To the priests of the diocese of Pilsen

Our bishop asked us to welcome you for a day of prayer; I wish everyone a warm welcome. As for giving you a lecture… I was trembling ahead of time! They say in France that diocesan priests admire monks and are sometimes jealous of them. I don’t know how it is in your diocese, but I can tell you that the monks of Nový Dvůr are not jealous of you, and they really do admire you. You have a very heavy ministry. The everyday life of a Trappist is not a path strewn with roses, as you can easily imagine! But yours is not either. We are conscious of this and we pray for you a lot.

The young Jean-Marie Vianney arrived at his parish after a short ministry with the priest who had guided him in his formation. He liked him a lot and, without the abbé Balley, the young priest would have never become the holy curé of Ars. In concluding this lecture, and in relying on my experience of young men who pass through the monastery or who enter it, I will say a few words about your role with respect to young priests and future priests, these young men that God calls to the priesthood. I spent ten years in the region of Lyon. It was at Lyon that I did my studies and where I began to work. At that time I was a non-believer. Sometimes I would take my bicycle and go to the Dombes region. Ars was a teeny run-down village when the young curé was assigned to it. The church was empty on Sundays, like those in the villages around this monastery and like many of your parishes. What did Jean-Marie Vianney do? He began by celebrating the holy Mass with great devotion and by praying. The first part of this reflection will be devoted to the celebration of the Eucharist, and the second to the prayer of priests. Now you know what I will be talking about this morning. I would like to first speak of the power of the sacrament of the Eucharist; next on the necessity of prayer; finally on your role of stimulating vocations and supporting young priests. These are essential themes. Let us examine them under the patronage of Jean-Marie Vianney. I hope my poor pronunciation will not make it too difficult to listen. I will do my best.

Power of the sacrament of the Eucharist

The contrast of our vocations as diocesan priests, as religious, or as monks is very marked because of the practices that distinguish them. But the basis is the same. When we celebrate the Eucharist, nothing essentially differentiates you, diocesan priests, and us, monk-priests. There are, however, two ways of conceiving of a priest‘s ministry, be he diocesan or monk; two ways of conceiving of our role as a priest. In describing these two ways, I will inevitably be a little simplistic. Please listen to me with goodwill. The first of these two ways consists in thinking that the sacrament of the Eucharist is effective for those who participate in it. The priest tries to lead the Christians of his parish to the church, and, when they have gathered there, with great piety and contemplation, he celebrates the sacraments (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, reconciliation...) while giving thanks to God for the faithful that He has entrusted to him. According to this way of seeing things – excuse me again for being a little simplistic – the pastoral concern precedes the celebration, and afterwards accompanies it. It seems to me that this way of doing things is the one that is familiar to us. It is not completely false, but it is not entirely right. The second way of doing things, to which a monk is of course much more attentive, seems to be that of the curé of Ars. If it were to become your way, it would radically modify the way you look at your ministry, making it easier, more optimistic, and more encouraging. I will explain what I mean.

A priest believes that the sacraments have a powerful effect on those who receive them: the priest who celebrates and the faithful who receive communion at the Mass, the child or adult who receives baptism or confirmation, the penitent who receives absolution. But, if the priest believes this – and he is right to do so – does he imagine as well that the sacraments equally have, in the context of the communion of saints, a powerful effect on others besides themselves? A more extended effect than that which touches the faithful assembled around him? Each time a child is baptized, does this priest believe that all humanity comes closer to God? Each time a sinner is pardoned, does he believe that all of his brothers in mankind become, with them, purer before God? If all of this were not true, what good would we be doing, we monks? What good would be all of these efforts to sanctify ourselves, to solemnly celebrate the Eucharist, to chant the Divine Office, to pray, virtually without witnesses? You understand what I’m saying!

For whom does the monk or diocesan priest act, as he celebrates the holy Mass each day? For his parishioners, for those who are in his church, or, more widely, for his diocese, his country, the whole world, believers and unbelievers? Dear friends in the priesthood, when the curé of Ars said the Mass at the beginning of his ministry in an empty church, what he celebrated then was as effective as the last Masses of his existence, before a numerous and reverential crowd. These last celebrations were the visible fruit of the first ones, invisibly effective. Cardinal Journet wrote:

It is by the corporal presence of the Word among us that the world began, silently, to be saved; it is by the same corporal presence that it continues, silently, to be saved. The corporal presence of Christ is first “given” [at the Incarnation], then it is “left” to men [in the Eucharist]. Incarnation and Eucharist are two intimately connected aspects of a single mystery. The consecration that Christ accomplishes by the ministry of priests […] is above all […], his work; the work of his priesthood.

In other words: if we believe that the salvation of humanity came when the Word became flesh, we must believe as well that it spreads out, generation after generation, when the Word becomes present in the guises of bread and wine, to be received in communion and adored in the tabernacle. Such is the heart of our priestly life. The Incarnation had no witness, except the Virgin Mary. The destiny of the world was changed that day, however. The Last Supper had only a dozen participants, and it is by this sacrifice that the world was saved. By their words and by the celebration of the sacraments, they collect the faithful around them, little by little. The power of the Eucharist is total, even in a dechristianized world. The Holy Mass carries its fruit, even when celebrated in an empty church. God does not promise us that one day our churches will be full of the faithful. For more than half of the eleven apostles who were present at the Last Supper, we do not know where their achievements are to be found. God promises us only that our ministry will be invisibly fruitful, and this commensurate with our love for him.

From these truths flow some consequences – in particular, the duty that we must celebrate in a worthy manner. If, before and after the Mass, the priest can and must have concern for his flock, and the monk concern for his work, the only thing that must retain our attention during the Mass is the mystery that we celebrate. Perhaps we should also have a greater esteem for thanksgiving… To omit thanksgiving, wrote Father Jerome, is a notable loss and a grave error of spiritual tactics. In effect, when Our Lord comes to us sacramentally, He brings a new capacity of faith and of love. Thus we must immediately do actions of faith and love towards God, in order to use this new capacity in the instant of its new freshness… Not using prayer, the moment where prayer has all the chances of being particularly aided, is a great loss.

Necessity of prayer

For a century now, there has been discussion in the Church about rationalism and activism. These notions regroup, with various nuances, the doctrines that accentuate the role of man and underestimate the power of God. It is interesting to ask oneself what has become of them today. Do we think that the extension of the Kingdom of God depends on us, on our know-how and on our zeal? If yes, we would imperceptibly transform ourselves into zealots of a group who will try, with sincerity and earnestness, to spread a doctrine. Do we believe that the extension of the Kingdom depends on the unique power of the grace of which we are ministers? Then it will not be a matter of waiting, with arms crossed, not doing anything, of course! There is much to do. It will principally be a matter of trying to do the best possible thing that Christ, the only Savior, wants of us. It will be a matter of abandoning into his hands our ministry and our future. It will be a matter of asking him to act through us, according to his preference. We find there more than one nuance. All the orientation of our priestly activity depends on our position when confronted with this alternative: power of man or power of God? Human effectiveness or divine effectiveness?

And so we come to the second point of my reflection: prayer. In order to be ministers of Christ and to act in his name, in order to do what he asks, to be effective, to bear fruit, one must have one’s heart full of him. To have a heart full of Christ, one must pray. The priest who does not pray will only be, as Saint Paul says, a clashing cymbal. He will doubtless make much noise, but it will be a useless noise, one that is vain and without effect. The charity that Saint Paul talks about is obviously theological charity: God’s love for us and our poor love for him. To be a good priest, one must pray a lot. We do not have the time, I know. We have too much to do; it is true. The days pass like lightning: yours and mine in the same way! And yet?

To give you time to reflect, I am going to tell you an amusing story. One of my uncles is a White Father. Today he is very old, but when I was a child, he was a missionary in Burkina Faso. I remember having seen him at home – I was five or six years old – with his white djellaba, his red chechia, and a long rosary hooked onto his belt. We did not really know him, for he rarely came to Europe. He was still young and had a long black beard, which amused us greatly, and round glasses. My brothers and I sat on the floor all around him, and we listened to his stories of snakes, of scorpions, of cars broken down in the bush, of bumpy roads, and of a cathedral made of planks and corrugated metal. We were wide-eyed with fear and admiration. He laughed. He told about his parishioners, some of whom he only visited once a year, after long days of exhausting travel in stifling weather, about meetings with the catechists, and then returning to his community and group prayer. Did he have too much to do? Yes and no! He had a thousand times more things to do than what he was able to accomplish. He did what time permitted him to do, but his religious life was balanced and happy. Today, in Burkina Faso there is a living Christendom, which has its trials, its weaknesses, and its limits. But in the end, it is there! Has God’s arm lost its strength? Is it less efficient in West Bohemia than in Africa?

For God’s arm to be efficient, it needs to have ministers, and for the ministers to transmit the word of God they must be inhabited by Him. The ministers in whom God resides will work miracles, like the Apostles. Ministers who only pass on their knowledge and their own practical skills, even with much zeal and sincerity, will not be good for much more than wind. If we act, preach, and reflect with only our natural capacities, our efforts will not produce much. They will have an effect proportional to the capacities of a sincere and generous man. That is good, but it is only little. If we act, reflect on, and preach about uniting our capacities to those of the Holy Spirit who lives in us, then we will lift mountains, we will level the pathways of salvation. Saint Theresa is nothing, said the Madre of Avila; Saint Theresa and God is everything. For the Holy Spirit to live in us, we must pray. Without his gifts, the priest is a sterile man. With his gifts, the priest, however poor and however much of a sinner he may be, and whatever may be the thorns he bears in his flesh, this same priest lifts mountains. To be inhabited by the instinct of the Holy Spirit (the expression is from Saint Thomas Aquinas): this changes everything. We bear the grace of the priesthood like a delicate flower mishandled by rude and clumsy hands. Yet it is a flower, it is a grace, and what a grace! We must protect it with our prayers and nourish it with regular spiritual reading.

Believing that the sacraments are powerful even beyond those whom they touch directly and accepting that prayer and reading are the pillars of our priestly life is our first duty. We anxious to propose to our guests books that are not too thick, that are easy to read, and that are of good quality, selected from among those that the brothers read. To help you, the porter is ready to offer them to you. This was the essential part of what I wanted to tell you. Give me a few more minutes, for I must still speak to you about youth: young priests and future priests.

Friendship and visibility

The youth who live around you, in your parishes, those whom you pass on the street and who never enter the church, resemble, without a doubt, those who frequent the guest house of our monastery. Nearly a quarter of our community, and the last four brothers who have entered Nový Dvůr, are converts. I myself have had the experience of a conversion. Don’t you find this to be encouraging? Even when our churches are nearly empty, God can draw to the seminary or to the monastery young men who have not passed through the habitual path of Christian life. What are they like, these young men? Enthusiastic, impulsive, individualistic, and often egotistical; sometimes with hurt feelings, hypersensitive, unstable, often anguished, thirsting for discipline and desirous of God, sincere and generous. I remember fifteen years ago, when I was the young prior of the Abbey of Sept-Fons. A young Czech man arrived: twenty years old, brilliant, extremely engaging – but totally unstructured. He had just returned from a trip to India, had never done any studies, and did not know if he was baptized or not. The Novice Master said to me: “If we want our monasteries to be alive in a few years, we are going to have to be able to talk to these types of people.” It is obvious that forming such special cases to the priestly life cannot be done in the same way as fifty years ago. It is not our responsibility; our bishops take care of it. But there is one thing that depends on us: it is a certain form of friendship, and a visibility. The visibility is for future priests; it is the young priests who are in need of friendship.

Now I must address a delicate question, a question that is perhaps more delicate in France than here. But is it possible to build a true relationship without telling the truth and without hearing it? So here it is: I do not understand why you are hiding. You live in a country that is now free. I do not understand why we do not see many more priests on the street. We see you in your parishes, where your faithful know you. But why, when you go to do your errands, when you are out and about, are we most of the time not able to tell that you are priests? Couldn’t you offer to the disoriented non-believers who cross your path – I was one of them, in the past – and to the young people that God calls to join you, the encouragement that represents the sight of a priest or of a religious, proud to be as they are and to show themselves as such? I leave this monastery very little, but always in my habit. Very often, I hear: “Thank you, Father, we do not see any other priests!” From the point of view of advertising, it is disastrous for a priest or a religious to go out in the street without a distinctive sign. Wouldn’t the youth be more sensitive to the discreet calls that God puts in their hearts, if they saw you? I am not thinking of the youth of your parishes. I am thinking as well of that great multitude that seeks God sincerely, that sees the Church from afar and that could, with great benefit, speak to a priest, on a bus or in front of a supermarket. In addition, and again this comes from experience, the monastic habit or the Roman collar proudly carried prevents one from buying just anything, from doing just anything, from looking at just anyone. I hope I have been clear.

The last point of my reflection tries to be comforting. Let’s talk about friendship. Many seminarians, deacons, and young priests pass through the monastery. In our country, they are much more numerous than in France. All of them say that they spend too much time alone. When a young man spends too much time alone, he surfs the internet, and not always on the Vatican website! And, after the internet, he seeks company. Young men need to be supported, counseled, and surrounded until at least 40 years of age. A young priest who spend too much time alone either abandons his vocation or else hardens himself and becomes unbalanced. All his life, the curé of Ars was surrounded by priests, by religious, and by friends.

We other monks live in community. It is not always easy! In a monastery, life in common is an asceticism that is much more severe than getting up at three in the morning and than silence. And yet, without cordial fraternal relationships, it is impossible to say and to hear that which is not right in our lives. And if we do not say and hear this, then we are left to our own worst devices. A priest needs friendship. I am obviously not thinking of those emotional friendships which, on the contrary, can gravely imbalance a priestly life. I am thinking of the friendship between cohorts who have the same vocation, who tend toward the same faithfulness, who have common responsibilities, who can share their difficulties and their experiences.

Excuse me if I have been too long. At eleven o’clock, we will celebrate the Mass gathered around our bishop. All the priests of Nový Dvůr will offer today’s Mass for your intentions. Ten years ago, there was nothing here but a ruin. Have confidence; the arm of the Lord has kept its power. May our hidden life and our prayer ensure that you believe in it, and ensure that all of us may live our vocation faithfully.

Priory Our Lady of Nový Dvůr, April 7, 2010