Monday, September 24, 2007

A Different Kind of Sacrifice

Here is an excellent Op-Ed by my former Rector, Fr. Robert Leavitt, in yesterday's Baltimore Sun:

A Different Kind of sacrifice


Robert F. Leavitt

The seminarians studying at St. Mary’s Seminary in Roland Park today really impress me by their strength and spirituality. After serving 27 years as president-rector of the seminary, it’s the one legacy I wanted to leave. They have received a religious calling that some scorn, many overlook, and not a few members of their own church struggle to appreciate.

The Seminary Class of 2007, recently ordained as priests, entered St. Mary’s just as the clergy sex abuse scandals hit the papers, first in Boston and then in other cities. They began their work to become priests under a huge cloud, but they were exemplary in their courage and determination to learn from this adversity and move beyond it. Moreover, they have gracefully faced the understandable suspicion they encounter nowadays. That’s just how it is. No complaints. They know they have a reputation to rebuild for society at large and for those who follow them. Only time will tell if they can. But, merely in entering the seminary and priesthood, they are sacrificing much more than I did.

When I came to St Mary’s in the early 1960s to begin studies for the priesthood, my family and friends were bursting with pride. A unique mixture of religious awe and social prestige enveloped the priesthood. My paternal grandfather, a Protestant freemason, didn’t understand Catholicism much less like it. But, he thought my calling special. His outsider vote counted more for that.

Youths pursue callings and careers because people they respect – family, teachers, friends -- think those occupations are socially significant. Personal aptitude, interest, and making a good living matter. But, the perception that one is engaged in work that is influential and consequential – this counts most of all.

The young don’t need to guess what we really respect. We tell them. Many told me. It’s a small, but real reason I wanted to be a priest.

A steady erosion of social admiration for the priesthood as a way of life was underway for three decades or more before the recent scandals broke. It explains why religious ministry in general, I think, suffers on the career scorecard. For Catholics, it explains more about the vocations downturn than individual factors such as celibacy.

For now, the scandals have summoned the Church and the priesthood back to some spiritual basics -- wholesome human character and sacred promises. That’s what’s happening now. I’ve seen it in the new men entering St. Mary’s.

People naturally wonder today if seminaries might be accepting unqualified candidates to fill the ranks. I tell them it’s just the opposite. Only stronger souls will risk the new scrutiny. The strictures are tighter than ever to get into the seminary and to stay there. There’s psychological screening, criminal background checks, annual extensive evaluations, tough academics, close supervision of seminarians in parishes and schools.

Becoming a priest today is swimming upstream start to finish. Staying a priest at this time in history requires fidelity and heavy lifting. But, here’s the good part: That’s what builds character and strong men. It’s just what the priesthood needs. The church needs it and society needs it too.

At a tribute in my honor held at the seminary last April three seminarians spoke. Their comments were necessarily about me, but their character and their courage stole the show. That spoke louder than anything they said. In the receiving line afterwards, a Protestant couple, friends of mine, spontaneously said, “We’d take any one of them for our pastor in a heartbeat!”

Recently, I asked a student at Food For Thought Tutoring Center what he wanted to do when he grew up. He wrinkled his forehead and answered, “Either the guy that makes the wedding cakes or a priest!”

I didn’t mind his 3rd grade career dilemma. He saw a chef do an amazing multi-tiered creation on the food channel. But, then again, he’d also met some of our best seminarians. These guys impress him too.

The Reverend Robert F. Leavitt recently stepped down after 27 years as the president-rector of
St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore. His e-mail is


phatcatholic said...

What, no post for today in honor of Sts. Cosmas and Damian?!?! You should be ashamed to call yourself a twin....

Matt1618 said...

hehe, wow, I remembered they were doctors but I totally forgot they were twins, holy crap

Jason said...

" prestige enveloped the priesthood."

What do you think, is it a good thing for social prestige to be associated with priesthood? I think priests should be respected, but why should they be prestigious?

Jason said...

P.S. On this question and the one I asked a few minutes ago on the next post, I guess it sounds like I'm trying to bait you for a debate. I do have my own thoughts that I feel pretty sure about, but thought it would be better to see if you had an opinion first. After all, when it comes to "prestige" and "respect," I suppose we could get into semantics pretty easily while actually agreeing on the things that matter.

So, just wanted to throw that out there!

Jennifer F. said...

This is an excellent article, thank you so much for sharing.