EXTREME COLD and heavy snows have even reached this southern city as we approach the midpoint of the first month in this new millennium and century.
Six months, almost, have literally flown by on this sabbatical and I find myself having to place my face upon the ground these days and accept the plans I made may not all come to pass.
My face, however, is pressed even more tightly against the ground in adoration and gratitude for the intense and mysterious activity of the Holy Spirit within me, the more critical aspect of this, or any, priestly sabbatical.
I have come to the last ten pages of previously prepared notes and wonder, with a certain trepidation, yet expectancy, what will flow from my heart once I no longer have notes to refresh my memory?
By the beginning of Lent, the year before I entered the seminary, the Dean had secured a place for me to live.
It was in a working class parish.
The rectory was of the huge kind built at the turn of the century when in large parishes there was need to accommodate several priests, the pastor and curates, or, if it was a country parish, to provide overnight accommodation for the priests who would gather during Forty Hours devotions for comradeship and time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.
In lieu of paying board for the accommodation I would be expected to help out on the weekends as a lay assistant to the pastor, his assistant and a resident priest who worked in the chancery. It would be, the Dean suggested, a good experience of rectory living and parish life.
I moved in there just as I began my contract as an administrator with an engineering firm.
I had by then developed a regular routine at work.
I’d arrive at the office by about seven in the morning and deal with overnight paper-work, find out from the senior engineer what needed to be done that day and then work through the morning at my desk.
At noon I would leave, go to the nearby sandwich shop for a quick lunch.
Returning to the office while most of the staff was still gone, there I’d sit at my desk, pray the Divine Office, do some spiritual reading.
At the end of the day I’d take the subway to the university where I would be in classes until ten o’clock.
Another subway trip to the rectory where, not much after eleven, I’d re-heat my supper, kindly left by the cook, doing my studies or writing essays for the various courses I was taking until about two in the morning when I’d grab about four hours sleep and begin the routine again.
On weekends, of course, not having to go to the office, I’d help out around the parish as the pastor directed: visiting shut-ins, serving Mass, answering the door, or phone.
The spring before I entered the seminary is one I shall never forget because it would be, for modern Catholics across the world, not unlike the event which so shook millions one November day in 1963.
I had gone for my usual lunch and when I returned to my desk one of the engineers, a good Muslim man, came up to me, visibly shaken. My first thought, his wife was expecting, something terrible had happened to her or the baby.
Instead I was suddenly plunged into a type of shock as he told me he had just heard on the news that the Pope had been shot.
As other staff returned to the office everyone, Christian, Jew, Muslim, non-believer alike, seemed genuinely shocked. Many were frightened that, given the struggles occurring at that time over Solidarity in Poland, various wars around the globe, not to mention the heightened tensions in the Cold War, this was the harbinger of a new world war. Some were comparing this shooting to that of the Austrian Prince which triggered World War One.
What I found most surprising, after I had taken in the first shock-wave of the news, was the impact this Pope clearly had on people of all races, religions, backgrounds, so well represented in that office.
There was such upset in the office that finally the boss suggested everybody take off early.
I went over to the Jesuit church where hundreds had gathered, most in tears, everyone shocked or confused by this event.
During Holy Mass, I don’t recall his words as much as the tone he set, the priest urged a spirit of calm, trust in the Holy Spirit, and forgiveness.
I skipped the evening’s classes and returned to the rectory where the priests were gathered around the tv, watching the latest bulletins from Rome.
Over the next few days I used my lunchtime for Mass, rather than lunch, until the news made it clear the Pope was out of danger.
The day I was first back at my desk over lunch the engineer who had first told me the Pope had been shot stopped at my desk once more.
He told me that everyone in the office knew that by the end of the summer I would be going off to the seminary to study to be a priest.
He just wanted to tell me his prayers were with me and that he thought I would make a good priest.
The suffering of the Pope and its effect on my co-workers was a true revelation to me that whatever we Catholics may argue, indeed whatever doubts I might have then or in the future — or even as I pen these lines — about the orthodoxy of revelation as regards the role of Peter and his successors, or of priests — it is far greater and more important in the lives of every human being than we can possibly understand.
These events, however, had given me a glimpse, and another important fragment, about the various and sacred mysteries of our faith.
Often at Holy Mass I will pause and remember those men and women with whom I worked those last months before entering the seminary. I remember them with deep respect and joy and pray they have come to know Him who knows and loves them.
By summer, with its usual extreme heat and humidity broiling the canyons of the city, I’d completed intense courses in history, anthropology, sociology and was nearing the end of courses in Utilitarianism and Ethics in philosophy, as well as a course in the philosophy of history.
…..the relationship between theology and philosophy is best construed as a circle. Theology’s source and starting-point must always be the word of God revealed in history, while its final goal will be an understanding of that word which increases with each passing generation. Yet, since God’s word is Truth — philosophy, pursued in keeping with its own rules — can only help to understand God’s word better. It is not just a question of theological discourse using this or that concept or element of a philosophical construct; what matters most is that the believer’s reason uses its powers of reflection in the search for truth which moves from the word of God towards a better understanding of it. It is as if, moving between the twin poles of God’s word and a better understanding of it, reason is offered guidance and is warned against paths which would lead it astray from revealed Truth and to stray in the end from truth pure and simple. Instead, reason is stirred to explore paths which of itself it would not even have suspected it could take. This circular relationship with the word of God leaves philosophy enriched, because reason discovers new and unsuspected horizons. [cz]
This was the revelation during that spring and summer, the inter-connection between faith based study and the development of authentic critical thinking.
I could not have expressed what was happening to my intellectual approach to ideas, ethics, culture, and so forth, in anything at the time resembling the forceful clarity of Pope John Paul’s argument favouring faith and reason, but the seeds of a spiritually mature manner of use of reason were being planted within me.
By late August I had finished at the university and the contract at the engineering firm as well.
The Dean urged me to spend the remaining time before the seminary year began getting some rest.
I contacted my spiritual father and he suggested I come and stay with the community, rest, relax, allow the Holy Spirit and Our Blessed Mother to prepare me for seminary life.
My basic memory of that two week rest is the constant refrain in my heart of the words from the Archangel Gabriel to Our Blessed Mother, words which for my life were then already, and continue to be, a living witness to the truth of His Divine Mercy and Tenderness, for nothing is impossible for God. [Lk.1:37]