‘Every man, by the nature of his being, is called to generate love.”
So the Rev. James A. Wehner tells his seminarians, from his perch as rector of the Josephinum, a pontifical college and seminary in Columbus, Ohio. His message is necessary for those called to a priesthood that has been marred by scandal, and also for a society that is confused and afraid to talk frankly about how essential the masculine gift of fatherhood is to our lives, our families, and our culture.
A man’s nature does not change because he has been called to the priesthood. As Father Wehner explains in his annual opening address to seminarians, “The generative love of spiritual fatherhood is not denied in the priesthood. Rather, it is expressed through celibacy, a desire to teach, to cultivate something in others, and to save souls. It is seen in work with at-risk kids, the elderly in the nursing home, and those in the county jail.”
Father Wehner, who was ordained in his native Pittsburgh in 1995, explains: “As a spiritual father, you see the people as your flock. You want to love them, feed them, teach them.” At the Josephinum, Father Wehner is intent on training each priest, whatever his individual charism, to be immersed in the lives of the people he is called to serve. To bring his priesthood to people where they are in life — in their pain and joys and successes and struggles. To bring the light of eternal hope to their days. And, in the sacraments, to bring them God Himself.
At the heart of the Josephinum’s mission is its motto, “Forming Renaissance Priests: Spiritual Fathers for the New Evangelization.” A renaissance priest is not on retreat from the world. He is, explains Father Wehner, “a man of virtue. He is confident, and has right judgment and even temperament. He is a man of his word, a man formed by culture in the best sense. He knows who he is, he has a sense of mission, and he is not afraid to be a man. The renaissance priest inspires a sense of awe, mystery, and curiosity. He has his act together, and makes other men think twice about what it means to be a man.” He “is not arrogant, disconnected, unmanly, or of poor humor. He does not shrink from people. . . . He is not insecure about himself, and does not hide behind something else that is strong.”
With an admonishing humility, Father Wehner tells his spiritual sons: “Not long ago, when priestly identity was not so clarified, what was projected was a weak, disconnected, angry, aloof man — maybe even a man insecure in his own sexuality, projecting that which does not reflect a healthy masculinity. The renaissance priest cultivates the best of the human virtues for the service of others, and he does so with good attitude, without selfishness, without cynicism and rancor.”
Two things that are key at the Josephinum — and once these men are ordained — are fellowship and accountability. There’s a lesson there for laymen, too.
How are we spending our time? What habits occupy our daily routines? Whether we’re congressmen or college kids, what and to whom are we tweeting and why? What are we doing in our down time? Where are we browsing? Would we be ashamed if someone found out?
The world needs people of virtue, who strive each day to live according to principle, who expect more of themselves and encourage the same in others, not through sermons but through infectiousness. The world needs men who are not enslaved by low expectations; so much of our culture is an insult to men and fatherhood. The world needs heroes, who will sacrifice in witness and service to the truth. Grace continues to provide: Enrollment is increasing at the Josephinum, as it is at the North American Pontifical College in Rome (which hit capacity last year).
“The people of God are tired of cheaters and they are tired of liars. The people of God want to hear only the truth,” says Father Wehner, with the same kind of flair for communication that New York’s archbishop Timothy Dolan showed while walking Al Roker and Matt Lauer around St. Peter’s Basilica ontheToday show. Whether it is an alternative to a politician lying to Wolf Blitzer or to a society that insists that we are only as good as our basest desires, much of the world is in search of the liberating knowledge that there is such a thing.
Instead of cowering before sin, Pope Benedict last year offered encouragement and gratitude for true spiritual fathers, for those men who sacrifice for the sake of souls: “Dear friends, be conscious of the great gift that priests are for the Church and for the world; through their ministry, the Lord continues saving men, making Himself present, sanctifying. Know how to thank God, and above all be close to your priests with your prayer and support, especially in difficulties, so that they will be increasingly shepherds according to the heart of God.”
Far from the pain, debates, headlines, and late-night jokes reserved for such as Anthony Weiner, there are well integrated men who make healthy albeit radical sacrifices, to serve in surrender to a calling greater than any human desire. Spiritual fathers who are truly living for and in Christ are great gifts for us all — for those of all faiths and none — beacons in a culture restless for a moral renaissance.
In this way, there is a great light on North High Street in Columbus. And, I pray, in a Roman collar near you. In a culture that needs exemplary men, this new renaissance is worth a prayer this month. Thank and encourage a priest this Father’s Day. And you can tweet that.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.