Disclaimer: The series of letters entitled “Correspondence on the Monastic Vocation”, while based on the real questions of a number of men in various places and states of life, is entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, institutions, or places is purely coincidental.
Letter 14: Father Dan Fulworthy
Dear Father Prior,
I am writing you from Saint John XXIII parish in the diocese of Newkirk. I met you last year in Hopefield Manor when you preached a retreat there. I don’t expect you to remember me. You undoubtedly met dozens of priests at the Hopefield Manor retreat. I have been curate in Newkirk since September 2013. Newkirk is my first assignment. I was ordained in June 2013, after completing studies in the regional seminary, followed by an S.T.L. in Rome. I am 29 years old and, prior to entering the seminary, I worked in a used book store. I am the middle child of a family of three, having one older brother and one younger sister. My mother is a cradle–Catholic; my father, of fallen–away Protestant stock, converted to the Catholic Church (through RCIA) when he married my mother in 1982. My siblings and I were raised Catholic; neither my brother nor sister now practice the faith. My parents do practice their faith and have, since 2010, both attended Sunday Mass in a Latin Mass chaplaincy.
My own First Mass was in the Extraordinary Form. The two priests ordained at the same time as myself also offered their First Solemn Masses in the Extraordinary Form. It caused a bit of a stir in some circles, but this was not our intention. There is a real brotherly bond among us. One wit has dubbed the three of us the S.P.P.S.P. — The Society for the Progressive Promotion of Summorum Pontificum — and I suppose that the humour of it does not fall short of the mark. The three of us offer the traditional Mass on our weekly day off . . . and whenever else an opportunity presents itself. I know that in writing to you I need not go into the reasons why our minds and hearts are now anchored in the traditional rite. Speaking for myself, I must say that the Usus Antiquior is a school of priesthood. It was not my years of seminary that taught me what a priest is; it was my first experience of offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the traditional rite.
I understand now why the abandonment of the traditional Mass precipitated such a massive crisis of priestly identity. The traditional Mass defines the priest. It makes a priest . . . more priestly. It is hieratic, clothing the priest in Christ so effectively that his own personality falls away, allowing only the mediatorship of the priest to appear in the holy place . . . like an icon balanced on the edge of heaven. Only rarely and for a few fleeting moments does the face of the mediator meet the gaze of the faithful: Dominus vobiscum. Et cum spiritu tuo. The mediator’s essential task is to face God. I find it humbling and thrilling to stand before the altar, facing God, with even a handful of faithful kneeling behind me. Murmured early of a weekday morning, at a long disused side altar in a mostly empty church, my Mass takes on cosmic dimensions. It is the sacrifice of the Cross offered on behalf of all and for all. What happens at the altar radiates invisibly in every direction. I must be half–mad to be writing you these things, Father, but I believe them. I cannot conceive of my priesthood without what the traditional Mass has taught me about it.
I remember very well the day Father L., one of my seminary professors, told us that if we thought we were studying to be sacerdotal sacrificers, we were nothing more than anachronistic throwbacks. “The people of God”, he said, “do not need sacerdotal sacrificers. The people of God need women and men whose word can bring an assembly to life, create community around them, and call forth the gifts of tenderness and action for justice that the contemporary world needs”. I can still quote the sentence because I wrote it down — in disbelief and horror — when he uttered it in a class on sacramental theology. Father L. clarified one thing for me: the denial that the Mass is a true sacrifice makes the priesthood superfluous, and the denial of the priest’s unique role as sacrificer eviscerates the meaning of the Mass. Summorum Pontificum is, I think, the single greatest act of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, and the most prophetic. In the hearts and minds of all who avail themselves of it, and especially of us younger priests, Summorum Pontificum keeps alive the gift and mystery of the sacrificing priesthood.
There is much talk of a crisis in priestly vocations. Summorum Pontificum is the answer to it. Men want to be sacrificers. Men want to be mediators. Men want to be trusted with a work so sublime that it requires the hardness of non–negotiable rubrics in order to be done safely. Men do not want to be entertainers. Men do not want to be facilitators. Men do not want to deal in soft transactions with ever–changing contours.
The multiplicity of options that characterises the new rite causes it to go all soft. It can be stretched, manipulated, shrunk, and distorted to accommodate a vast array of subjective sensibilities. It lacks the solidity and structure that allow a priest to go about his sacred work without being self–conscious and without feeling obliged adapt to the flavour of the day. A priest is called upon to celebrate childrens’ Masses, young adults’ Masses, nursing home Masses, Masses for parish fêtes, for park dedications, for harvest festivals, and for football matches. It is expected that the Mass be re–shaped to cater to the needs of each group. At times I think that the “plasticity” of the new Mass does everything but allow the Mass to be simply the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. All of this, I think, alienates men and, in the end, contributes to the scarcity of priestly vocations.
In spite of longstanding and recurrent thoughts about monastic life, I am, for the time being, committed to my parish work. The Lord, speaking through my bishop, has sent me to labour in the vineyard. Is it difficult? Yes. There are evenings when the discouragement and loneliness are overwhelming. St John XXIII is kept going by a dwindling band of faithful grey–headed parishioners. Outside the church, “in the marketplace”, as the expression goes, I meet with massive indifference and, sometimes with outright hostility.
I am one of the few priests in my deanery who wear clerical attire. Nearly all the men over 60, the vast majority of our priests, have been shamed or intimidated into going everywhere incognito. I understand them. They have been cursed, shunned, mocked, and called vile names on the street. I am convinced, nonetheless, that the worst possible thing we clergy can do, at this moment in history, is to become invisible and mute. What is the sign value of an invisible Church? What is the message of a Church become mute? Should I resign myself to a life of shuffling quietly between the presbytery and the church for fear of being bullied outside the sacred precincts? Or should I risk being a visible face of the Church in the midst of a hostile world? I have chosen the latter course, but I must admit that it sometimes frightens me.
I didn’t at all intend to write you about the travail and tribulations of a young curate. It just came out, so I shall leave it, and get to the real reason why I am writing you, Father. I mentioned my longstanding and persistent thoughts about monastic life. They began even before I applied to seminary. I discussed them with the priest who was guiding me at the time. He said, “You’re young. Go to seminary, get yourself ordained, and throw yourself into your ministry. If you still want to be a monk after a few years in ministry, ask the bishop to let you try it”. Midway through seminary I found myself reading — no devouring — Guéranger, and Marmion, and Bouyer. I came down with a shocking case of “Benedictine fever”. I opened up to the formation director who said, “I don’t know much about religious life. Have a chat with Sister Marge”.
This recommendation did not appeal to me, but I followed up on it because I knew I would be queried about it at my next formation meeting. (There are a lot of pressures in the seminary system.) Sister Marge was part of the formation staff. She admitted to knowing next to nothing about monastic life, and then said something about it being attractive to more rigid personalities in need of the security that comes from traditional structures. She described herself as “Jesuit–trained” and “focused on discernment for ministry”. No help there. In the end, I brought the subject up during my 15 minutes with the preacher of the annual retreat. He said, in essence, exactly what I had been told before going to seminary: “Stay the course. Get yourself ordained. Give parish ministry your best shot. And then . . . see”.
This brings me up to the present. I have been a curate two years. I love my priesthood. Offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the sun of my existence. I am honestly committed, through preaching and the sacraments, to making the face of Christ visible to souls who would not otherwise see him, and the voice of Christ audible to souls who have never heard him, and the touch of Christ present to souls in need of it. Nonetheless — and this is where a huge question remains unanswered for me — deep inside I hear the voice of Christ saying, “Come apart into a desert place”.
If I enter a monastery it will not be because I am running away from the challenges of parish ministry. It will not be because I am not on the same page (or even in the same book!) liturgically as most priests in my diocese. It will not be because of rude remarks in public places. It will not be because I pine after some kind of mystico–liturgical Shangri–La. It will because I will have come to see that everything in my life up to this point has prepared me for it, and because I would be resisting Divine Grace to do otherwise.
I don’t know what else to say, Father. Writing to you is my way of saying to Our Lord, “If you want this of me, give me some clarity”. I do not expect you to answer me immediately but, when you have a moment, do please drop me a line. I shall be waiting for it.
Father Dan Fulworthy
Dear Father Fulworthy,
Thank you for your moving letter. Yes, I do remember you from the retreat at Hopefield House. I have often wondered how you were getting on. Yes, I too think that Summorum Pontificum will one day be recognized as the single most prophetic act of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. The number of priests and of young families that have found light, and joy, and hope in the Mass of the old rite continues to grow.
Your observations about the “plasticity” of the Novus Ordo Missae are spot on: this was, I believe, the clear intention of the reformers from the beginning: a Mass that could be re–shaped according to changing circumstances, needs, and sensibilities. There is no doubt that, in many places, the contemporary “therapeutic culture” has seized upon the Mass to make it entirely people–centred. The very grammar of the Eucharistic Prayer is in dissonance with the body language of the priest. Addressing God, he faces the people and, facing them, he is compelled, albeit subconsciously, to play to them.
The Novus Ordo has, without a doubt, affected the way priests understand and live their priesthood: “lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi”. As the Usus Antiquior becomes more widespread and more habitual, we will begin to see a spiritually invigorated priesthood and a rise in priestly vocations. Already, there are statistics that demonstrate this. “Qualis Missa, talis sacerdos”. As goes the Mass, so goes the priest.
Your commitment to parish work is brilliant. I remember you telling me, when we chatted at Hopefield House, of how humbled you were by the immensity of the mystery of the priesthood: Christ at the bed of the sick, Christ in the classroom, Christ visiting the frail elderly, Christ in the confessional and in the pulpit, and most of all, Christ at the altar and upon it. I think it a good sign that you have not allowed “monastic daydreaming” to encroach upon your parish ministry. The will of God for you, at this moment in your life, is that you spend yourself in the care of souls.
I sympathise with the terrible loneliness to which you go home after a busy day. It is not without real dangers. The remedy, dear Father, lies in friendship. 1) The Friendship of Christ: read Robert Hugh Benson’s magnificent book of the same title. 2) The friendship of other priests: as often as possible share with your confrères a meal, a cup of tea, a walk, an Hour of the Office, a rosary, or time before the Blessed Sacrament. 3) The friendship of books: a good library is not a luxury for a priest; it is a necessity. Never be without the life of a saint on your bedside table. Never let a day go by without reading something that obliges you to think . . . and prompts you to pray. Before all else, read Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels and Saint Paul.
Do not be bullied into not wearing your soutane. If it attracts the occasional snarl or insult, know that, at the same time, it is for many souls a sign of comfort and of hope. I know of entire city neighbourhoods on the Continent that were evangelised because one priest made himself visible. The Church needs, more than ever, to be visible in her priests. Evangelisation begins with visibility because the Word became flesh.
About your monastic aspirations: you are not the first diocesan priest to yearn after the cloister. Think of the Curé of Ars! More than once he planned to leave Ars for a monastery. Each time his plan was thwarted, Saint Jean–Marie Vianney returned to his parish chastened and humbled. On the other hand, Abbot Guéranger (1805–1875, Solesmes), Père Muard (1809- 1854, La–Pierre–Qui–Vire), Père Emmanuel André (1826–1903, Mesnil–Saint–Loup), and Blessed Columba Marmion (1858–1923, Maredsous) all began their fruitful Benedictine lives as diocesan priests.
I would say this to you, dear Father: if you are serious about becoming a monk, speak to your bishop about it, and obey whatever he tells you. If your bishop authorises you to spend three months in the cloister in order to test your desire, then arrange to do it without delay. The longer a priest remains in parish work, living alone and following his own routine, the more difficult it will be for him to leave all things for The One Thing Necessary as a monk. You will soon be 30. The 30s are a tricky time in a man’s life: what you have become at 35, you will substantially remain until death. Our Constitutions wisely place the upper age limit for admission to the monastery at 35.
Even the best young priests are marked by the whimsies of the dominant clerical culture. It is not easy for a priest to go from being a fondly considered personality in the diocese, or parish, or school to being novice Brother X., the last and the least in the monastery. Saint Benedict is stern when it comes to the admission of priests:
If any one in priestly orders ask to be received into the Monastery, let not consent be too quickly granted him; but if he persist in his request, let him know that he will have to observe all the discipline of the Rule, and that nothing will be relaxed in his favour, according as it is written “Friend, wherefore art thou come?” Let him, nevertheless, be allowed to stand next the Abbot, to give the blessing, and to say Mass, if the Abbot bid him do so. Otherwise, let him presume to do nothing, knowing that he is subject to the discipline of the Rule; but rather let him give an example of humility to all. And if there be a question of any appointment, or other business in the Monastery, let him expect the position due to him according to the time of his entrance, and not that which was yielded to him out of reverence for the priesthood. (Rule, Chapter 60)
Our own Constitutions say this:
Our father Saint Benedict demonstrates his habitual prudence in treating of the admission of priests and other clerics to the monastic family. Although such a vocation can be marked by rude detachments and humiliations, for not a few it became a course run with hearts enlarged and unspeakable sweetness of love. To this, the example of the Blessed Abbot Columba Marmion bears irrefutable testimony.
The particular mission of Silverstream Priory requires that we monks “have a heart for priests”. Know, dear Father Fulworthy, that we continue to represent you each day before the Eucharistic Face of Jesus. If Our Lord is calling you to our life, I would advise you to act with a prudent haste, not putting off until tomorrow what you can do today.
With my blessing,