The Benedictine Saints by Jan Joostsz van Hillegom. Via Wikimedia Commons

A Companionship to Walk With

Though we usually take it for granted, the mere fact that men are called to be Christ’s presence on earth as ordained priests is astounding. Their path is not one that cannot be walked alone.
Rich Veras

During Easter week 2007, 25 priests gathered with Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete for a yearly priest retreat offered by Communion and Liberation. The priests came from Boston, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Florida, Alabama, Indiana, Minnesota, and California. They ranged from those who had discovered their vocation through the charism to those who met the Movement recently, and some who were having their first exposure to CL.

The retreat was held at the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, MD, in faithfulness to our custom of having the retreat near locations important for the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. Past retreats have included visits to St. Augustine, Florida, the site of the first parish; St. Clement’s Island in MD, the site of the first Mass of the English settlers; and New Haven, Connecticut, where Fr. Michael J. McGivney began the Knights of Columbus in response to social and economic realities hostile to Catholics. Msgr. Albacete called our attention to the schoolhouse on the property which was built by Elizabeth Seton and her sisters as well as the house in which Elizabeth Seton died. He reminded us that saints are human beings who live their fascination with Christ within their historical circumstances and thus become flesh-and-blood witnesses to the Resurrection. Elizabeth Seton’s works were the fruit of her attraction to the beauty and truth of Christ which she had discovered in the Catholic Church. The alienation she suffered from her friends and family because of her conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism did not deter her.

In the U.S. today, priests can suffer a different kind of alienation. American priests are called “Father,” but we easily forget that no one can generate unless he himself is generated. Priests are not immune from a society that glorifies success, hard work and independence. The greatest virtue in the United States is to be busy. The priesthood, as any other vocation or profession, can be reduced to a demanding list of responsibilities and tasks. Even a priest can lose his own self as he attempts to gain the respect of parishioners and diocesan officials. To depend, on the other hand, is often seen as a shameful weakness. In Giussani’s charism, priests in the U.S. are meeting a place which befriends their humanity and fearlessly affirms their need to recognize and depend upon the Word became Flesh who dwells among us. The invitation at the retreat is not to another spiritual program, but to a companionship through which I live with the Father who generates me.

What was most provocative in the first lesson of the retreat on Tuesday morning was Albacete’s insistent and authoritative claim that I can only have certainty about the Resurrection of Jesus if I see contemporary evidence of it. One priest in that afternoon’s assembly told Albacete, “You dropped a bomb this morning… I need to understand this more!” There was such an urgency among all the priests to confront this provocation that it was decided to have witnesses the next day, so that Albacete’s explosive claim could take flesh.

Fr. Chris Marino and Fr. Lee Fangmeyer spoke of the encounters which led them to CL. Fr. Lee met the community in the Maryland/DC area when he was assigned by the bishop to be their chaplain. Being used to facing assignments as tasks, it took Lee a while to recognize that CL was not a burden, but a promise for his own life. Fr. Chris spoke of the importance of his friendship with Olivetta, who faithfully visited him and the small community in Miami. He spoke of what it meant to meet someone who is an authority. In one of the most striking moments of the week, Fr. Chris said, “The charism of CL is not for my life, it is my life. This doesn’t make me less of a pastor and priest, but more.”

Albacete was so moved by the priests’ response to the witnesses, that his next lesson became a personal testimony. Albacete spoke about his friendship with Angelo Scola, now the Patriarch of Venice. Albacete was struck that Scola’s adherence to the Church was so full of life and joy. Albacete asked him how he came to live the faith this way, and Scola spoke of Giussani. After his involvement with the Movement, Albacete began to see that certain friends in the Movement had become as precious to him as his family. The growing fascination Albacete had with Scola, and then Giussani and then some friends in New York overcame his suspicion of movements in the Church.

The priests were also moved by the emphasis on beauty. One night, we watched the film Babette’s Feast and, on another night, the DVD of Smetana’s Moldau conducted by Fricsay. One of the new priests who has a great love of classical music was enlivened by viewing the Moldau, and his passion and knowledge made him an authority for all of us. One priest commented that the film and the symphony footage complimented each other and echoed the content of the morning lessons. (Ironically, these events were last-minute replacements for cultural invitees who could not make it to the retreat!) One of the priests noted that Giussani’s emphasis on making judgments about everything we experience was something new for him, a crucial element of Christian life he had never seen accented in this way.

In a later assembly, priests spoke frankly about their personal hunger for contemporary evidence of the Resurrection. We are so used to hearing about or preaching about Jesus as an abstraction, that the claim that He is present in reality continued to provoke us as the most attractive promise for our lives.

Something new happened in the final assembly. What began as questions for Albacete became a lively conversation among the priests. Priests, moved by interventions of other priests, would answer with testimony from their own lives. It developed into a discussion on how relationships with parishioners change when we do the School of Community with them; how important it is for some of us to be in touch with the CL community near us; how friendships with members of Memores Domini and the Priestly Fraternity of Charles Borromeo have been invaluable; how we only remain in contact with each other if we are faithful to our desire for vocational companions; and how important it is that our priestly gatherings include serious work on a text, so that we continue to witness to one another that we are left alone, there is One Who is with us always.

It was more than a “bomb” that was dropped at the priest retreat; it was the proclamation of the most promising claim of history: He is Risen, and we have seen Him with our eyes and heard Him with our ears and touched Him with our hands.