Retreat for Priests

Author: Damian Fandal, O.P.

Retreat for Priests -- New Orleans, Louisiana -- October 15, 1993

by Damian Fandal, O.P.


In many places in the New Testament, the obedience of Jesus is underscored. "... and he went down with them and came to Nazareth and lived under their authority." Lk 2:51 ". . . not my will but your will be done." ". . . I have come, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me."

To obey those set over you, especially those who have an authority which you did not offer them, is a trait of the earnest Christian. But obedience is also a principal stumbling block for you and for me. We revere our freedoms. We do not like to be told what to do. We do not want to surrender our independence. And these attitudes can be hostile to Christianity.

I like to argue, following a long Christian tradition, that humility is the groundwork of every virtue. Whenever you find virtuous activity, you find a humble man. Wherever you find unwholesome work, you find a proud man. Obedience, then, is not the foundation of the Christian edifice; humility is. But the virtue of obedience is one of the first, if not the first, of the stones that build the Christian life. If may be the corner stone.

Let us try to be clear about this edifice which we are to build for ourselves and for those whom we lead. Faith, Hope, and Charity are Rs capstones. There is no Christian life without these, to be sure. But to practice the theological virtues, I need moral stability moral virtue. Among these, obedience is outstanding. Put it another way: Show me a priest who is obedient to God, to the See of Peter, and to his Ordinary, and I will show you a priest in whom charity flourishes.

Of course, obedience is difficult. We all want to do our own thing. Each of you prefers, by far, to be a pastor rather than an associate. Each of us has his own ideas about how the liturgy should be conducted, how the church layout should be devised, how the laity should be incorporated into the maintenance of parochial programs, what the responsibilities of the curates should be, how the finances should be administered, how and by whom the CCD should be run, and so on-and-on. A pastor is the boss, though at times he must consult the Ordinary and obey his decisions.

But few of us like to be told what to do. We love our freedom. And usually the bishops allow us broad tolerance - too broad in the view of some! How many times do you ask yourself: "Why doesn't Schulte crack down on Father so-and-so?" I suspect that we seldom ask whether he should crack down on us! This is, after all, my parish.

"Let a man so account us as steward of Christ." I have no right to emphasize my authority so long as I do not underscore my obedience. In the contemporary church, however, obedience is not usually underscored; it is largely ignored. Bishops make decisions, often after long, drown-out negotiations, and negative reactions set in - from the clergy and from the laity. How many news stories can you recount of disputes between a local ordinary and members of his diocese -- disputes that are exultantly carried in the secular, and even at times in the Catholic press? Too many by far.

Sometimes we fail to be obedient, and we must acknowledge that in those times we are most un-Christ- like. "I have not come to do my own will. . ." Each of you has promised obedience to your bishop. This, of course, is most difficult. if you are blessed with a bishop whom you admire, obedience is relatively easy. He dies and another takes his place whom you do not like, and a disobedient spirit readily takes hold. Examine your conscience now and ask: "How often have I failed in reverence, how often have I obeyed only niggardly, how often have I criticized in a carping spirit, based mainly on my dislike?

I want to insist on reverence here, reverence, at least, for the episcopal office. Yes, yes, I know that some bishops do a poor job, some are selfish, some mean, some niggardly, some haughty, some cowardly; there are some who more or less throw in the towel; there are some who are not too bright; and there are some who in fact, have no concern any longer and say: "Do your own thing." But there are many bishops who are prayerful men, many who are friendly and approachable, many who have an openness to their clergy which, judging by their actions and reactions, comes first. I have the profoundest respect for a local ordinary whose door is open, as much as practically possible, to his priests.

Now there are times when all of us are upset with a bishop's decision and we throw up our hands: "How could the son-of-a-gun be so stupid!?" At such times, when we cool down, we have to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, in this matter he knows something that I do not which he is not free to reveal. Or maybe, just maybe, his direction, which is not mine, may prove to be o.k.

In any event, you and I (I readily admit this), talk too much about our bishops - criticizing them too quickly, too roundly. Now, I often say to penitents, who confess the sins of calming or detraction, that they have a bad habit of speaking unkindly or unfairly of others. Not as a digression, I say here that the only way I can overcome my evil habit of saying unkind things is to work consciously, steadily, to replace the evil habit with its opposite - that is, by saying positive things about another. And by remaining silentl How hard that is! Thing about it. Someone criticizes negatively another and you say nothing because: a) you don't want an argument; or, b) you don't want to be dismissed; or (c) you don't want to be criticized yourself.

The spirit of obedience is as necessary for you as air for breathing. It is a moral virtue and therefore exists between extremes; just as it is evil to want to be treated as a stick or a stone, so it is evil to want to be treated as one naturally endowed with authority, good judgment, unfailing good sense, standing in the middle, the virtue of obedience requires that, at times, one argue for his position - even stoutly if in the end he is prepared to acknowledge authority and to submit to it with reverence!!

The clergy must exhibit a reverential spirit of obedience - to the bishop, to those whom he entrusts with responsibilities, and to be sure, to God.

No conference, no subject matter that I could offer for your reflection is more important than this. So please take the time to ponder this matter, to examine your conscience, to make good resolutions. Promise yourself that you will overcome willfulness, that you will embrace the state of being a subject and that you will then often say, prayerfully, sincerely: "Not my will, but yours be done."

"O Sacred Banquet. . ."

Of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, St. Thomas says that it is "not so much a duty as the end of all duties." Each of us recognizes that the "sacred" is expressed in all of the "mysteries" - I use the word with its ancient connotation - all of the sacraments which are sacred. But each of the six other sacraments prepares us for the great rite of worship which is the Most Holy Eucharist.

Already, I have said that some modern theologians and many catechists speak only of "Eucharist," setting aside the adjective traditionally employed. Some priests of the present day do not, in fact, believe in transubstantiation, accepting only the symbolic value of the bread and wine used in the Eucharistic rite. So many contemporary churches have been built with small, side chapels where "Eucharist" is reserved, there being no tabernacle in the principal arena.

In the loss of the sense of the sacred, we see a diminution of faith on the part of the faithful and on the part of some bishops and of many priests and deacons. This is one good reason - I'm uncertain whether it is the principal reason - for so many ills that we who have the care of souls confront.

The sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is sacred in itself, whereas all other possessions of the Church are sacred in reference to it. Permit me to recite the truth that was solemnly proclaimed by the Council of Trent:

The Most Holy Eucharist has indeed this in common with the other sacraments, that it is a symbol of a sacred thing and a visible form of an invisible grace; but there is found in it this excellent and peculiar characteristic, that the other sacraments then first have the power of sanctifying when one uses them, while in the Eucharist there is the Author Himself of sanctity before it is used (13th Session, Chap. III).

The Second Vatican Council used different words to reaffirm the same truth:

The other sacraments, as well as every ministry of the Church and every work of the apostolate, are linked with the Holy Eucharist and are directed toward ft. For the most blessed Eucharist contains the Church's entire spiritual wealth, that is, Christ himself, our Passover and living bread (Pres. Ordinis, 5).

Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei of 1965, notes that"the Eucharist is a very great mystery...the culmination and center...of the Christian religion."

Despite the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, we seem in so many quarters to have drifted away from a proper understanding of, and a proper reverence for the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Real Presence.

Perhaps I tend to be too traditional - your may be surprised that I worry about that; but I do, I do! - but there are so many signs of our loss of the sense of the sacred, particularly with regard to the Holy Eucharist.

As I have already said, we have many, many people today who go to communion in the state of mortal sin. Since virtually everybody else approaches communion at Sunday masses, many also come to communion unprepared, unabsolved of grievous sins. At Christmas and Easter, St. Dominic's in New Orleans is jammed at all the masses. And there is a flood of communicants, so that we have to have additional Eucharistic ministers. Where are these folks, mostly younger families, the rest of the time? Yet, willy nilly they come to communion. I always want at Christmas to wish some of them a Happy Easter because I won't see them again until the following Christmas!

At St. Dominic's New Orleans, we reserve the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle at the High Altar. Yet so many people stand around "yakking" in the nave before and after Mass. Twice, as patiently as possible, I have remarked about his from the pulpit, but to little avail. Once, I had to ask a large gathering for the baptism of an infant to please be silent in church, as they were in the presence of God in fact.

Many years ago, I got into an argument with three other Dominicans about the Sacred and the Profane. There is no distinction, they argued; Christ makes everything that is morally acceptable "sacred." If that is so, I challenged, why did the church in the Age of Persecution develop the "Secret Discipline?" Why is St. John's Gospel silent about the rights of the Christian Faith (while at the same time revealing more about them than the other Evangelists and St. Paul, all of whom describe the right of the Holy Eucharist)? And why has the church continually taught that one should prepare himself by certain steps to approach the Eucharist? One shouldn't approach the altar as one approaches the evening meal or a visit with friends, or a movie! Is it correct to call some of the routines of daily life "sacred?" Is it a "sacred movement" when I stop to fill my car with gas? When I shave in the morning? When I am inconsolable over a loss by the Saints?


Few of the sacraments have such a checkered history as does the Sacrament of Reconciliation. His unduly rigorous attitude about the forgiveness of sins drove Tertullian away from the Church early in the 3rd Century when Pope St. Calistus eased the nearly puritanical discipline that dominated the age of persecution. Reflecting on the question which St. Peter posed and which Jesus answered, Calistus knew he was correct. "Lord, how often should I forgive my brother? Seven times?" You recall Jesus' answer quite clearly.

Humanly speaking, I have to admit that the hearing of confessions is usually quite boring. I overcome the boredom rather easily when I pray seriously before entering the confessional. When I run to the confessional at the last minute, I am more readily bored. Patience has never been one of my attributes, so that I need God's grace patiently to listen, to advise, and to absolve.

Often, I say to myself that I should read about and meditate upon this sacrament much more often -- to recapture, by an act of faith, my understanding of this most generous gift of God. Yes, I know there are greater gifts of God; and I want to offer a few thoughts about some of them in other conferences. But if you want to examine meditatively the marvels of God's love for us, reflect on the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

I hear the same people's confessions week in and week out, and I detect little or no improvement in those individuals. They are beset with weaknesses and too readily submit to their temptations. Sometimes, you're tempted to speak sternly to them. I never submit to that temptation for two reasons. The first and most important is that I sit there as Jesus Christ. I ask myself: "What would Jesus say to this person?" And the answer comes soaring out of the Gospel of John: "Neither do I condemn you. Go, now, and do not sin again." Pushing the matter a bit, I ask: "What if that woman taken in adultery had been caught a second time and once again hurled at Jesus' feet. What would he have said?" Seventy times seven.

A second reason is that I am myself a sinner. I have no stone to cast, so I have no right to be stern with the penitents who come to me. I admit that occasionally a penitent won't listen to what I have to say, usually because of their nervousness. To catch such a person's attention, I speak forcefully. But I quickly apologize and assure the penitent that they should relax, set aside nervousness, and listen to my counsel -- which is not a criticism! I, a sinner, can hardly be a critic of a sinner. I have no stones.

This sacrament, to be sure, is as necessary for you as for me as it is for those whose confessions we hear. How often do we accept this marvelous grace of God? How often do we confess our sins? I'm afraid that many of us have slipped from the earnest practice of frequent confession. These days especially, we have so much to do that we fall into bed at night grateful for the opportunity to be alone. During this retreat, ask yourself the direct questions: How important is the sacrament of reconciliation to me? What schedule should I follow? How often will I confess? To whom? Can I give this special priority?

There is, to be sure, a grave difference between the sins of weakness and these sins of malice. Usually, we deal in the sacrament of reconciliation with sins of weakness. I have most rarely been confronted with malice, or at least, with malice that is grave. Yes, sometimes we do malicious things, but seldom, if ever, do we perform acts of malice that are studied, plotted out, willfully evil.

One of my favorite people is a Dominican whom many of you know named Ed Conley, former Pastor at St. Anthony of Padua in New Orleans. It's always interesting to drive with Ed when he is the driver. He has no patience with slow pokes, and, especially if the car windows are up, will cuss and storm about the car in front of us that is "moseying" along. I shall not quote his expletives. I only hurry to add that the man. is never malicious. He merely shares my impatience.

In the sacraments of forgiveness, we see the mercy of God at work, perhaps better than in any other situation. God's mercy is an effect of his love for us. Turning toward us without fail, calling us back to him, prompting us with his grace, moving our emotions and our will, our living father is anxious to wipe away the sins of men and women. To wipe them away so that, in literal truth, they are no more. Perhaps we should name this sacrament again, now calling it the sacrament of mercy.

A quality of most priests that I have always reverenced is their kindness in the confessional. I wish I knew why so many priests have the reputation -- one that is deserved -- for being good confessors. Good and kind. Our education is part of the reason; perhaps, our tolerance for others who differ with us in the priesthood is another part.

To hear confessions, admittedly a tiresome proposition at times, is an opportunity we should not miss. Kindness to others is a Christian hallmark; those who are kindly are in the path of salvation. But even more, we are "other Christs." And perhaps nowhere is that more palpable to the faithful than in the confessional of one who goes into the confessional box to sit there in Jesus' stead.

"I have come to call..... sinners." Pray for patience and kindliness before you hear confessions -- asking Jesus Christ to prepare you to sit there in his name - to be kind, compassionate, forgiving, uncensorious, "alter Christus."

Remind yourself as you enter the confessional: Christ is the Prince of peace. Where is this better demonstrated than in the Sacrament of Reconciliation? You absolve sinners with kindness and so you send them from your confessional in the peace of Christ. occasionally, try to say with sincerity and feeling: "Go in Peace."

There is, you see, this humbling fact, that at certain sacred times, God who is love wants to be united with each of us in a special manner. The anxiety of God for me, despite all of my sins, my weaknesses, my ugliness at times, is quite unbelievable, speaking humanly. But the love of God is everlasting, unending, and very, very personal. The Holy Eucharist is God's envelopment of me in his enduring love. This is awesome! This is sacred!

When, then, we celebrate the Eucharist, or when we enter a chapel or church where the Eucharist is kept in a tabernacle, we must be motivated by an answering love. We must pronounce the words of St. Thomas the apostle: "My Lord" - an exclamation of sincere humility -- "and my God" -- an expression of awe.

The Second Vatican Council began its momentous efforts with a reformation of the liturgy, and principally with an attempt to enlighten, to enlarge the sense of the sacred and of the joyous response to the sacred which should denominate our patterns of being.

The reformation of the liturgy stands or falls with the attitude toward the sacred that we develop, and this is most certainly true in our faith, and our approach to the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

Jesus Christ, our Lord, is truly present here. We should come to this chapel in awe, not necessarily trembling, yet with our hearts filled with gratitude. Here, Christ is our food. Here, we can grow in grace. Here, the promise of future glory is ours.

Devotion to Mary

Many years ago, when Jack O'Malley and I worked together in Dallas, I would usually drive him to the airport at vacation times. Jack's family lived in Chicago, Invariably, after we got the car moving, Jack would say, "Dame-Babe, hear my confession." Much later, he became an air force chaplain and perhaps grew less nervous about flying. To this day, I have not. Whenever the pilot hits the throttles, I pause, make the sign of the cross, and recite the Memorare. "Remember, O Blessed Virgin Mary, that never was it known . . ."

Perhaps I should do more. I know a lady who is nervous about flying, but who is unwilling to stay at home. Throughout her flights, she usually has the Rosary in one hand and a Martini in the other!

There are a number of reasons why Marian devotion should denominate the sincere Catholic priest. The first is that Jesus Christ has given us the gift of His Mother, so that she is now the Mother of each of us. If we are his disciples, accepting the obligation to preach His Truth, we must proclaim her role in salvation to those to whom we are sent. Jesus Christ expects this of us.

Another reason why Marian devotion should identify us is that without this devotion, we are out of balance. We live in an all-male enclave. In the contemporary period we have experienced a lessening of priestly intimacy, a greater mingling of priests and female religious, a heightened sensitivity to women's concerns, and the exaggerations and excesses of feminist movements.

But each of these has yet to be evaluated objectively, and perhaps that evaluation must still wait for quite a long time. One thing is certain; the surest route to a clearer evaluation is through prayers to Mary. Such prayers will have the double effect of keeping us in balance and of leading our hearts and minds to a proper reverence for feminine values.

Still another reason is that a personal devotion to Mary will necessarily evolve in each of us a deeper appreciation of maternal values. My mother was 93 when she died, quietly slipping away from this life. She lived in a rather nice nursing home and was pretty much unaware of the folds around her. She had no attention span. And while she would greet members of her family, she quickly lapsed into inattention. But all through her adult life she was a loving mother and a very prayerful lady. Those of you who have been blessed with such mothers know what I mean when I say that feminine values are somewhat easier to grasp by a man whose mother was successful at her task. We are not, of course, to be effeminate, and I suppose that effeminacy in a son is unwelcome to a successful mother. Even as a happy wife can soften, if not remove, the unwholesome masculine tendencies in her husband, leaving him a better male for her good efforts, so she can foster true masculinity in her sons, while supporting good manly values.

It must have been that way in the hidden life of the Holy Family. Clues in the Gospels lead to the conclusion that Mary had no clear idea about what the future held for her son. Even so, she reared him with all the care and attention that a loving mother bestows on her child. We can meditate -- even muse, if you will -- profitably on the family life of Jesus during all those "hidden years." And the more we reflect prayerfully, the more will we understand the role of Mary in the life of Jesus.

A better understanding of Mary's role in Jesus' life gives us an every-clearer role of Mary in our lives. The historical fact of Mary's choice by God to be the mother of the Savior is elegantly important in our meditations. God chose her for us. God chose her to accomplish his purpose, which is to bring you and me to eternal joy. And because that is God's choice, we must cooperate with that choice.

After the gift of himself to you, Mary is God's greatest benediction. Devotion to her, prayers to her, our expressions of gratitude to her, are indispensable elements of the successful Christian Life. Marian devotion is not an option for the well-formed Catholic. It is an ingredient that is necessary.

As a boy, I used to serve the Sorrowful Mother Novena on Friday nights at Holy Rosary in Houston. That was an extraordinarily popular devotion around the United States during the years of the Second World War. The devotion, to be sure, was unduly emotional, and soon after the war began to fade. There were, as well, other devotions and other celebrations that overemphasized the role of Mary in our spiritual lives. Perhaps it is no wonder that after the Second Vatican Council, Marian devotion took a nose dive. To this day, there are many religious and priests, who have no Marian devotion whatever.

We must foster true devotion to Mary, our Mother. Until that devotion is more widespread among the Catholic faithful, the Church will continue to slide into ever smaller ghettos. Good priests, I believe, have always had a good balance regarding devotion to Mary. Largely, that is because they have true devotion to Mary, without exaggerating that devotion.

(Taken from