Address to Men’s Conference:
“My Vision for Our Archdiocese, and the Crucial Role of Men in that Mission”
Saturday, March 12, 2011
Cathedral of St. Paul
The Most Reverend John C. Nienstedt
I wish to begin my remarks with a word of thanks to the members of the Archdiocesan Family, Youth and Life Office, who have coordinated this day. I also owe a debt of gratitude to our renowned speakers, Fr. Bill Baer, Dr. John Buri, Mr. Wes Walz and Mr. Dave Rinaldi. Your presence today is a tremendous grace for us all, and I thank each of you for your insightful presentations. Finally, yet perhaps most importantly, I am grateful to all of you men who are present here: fathers, grandfathers, godfathers, brothers, uncles, and sons. How great it is, when brothers come together in unity and in faith! (adapted from Psalm 133)
As Archbishop, I am sometimes asked, “What do you think is the top priority for our Church today? What is your vision for a stronger, more vibrant Church?” While these questions are thoughtfully asked, they do seem to imply that the Church is much like any other kind of business, bent on efficiency and increasing its numbers and that I, as the appointed leader, have my own agenda in guiding this institution. But the Church is concerned with much more than the bottom line or even the personal agenda of a given bishop. In his book-length interview, Light of the World, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI states,
“We are not a production plant, we are not a for-profit business, we are Church. That means a community of men standing together in faith. The task is not to manufacture some product or to be a success at selling merchandise. Instead, the task is to live the faith in an exemplary way, to proclaim it and at the same time to keep this voluntary association, which cuts across all cultures, nations and times and is not based on external interests, spiritually connected with Christ and so with God himself.” (Light of World, 73)
Today, we come to this gathering as a community of men, standing together in faith. We have not come here to learn how to be more successful or efficient. We have come here because we are parts of a whole. We live for something greater than ourselves. And from time to time, we need to reexamine how our individual roles fit within that larger picture. Because of its importance, I am grateful to have this opportunity to share with you my thoughts on how this can be done.
Like the Holy Father, my goal is to live the Catholic faith in an exemplary way and to proclaim the Gospel in season and out of season. My only agenda, if one can even speak of such a thing, is to make the name of Jesus Christ known and loved, which is, in fact, the work of evangelization. To make this vision a reality, however, I need the understanding and cooperation of every Catholic in this Archdiocese. As fathers and brothers, you are a fundamental part of this undertaking. Like any leader, the Archbishop needs his men marching alongside him. And for this we have come here today; we rally together, united as a community of believers standing under the banner of our Catholic faith.
What I ask of you today is to take a moment to think about how your role as men in this Archdiocese, in relation to me as the Archbishop, is carried out in your everyday lives. How do you, a faithful, Catholic man, build up the community of the Church under the spiritual leadership of the chief shepherd of that local church? How do you balance the many demands of your time and still address your God-given call to evangelize the world?
We know that every man, woman and child is a precious gift from God. In his or her own way, each is called to be a blessing, or a sign of God’s presence in this world. As men, you are called to be a particular blessing in a three-fold manner: a blessing to family, to your Church and to the society at large. In each of these three areas you are given an opportunity to “step up to the plate” in living your life of Christian manhood as a blessing for others.
First, you are called to be a blessing to those with whom you have significant relationships, be it your spouse, your parents, your children, or your friends. Next, you are called to be a blessing within the Church, where growth in holiness, both on the individual and communal level, must be considered. Finally, you are to be a blessing within society as agents of transformation in your witness to what is good and true.
When I was rector of Sacred Heart, Major Seminary in Detroit, I came across a book, entitled Iron John, by the American poet Robert Bly. Now I admit that Bly was not a big fan of the Catholic church, but I do think he had some insightful observations on the men’s movements that were taking place in the 1970’s and 80’s.
Bly uses the Brothers’ Grimm fairy tale, Iron John, to analyze the role that the “wild man” had on the life of the king’s family. This “wild man” is distinct from the “savage” who sets out to plunder and destroy both the earth and the human soul. The “wild man”, instead, is one who is not afraid to branch out on his own, leaving mother, father and other creature comforts behind in order to set out to resolve the riddles of life on his own. Such a “wild man” becomes one who is able to initiate other men into the reality of manhood even as he had been initiated by his own father and male mentors.
Bly contends that something was profoundly lost when Western civilization moved from an agricultural society to a largely industrial one. On the farm, young boys worked side by side with their father at home and in the fields. This gave the sons an opportunity to observe and actually participate in the daily labor of their father. The result was not only a sense of respect and appreciation for the father, but also the opportunity for the father to mentor his sons.
That relationship was radically altered with the advent of factories and business offices.
In many families, the father still remains the major breadwinner, which is to say that like his ancestors, the man provides the income for his family to survive, and hopefully, to flourish. The difference is that many men now work away from home. His job in the office or on the assembly line does not allow for meaningful interaction with his family. In the evening, the father returns home, giving his wife and children what is left over from his day of work: which too often consists of tired, frustrated, and even resentful emotions. He continues to provide to the “bread” of material comfort, but not the “bread” of a life-giving relationship.
My brothers in Christ, you are called to be a blessing to those whom God has entrusted to your care. For your wife and children, for your extended families and friends, you are called to be an example of the paternal care and compassion of our heavenly Father, who is for his children a source of life-giving love. Husbands, your marriage is a sacramental reflection of Christ’s love for his bride, the Church. And that means a kind of sacrificial love that is not afraid to get involved, in order to give of itself completely.
Being a blessing to those entrusted to your care means not only providing just your labor, but also being a source of life-giving affirmation in who you are and how you relate to those whom you love. The question becomes, “Am I a father, husband, brother, son or grandfather who lives a life of self-sacrifice? Do I give of myself in all that I do for the good of those whom I love?”
Let us, at this point, widen our focus a little more. Now that we have resolved to be a blessing in our relationships at home, let us commit to being a blessing within the Church, as agents of God’s forgiveness.
Recently, I read a report of a CNN interview that took place just after the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9-11. A Jewish rabbi had just explained the Scriptural adage, “An eye for an eye”, when the interviewer turned to the Catholic priest who was present. He asked, “And, Father, what do the Christian Scripture have to say to this situation?” Without hesitation, the priest answered, “Forgiveness, forgiveness is the central message of the Gospel.” The interviewer sat speechless at the force of those words.
Do we really believe this? Do we truly believe that forgiveness, compassion and mercy are the life giving hallmarks demanded by our Savior, or do we simply mouth the words of the Gospel while remaining committed to a life of strict justice, or even vengeance? Are we men of patience and understanding, or men of demands and unremitting judgment? In short, are we men of the Gospel, or men of the world?
As disciples of the Master, you and I are called to be agents of forgiveness, especially among the members of the Body of Christ. But how often do we find that the discord and even rancor which so often characterizes the polarized voices of opinion in our secular society today even boils over into debates within the Church. Christ’s prayer should ring in our ears – “I pray Father, that they might be one, as we are one.” In our petty disagreements and ideological struggles within the Church, (I speak here not of fundamental disagreements involving dogma or doctrine), we bring shame to the body of Christ, and stand in opposition to the challenge and prayer of Christ for unity within the household of God.
Now, to be sure, there is objective truth that gives credibility to the beliefs we hold dear. And when these beliefs are questioned, attacked or otherwise undermined, then we must defend them with all the strength we can muster. At the same time, however, we must do so in a manner that is respectful of the other person as being a son or daughter of God and a sinner, like ourselves, called to be a saint. We must love at all times, even in battle. Ad hominem attacks have no place in debates between Christians.
The compassion and mercy we show to others in the household of God flows not only from the commandment of God to forgive and to listen. It also needs to flow from an awareness that we ourselves stand in need of the compassion and patience of God. We all need forgiveness – we all need mercy, no exceptions. This is one of the underlying themes that marks the season of Lent, just begun this past Wednesday. Lent is a penitential season and that implies an acknowledgement that each of us has sinned and stands in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Yet, this sin not only affects my relationship with God, it also has an impact on my relationship with others who make up the community of faith. Personal sin has a way of weakening the witness of our faith and calling into doubt the efficacy of the graces that accompany the works of the faithful. We don’t have to look any further than the horrific impact that the revelation of clerical, sexual abuse of children has had both inside and outside the Church, causing many within the Church to walk away from their practice of the faith and others outside the Church to doubt the credibility of her witness or her message. Yes, there is no such thing as a “private” sin, for sooner or later it will have consequences beyond the individual sinner.
Having taught a course on the Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation in the seminary for thirteen years, I am a firm believer in the power of that sacrament. Here one learns that indeed love means having to say you are sorry as the harmful deeds of our lives are acknowledged in true sorrow, verbally exposed before Christ the divine healer and then absolved by his mercy, restoring us to the full life of grace. Confession is a kind of school—if you will—a house of mercy, a place in which we learn how to forgive just as we are forgiven. Let me be clear and direct – no matter how long it has been since your last confession, I urge you to return to this sacrament, so that you may receive the rich blessings of the fullness of the Christian life. Contrary to some widespread error, the auricular confession of sins to a priest has never gone out of style or been reconsidered by the Church – it has remained a critical instrument within the Church by which Christ continues to reach out to his fallen people who long to rise up again. My friends, make this great sacrament a regular part of your life of faith.
But making a good confession leads to another sacrament – the sacrament of the Eucharist, and participation in the sacrifice that is the Mass. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council stated that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” (LG 11, CCC 1324) Therefore, what we do as men must lead to and flow from this perfect sacrifice, which is, after all, Christ’s own sacrifice. Living a life of sacrifice, that is, a life focused on others, is a challenge to be sure, and so we must continually turn to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament for the wisdom and strength to overcome all obstacles.
Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict tells us:
“If we want the world to move forward a little, the only criterion in terms of which this can happen is God, who enters into our lives as a real presence. The Eucharist is the place where men can receive the kind of formation from which new things come into being. This is why the great figures who throughout history have really brought revolutions for the good have been the saints who, touched by Christ, have brought new impulses into the world.” (Light of the World, 158)
Besides attending Sunday Mass and weekday Mass, when you are able, I encourage you to spend time before our Lord in Adoration. I am grateful to those men who make a commitment for taking the time from their busy schedules to keep watch for an hour before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Many of the parishes in our Archdiocese offer perpetual adoration. Sign up for an hour, even if it is only once a week. Commit yourself to that time. I assure you, you will not regret it. By spending time with the Master in silent adoration, we slowly begin to learn the lessons of His life, a life of service and silent listening to the voice of the Father.
Finally, a life of forgiveness must be nourished in daily prayer, especially rooted in the reading the Sacred Scriptures. Throughout the Scriptures, our Lord speaks plainly to the importance of reading the Word of God and appropriating it into our lives. In his response to Satan’s first temptations, Jesus said, “Not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) And again we read in the letter to the Hebrews: “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) What is this voice that comes from the lips of God except that of Bible, authoritatively interpreted by the Church? What is this two edged sword but those passages of Scripture in which our lives are made clear and the way of life and death is put plainly before us?
Being a man of God’s Word is more than a mere reading of the text; it is praying the Word, it is being steeped in the Scripture to the point of being able to share that Word and to explain to others the Church’s teachings, which are based on that Word. When you immerse yourself in the Word, you will find your lives transformed, especially in becoming agents of Christ’s forgiveness.
In going out into the world to bring all things together in Christ, we broaden our focus beyond our family and beyond our Church to include the whole of society around us. In this arena, we can expect to meet others who do not always share our faith and who can even be quite hostile to the teachings of the Catholic Church. I am thinking here of those who deny the right to life of babies in their mother’s womb or those who would have us believe that marriage could be properly defined as something other than a union between one man and one woman or even those who would usurp the power of God in deciding when the life of the sick or the aged can be extinguished. These are serious challenges that, if allowed to take hold, will dramatically alter the ethical landscape of our human society. Such challenges call upon us to stand firm and defend the truth. As they say in Detroit, this is where the rubber hits the road.
As Catholic men, we are called to be salt of the earth in a world that is barren without Jesus. But how do we preach Christ’s message in such a secular world? What do we say to those who reject the Church and her teachings? We must ‘clothe ourselves with Christ’, as St. Paul tells the Ephesians, and “put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm.” (Ephesians 6:11) In doing so, we set Christ before us, so that others may see Him, through our word and example, in the marketplace, on the street, within our home, as we become salt of the earth and a light for the world.
In referencing Matthew 13:33, Pope Benedict XVI says that "As a small amount of leaven, mixed with flour, ferments all the dough, so the Church, present in society, makes grow and mature what in her is true, good and beautiful." (Audience to Italian Catholic Media, Nov. 2010) Therefore, by faithfully living out your marriage in vows, you give witness to marriage as God intends it for one man and one woman. When you treat others with respect and dignity, you affirm the truth that each person is made in the image and likeness of God. Furthermore, when confronted with pressure to the contrary, you boldly proclaim the teachings of the Church as you defend our faith.
Recently, I was made aware of three bills, which will come up next week in the Minnesota Legislature that I want to bring to your attention. I believe that we should all voice our approval of these pro-life initiatives: the “Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act”, a bill to ban Taxpayer Funded Abortion in Minnesota, and a move to ban Human cloning. Please go to the website for the Minnesota Catholic Conference for more information, and then contact your representatives.
Here are links to pro-life bills, and info about hearings coming up this week.
Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act
Hearing: Wednesday, 2:30. Room 200 State Office Building
Ban on Taxpayer Funded Abortion
Hearing: Tuesday evening, time uncertain. Room 200 State Office Building
Ban on Human Cloning
Hearing: Tuesday, 10:30. Room 15 Capitol.
Hearing: Tuesday, 8:15 a.m. Room 10 State Office Building.
My dear brothers – always be mindful of your dignity! You have been chosen in the waters of baptism to be, through divine grace, what Christ is by nature – a son of God, made holy by incorporation into His body, and given purpose and direction by his choice. The world needs you because it needs Jesus, and you are his body, making him present to others.
Of course, the fulfillment of your noble calling, to be salt of the earth and witnesses of Christ’s redeeming love in the world, will not happen through wishful thinking. The goal of this day is not just to reaffirm each other, as important as that is. The goal is to re-ignite a fire within you, and to compel you to act.
The Church needs you to stand up and defend her, to fight for the truth she proclaims. Let the world know of the convincing arguments of the beauty of each human life, the truth about marriage and the good of family life – arguments that flow not only from the Gospel, but from right reason and the natural law. But let the world also know by the way in which we teach and preach that we are likewise convicted in our faith, hope, and love.
My brothers, we know that living as a Christian in this world is not easy. But we have the help of the Holy Spirit, who, through Divine grace, gives us His gifts: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, piety, fortitude, and fear of the Lord. We are equipped through these gifts to courageously bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in season and out.
Let us now go forth, to live as men aware of our own weaknesses but not limited by them, so as to teach as Jesus has taught, defending what is right and true.
May God Bless you!