Priesthood: Not a Job for the Past

Good Evening! On this night when we gather in support of the Seminary’s mission, I thought it might be helpful to remind ourselves what that mission is. Pope Benedict XVI several years ago wrote a beautiful letter to seminarians around the world. I was not a seminarian yet – I was still an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. But I distinctly remember sitting at my desk in Room 2207 of Rodin College House, reading this letter online, and wanting to be a seminarian. Here’s how it begins:

Dear Seminarians, 
When in December 1944 I was drafted for military service, the company commander asked each of us what we planned to do in the future. I answered that I wanted to become a Catholic priest. The lieutenant replied: “Then you ought to look for something else. In the new Germany priests are no longer needed”. I knew that this “new Germany” was already coming to an end, and that, after the enormous devastation which that madness had brought upon the country, priests would be needed more than ever. Today the situation is completely changed. In different ways, though, many people nowadays also think that the Catholic priesthood is not a “job” for the future, but one that belongs more to the past. You, dear friends, have decided to enter the seminary and to prepare for priestly ministry in the Catholic Church in spite of such opinions and objections. 

I can vividly remember reading those words over and over. They spoke so perfectly to my experience. You see, the currents of our culture are all about self-esteem, affirmation, self-actualization. Our lexicon includes concepts like YOLO – You only live once! – and “You do you.” We have witnessed a loss of civility by those on both sides of our political debates, as well as a disrespect for life and for those most vulnerable in favor of the rich and powerful. So the question presents itself to us today as forcefully as it did in 1944: are priests still necessary in this environment? That’s a question I struggled with in my own discernment.

The 165 men who study at St. Charles Seminary each day have rendered their answer: Yes, priests are still necessary. As Pope Benedict says so beautifully, in a culture which denies the importance of God, priests are in fact even more necessary. They stand as a sign that God is still with us, that he acts in history, and cares deeply for each one of us. There are men at St. Charles who have flown with the Army’s 82nd Airborne. Others have worked in finance, health care, and education. Many are very talented in writing, music, and the visual arts. Yet they all say together that the priesthood is not a job for the past. St. Charles is not a relic of a by-gone era. You did not come here today for a fundraiser for a museum. As Pope St. John XXIII said “we are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.” That’s what St. Charles Seminary is: a living, joyful place where despite the constant pressure of the world, men still hear the quiet whisper of God.

For 175 years, St. Charles Seminary has helped to form young men so that they can serve the Church effectively. I use that word consciously: the Seminary does not just educate men. It’s not about handing over certain facts. Knowledge of the faith is obviously critical. But even more important is to internalize the faith, to cultivate it so that the whole person is transformed by the Seminary experience. You all – please God – know priests who radiate the joy and love of God. That doesn’t just happen by reading a textbook; it involves a process of encounter with the Lord. That’s what happens at St. Charles every day.

Today, more than ever, St. Charles Seminary serves the Church around the world. While we have always and will always be dedicated to forming priests for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, recent years have seen an increase of enrollment from such far-flung places as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Two of these seminarians from Sri Lanka have been my classmates for the last four years. One of them is with us tonight, Deacon Shalindra Kotikawatte. He and my classmate Deacon Sheron Fernando have become great friends in these last few years. They add so much to our class, and I will miss them terribly when they return to Sri Lanka this May. And trust me, they’ve gotten the full American experience, as they were assigned to two parishes in South Philly! But they were warmly embraced there. Even if some of the older people couldn’t point to Sri Lanka on a map, they could point to these guys and say, “he’s going to be a good priest.”

I am happy to announce that the funds raised from tonight’s event will be allocated to strengthen our program for international students for men like Sheron and Shalindra.

I cannot help thinking back to that young Penn undergraduate reading that letter from Pope Benedict and sensing his heart racing. All people want to do something that matters – they want to dedicate their lives to a lasting good. That’s why I entered St. Charles Seminary. That’s why I’ve stayed. And, by the grace of God, that is why I will be ordained a priest this May. But here’s the Good News: while not everyone can become a priest, everyone can contribute to the mission of the Church. For many of you, this means being a faithful spouse and a loving mom or dad. For others, it can involve teaching, community service, or philanthropic work which benefits so many. Some – like Jim White, our chair for this event – have pursued the permanent diaconate program at St. Charles to help serve the People of God in that unique ministry. All of us have something to contribute. And if you happen to have the ability to contribute financially to the mission of the Seminary, I pray that you will do so tonight. No, priesthood is not a job for the past. It is a job for the future – the eternal future we are promised with God and the saints forever.


[Ed. note: a version of these remarks were given at the annual St. Charles Seminary Golf Outing on October 2nd at Philadelphia Country Club.]