By Fr. Thom Hennen
Fifty-nine seminarians from the four dioceses of Iowa (12 from the Diocese of Davenport) gathered Aug. 9-11 in Carroll, Iowa, for our annual statewide seminarian convocation. I know of no other state that brings together all of its seminarians for such an event. It is an opportunity for seminarians from the individual dioceses to get to know each other better and to meet seminarians from the other dioceses, many of whom will be their classmates at seminary and, potentially, cross-border collaborators as priests in the future.
Our presenter this year was Father Michael Keating, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and professor in the Catholic Studies Department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. His topic: “The Implications of the New Evangelization as We Prepare to Minister to a Changing World.” I cannot remember a more engaging and substantive set of conferences from any of the seminarian convocations I have attended, and he did it all without PowerPoint presentations, video clips, ice-breakers, small-group discussion or energetically bounding around the room. Rather, he spoke from a fixed position, in a soft voice and with just a few notes in front of him. I sat on the side of the room, where I could see the seminarians’ faces as he spoke. They were rapt with attention.
At the first break one of our seminarians said to me, “They’re always talking about the ‘New Evangelization’ at seminary, but no one really explains it. This guy is finally telling us what it is.”
The term “New Evangelization” is indeed thrown around a lot in the Church these days and perhaps particularly in seminaries. But so often it becomes little more than a catchphrase. Often, the New Evangelization is reduced to a renewed effort and ardor (“round two,” if you will) or to making use of modern means of communication and social media in an effort to “meet people where they are.” While new zeal and new methods are important, neither is really at the heart of the New Evangelization. At the heart of the New Evangelization is the creation of personal (though not individualistic) disciples of Jesus Christ.
This is a challenging task in our time. As Fr. Keating put it, we are moving out of a time of “Christendom” into a new “apostolic age.” He was, of course, careful to point out that no period of “Christendom” (whether the fifth century, the Middle Ages, or post-World War II America) is ever as perfect as sometimes imagined by succeeding generations. “Christendom” comes with its own pitfalls, but in general there are structures to support the faith. This is not necessarily the case today. Rather, we are moving into an age in which we will need to be increasingly deliberate about our discipleship.
After setting the scene for the current “Catholic moment” (where we are now and how we got here), Fr. Keating offered five aspects of “apostolic priesthood.”
• First, the priest in this new apostolic age must be very clearly a personal disciple of Jesus Christ; otherwise he will soon fall into a vague cynicism, tire of the mission and find himself unable and unwilling to serve.
• Second, the apostolic priest needs to be ready for martyrdom. By this Fr. Keating does not mean that the priest should have a “martyrdom complex,” marked by self-pity and an apocalyptic outlook, but that he should have the heart of martyr in his willingness to lay down his life in witness to Christ.
• Third, the apostolic priest needs good formation of mind and will, and for this to happen, he will need to take ownership of his formation.
• Fourth, priests for the New Evangelization will need close priestly brotherhood. Fr. Keating pointed out that we have “made a virtue of necessity” in being alone and independent. Also, this priestly fraternity should be more than mere “support,” and not a “boys club.” It should be the “crucible” out of which pastoral charity flows.
• Fifth, and finally, Fr. Keating said that the priest in this new apostolic age needs to be oriented to apostolic work. In an apostolic age every priest must be a missionary, not simply a “maintainer.”
Hopefully these insights are as helpful to any Christian living in the 21st century as they were to the seminarians, our future priests, gathered earlier this month. Please pray for our seminarians, that they may be formed into truly apostolic priests after the heart of Jesus for the work of the New Evangelization.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)