For Many Seminarians, The Pontiff Is the Man

ROME—Aspirants to the seminary are commonly interviewed by various chancery officials, inquiring as to the plausibility of a priestly vocation. Three years ago in a large American diocese, a friend of mine had such a meeting and was asked by the presiding nun which priest had had the greatest influence on his vocation.

“Sister, it would be the Holy Father,” he said.

It was not the answer she wanted. She pressed for another response — perhaps he wanted to mention a local parish priest or chaplain, the nun suggested. But my friend persisted. The simple truth was that Pope John Paul II was the most influential figure in his vocation, far more influential than any of the priests he had met personally.

His story is not unusual. A majority of seminarians today would likely name John Paul II — his person and his teachings — as a major factor, if not the major factor, in their hearing the call of God to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

When I first announced that I would be entering the seminary, a French graduate student I knew from the university chaplaincy told me: “You are going to be part of the John Paul II generation of priests — dynamic and zealous.”

Perhaps, Deo volente. On one level, to speak of the John Paul II generation of seminarians and priests is just chronological shorthand. After 20 years in the See of Peter, almost all current seminarians have grown up with John Paul as pope. Indeed, many now beginning their formation were born after Oct. 16, 1978.

Yet when observers speak of the John Paul II generation — or perhaps more precisely, the generation of John Paul II enthusiasts — they are speaking of much more than a period of time. They correctly identify two characteristic marks of many in this generation. First, that the figure of John Paul II has been a decisive factor in their entering the seminary. Second, that these seminarians are self-consciously John-Pauline men, taking after their model in many ways.

It is likely that whoever was pope these last two decades would have been more of a factor than his predecessors in influencing young men to enter the seminary. The sheer media exposure of the modern papacy means that many people identify the Church with its supreme pastor on earth, in contrast to an earlier period when the parish priest served as the day-to-day public face of the Church. More Catholics today would recognize the face and voice of the pope than would recognize their own local bishop. John Paul has magnified this effect by his travels, his enormous written output, and his mastery of the theater of public appearances. The Holy Father's exposure is wide because of our age, but his influence is deep — deep enough to persuade many men to give their whole lives — because of what he preaches, and how he lives.

He would be the first to acknowledge that what he preaches is not his own message, and that his life is the work of Christ, who lives in him. He attracts young men because he is humble enough to realize that no mere man can ever be attractive enough to draw authentic priestly vocations to the Church. He stands apart from the celebrities who celebrate themselves and their works alone. From his first homily as pope, when he exhorted the world to open wide the doors to Christ, he has consistently presented Jesus alone as the answer to all the questions modern man asks. “Build your lives on the one model who will never deceive you,” he said at World Youth Day in Manila: “Jesus Christ.”

“In that little Host is the solution to all the problems of the world,” he once preached. That kind of statement — so simple, so radical, so incredible — invites even the most cynical to look a second time. That a world-class intellect can believe that — it is so astonishing as to invite the leap of faith that idealistic young men have always been eager to make.

John Paul II knows that proposing high ideals to young men is the only way to satisfy their longing to give their lives to a great cause. He shares the joy of a young man who discovers within his heart the divine call to the greatest cause of all.

“A bishop's joy is great when the Lord gives vocations to his Church, while their absence causes him anxiety and concern,” he wrote in Gift and Mystery, the book commemorating the golden jubilee of his priestly ordination.

The worldwide increase in vocations to the priesthood is a cause for rejoicing. At least three aspects of the Holy Father's personality are partially responsible for attracting sufficient vocations to reverse what had been a downward trend.

First, his identity as a priest is secure. He has done many things — far more than most priests. A sometime philosopher, poet, playwright, and professor, he has practiced the arts of diplomacy and high politics as a prince of the Church. Yet he understands himself, and presents himself to others, as a priest, first and last.

“I am deeply grateful to God for my vocation to the priesthood,” he has said. “Nothing is more important to me or gives me greater joy than to celebrate the Mass each day. This has been truly so since the day of my ordination to the priesthood. Nothing has ever changed this, not even the fact of being elected pope.”

The fact that the world's outstanding personality at the close of the century is a septuagenarian priest is a surprise, but there are no other figures on the world stage today who approach him in stature. And to the same extent that he commands attention for that reason, he calls attention to his priesthood, self-understood as rooted in the Mass. It is small wonder, then, that many young Catholics want to be like their hero, John Paul II, and so open themselves to the possibility of a priestly vocation.

Second, the Holy Father is a witness. He understands that a witness is far more powerful than even a very good teacher. John Henry Cardinal Newman spoke of this when he analyzed what makes a man assent to a truth and reform his life. It is not the power of words, but the witness of a man:

“Deductions have no power of persuasion,” wrote Newman, in The Grammar of Assent.”. The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.”

The Holy Father's vast experience with youth has only confirmed Newman's point. “A priest can be a guide and teacher only to the extent that he becomes an authentic witness,” he has written. “People, especially the young, are looking for such guides.”

The Holy Father's witness to the Gospel invites admiration, and more to the point here, emulation. Whether by forgiving his would-be assassin, standing up to the principalities and powers of the world in defense of innocent lives, or pushing himself to the limits of physical exhaustion as his health fails, his witness alerts others to the real possibility of fighting the good fight, of keeping the faith, of running the race to the end.

Third, the Holy Father is not timid about calling men to the priesthood. The fact that a vocation is a mysterious thing does not mean that the means of promoting them are unknown. One reason that so many young men credit the Holy Father with their vocations is that he may have been the first one, or even the only one — albeit at a great distance — who talked to them about the possibility of becoming a priest. The Holy Father does not think this state of affairs is optimal.

“The time has come to speak courageously about priestly life as a priceless gift and a splendid and privileged form of Christian living,” he writes in Pastores Dabo Vobis, his apostolic exhortation on priestly formation. “Educators, and priests in particular, should not be afraid to set forth explicitly and forcefully the priestly vocation as a real possibility for those young people who demonstrate the necessary gifts and talents. A clear invitation, made at the right time, can be decisive in eliciting from young people a free and genuine response.”

It is no surprise that the response has come where the call has been issued. And many of those who have responded form today the John Paul II generation of seminarians. It is always difficult to make generalizations about large groups, but some observations have been made so repeatedly about this cohort that it is possible to suggest some common characteristics.

First, there is a great sense of Catholic confidence. Most seminarians today are not beset with doubts about whether the Church is teaching the truth about faith and morals, including the difficult questions of sexual morality that so preoccupy our contemporary culture. They intuitively understand what the Holy Father speaks about when he writes that the world is “growing tired of ideology” and is “opening itself to the truth” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope). Looking around, they see no competing worldview that offers the coherence, persuasiveness, and even the adventure of Catholicism at the dawn of the third millennium.

For better or worse, many of these seminarians are not particularly interested in the disputes that have divided the Church since Vatican II. They generally accept the Holy Father's reading of the council as the authentic one. Rather than argue, they quietly ignore those who are still fighting battles of the 1960s and 1970s, that is, before many of the John Paul II generation made their first communions. Indeed, the willful deafness of the new generation to so many of the rallying cries of the immediate postconciliar period can be a source of tension between generations of priests.

Second, many of the John Paul II generation desire to be men of the Church. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon, but a matter of a different emphasis. Where a previous generation might have sought to evangelize the culture by adapting themselves to become more like the men of the world, this generation tends to favor being unabashedly Catholic. Perhaps, as modernity collapses in upon itself, there is less concern for what the modern world thinks. Whatever the reason, the traditional Catholic practices are enjoying a revival: adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, frequent confession, devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, the rosary, pilgrimages, Latin chants, penitential practices such as abstinence and fasting. The increasing number of those who wear clerical clothing, including the cassock, is also part of this desire to be visibly Catholic.

Third, this generation is predominantly “Roman.” This follows naturally from the influence of the Holy Father himself, as the Roman aspect of their vocation was central from the beginning. The loyalty of many to John Paul n himself is fierce, and the willingness of many to be docile to the magisterium is pronounced. In discussing various issues, seminarians frequently ground their arguments by appealing to the documents of Vatican II, the recent papal magisterium, and even the personal teachings and practices of the Roman pontiff. In this last regard, John Paul II has secured for his successors a generation both more aware and more supportive of the initiatives of the Apostolic See.

The John Paul II generation has its flaws, of course. Original sin is still as formidable an obstacle as ever. And, as is common in the spiritual life, their dominant flaws are related to their dominant strong points, as enumerated above.

Confidence can become triumphal-ism. A belief that the world has nothing better to offer can slide into a belief that the world has nothing good to offer at all. John Paul II's persistent dialogue with the world, seeking to affirm all that is good wherever he can find it — in any philosophy or theology, Christian or otherwise — is a model not always followed by his most enthusiastic followers. Smug complacency is not the same as being secure in the faith.

A desire to be more devotedly Catholic can mask a desire to be more ostentatiously Catholic. Formalism—a focus on externals to the neglect of interior conversion — has been a problem for clerics since at least the time of Jeremiah. Those of us in the seminary today need to be especially on guard against becoming “whited sepulchers.”

And the danger exists that Roman be put in opposition to Catholic. The Church abounds in paradoxes, and the paradox of being Roman while at the same time universal is one that needs to be respected. Fidelity to the Roman magisterium should not produce dis-missiveness toward the proper diversity of the local churches and the apostolic authority of their bishops. The magisterium of John Paul II itself calls for this, but it would be a fair criticism to note that the John Paul II generation is prone to downplay it.

Over the door of an American seminary it is written: Spes messis in semine (The hope of harvest is in the seed). The Holy Father's inspiration over two decades has ensured that the Church can hope for a rich harvest indeed.

“The truest secret of authentic pastoral success does not lie in material means, much less in sophisticated programs,” writes John Paul II, providing us with the key to understanding even his own success. “The lasting results of pastoral endeavors are born of the holiness of the priest. This is the foundation!”

Above all else, John Paul II has been a priest for 52 years — 40 of them as a bishop, 35 as an archbishop, 30 as a cardinal, and 20 as pope. To his successors as Bishop of Rome will belong the happy task of rendering the Church's judgment on his sanctity. But many of today's seminarians, grateful for the blessing of entering the seminary during the pontificate of this extraordinary priest, look forward with confidence to celebrating, during their priesthood, Deo volente, the Mass for the feast of Pope St. John Paul II.

Raymond de Souza writes from Rome.