeschel is founder of one such community, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, the “Gray Friars,” established in 1987 and best known for their work with the Youth 2000 Eucharistic-centered retreats.
Other new communities for men include the Fathers of the Pentecost, with a call to Gospel poverty and to “cross-cultural evangelization” in North America among native people, urban blacks and rural Appalachians, and the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, founded in 1988 as a society of apostolic life of pontifical right to form priests in celebrating the Tridentine Mass of the Latin rite.
Their efforts and example are appreciated by the local parishioners who join the Cor Jesu community for daily Mass and give generously whenever they are asked to help, said Father.
“The people have been very good to us,” he said. “You just ask for one thing … we once asked at morning Mass for sleeping bags, and we got about 20 to 25.”
Father James K. Goggins, a priest of the Archdiocese of Denver and pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul, said Cor Jesu is a gift to the parish and to him personally.
“They are a great inspiration for the people of our parish, especially the young people,” Father Goggins asserted. “They have a great vitality and enthusiasm, and the young people are naturally drawn to them. More than anything we see in them the fire of evangelical life in a very profound way. That witness is very much needed in our Church and in parishes around the world.”
The novices are not the only ones being purified by a kind of “spiritual boot camp.” Father Mastroeni, though already a priest, is new to community life — he is learning and living as a novice, even while serving as rector.
At 51, he has a rich background that includes academic degrees in theology, civil law and counseling, providing legal defense for pro-lifers, leading retreats for the Missionaries of Charity around the world, and many years of teaching in high schools and universities.
The idea for establishing the association dates back some 20 years — “it was just a nice thought” that he shared with his friend and co-founder Father Joseph Chacko, Father Mastroeni recalled. But it was while he was teaching moral theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville that Father Mastroeni shared his vision with a few young men. Some were drawn to the idea, and in preparation, six of them began theological studies in Rome. Soon after, with the granting of canonical status, Cor Jesu was born.
After new aspirants to Cor Jesu spend two years in the novitiate, developing the spiritual formation and acclimation to religious life, they will spend up to seven years studying theology and philosophy prior to ordination. Because some of the current novices have a strong theological background already, Father Mastroeni said, the first ordinations will only be a year and a half away.
Brother Young said that after several months with Cor Jesu, he has come back to the simplicity of the faith of his childhood, but with a depth and a love that almost surprises him.
“I am coming to a deeper, firmer belief,” he said. “I am convinced more than ever that a man 2,000 years ago, from Palestine, was the Son of God. His disciples fanned out all over the world, and died for this truth. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life.
“I'm tremendously grateful that I've received this vocation. I want to tell everyone about this. The Catholic faith is the best thing going. What compares to it? The more I enter into it, the more I am delighted and amazed by its beauty, richness and profundity.”
Ellen Rossini writes from Dallas.