The Gospel’s Appealing Voice and Face, The Anchor, February 27, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
February 27, 2009

I sang a Te Deum early Monday morning when, after years of speculation, Pope Benedict named Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee as the Archbishop of New York. With many of my brother priests scattered throughout the country who trained under him while he was rector of the North American College in Rome, I had been praying that he be appointed. He has the faith and gifts necessary to lead not merely the faithful in New York but all American Catholics, through his mediagenic presence, enormous personality, and presumed influence as the shepherd of our country’s most prominent see, to a renewal of our faith.

The Catholic faith is often misunderstood as a long series of prohibitions. The Church is portrayed as against so much of what the world seems for. While this is of course a caricature, sometimes the leaders of the Church, in exercising their prophetic mission, focus so much on critical analysis of what’s wrong in the culture that they leave the impression that Catholicism is fundamentally contrarian.

Since his election, Pope Benedict has sought to dispel this notion. On various foreign trips, journalists aboard the papal plane have asked whether he was preparing to pronounce jeremiads against policies in the host country opposed to the natural law or Church teaching. The Holy Father has repeatedly replied that, while sometimes the Church can’t neglect mentioning the negative aspects of particular developments, our fundamental mission is to proclaim what, or Whom, we’re saying “yes” to. 

If there’s any priest in America capable of preaching the “good news” of the Catholic faith with contagious enthusiasm and heart-piercing eloquence, it’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan. My fellow seminarians and I used to be on the edge of our pews listening to his 45-minute rector’s conferences. They routinely combined profoundly beautiful insights into the Christian and priestly life, an enormous arsenal of powerfully apposite stories, a poet’s dexterity with English diction, the cadence of the greatest orators, a guffaw-inducing sense of humor, and the motivational passion of a Vince Lombardi, all with unmitigated and unfeigned joy. Even when he needed to take us collectively to the wood shed, he broke us down only to build us up with the encouragement that comes from the faith. Somehow I believe that on Monday morning the great Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who coveted St. Patrick’s pulpit and occasionally filled it as a guest, was smiling that a preacher with a double-portion of his spirit will soon mount the stairs of that hallowed pulpit and inspire a beaten down nation and beleaguered church to climb with him the stairs to heaven.

One of the greatest lessons I learned from Archbishop Dolan came at the beginning of my time at the North American College. During our orientation period, five of my classmates and I were approached by the Associated Press’ Vatican correspondent, Brian Murphy. He was seeking permission to shadow us for a year to write a book on the experience of the first year of seminary in Rome. Self-described as a “born and fled” Catholic, Brian hoped to describe for a secular audience what are the issues that young men confront in transitioning to the seminary and what life is like behind seminary walls.

After an initial meeting with the rector, who would likewise be featured, Brian ended up approaching six of us: Tam Tran, a studious Vietnamese seminarian from Washington, DC, who had perilously escaped from Vietnam as a boy with nothing but his Catholic faith; Gary Benz, a nature-loving farmer from Bismarck, North Dakota, who, unaccustomed to the Roman smog and noise, was fighting an interior battle to discern whether the Lord was calling him to the trenches of the diocesan priesthood or to the relatively quieter and more peaceful harmonies of a Benedictine monastery; Brian Christensen, an Air Force Academy grad and bomber pilot from Rapid City, who was still in love with a woman back home and was trying to figure out if the Lord was calling him to sanctity and to the sanctification of others through the sacrament of marriage or the sacrament of holy orders; Christopher Nalty, a gregarious and gifted lawyer from New Orleans, who had received a miraculous calling but who was battling each day to grow in the virtue of chastity after having lived for years according to the flesh; and my twin brother Scot and me, who intrigued Brian not merely for the ways in which everyone seems to be fascinated by identical twins, but because of the contrast between my having sensed a call to the priesthood from the age of four and Scot’s having perceived a call only two years before. He was proposing to call the book The New Men.

Once we had all consented to allow Brian’s regular intrusion into our lives and thoughts during our first year in Rome, Msgr. Dolan summoned the six of us to the rector’s suite for a meeting. He told us that he had heard from Brian Murphy that each of us had provisionally agreed to participate. He expressed his gratitude for our willingness to take on an extra burden as new men and for the courtesy that Brian had said we had shown him. He briefly reviewed his interactions with Brian over the previous couple of years in order to convey that he was confident Brian was a good reporter with no particular axe to grind with the Church.

But then he got to the real purpose of why he had called us to the meeting.

Before we began the year-long process of interviews, he wanted us to be clear about the costs. Each of us, he said, was going to get burned by the book. Over the course of so many interviews, we were all bound to say something we wish we hadn’t, or that would be misinterpreted, or that would be poorly conveyed in the final product. It’s rare that a reporter gets everything right even for a short article, he said, despite the reporter’s best intentions; that human margin of error is going to be multiplied over the course of a book-length treatment. Something we say, or something Brian Murphy will put in our mouths, just won’t play well back home in our dioceses, he warned. None of us, he said, should be naïve about the sufferings in store for us if we participated.

While acknowledging the costs, however, he added he was convinced that priests and future priests have to be willing to take risks to advance the Gospel. He cited the example of Pope John Paul II, who had just recently cooperated with Tad Szulk on a biography, even though Szulk got some things spectacularly wrong. Though Szulc’s work was obviously not a homerun, he said, using one of the sports metaphors for which he’s famous, it was “at least a single that advanced the runner.” He told us with a smile that he was hoping that The New Men would be “at least a double,” but wanted us to be free to say yes or no.

We all decided that we would put out into the deep with Msgr. Dolan.

Just as he predicted, we were all burned by some particular phrases in the final work or by the literary style of the “reconstructed conversation” that it employed. But in that first year after its 1997 publication, the seven of us received about three dozen letters from men who told us that the book had helped them get off the fence in their own vocational discernment and enter the seminary. If even one of them ended up becoming a holy, hard-working priest, we said, our personal lumps would have been worth it.

Now it’s time for Timothy Dolan to lead not just a seminary or a huge Archdiocese but in some ways all Catholics in the country boldly to put out into the deep with confidence that comes from the Gospel — that joyful, enthusiastic confidence he exudes.

It’s time to swing for the fences.