They were young, but inspired.
How could they not be?
After all, this priest was on fire. He was young, charismatic and passionate for the Lord. And he thrived in being with them.
So, likewise, these college students were eager to spend time with him.
“We felt completely free with him, without any burden. His presence led us to express ourselves. While he was among us, we felt that everything was all right…We felt we could discuss any problem with him; he could talk about absolutely anything.”
And they did. But why? Why did these bright, young things – with their futures hopeful and their appetites large – why were they drawn to this man of God?
Because no one was talking to them like this.
The overarching narrative of society they lived in disdained the Faith for which he stood and offered deceptive, selfish, sensual pleasures as tempting alternatives. And some of the students had, indeed, been tempted. But they found only emptiness in these alternative promises. The young priest offered something more. He offered Truth. And hope.
He knew them well. He would travel with them, camp with them, eat with them. And he loved to engage them in conversation. The priest had as much facility with scientific research, jazz music and popular books as he did with the Creed, Sacraments and Saints. And though he could enthusiastically speak for hours, he hungered to know the students. They recalled,
“He had mastered the art of listening…he was always interested.”
But it was when he delved deeply into faith and its indispensable role in their lives that the students were most moved. We are called to be holy, he constantly reminded. We are designed to be a part of a community of faith. Don’t be seduced by a world that degrades you and devalues your dignity. Understand your faith through study and prayer. Value marriage. Partake in the Sacraments. Walk the faithful walk. Be not afraid.
As they met and traveled together, the young priest would recite poems, teach about St. Thomas Aquinas, and explore literature. The priest and the students would dissect moral dilemmas, consider the faithful application of Catholic social teaching and wrestle with their personal problems. As the students took tests, helped the afflicted, married and ultimately had children, prayer, Mass and the Sacraments would inform the rhythm of their life. And the priest was always there. As one student recalled in awe,
“He always had time.”
No one was talking to them like this. Or walking with them.
Except for this young priest.
And while he was capable of knowing them intimately, he was not truly “of them”. As the priest would say,
“The duty of a priest is to live with people, everywhere they are, to be with them in everything but sin.”
His ability to simultaneously be familiar and yet remain a respected authority on matters of infinite importance was extraordinary. And it had a deep impact on the college students. As one student recalled,
“Today many priests try to be like the kids. We were trying to be like him.”
But why? Why would they want to be like him?
Because he was wise, trusted and present. The priest’s biographer said this,
“[He] thought of his [role] as a ministry of ‘accompaniment’, a way to ‘accompany’ these students in their lives. [His] presence couldn’t be limited to the sanctuary and the confessional. [He] had to be present to these young lives in the world as well as in the church.”
He had to be wise, trusted and present. And in being that person for these young college students, he modeled faith-filled living and fostered the bonds of deep, Catholic community – a community open to the joys of friendship, marriage and parenting. A community open to God.
Isn’t this what Pope Francis implored his Bishops to be in his speech to them at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary last week? First, he articulated the problem.
“There are no longer close personal relationships. Today’s culture seems to encourage people not to bond with anything or anyone, not to trust. The most important thing nowadays seems to be follow the latest trend or activity.”
“Social bonds are a mere “means” for the satisfaction of “my needs”. The important thing is no longer our neighbor, with his or her familiar face, story and personality. The result is a culture which discards everything that is no longer “useful” or “satisfying” for the tastes of the consumer.”
“This causes great harm; it greatly wounds our culture. I dare say that at the root of so many contemporary situations is a kind of impoverishment born of a widespread and radical sense of loneliness. Running after the latest fad, accumulating “friends” on one of the social networks, we get caught up in what contemporary society has to offer. Loneliness with fear of commitment in a limitless effort to feel recognized.”
And then the Pope offered a solution.
“A pastor watches over the dreams, the lives and the growth of his flock. This “watchfulness” is not the result of talking but of shepherding. Only one capable of standing “in the midst of” the flock can be watchful, not someone who is afraid of questions, afraid of contact and accompaniment. A pastor keeps watch first and foremost with prayer, supporting the faith of his people and instilling confidence in the Lord, in his presence. A pastor remains vigilant by helping people to lift their gaze at times of discouragement, frustration and failure.”
Pope Francis recognizes the modern malaise which has devolved into hopelessness and nihilism. We are disconnected from God and we are disconnected from each other. In this extreme form of estrangement, we become, as French Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos would describe, “stumps of men”. The Pope astutely recognizes this as the crisis of our our age. “Radical loneliness” in the age of excess and the age of connectivity. And the young priest, St. John Paul II, recognized a similar crisis in a different age…it was “radical loneliness” in the age of ideology and the age of “answers”.
So what is the answer? What is the cure to hopelessness, nihilism and radical loneliness?
It is this: God experienced in prayer. God experienced in the sacraments. And God experienced in community, in our participation in The Body of Christ. It begins with the simplest of prayers. “Help me. Guide me. Forgive me. Thank you.” It continues with moments in a Confessional or receiving the Eucharist. And it grows further in our community exploring Scripture, bearing another’s burden and seeking dignity, growth and accountability.
Two Pontiffs. Two priests. Two ages. One answer.
May we always seek God. And may our shepherds walk with us in our efforts to consistently find him.