Heroic Priesthood Redux

Check Cathleen Caveny’s review of the Robert Barron video Heroic Priesthood. I think there’s room to poke a bit at the assumptions of the piece, but the consistent tartness of the commentariat also left me wanting.

I have a few young friends in the pre-priest stage, so I’m aware of the basketball set-up among seminaries here in the Midwest. I’m also very aware of the prevalence of the Culture of Sport among modern college students. It doesn’t get any more intense than at an American Division I university. It is part of the very identity of the city in which I live, even among townies who never attended the university or have yet to go off to college. Ms. Caveny asked, “And really: why basketball?” Simple. Inculturation in 21st century America. If it were Rome, it would be soccer. And it is.

Will Fr Barron’s video recruit young men to the priesthood? No. Is the contrast between camaraderie and community a problem? Seems so.

First question first. When colleges recruit students, they are not recruiting young people to careers and vocations. They are advertising the community of the institution. I observed a lot of the materials that swamped the young miss these past few years. You had to look deep past the glossy images to find anything that told you this enclave will form you to be a good doctor, a good business person, a good teacher. Mainly, the recruitment focus, in print and on college tours, was about the quality of life one will experience as a young adult.

I think Heroic Priesthood is a better-than-average presentation of an important slice of seminary life. Many American young adults lean indeed to self-focused rather than community. It’s not a total individualization, and it’s not totally inappropriate. My young friends identify as “Cyclones,” frequently clump together wearing red “uniforms,” and collectively engage in large group social events.

Often, they are also focused on their own fields of study. They crave success and regard from others. They close themselves off to possibilities. They are concerned about how their needs will be met when they interact romantically, academically, and even in the Church. I’ve known more than one person whose four-year mission at the student center was planned out: first year, get involved and get noticed; second, get a key leadership spot; third, live-in peer minister (the apex in some eyes) and then in senior year off to seminary, marriage, or career-starting internship.

Fr Barron is not only a filmmaker, he is now a seminary rector. Our pastor approached him about coming to our campus as a speaker. But he’s focused on his new, and important role as the leader of an important school. Invitation declined. I think Heroic Priesthood is a seminary recruiting tool that derives from the man’s self-image and his position. There’s nothing wrong with that.

What happens with guys once they’ve left the seminary behind and enter the wilds of a messy and dirty Church is another thing. My observation is that the semi-eremitic life of the modern priest presents the Church with a morale problem, especially if there’s been a huge attachment to the semi-monastic life of a seminarian.

Priests are people too. And people need social and human interaction. Praying Mass in red vestments with a totally black background lets the young viewer imagine the details and the people to be filled in. It’s a filmmaker’s artistic prerogative–it’s not a literal representation of the Calvary a young priest might feel interacting with the old, the women, the liberals, and the babies of his first assignment.

I think a problem with seminaries might be the emphasis on the clerical over the apprenticeship model of formation. We know that Baptism and the subsequent vocation to discipleship is better done one-to-one rather than in a classroom. Living the Christian life is not like a college laboratory: lecture, then lab, then report. It’s more like the world: wash, rinse, repeat. You have to practice being a good Christian. Marriage was like that for me. I suspect we’ll get better priests when the guys break out of the seminary walls and mingle with the masses. But the Mundelein rector would likely be the first to tell you his graduates are only starting their formation as priests.

I think Fr Barron’s critics could do well to lighten up. Like many artistic endeavors, this film tells us something of Father Barron, the person. I would be cautious about reading too much theology into it. The public musing about his possible personal careerism are also inappropriate, even if they are true. And if they are, it’s none of my business. Or anyone else’s.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to Heroic Priesthood Redux

  1. charlesincenca says:

    Todd, very fair and balanced take on this ant hill tempest. Good on ye.

  2. Liam says:

    One good comment over there: “I went to a Jesuit boys high school whose unofficial motto was “A man for others is a hero for all.” That is plainly not the case—a man or woman for others will often be despised and sometimes get kicked in the teeth—but even if it were the case, the motto falsely suggests that the Christian life is about a desire for heroism: serving others makes you extraordinary, and who doesn’t want to be extraordinary? Real saints are heroes in spite of themselves.”

    The hero model tends to appeal to egoism. So, too, btw, does the prophet model, at least as typically modeled in the US in the past couple of generations. American culture cultivates putting the self in a (melo)dramatic narrative. The culture and liturgy wars definitely encourage that. Even the Jesuit practice of inviting ourselves into the Gospel pericope can lead into that unless we take care to avoid it. The ego is like quicksilver – it quickly finds its way through the tiniest of crevices whereever its not effectively blocked. It’s a human thing. Theosis is about letting God through that – joyfully, accepting failures as opportunities for grace.

  3. I agree with both you and Cathleen that the film actually seems to be a recruitment tool for seminaries and not the priesthood. As you point out, the life of a seminarian is a life lived in community. The life of the parish priest is solitary, especially now where priests rarely have associates. If a man desires to live in community, he may be better off looking at a religious order, whether priestly or monastic.

    I am sympathetic to the criticisms that the film does not show women. Commonweal magazine recently posted a column from a former seminarian who discussed how celibacy was discussed (and not discussed) in the seminary. They warned seminarians to stay away from women on the local campus. Now, I actually agree that seminarians should not interact with women the way a non-seminarian should. “Treat younger women as sisters with absolute purity ” (I heard a story about a seminarian who somehow started dating a girl while he was in seminary. What a jerk.) Even so, if men cannot interact with women as people they will have a very difficult time working effectively in a parish.

    It’s not that it is a bad film per se, but there is definitely room for improvement. I agree completely with Cathleen when she asks for the film to be supplemented with images of priests celebrating the sacraments. Show images of priests baptizing babies and distributing first communions. Show them hearing confessions, witnessing marriages, and anointing the sick. Show them celebrating Mass at a funeral and consoling the mourners. If a young man cannot visualize himself doing all of those things, then he has no business joining the seminary.

  4. Jim McCrea says:

    I think that this is a much better recruitment video (Spanish w/English subtitles):

    Also provided by Cathy Kaveny

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