I am so thankful for all the good and holy preachers and teachers that have impacted my life, some of whom were instrumental in my college conversion, and many of whom have had an amazing influence upon my family and children.
I write in order to encourage you in your vocation as spiritual fathers.
One thing laity yearn for is specificity as to what the gospel entails. In other words, it is not enough just to speak about the importance of putting Christ first in our lives. The impact is magnified ten-fold if the preacher takes the next step to spell out exactly what this means with a few concrete examples. As a college professor in my twelfth year of teaching, I have found that sometimes in the past I have assumed that my students were connecting all the dots—that if I said X, they obviously understood that this implied Y and a host of other things. But I have come to realize that I have to connect the dots explicitly.
Here, of course, recognizing one’s particular audience is key: but whether one is a college chaplain or a parish priest, spiritual leaders—especially spiritual directors and confessors—have a pretty good idea as to what their congregation is struggling with.
Something as simple as the following goes a long way:
“Putting Christ first means you examine whether or not he would want you to watch this television show,” or “Putting Christ first means you actually set aside time to pray.” As Jeff Cavins once powerfully put it, if we don’t have time to pray, we have to ask ourselves: what are we making time for? These powerful questions or concrete applications often give real teeth to a homily—they provide a real challenge.
Whereas, when no concrete and specific application is offered, all too often the congregation nods in agreement as if their lives were already in complete conformity to what’s being said. Without any specificity, the needle of spiritual health does not move nearly as much—since rather than sensing the urgency of conversion, the congregation easily feels affirmed exactly where they are.
I suspect that what prevents priests from getting specific is a latent fear. I speak again from experience, especially from my first few years of teaching: when I made general points—even deep ones at that—I felt myself casting a wide tent; no one was offended and they all liked me. But when one gets specific (as I’ve been much more intentional about doing so in the last several years), one makes oneself vulnerable to hostile reaction and rejection. There’s a fear in getting specific because therein lies the challenge of the gospel. What’s happened in my teaching is this: yes, there is a risk in putting oneself out there, but many of my students have been far more impacted by getting specific; there’s a palpable sense of the call to conversion resonating in their hearts. And many of them have thanked me over the years for engaging them in just this way. All I can say is it’s absolutely worth the risk.
A Powerful Example
Recently, I heard a powerful example in a homily. The priest recounted an exchange with a young professional with whom he had been working. This young professional had sought out the priest for spiritual direction; the young man had been going to Mass a couple of times a week (in addition to Sundays), and even trying to pray the Rosary. The young man then said to the priest, “I’m doing everything I possibly can, right?” The priest said, “Well, those things are great. It sounds like you’re doing almost everything you can.” The priest went on to ask the young man if he ever made time for quiet prayer, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, just to listen to the voice of God. The priest went on to say, “If you really want to grow in intimacy with our Lord, if you really want to get close to God, make this a priority. I promise you, it will change your life.”
The young man quickly responded that he didn’t really have time: he went on to explain that he gets up at six every morning to work out for an hour at the gym, and then goes to work all day. The priest stopped him and said, “Wait a minute, you mean you have time to work out every day for an hour, and yet you don’t have time to spend fifteen minutes with our Lord?”
The young man left considering what the priest had said. A month later he came back to the priest and said, “Father, you were so right—I’ve been doing what you said and it has changed my life. I get up and pray, and then work out for half an hour. It has truly changed my life.”
This story powerfully drove home the point the priest was trying to make, and the specificity of the story—the concrete challenge it posed—made all the difference.
Be a Father
Priesthood is spiritual fatherhood. A father is loving and merciful, but also demanding and just. As Scott Hahn likes to say, a father demands more from a son or daughter than a judge does a defendant; but a father will also bestow infinitely more mercy upon a child than a judge ever will a defendant.
I pray for all preachers and teachers who have the delicate task of preaching hard truths. Spiritual paternity is manifest right here: when one loves enough to preach the hard truths. What I’ve found is when you put yourself out there, your impact soars. The more specific and concrete one gets, the more one invites others into radical discipleship, and a surprising number will eagerly embrace it.
Let’s support our priests and teachers and encourage them to overcome the vestiges of self-doubt that remain in all of us. May they proclaim God’s word with boldness and conviction—though sometimes terrifying, it is a risk well worth taking. If you agree with the above points, please share this with the priests and seminarians in your life—let’s build them up with our encouragement and support.
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About Andrew Swafford
Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible, published by Ascension Press. He is author of Nature and Grace, John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their four children in Atchison, Kansas.