New Developments by Fr Thomas McGovern
Cardinal George Pell's Foreword to
Fr McGovern is already the distinguished author of several books on priesthood and on priestly celibacy. Generations of Priests is a rather different book—dramatic and existential rather than spiritual and theological. Newman, he tell us, is profoundly affected by the Church Fathers ‘because they are saints who come alive in their writings and he is thus able to establish a very personal relationship with them.’ This accurately describes Generations of Priests too: its vivid writing invites its readers into a very personal relationship with the ten priests whose lives he explores.
There are what Saul Bellow called ‘axial lines’ going through these priests—all of them are challenged and inspired by the newness of the Gospel, applying it with what Pope Benedict calls ‘the knowledge of love’ to their hard times. All of them deeply experience their weakness, and focus on the Cross, which opens them out to God’s mercy. As priests, they live intrinsically relational ministries, where their unique vertical and sacramental relationship with God, is expressed in their horizontal relationship with the hierarchy, with their fellow priests, and with those they serve.
While many of Fr McGovern’s ten are bishops, and two are popes, all are characterized by a truly Christian democracy of service. The one among them who was neither pope, nor bishop, nor cardinal—the simple Cure d’Ars—most clearly defines the essence of the priesthood as ‘the love of the heart of Jesus.'
As Pope Benedict has noted, “only in this way can we cooperate effectively in the mysterious ‘plan of the Father’ which consists in ‘making Christ the heart of the world’! This plan is accomplished in history as Jesus gradually becomes the Heart of human hearts, beginning with those called to be closest to him: namely his priests.”
These ten priests, spanning 1500 years, can be seen as unfolding an array of virtues that we priests need today.
For example, we are told that John Chrysostom is often seen as Doctor Eucharistiae, reminding us that “it is not man who causes what is present to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but Christ himself who was crucified for us.”
John Fisher, in the prayer he wrote while awaiting death in the Tower of London, draws us into his heart to heart dialogue with the Father: “Whither should I rather go than to my Father, to my most loving Father, to my most merciful Father, to him that of his infinite love and mercy hath given me boldness to call him Father?“
Oliver Plunkett, himself preparing for a similar fate, reminds us that our courage in the face of harsh if not lethal criticism is rooted in the courage of Christ himself—as he wrote to his fellow prisoner and spiritual director, Fr. Maurus: ”I have considered that Christ by his fears and passion merited for me to be free of fear.”
John Vianney’s humility and readiness to forgive is beautifully expressed in his answer to a letter from a priest from a neighbouring parish, pointing out that ‘when a man knows as little theology as you do, he should not go into the confessional.’ The Cure d’Ars replied: “Most dear and most venerated confrère, what good reasons I have for loving you! You are the only person who really knows me. Since you are so good and kind as to take an interest in my poor soul, do help me to obtain the favour for which I have been asking for so long a time, that being released from a post which I am not worthy to hold by reason of my ignorance, I may be allowed to retire into a little corner, there to weep over my poor life. What penances there are to be undertaken! how many expiations there are to be offered! how many tears to be shed.” It’s no surprise that his humility won over his critic.
John Henry Newman accurately diagnosed a religious flabbiness that is still with us: “Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching that is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy.”
The life of John Baptist Lamy reads like an adventure story, marked by a word we don’t use much these days, but as essential as ever; zeal. A typical moment is described by Fr McGovern: “He arrived at Granite Creek on Christmas Eve. One of miners put his cabin at the bishop’s disposal where snow blew through the cracks. On Christmas Day he said Mass for about twenty-five miners kneeling on the night-time’s snow. The altar was improvised from old planks set up within the cabin. Only a few men could kneel inside the cabin – the rest were outside in the cold. It was so cold that a fire was lit in the cabin, and several times Lamy had to bring the chalice with its frozen wine and water to be thawed out by the stove.”
St Pius X towards the end of his life wrote an encyclical letter on priesthood born from his own life of priestly service: 'there is abundant evidence from every age that even the humblest priest, provided his life is adorned with overflowing sanctity, can undertake and accomplish marvellous works for the spiritual welfare of the People of God.'
Clement von Galen is probably most famous for his defence of the defenceless—his sermons against the National Socialist state’s euthanasia policies: “Once admit the right to kill unproductive persons, then none of us can be sure of his life. A curse on men and on the German people if we break the holy commandment 'Thou shalt not kill.'” As Fr McGovern notes, “Von Galen's words had a powerful effect. By the end of August  the program for euthanasia had been suspended, but not before 100,000 people had been killed in this manner.”
Josemaría Escrivá, like the other ten priests, has many virtues, one of them being his close, day-to-day relationship with Our Lady, expressed in this 1970 prayer: “O Lady, all I can offer you now—I have nothing else— are thorns, the thorns embedded in my heart; but I am sure that through you they will turn into roses … Grant that in us, in our hearts, roses may blossom all through the year, little roses, the roses of daily life, ordinary roses but filled with the perfume of sacrifice and love. I deliberately say little roses, because they are what suit me best, because all through my life I have only dealt with ordinary, everyday things, and even then I often haven’t been able to finish them; but I am sure that it is in this ordinary, daily activity, that your Son and you await me.”
And from John Paul the Great we can find a profound respect from a celibate priest for the married state—all the more profound, because he was celibate: “In this domain I have received more graces than battles to fight. A day came when I knew for certain that my life would not be fulfilled in the human love the beauty of which I have always felt deeply. As a pastor, I have had to prepare many young people for marriage. My status as priest has never separated me from them; on the contrary, it has brought me closer to them and has helped me to understand them better… The fact that my path differs from theirs did not make me a stranger; quite the contrary.”
This book could be read as a handbook for living the priesthood in a difficult time. Through the often heroic lives of these priests, we are introduced to rich insights from Church and secular history and imaginative pastoral practices—many as relevant now as when practiced by their 10 protagonists. There is an excellent interweaving too, with various papal or ecclesial writings on priesthood, indications of Fr McGovern’s experience as a spiritual director. Because the ten priests are saints, or at least on the way to sainthood, their stories will also be 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.
2. Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, opening of the Year for Priests on 150th anniversary of the death of St John Mary Vianney, Homily of His Holiness Benedict XVI, Saint Peter’s Basilica Friday, 19 June 2009.
This version: 8th February 2010