by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Recently, I attended a board meeting for St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., where several of our seminarians are studying philosophy and theology, as well as receiving spiritual and pastoral formation. During the meeting, Cardinal Francis George related a conversation that he had recently with a bishop visiting from Cuba.
After the communist revolution in the 1950s, many priests fled Cuba. Others were deported or imprisoned. Eventually, there were only 200 priests left to serve the large Catholic population of the island. The Communist government allowed Mass to be celebrated in existing churches, but no new churches could be built. The Catholic Church was not permitted to operate, much less build schools or community centers.
Those who attended Mass faced repercussions in terms of job and economic opportunities. The government exerted influence over who could enter the seminary, attempting to prevent those they judged as potentially strong leaders from preparing for the priesthood. Two hundred became an absolute number for the size of the presbyterate. The church was only permitted to ordain a new priest if one of the 200 died.
After Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba, there was hope that the Castro regime would allow more religious liberty. Disappointingly, the church is still not permitted to build new churches or to operate schools, hospitals or community centers. However, the church has been permitted to increase, at least modestly, the number of priests.
Cardinal George’s Cuban visitor told him that he was able to appoint pastors to new parishes that he had established. Even though these parishes have no church building in which to gather, they have a priest to celebrate the Eucharist and administer the other sacraments.
The cardinal said that his Cuban counterpart was a man of great hope and pastoral zeal. In reality, the church can survive without church buildings, as well as much of the infrastructure that we take for granted in our nation. However, the church cannot survive without priests. Without priests, there is no Eucharist. However, with well-formed, dedicated priests providing the Eucharist and preaching the Gospel, the church can thrive with very few material resources.
Cardinal George noted, with a trace of envy, that his visitor from Cuba did not have to worry about budgets or administration, because there was no budget and very little to administer. The bishop and his priests were completely focused on attending, as best they could, to the pastoral and spiritual needs of their people.
Listening to this description of the adversity faced by the church in Cuba deepened my own gratitude for the opportunity to ordain three new priests this Saturday, May 23 at Holy Trinity Church in Lenexa. It places in perspective so many of the “problems” that the church in northeast Kansas faces and, at times, appear to me so daunting.
Beginning with the solemnity of the Sacred Heart on Friday, June 19, Pope Benedict XVI has declared a special “Year of the Priest.” The Holy Father has invited every Catholic to reflect on the importance of the priesthood for the life of the church. The pope is challenging us to increase our efforts to promote priestly vocations, as well as to support and encourage our priests.
At the same time, the pope is asking every priest to rededicate himself to being pastors for God’s people, modeled after the heart of Jesus. In practice, this means, as priests, we are called to strive to lay down our life in love for the people we are privileged to serve and lead.
Our Archdiocese is blessed with zealous and dedicated priests. On Saturday, I will be pleased to serve as God’s instrument in adding three more excellent priests to our presbyterate. I am also delighted that I have accepted the applications of five men to enter seminary formation this coming year, with several others in varying stages of the application process.
Yet, we need more priests. We are currently blessed to have a dozen international priests serving the people in our Archdiocese. Without these priests, who make the extraordinary sacrifice of leaving their family and homeland, I would have to close several parishes. Recently, I received a letter from college students begging me to assign a priest to their campus ministry center. I wish that I was able to meet their request.
I ask every member of the Archdiocese to rededicate themselves during the coming year to pray for and to promote vocations to the priesthood. I also urge you to take the occasion of this year to find additional ways to encourage and support our priests.
The church can survive many difficult circumstances, but we cannot survive without the Eucharist and without priests.