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Generations of Priests
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Publisher's book Information
Copyright ©; Thomas J McGovern and Four Courts Press 2010.


Review for Faith

Fr Thomas McGovern has reflected deeply on the priesthood and priestly identity. Having already authored two monumental books on the priesthood — Priestly Celibacy Today and Priestly Identity: A Study in the Theology of Priesthood, this Irish priest's latest work moves from theory to practice as shown in the lives of ten truly inspiring priests taken from 1,500 years of the Church's history.

To limit this study to just ten priests must have been no easy undertaking. The priests chosen, St. John Chrysostom, St. John Fisher, St. Oliver Plunkett, the Cure of Ars, BI. John Henry Newman, Archbishop Lamy of Santa Fe, St. Pius X. BI. Clement von Galen, St. Josemana Escriva, and Pope John Paul II, serve as a microcosm of the many generations of priests that have gone before us.

It is clear that Fr McGovern has spent much time researching their lives, and he beautifully presents their biographies. We learn about their influences, personal stories, struggles and moments of selflessness, and how they responded to the needs of the time.

The book comes with a foreword by George Cardinal Pell, an admirer of Fr McGovern's works on the priesthood. He says: "This book could be read as a handbook for living the priesthood in a difficult time. ...[It is] invaluable to catechists and an inspiration to all Christians living in our age, which is no less exciting or exacting than the times experienced by these outstanding men".

The chapters each describe one priest and are laid out chronologically, though they do not need to be read sequentially.

Generations of Priests has come at the right time, when many have become disillusioned with the Church and her priests — a time when there is a crisis in the Catholic priesthood itself, and when vocations are in serious decline. This book serves as a reminder to priests of the zeal that is essential in their ministry and illustrates to seminarians the great responsibility of their calling. It helps all to remember the countless number of priests who have faithfully responded to their calling and dedicated their lives with passion, love and generosity so that the faith could be passed on from their generation to the next.

John McAleer

The above review first appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Faith


Review by Fr. Thomas O'Toole

Rev Thomas McGovern has already given us two excellent books, Priestly Celibacy Today and Priestly Identity: A Study in the Theology of Priesthood. These books are rightly held in high regard by many. They have been read by many priests and those preparing for the priesthood.

However, the call to generosity and self-giving at the heart of these works can send us into excuse mode. There is the tempation to look for a door marked 'Reality' which is constructed by the Old Adam in us and which might allow us to flee from the call to priestly holiness outlined by Fr. McGovern. The Old Adam urges us to escape through that door on the grounds that the reality of human weakness and the difficult situations a priest often confronts allow us to fall far short of what is demanded by the call to priestly holiness.

In his third book Generations of Priests, Fr. McGovern closes off that door. He allows us no escape. He presents us with the lives of ten priests who lived to the full their priestly identity, with the love and generosity which is basic to the call to priestly celibacy.

These priests belong to no particular time or situation. They range from St John Chrysostom who was born around the riddle of the fourth century to Pope John Paul II who died in the early years of the twenty-first century. We meet a writer of extraordinary brilliance like Chrysostom's great admirer Blessed John Henry Newman. We meet St John Vianney who did not begin his formal schooling until he was twenty years old. The vocation of this Curé of Ars demanded that he remain in one small area for the last forty years of his life. The vocation of his fellow Frenchman Archbishop Lamy called him to make many long and arduous journeys through exotic and dangerous territory.

We meet a gentle English scholar from the sixteenth century and a strong German man of action from the twentieth century. Both of these men, St John Fisher and Blessed Clement Von Galen, stood up to tyrants in their day — Henry VIII and Adolf Hitler. We meet our own St Oliver Plunkett who out of love for Christ left the respectable comfort of his Roman teaching post to face the hardships and dangers of seventeenth century Ireland. We meet Pope St Pius X who was both curate and parish priest and a model of joyful dedication to the service of God and his people. The book tells us of that great prophet of the universal call to holiness, St Josemaria Escriva. The tenth priest presented in the book is Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II, who so appreciated the laity's call to holiness that he built a theology centred on the marriage act in all its intimacy.

Fr McGovern gives us the always interesting and sometimes frightening details of the life of each priest. He also draws lessons and poses challenges from their words and deeds. The book could be described as relentless. The examples of heroic selflessness in both ordinary and exceptionally dramatic circumstances abound. He leaves the reader — priest or lay person — with no place to turn to find an excuse for lukewarmness.

We are challenged not to run away from difficulties when we read of Fr. Lamy leaving his native France for Cincinnati in the U.S.A. and being then given pastoral responsibility for New Mexico and other vast territories with few resources but with recalcitrant priests and many dangers to face. If we are tempted to look for novelties and fresh excitements we are reminded of St John Vianney giving himself to prayer, mortification and the confessional in the same parish for decades. Should we become fascinated by modern ideas which conceal from us the Cross of Christ we have St Pius X to admonish us. When we are inclined to be quiet about moral issues for the sake of political correctness we are given Cardinals Fisher and Von Galen as well as Pope John Paul II to jolt our consciences.

Fisher and his fellow Englishman and Cardinal, Blessed John Henry Newman, give the lie to any excuse we might invent to convince ourselves that study and ongoing formation are incompatible with a heavy pastoral work load. St Pius X both as Pope and as a studious and busy young pastor will also put us right on the score. When we make our final effort to tell ourselves that holiness is great but that it is for a specially chosen few, the life and teachings of St Josemaria Escriva will put an end to such foolish thinking.

All this is not to say that Generations of Priests is a finger wagging book. Yes it is challenging but it is a book about love and joy. It is about men who were so much in love with Jesus Christ that they surmounted all obstacles for the sake of that love. It is about priests who found a joy so great that no suffering, no disappointment, no hurt of any kind could take it away. On the contrary they knew that Christ turns such occasions of suffering into opportunities to increase that joy. If these ten priests had a common motto it could be "If God is for us who is against us?" (Rom 8:31).

The book is also an antidote to feelings of paralyzing sadness over the current situation in the Church. In the light of recent scandals it points to a path of true renewal. Through the teachings of St Pius X, Venerable John Paul II and St Josemaria Escriva the book ushers us away from the mistaken reforms and false renewals that are being called for and which are based on modernism, mistaken interpretations of Vatican II and a so-called liberation theology.

I strongly recommend this book to priests, seminarians and lay people. Fr. McGovern is to be congratulated on showing us how the ideals of the priesthood have been lived out in various and often difficult situations. Very rarely does a man write a book that could be the basis for ten exciting and edifying film scripts. In this book Fr. McGovern has also closed off any avenues of escape our darker selves might take to the loving challenge of the Catholic priesthood.

Copyright ©; Thomas J McGovern and Four Courts Press 2010.

Rev Thomas O'Toole is a priest of the diocese of Ossory.

This review first appeared in Position Paper 440/441, August/September 2010


The Courage of the Clergy

Review by Very Rev. J. Anthony Gaughan, D Litt.

Publisher's book Information

THE Catholic priest has been described in many different ways. In the TV series
Fr.5 Ted he is a figure of fun. In comments by Rev. Ian Paisley he is the butt of bigotry. In the novels of acclaimed writers, such as A. J. Cronin, Graham Greene, Compton McKenzie and Bruce Marshall, he is depicted with insightful sympathy.

Here, Fr Tom McGovern provides inspiring pen-pictures that illustrate the priesthood from the inside.

Courage in one form or another is to be found in the lives of the distinguished clerics featured in McGovern's monograph. St John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, did not hesitate to oppose Henry VIII on the issue of the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, nor his claiming supremacy over the Church.


He was acutely aware of the danger in which this placed him and, in the event, was hanged in 1535, a martyr in defence of papal supremacy and the sanctity of the marriage bond.

St Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh, was equally courageous. After a life of hardship in the service of his priests and people he was also hanged, following a false allegation that he was involved in the Titus Oates Plot of 1678.

Blessed Clement von Galen, bishop of Münster in north west Germany, was also a Church leader who was not lacking in courage. After the National Socialist Party (Nazis) took control in Germany in 1933 a campaign began to destroy the influence of the Catholic Church. In Dachau 2,700 priests were imprisoned, of whom 1,000 died from ill-treatment.

Eventually some 4,000 priests were put to death under that regime of terror. It is in this context that Von Galen's unremitting and public denunciations of the criminal racist theories and practices of the Nazis are to be viewed. Another kind of courage was exhibited in their lives by the Blessed John Henry Newman, Archbishop John Baptist Lamy and St Josemaria Escriva. Newman remained single-minded in facing the disappointments and pain of his extended family and many close friends when he followed his conscience and converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Later he displayed a dignified calm when victim to serious calumnies in what was part of a national campaign against the Catholic Church in England.

Wild west

In the middle of the nineteenth century John Baptist Lamy left his native France to minister in the then 'Wild West' of the US. In 1875 he became Archbishop of the South West region which eventually became the States of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. Throughout his ministry as priest and bishop he faced with equanimity the physical challenges in that harsh and underdeveloped region, including attacks by marauding Indians.

St Josemaria Escriva had first-hand experience of the horrors of Spain's civil war. Far from being cowed by it, he became even more determined to carry out a mission with which he considered he had been entrusted.

This was to open a path to holiness through daily work and one's ordinary duties.

Subsequently, in the face of trenchant opposition from both inside and outside the Church, he successfully established Opus Dei as a new imaginative instrument in the Church's mission of evangelisation.

St. Jean Vianney, the Curé of Ars, a model for all priests.

The life of the Curé of Ars and the challenges he had to face will be familiar to the vast majority of priests. There was his prayer life based on the daily recitation of the Divine Office and the celebration of the Eucharist. Then his dedicated ministry to the sick, the elderly, the marginalised and the children in the parish school. His commitment to his ministry in the confessional eventually attracted people from all over France and even beyond. In the life-story of the Curé of Ars the importance of the priesthood is especially evident. Persecutions of the Church may come and go. Reforms, counter-reforms, national and international pastoral initiatives and projects may be attempted but it is the daily, dedicated ministry of the priest and his close relationship with his people which defines and will continue to define the Catholic Church. This is but one of a number of valuable insights to be gleaned from Tom McGovern's excellent survey of a well-chosen group of priests, exercising their ministry in widely differing circumstances.

This review first appeared in the 12th August issue of the Irish Catholic.


Saturday Book Pick:

Examples down the centuries on what makes a priest indispensible.

Posted 4/2/11 at 7:32 AM

This book is targeted toward priests and seminarians, aiming to invigorate them in their vocation to serve Christ and his Church. For all Catholics, however, it should inspire a vivid appreciation of that calling ever ancient, ever new.

Written by an Irish priest of the prelature of Opus Dei,
Generations of Priests profiles 10 priests from antiquity through the present, from St. John Chrysostom to Pope John Paul II. Most are canonized and well known. All of them, however, “reflected Christ in his own unique way — they were truly icons of Christ,” writes Father McGovern.

His book is a scholarly and thoroughly engaging model of teaching through storytelling that evidences the Irish gift for letters at its noblest. These priests fulfilled their callings in a variety of circumstances, confronting all manner of outward challenges and personal struggles. They were not Hamlets, endlessly questioning what to believe and how to act. “
These men had very clear objectives because they were convinced about their vocation,” Father McGovern writes. “We do not find here any semblance of the crisis of identity which hit many priests in the aftermath of Vatican II. In fact they had so little time to think of themselves, they were so busy working as priests, that it never occurred to them to doubt their vocation

Father McGovern paints these priestly “icons” in such a manner that they form a cohesive mosaic illustrating the perennial character and relevance of the priesthood. Acting in the person of Christ for the benefit of the faithful, they also served as beacons of light within the wider world — a world ever in need of Christ, especially when plunged in darkness so severe that men react viciously to light.

Indeed, two of these priestly beacons were shattered by men bent on evil. Like broken glass, however, their deaths merely reflected so many more rays of light. Like their Master, Sts. John Fisher and Oliver Plunkett accepted fates they easily could have avoided. One was the only English bishop who refused to renounce Rome for a craven king, the other a primate of Ireland in the late 1600s, who in 1920 became the first Irish saint canonized in 700 years. To focus on their deaths, however, would be a disservice: There is so much more to their lives than their passing. As priests and bishops, their examples are richly relevant to the Church today. Of St. John Fisher, the less appreciated
contemporary of St. Thomas More (they were executed within weeks of one another),

Father McGovern concludes:

“[He] … does not have the same human attractiveness [as More], yet the example of his life and work is no less valid. A theologian of towering intellect which he used magnificently and unselfishly in the exposition and defense of Catholic doctrine, a bishop with an intense loyalty to the see of Peter, a pastor who nourished his flock with the bread of good doctrine and a saintly life — these are surely qualities which make St. John Fisher, if not a ‘man for all seasons,’ certainly very much an inspiration and a challenge for the Catholic Church of the present day

In St. Oliver Plunkett, the author reveals a man of supreme fortitude who reformed an Ireland suffering from scandalous clergy and depraved public morality. His example should inspire latter-day reformers tasked with rejuvenating the faith in Ireland. The point is that present problems have past counterparts, the resolution of prior woes offering hope for today. Indeed, the lessons proffered in these profiles are well springs of practical
advice and encouragement for priests as well as the laity of the pilgrim Church today.

Are you a young priest appointed to a moribund parish where only a couple of old ladies seem to care? Let St. John Vianney teach you to make your garden grow. An American priest ministering to Spanish-speakers brimming with surface piety but lacking understanding of the faith and prone to Indian superstition? Consider Archbishop John Baptist Lamy, the French missionary tasked with shepherding the American Southwest. Struggling with evil in public life? Take Blessed Clement von Galen for your guide. This German bishop, so beloved for his towering opposition to Hitler that the Führer himself forbade his arrest, is an exemplar of dueling with darkness and never blinking. Or are you a priest or layman striving to be a saint amid the seemingly mundane concerns of everyday life? Then St. Josemaria Escriva is your man. Not surprisingly, the chapter on the founder of Opus Dei is touched with a filial appreciation that, like the cheerful saint himself, is infectious but unassuming.

Generations of Priests is a clarion call for this generation to convert to the first concerns of the faith, the very same preoccupations of these exemplars of the priesthood: good catechesis zealously performed, orthodox seminaries, devotion to the Blessed Mother, Eucharistic adoration, and a firm commitment to the sacrament of penance, which several of the 10, especially St. John Vianney, emphasized a priest is duty-bound to nurture on pain of his own salvation. For what shepherd would have his sheep suffer and die?

These first things, without which everything else collapses, help us the faithful to take up our own crosses and cheerfully follow Christ, uniting ourselves with him as we walk our own paths in this life with the guidance of good priests.
Generations of Priests aims to make this burden be as it ought to be: not only light, but in that spiritual sense that baffles nonbelievers, downright merry.

Register correspondent Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.

The original version of this review can be viewed using the following url.


Copyright © 2007 Circle Media, Inc. All rights reserved.


Review in The Furrow (March 2011 issue)

During the recent Year for Priests (2009-2010) the view was sometimes expressed that there is a need for 'models' of the priesthood, outstanding priests whose lives and ministry might be taken as sources of inspiration for priests today. This book is in part an attempt to respond to this need. The most frequently cited model for diocesan priests in parish ministry is of course, St. John Vianney, the Cure d'Ars, and he is indeed one of the ten priests featured in this book. He is however, the only ordinary or 'simple' priest included in the ten. All the others are prelates of various kinds — two Popes (Pius X and John Paul II), a cardinal (Newman), five bishops and the founder of Opus Dei, the prelature to which the author of this volume belongs. All except one is canonized, beatified or about to be beatified. The single exception to this is Archbishop John Baptist Lamy (1814-1888), a pioneering bishop in the American West in the days when native Americans still roamed the Great Plains. His story is particularly inspiring, not least because of the physical hardships he endured in his ministry, travelling vast distances on horseback or by oxcart, sleeping often under the stars, all the while coping with some very difficult priests and people in his originally enormous diocese.

The earliest priest featured is St. John Chrysostom, followed by the martyrs St. John Fisher and St. Oliver Plunkett. Each chapter is about 40 pages long, so the treatment of each subject is quite extensive and scholarly and includes details not generally known from more popular works. There is an impressive treatment of the wartime bishop of Münster in Germany, Clemens August Von Galen. whose resistance to the Nazi regime was courageous and outspoken. In recognition of this, he was named a cardinal in the consistory of February 1946, but died suddenly just a few weeks later. He was beatified in 2005. The last priest in the book, apart from Pope John Paul II, is Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei. Given that the author is as member of that prelature, this chapter has more personal detail and insight into its subject.

In his Foreword, Cardinal George Pell describes the book as 'dramatic and existential rather than spiritual and theological'. He says that the lives of these ten priests can be seen as an unfolding of an array of virtues that priests need today. Even if the average priest in parochial ministry might be somewhat intimidated by these heroic and somewhat larger than life figures, the ideals they embody can still inspire those struggling on the lower slopes of the mountain path towards holiness. Perhaps it might be useful if someone were to attempt to write a book about priests who were not bishops or prelates of any kind, or to put it differently, about the potential John Vianneys of the 20th century, whose humble and low-profile ministry was in the globalized, urbanized, consumerist, media-dominated culture of modern western society. Such a volume would also be helpful, as this one certainly is in its own way, to this generation of priests.

Aidan Ryan
Co. Westmeath

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