What newer and older members offer each other

What newer and older members offer each other

By Fr. Donald Goergen OP

I MADE MY FIRST PROFESSION in 1971, at the age of 28 after a turbulent and exciting period of transformation in the late 1960s. The 60s breathed life. Catholicism had come of age in america. The Second Vatican Council had opened the doors of the church. The Spirit seemed to be taking us, not where we would rather not go but where many of us wanted to go. The Spirit was alive. We felt His pulse. In the end it became a lot about us. We were pleased that we were able to read the mind of the Spirit so well and that the Spirit was so docile to our concerns. Pope John XXIII was, remains, and always will be a pillar of life and light.

Then the Spirit struck again. The election of a non-Italian pope seemed to confirm our every dream. The Spirit was on our side – or so we thought. Had we miscalculated something? Surely not. Yet vocations dropped. But that too was simply a sign that the future lay with the laity. The Spirit was showing us the direction—the road not yet taken. and yet the new pope did not conform to our aspirations, was not made in our im- age, must surely not be on the side of the Spirit. and yet he lived on and on. The church was being recast before our eyes. It was not the pre-Vatican II church, nor the immediate post-Vatican II dream. We were left bereft, angry, betrayed. The Spirit was now taking us where we had no intention of going.

Vocations in some circles have tended to be on the rise. We ought not be naively optimistic. There are formidable forces in the secular world that make it difficult for the young to hear the call of the Lord. Yet many, and more, are hearing it, although most often not the kind of men and women whom we would have chosen. Where on earth were they coming from? And do we want them? Are they being sent by God?

Surprised by the new breed

Let me make clear, from my own experience at least, that these newer members are not by any means all of one stripe. It would be a mistake to generalize. Yet many, most, are too conservative! That is the complaint that was being heard. They would not carry on the vision of Vatican II. They now seemed to have two popes on their side—one had been at the Second Vatican Council; the other was a peritus there. (We’re still waiting to see what happens with Pope Francis.) But sides were shaping up: the old and the young, the liberal and the conservative. An unfortunate, almost Berlin-like wall was being constructed so that it would be difficult for either to learn from the other, especially since the other had little to offer anyway, from whatever side of the divide one’s perspective was.

Then—after having been provincial for nine years, and not long thereafter establishing and living in a more contemplative Dominican house for another nine years—I was invited and elected the prior of our formation community, where the young men lived during their initial formation for approximately six years following their novitiate. These were students for the priesthood, as well as cooperator brother candidates, and there were a growing number of them. I felt ambivalent. I moved. I have now lived for five years with some of the most remarkable men I have ever met. Again, let’s not generalize. They are a mix. What have I learned, and how has it changed me?

But first, why on earth did I say yes to the call? True, it is in our souls as religious to say yes when asked, as long as the request does not seem to do violence to ourselves. We are ultimately, in the end, docile, vowed to obedience, which makes few demands on us, and so, yes. But I was also enticed, ambivalent but enticed, because I had had an opportunity a couple years previous to commute and teach a class to some of these new vocations— and those students were a delight. I needed to let myself get to know them, and as the semester progressed I discovered that I liked them! They were a delight, intelligent, edifying, in love with the church, not angry with it, desirous to know the tradition, not to abolish it. One of them, with whom I later became a friend, wrote a most remarkable, soul-revealing, spiritually deep paper. The paper had given me an insight into his interior life, and deep indeed it was. Obviously these young men did not fit the stereotypes within which I and others had categorized them, although to some degree they did. It’s just that I was to learn that not everything about their world-view was bad. These men wanted to live the Gospel as well as proclaim it. They actually believed what the church taught and were not embarrassed by it. But how was I to integrate this new knowledge? How was I to build bridges once I began to live among them?

During my first year of our life with this new breed of students, as well as what now was the old breed of primarily “progressive” senior members, an older, visiting friar asked me how I found the students. What were they like? Without much thought, I spontaneously said, without in any way being derogatory, “They come from another planet.” Later that image, along with several others, helped me to shed light on the beauty of having been called to live in two worlds simultaneously and, not without some angst, to enjoy the richness of the opportunity.

I was later able to develop the metaphor more fully. Perhaps it still needs to be developed more astutely. But many of my generation of Catholics come from Neptune. Many of the new vocations are coming from Saturn. If women are from Venus and men are from Mars, we are dealing with two other planetary systems. Neptune has a fluid, oceanic, mystical, compassionate, less institutionally friendly and unpredictable quality while Saturnians place greater value on being grounded, with a sense of order, structure and commitment, another kind of depth that has its boundaries, accepts constraints and accentuates identity and traditions. To a Neptunian, the Saturnian can appear rigid when he or she is just being solid and holding his or her ground; while to the Saturnian, the Neptunian can appear to be all over the place with little concern for objective truth and values. So what does one do when one finds oneself on another planet?

Getting to know younger members

Many have often wondered whether there was intelligent life on another planet. I have now discovered there is. We wondered whether that life would be friendly or hostile. I have now discovered that it is not only friendly but also delightful. That doesn’t make interplanetary communication easy, however. Becoming bilingual is never easy. We talk a lot about the importance of being multi-cultural. Becoming interplanetary is an even greater challenge, but equally if not even more enriching. How does one begin to communicate with these unconventional aliens? First by loving them, respecting them, accepting them, truly getting to know them. Are they not human too?

If I only look at how different they are (and this works both ways), how strange, how differently they think and value things, if I become defensive, ill at ease, suspicious, it is difficult to cross over the bridge and see what they have to offer and to give. But just as another language opens doors, and another culture can enrich our own without forcing us to abandon our own or value it less, and just as I always still have my primary language and culture in which I am most at home, so likewise with the planet from which I come. By being open to the other, and hospitable, there is much to gain. Going to war is unnecessary.

Above I asked the question: Are they not human too? It is a symbolic question for Dominicans. The first European friars from the Order of Preachers in Spain arrived in this ‘new’ world in 1510. They preached a sermon, forged by the community, delivered by Antonio de Montesinos, in defense of the indigenous in Hispaniola who were being enslaved by their forced work on the encomiendas, and they asked this same question. Are they not human too? It is a perennial question about the other. Are they not human too? What does their life mean? With what gifts has the Spirit endowed them? What might I learn from a world radically different from my own?

Same values, different manifestation

I have found that the newer vocations value the same things that I value but manifest those values differently. They genuinely want to live the Gospel authentically and fully. They are committed to social justice as a dimension of the Gospel, although not perhaps in some of the more virulent ways in which we have protested injustice, although that too depends on the cause. They desire to live the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in an exemplary way, and I think in a more exemplary way than my own generation. Sexuality is still a struggle, but the desire for intimacy and friendship is still there, and they place a high value on integrity of life, having seen how abandoning that integrity in the life of the church has led to deep pain and scandal. They accept the teaching of the church and can become defensive and uncritical when that teaching seems to be taken lightly or seems too quickly questioned.

During a workshop of the Capuchin Franciscans, Province of St. Joseph, Friar Richard Hart (left) listens to postulant Truong Tien Dinh.

The papacy of Pope John Paul II has been the more formative religious experience in their lives, in contrast to the papacy of Pope John XXIII. They are unwilling to throw out the baby with the bath water, having seen that done too easily, but can too quickly cling to old wineskins that a previous generation has found wanting. Yet they have seen the abuses, or extremes, to which my generation has gone without always being able to detect the heart of the matter that led us there. Shared conversation across planetary or generational lines would be of mutual benefit, but it is not easy to manage.

I once heard a lecture given by Karl Rahner when he was traveling in the United States after the Council. In response to a question, he replied, “Maybe some people in the church are given the charism to be an accelerator and others the charism to be a brake.” A good and wise Dominican friar often liked to say, “It’s hard to see the whole picture when you’re inside the frame.”

Any generation can think that they have all the answers when each has only some of the insights. It’s simply St. Paul’s take on the church: “For the body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Corinthians 12:14). We can all affirm that appreciation of diversity when it comes to ethnic or racial or cultural or gender diversity or varied gifts given or ministries to be undertaken. The eye cannot say to the ear: What good are you? You can’t see anything. But when it comes to a diversity of world-views, of ways of perceiving things, of contrasting ecclesiologies, that’s another story. Does that diversity too come from God? Could the Spirit actually be at work among those who think so differently than I do? Do I assume to see the whole picture and determine who fits? Can the Spirit really be guiding both the accelerator and the brake?

Can the older generation be open?

We almost all tend to become “conservative” as we age, a word that lacks much meaning, often suggesting a mind closed to change. The generation before me in religious life we considered conservative. They could not perceive the good in the new wineskins from which we came, and so much of which they stood for we overthrew. But now my generation has become that generation, not wanting to see the changes we made change. We have become the old guard and the new generation actually the progressives who see a new age dawning – which too will change as someday they cope with the world they create partially collapsing. I think of St. Augustine, lying on his death bed in Hippo, as the Vandals marched through and destroyed the city, not knowing whether his library, too, and all he had done would be condemned to oblivion. An older generation always asks the question: What of my life’s efforts may have some permanence to it?

I have indicated that we have much to learn from one another. The newer generation in this case may be the new wineskins, and what role can we old wineskins now play? Yet age has always been associated with wisdom – the wisdom of experience, learning not taught so readily in books but by example and in conversation. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi likes to talk not about age-ing but sage-ing. The elder in most societies has been a position to be envied, sought after, the wise person. It gives new meaning to the word “elder-ly,” or like an elder. I think of Robert Browning’s poem, “Rabbi ben Ezra,” in which he writes:

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made:

Our times are in His hand

Who saith “A whole I planned,

Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’’

When one contemplates the diminishments of old age, or just what it means to be beyond the prime of life, it may be difficult to affirm what Browning suggests. Yet there is something about this last season of life that contains the fruit of wisdom.

The fig tree in Scripture is an ambivalent image. It gets cursed. It doesn’t bear fruit. Yet in the Gospel of Luke (13:6-9) it is given another chance. At one time it may well have borne fruit but has not done so now for at least three years. Yet the vinedresser does not give up hope: “Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure.” The vinedresser holds out the hope that there is fruit even in old age. And likewise the psalmist:

The righteous flourish like the palm tree,

And grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord,

They flourish in the courts of God.

They still bring forth fruit in old age, They are ever full of sap and green….

(Psalm 92: 12-14)

What was barren can still give birth. There is an energy and enthusiasm in the young. One needs to know when to turn over the reins to them. But there is a sobriety and wisdom as well that only experience of life can provide. “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:51-52). So new members need to find their ways to glean from those who have lived the life and run the race, what it is that we have to offer. The challenge is not so much in whether someone from another world-view has something to offer, but how to offer it, how to seek and find it. If we present ourselves as “knowing it all,” whether we are young or old, energetic or experienced, Neptunian or Saturnian, few bridges will be built that welcome our crossing them. So it is not so much what we have to offer but how we offer it. Do we respect the other? Can we listen attentively? People can detect that they are being dismissed without being told in so many words.

What we can teach each other

So what have I learned from my young brothers in religious life? The Holy Spirit is still alive in the church. We are called to lives of integrity and authenticity. Deep commitment bears fruit. We are a people of everlasting hope. Mission must be rooted in contemplative living. The Gospel is more relevant than ever to our day and age. Devotion enhances our faith, does not distract from it, and nourishes the heart that feeds the mind. John Paul II said many incredibly good things. Identity is good. Symbols give witness. There is a real presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Religious habits communicate identity, accompany poverty, and help to sustain our lives of chastity. Utopia is fanciful, inevitably leads to disappointment or resentment, and is not to be identified with the reign of God. Nor is God on only one side. Religion cannot be identified with politics. Place your trust in God. God works miracles.

And what wisdom do I have to offer? Life is not as simple as it seems. It rarely works out as we envision it. We are human too. Complexity is a grace. We are made holy by what we suffer. Cynicism is not easy to overcome, but when we do, we encounter incredible joy. We must move at the pace by which God guides us. Human intimacy is a value, sometimes a life-saver, friendship a pillar in religious life. Extremes take us nowhere. Compassion is sometimes the only answer we have. Remaining faithful isn’t as easy as it sounds. We can overcome. We learn wisdom from fellow pilgrims on life’s journey. The older I get, the fewer things there are about which I am certain. Certainty and precision can be overrated. It is easier to speak authoritatively than it is to know what one is talking about. The greatest thing is love. The life to which you have been called will be more painful than you realize and more rewarding than you can imagine. That is true of Christian marriage as well. Don’t fear mistakes, take risks, but have caution. Place your trust in God. God is always here.

And there is much more that each of us has to offer. Thomas Merton once spoke to his young novices about conversion. He said that we are called to at least two conversions in life, perhaps three. We speak of continuing conversion of course, continuing formation. But conversion is often not continuous and usually strikes with a force that is not anguish-free. Our first is post-baptismal, somewhere as young adults, what perhaps led us into religious life. It may have indeed been a conversion to the faith if we were not raised in it. But somewhere along the line, in religious life, we need another conversion, mid-way, to prevent us from losing a sense of vision and call, to re-enkindle the dream, or re-gain a more mature innocence that we have lost as we let go of wounds inflicted along life’s path. But there is a third conversion as well, as one approaches death, about which I have written elsewhere in my own struggle with breast cancer. Life is not a continuing conversion, but continuing conversions. I have often prayed for the grace of conversion, but of course wanted it to come in the way that I wanted it.

What have I learned from the young? To be a convert once again. Life is not over; it just keeps changing. Thank God.

The final question I would ask of the younger generation is: Are you really open to formation? And of the older generation: Are you really open to another conversion? And of vocation directors: Are you willing to be bridge builders, patiently perceiving beauty everywhere?

I hear the young saying what I myself once said as they follow in our footsteps: “Here I am, Lord, take me” (1 Samuel 3, Psalm 40). 

Father Donald Goergen, OP is a Dominican priest, preacher, teacher and author of many articles and books, his most recent being on the Holy Spirit, as well as lectures with Now You Know Media. He has lectured and given retreats around the world. He currently teaches at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, MO where he is also prior of the Dominican friars’ formation community. He was previously Provincial for the Central Province of Dominican Friars.


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