Engaging Culture: Friendship in Christ

John 13: 15 “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

John 15: 11-15 “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.”

These passages from the Gospel of John provide the point of departure for my address this year. For three years, we have reflected on a number of heroic witnesses, those whose steadfast belief in the resurrection of Jesus shaped their identity and gave them the impulse to go forth as his disciples, sharing the joy of the Gospel in spite of a perceived lack of intelligence, in spite of youth and poor health, and in spite of unbelievably challenging travel conditions. The Venerables, Fr. Solanus Casey, Fr. Michael McGivney, and Bishop Frederic Baraga each possessed a deeply rooted belief, an unwavering and steadfast faith, all of which was combined with a leading edge of mercy and compassion for the weakest and marginalized in society. They are truly heroic witnesses for us, witnesses that are not too far removed from us in time or location. Their voices and words still echo in our ears, and we still see their shadow and the fruit of their ministry. Their hearts were burning with belief and a love for Jesus. Their hearts were strong, true, and welcoming, and their example helps shape the way in which we fulfill our mission and form our students for a joyful life of ministry.

These three heroic witnesses have provided a rich foundation from which we can now move forward, take the next steps, in our work of forming hearts and minds ready to engage the contemporary culture; forming hearts and minds right here in the city of Detroit, hearts that are deeply conscious and aware of the marginalized, the weak, the helpless, the forgotten. We take the next step accompanied by our Venerables, but prompted by the Holy Spirit to form our students with hearts ready to engage a culture that has so many beautiful profiles and yet at the same time is disfigured by a rapidly increasing hostility toward the revealed Word of God and human dignity.

And so the focus for my address this year is the theme: “Engaging Culture: Friendship in Christ.” As I have pondered this over the past several months, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that in the coming years, formation programs will need to address with urgency an increasingly challenging and sometimes complicated task: forming leaders who are prepared to engage the culture effectively. This conviction arises from mutually shared concerns that I hear at meetings and consultations I attend around the country. Here I am not speaking simply about the current challenges of the multicultural context for ministry in parishes and dioceses, or cultural competencies for those in ministry. Rather, on a more fundamental level, I am speaking about the way in which one who ministers, sees, respects, analyzes and engages culture. This is a topic that needs to stay at the forefront of our conversation and our work.

In a culture that is increasingly loud, toxic, reactionary, and post-Christian we might say, we have to explore ways to form our students with strong hearts and minds, and take the lead by our attention to forming leaders who courageously and confidently engage the culture. I think we all agree that simple, authentic witness is essential for the proclamation of the Gospel.

Our Venerables have given powerful testimony to that. And at the same time, I propose a framework for that witness is seen very clearly, and in a compelling way, through friendship in Christ.

Friendship in Christ is a key pathway for living the new evangelization. What I want to reflect upon, then, is the way in which a genuine understanding of divine friendship in Christ (inspired very much by St. Thomas Aquinas) is the lived reality of the new evangelization. Thus, we do not ‘do’ the new evangelization, we need to ‘live’ it, and live it through friendship in Christ.

I began the address with two passages from the Gospel of St. John, one that focuses on his work and another on his words, because they are inextricably linked. Both combine to present the depth to which we are called as we enter more deeply into relationship with the Lord, and then sent forth to form hearts according to his own heart.

To engage culture properly and fully, we first have to engage with God. Far too often, talks, presentations, and articles focus exclusively on the ‘programs’ or the ‘blueprints’ that may seem to provide some engagement with culture. The focus here can sometimes tend more toward following a plan rather than following the Lord. While having some practical benefits, this approach in the end will only be a temporary and shallow effort because it is driven principally by human effort.

And engagement with culture, properly understood, cannot be a-personal. We cannot appropriately engage ‘culture’ in dialogue when we view it as an object. When we depersonalize the engagement, the modality of our engagement tends to drift toward extremes, one being a militant stance toward the culture marked by aggressive attacks and a persistently negative view of the world, and the other being undiscerningly accepting of everything, passively and fearfully avoiding the proclamation of the truth of the Gospel. Perhaps these two extreme approaches capture the attention of people because of the chaos they create, or perhaps it’s because they are perceived as the easiest pathway.

Rather than objectifying or depersonalizing culture, our teaching and our formation should move the students to a Gospel oriented modality of engagement. Our students need to be aware of the mysterious and beautiful way in which Jesus has already embraced humanity.

“Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, coming in human likeness” (Phil. 2: 6-7). The Word of God engages humanity on the deepest level by means of the incarnation, saves us, and transforms the world.

There is a critical call for us today to form our students as heroic witnesses who are disciples and friends of Jesus, and who with heart and mind, steadfastly want others to enjoy that friendship as well. Why? Because participation in divine friendship is transformative and leads to eternal life.

The washing of the feet and the call to friendship speak to the depth to which Jesus moves to reach us, and the depth to which he calls us to carry out our work here. The first passage punctuates the celebration of Holy Thursday. In that celebration we see revealed the charity of Jesus, and the friendship to which he calls each of us personally and that is lived out in a particular way through ministry. And the second passage comes from chapter 15 as he reveals the intimate relationship he has with the Father, and the friendship to which he invites us.

The celebration of Holy Thursday, and all of its meaning, is the foundation for understanding deeply the sacrifice offered by the self-gift of Jesus. Genuine friendship is rooted in the charity and poverty of Jesus. The doorway, we might say, through which we encounter the charity of Jesus (and thus his friendship) is through his poverty. Thus, in order to understand and share in his charity and friendship, we need to enter and share in his poverty.

The poverty of Jesus is not something episodic or irrational. It is not just a singular action, such as washing the feet of his disciples. Even before Jesus kneels down in front of them to wash their feet, St. John tells us that “He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end” (Jn. 13: 1). The charity of Jesus is all encompassing. Even with the knowledge that his betrayer was at table with him, and that “the devil had already induced Judas” Jesus continued to love them, and love them to the end.

When Jesus kneels in front of them and begins to wash their feet, his action is deeply connected to every action of his ministry, and even more, to his very being. His willingness not to cling to his divinity, his humble birth in the stable, his simplicity of life during his ministry, his recognition of the action of the Father throughout his ministry, his willingness to be humiliated and die on the cross, ...all of these actions share the same reality; the charity of Jesus is rooted in his poverty. And that is why the action of the washing of the feet by Jesus is so much more than a simple act of hospitality. It is so much more than an act of service. When we reduce the example of Jesus to only those realities, we miss the very heart of Jesus himself.

There is a true drama when Jesus says to the disciples and to you and me, ‘you are my friend.’ Jesus says to them: “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master’, and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” Soon after the meal, in chapter 15, Jesus would offer even more force when he said: “I no longer call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is about. I call you friends.”

Jesus extends an invitation to these disciples to participate in divine friendship and asks them to do as he has done. Jesus offers a new depth of relationship with the living God. This is not the relationship of the old covenant, or of the law. This is a new sacrifice for all eternity. Jesus does not interact with the disciples as a distant, powerful master, but kneels before them to reveal the authentic love of the Father. This is not a friendship of utility, a friendship of pleasure, or even of common interest. This is a friendship based not only on desiring the good of the other, but living in the divine love of Jesus.

Archbishop Vigneron alludes to this when he states in his pastoral letter on preaching: “Sobering recent statistics reveal many Catholics don’t even think it’s possible to have a friendship with God, so they certainly don’t know, with every fiber of their being, that they are loved, infinitely and passionately, by the One who has made it all.”

What Jesus does is invite us into the love of the divine conversation, and to participate not passively or at a distance, but rather, intimately and in a very real way.

Now, so as not to sentimentalize or romanticize this, what does it look like then? If we desire to respond to this offer, this invitation by Jesus to share true friendship with him, it will entail entering with all our reason, with our entire self, into his poverty. And when we share in his poverty, we confront the reality of our absolute need for God and our need for conversion. Divine friendship with Jesus, then, has this unique characteristic. Friendship with Jesus is not simply for the sake of our own affirmation, for the sake of knowing we have a companion, or to have reflected back to us only what we want to hear. Friendship with Jesus transforms us and awakens within us the life of grace and conversion. It moves us to holiness. “Go, and sin no more” (Jn. 8: 11).

Similarly, then, as we form our students to engage culture, the modality of that engagement comes by means of authentic friendship. The priest, the deacon, the lay leader are called in their leadership to extend the friendship of Christ, a friendship that welcomes, that lifts the other up, that moves the other to encounter the transformative grace of Christ through conversion. It is a friendship marked by the patient and loving sharing of the truth, a truth that sets one free. The posture of friendship prompts within us the conviction that we not retreat from challenging issues or the messiness of life that comes with our culture. Rather, it moves us to enter fully into it, with a confidence and humility born in faith, and exercised through a strong, virtuous heart.

And thus it is through this truly divine friendship that we can then share in his ministry. Jesus says to those around him: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” The invitation to share in the friendship of Jesus, and in a particular way through the priesthood of Jesus, means we share in his sacrifice, his humility, his poverty. In the reality of friendship with Jesus, then, to do has he did is not just an imitation. It is not a bracelet that we wear that says WWJD. It is not mimicking something. The friendship to which Jesus calls us is a participation in his own charity. And Jesus shows us what that charity looks like: it is the cross.

It should overwhelm us that incarnate Word, through whom the world was created, speaks to us as one like ourselves and even more, ...calls us to a friendship. If we desire to participate in the charity and friendship of Jesus, let’s remember it is not something we take. It is a life-long journey of abandonment and surrender of our own self, so that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2: 20). A key pathway for us to address this is virtue. Growth in the lived virtues is a key component to being a bridge to Christ. And without virtue, friendship with Christ and engaging culture fully will be stunted. As we continue to develop this aspect of the program, the fruit should be evident in the way our students effectively and joyfully minister within the complexities of our culture.

And so, I want to connect this with our work of formation and engagement with culture. As we look out over the horizon and recognize just how tumultuous the waters of our culture have become (even in the last 12 months), it seems imperative that we form students who, rooted in a true friendship with Jesus, seek to engage the culture by the same means Jesus embraced us. Again, this friendship in Christ is not to be taken in a superficial or sentimental way, but rather at its deepest and most profound level. A heroic witness, a missionary heart, is one that is marked by divine friendship with Christ. That is not a program, its not a slogan, ...it’s the lived friendship with the Lord that serves as THE powerful witness to the life of grace.

Strategic Initiatives: Looking back and Looking Forward

Three years ago I began my first address to the seminary community with the passage from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. “It is not ourselves that we preach, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as servants for his sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). I am convinced we need to hold these words close to our hearts as we consider the strategic initiatives that are so integral to the vitality and stability of Sacred Heart. Yes, these initiatives are very important and inspiring for us, but they are not meant to make the seminary greater for its own sake, or ourselves more satisfied with what we have done. Rather, these strategic initiatives, born from our mission, our assessment program, and the analysis of our data, create the means through which our students become true friends of Christ and compelling witnesses to the Gospel.

And so, in the second part of this address, what I hope to do is focus on exciting strategic initiatives, looking back at what we have accomplished and also looking forward at what he intend to do.

Institutional Strategic Plan

The first item that I want to highlight is the institutional strategic plan itself. Institutional planning as assessment is something that we take very seriously and to which we devote a significant amount of time and energy. The end result is a plan that emerges from sustained consultation and review of data. It is exciting to see how our priorities come into greater clarity, how we can allocate the necessary resources to fulfill our mission, how we evaluate the success and effectiveness of our efforts, and how this plan keeps us vibrant and healthy. Essentially it reveals who we are and where we are going.

Over a year ago, both accrediting teams offered positive remarks about the quality of the strategic plan, noting that we had made significant progress since the last visit in 2004. The plan, they affirmed, was more integrated with realistic goals and also incorporated appropriate tools to measure the progress and success of our initiatives. It is safe to say that we made huge steps forward from 2004 to 2014.

At the same time, the goals in the plan had been in place for almost 7 years, so it is time to refresh the plan. I want to thank Ann Marie Connolly in a particular way for her leadership in this effort. Updating a strategic plan is not easy, but there is tremendous fruit to the efforts. We spent the last six months reviewing our priorities and will continue to refine the plan over the next six months so that it reflects accurately our highest priorities. Our goal is to have a new institutional strategic plan, with updated priorities, pathways, goals, and metrics ready for Board approval this winter.

Endowment

Among the priorities which have been persistent over the years is the need to grow the endowment. We know that for an institution our size and our age, the endowment should be much larger. There have been a variety of factors over many decades that have made growth in the endowment a challenge, but I am convinced that the endowment needs to be a priority. For that reason, it was one of the first priorities I shared with the archbishop when I was named rector and I’ll keep it as a top priority for many years to come.

For some, working on an endowment is not always the most exciting or inspiriting task. Much like the foundation of a house, the endowment is often unseen until it is a problem. Then a major repair is needed. Remodeling a kitchen or sprucing up an entertainment room can be a lot more exciting than working on a basement wall or sump pump. People love when you give them a tour of your new kitchen or sit down to watch TV on the new flat screen. There may not be the same enthusiasm to see the new sump pump or foundation drain. Yet, endowments reveal an institution’s long term vitality, it speaks to the engagement of its constituents, and provides the flexibility needed to offer creative programs.

Here I want to offer a word of thanks to Dave Kelley, Edmundo Reyes, and those in the development office for the incredible work they have done over the last three years. During that short period, our endowment has more than doubled, faster than any institution of higher education in the United States.

But, even though we have made tremendous strides, our starting point in the task of growing the endowment was far behind others. We have made great strides, yes, but we need to keep pressing this priority and work tirelessly to grow the endowment. To that end, with the support of the Board of Trustees, a working group is exploring the most effective way to grow the endowment over the next decade; to explore ways in which we can manage our revenue so that endowment interest, tuition, annual fundraising, and archdiocesan support are balanced appropriately. It is my intention to be aggressive with our work on the endowment and set goals that stretch us, that challenge us to reach higher than we have ever reached in the past. Now is not the time to sit back. Imagine the transformative changes we could make through a strong endowment, the new ways in which our students could be formed and supported, and ultimately the leadership we could provide for the new evangelization. This will continue to be a key priority and please keep these efforts in your prayers.

This is also a good time to introduce two new members of the Development department. Christine Renner joined the department in July as the Raiser’s Edge Donor Data Base coordinator. She has vast experience in fundraising and Raiser’s Edge, and she will be deeply committed to our mission. Marita Ladosenszky will be with us on August 31 as Associate Director of Development for Planned Gifts. We are very pleased to welcome both of them.

Accreditation

Even though it seems like we just welcomed the two visiting teams from our regional and national accrediting agencies, we all know that accreditation is an on-going task for every institution. Much like assessment, we are held to a level of accountability that necessitates constant evaluation, constant measuring, which leads to balanced and informed decision.

In my address last year, I made reference to a number of the strengths that the accreditors identified and also some areas of needed growth. With the changes in processes for accreditation, one of the first things that we needed to address was the increased demands that the US Department of Education and subsequently our accreditors have placed on the process of accreditation. In order to address those, Fr. Tim Laboe, in conversation with administration, worked with his department over the last year to reconfigure the responsibilities so that we can effectively address the work of accreditation. And I am grateful to Astrid Caicedo who has agreed to serve as the Director of Accreditation for Sacred Heart Major Seminary, and who will lead us through the new pathways for HLC and also the requirement of ATS.

Communication

Another strategic priority for us is communication. Last year I mentioned in my address that the Development department has been working very diligently on a comprehensive communications plan. After extensive consultation, we saw the first fruits of the plan with the new branding. A special word of thanks to Edmundo Reyes for his thorough work on the project. Whether it is the academic mark, the tag line, or the renewed focus on formation in the heart of the city of Detroit, we can be very proud of the way we communicate who we are and what we do here at Sacred Heart. The next exciting step in this initiative is the new website which now adds even more energy to our external communication, bringing consistency to the way in which we communicate externally with our constituents. It is our hope that the updated website will be an effective portal to the heart of our institution, the heart of our mission.

Along with the efforts to improve our external communication, we also look forward to improving our internal communication. The accreditation report noted that an area of needed growth for us is the way in which we communicate internally. As with any institution, internal communication is a critical means for accomplishing the mission. If there are ways that we can do that better, more effectively, more consistently, I welcome that. The Administrative Council will take this up in the coming year.

Seminarian Formation

In terms of the formation program, the leadership provided by Fr. Battersby has been a blessing. As we all know, the responsibilities of the vice rector are far ranging, requiring a person with incredible flexibility, insight, patience, and fatherly instincts. Fr. Battersby has provided that leadership, and as we enter another year of formation and welcome a new group of seminarians, we will also be taking up some important initiatives that will improve the quality of our formation program.

First, it is my desire to work closely with Fr. Battersby and all of the priests on the formation team in the updating of the annual evaluation benchmarks. The criteria for each year, developed by (then) Fr. Byrnes and the formation team, has proven to be very effective in providing objective benchmarks, with special focus on the growth in virtues. Yet, as with any program, it is time for a review. As a leader in the area of formation in virtue, our plan is to review the criteria and see how we might be able to improve upon them. Approaching formation with a clear focus on virtue (as I noted above) has been a key foundation for us in recent years, and here too, Sacred Heart is a leader. Yet, while we have taken the lead in this area, we have a long way to go. We hope to deepen the integration of virtue formation in our program so that as the men move through the program they see that it is not simply a matter of defining virtue in their minds, but living out of virtue in their daily lives, recognizing how their thoughts, dispositions, actions, all come out of virtue. To be men of virtue, which is an essential part of entering into authentic friendship with Jesus, is what we seek to form.

In a second area, the USCCB issued this year a new document called “Guidelines for the use of psychology in seminary admissions. This new document gives concise guidelines for the purpose of psychological evaluations, suggested (common) components for psychological assessment, privacy and confidentiality, and the role of psychological information in formation. I recall clearly the work of Dr. Smith and many others and the extensive report they did in 2005. Much of that work has had a significant impact on our work here at Sacred Heart and it has also extended beyond. It is good to see that many of the recommendations from that committee ten years ago have been taken up by many seminaries around the country and also now by the USCCB. I will ask Fr. Battersby to work with the formation team and review the document and implement any necessary changes to our own program.

Academics and Technology

In July we welcomed cohort one and two for the summer residency of the STL program. We now have 21 priests between these two cohorts, coming from all parts of the United States and beyond. This innovative program continues to be well received by bishops and priests throughout the country. I offer thanks to Fr. Tim Laboe, Fr. Mathias Thelen, Dr. Diaz, the faculty, the staff, and all who worked to make the summer program a positive experience. We are currently putting together promotional materials and communications to bishops, and it is very inspiring to hear how excited these priests are about the program. They are now our ambassadors and will take the message of Sacred Heart far and wide.

Second, work from the ad hoc exploratory committee for the D.Min. completed its work in June and recommended that we move forward in our consideration of this degree. It has been a work of great collaboration and careful analysis. This year we will be seeking input from the faculty and Board of Trustees regarding whether we should take the next steps. This degree, if deeped a prudent move, would be the first offering of a terminal degree at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. A special word of gratitude to Dr. Janet Diaz and the members of the ad hoc committee for their work.

Another initiative in this area is the continued adoption of technology. Last year I mentioned this as one of our strategic priorities, and it will remain. With the hard work of Mr. Chad Hughes and Mr. David Policelli, we have completed more upgrades. I am particularly delighted that over the summer the upgrades to Room 16 were completed. But I do not want to focus just on an individual classroom. With the support of the administration, Mr. Hughes has developed some incredible tools for our use, not only to enhance student learning and the learning environment, but even more, to help us engage our mobile and very nomadic community in the most effective way. I am sure the faculty will enjoy listening to Mr. Hughes this afternoon and also exploring ways that we can leverage technology to help us fulfill our unique mission.

Institutional Update

Enrollment

In this final section, I want offer some updates on institutional activities. First, in the area of enrollment, I am pleased to share with you that our commuter enrollment is up by over 10% this year. Final numbers will communicated later in the fall after the add-drop period, but as of this moment, we are trending up. Given the current landscape of enrollment for theological schools throughout the country, this is incredible. Most theological schools are struggling, with precipitous declines in enrollment. Here I want to thank, and introduce, two new members of the Institute for Ministry who have been working very hard this summer to achieve these results. Mr. Ryan Cahill and Mrs. Chyrisha Rucker. From recruiting calls to personal interviews, to the Topics sessions, it has been a busy, successful summer.

Our enrollment for seminarians, however, is down slightly. There are a variety of factors that contribute to this, and we are confident that over the long run, our seminarian enrollment will continue to rise. We continue to be in active dialogue with a number of dioceses around the country who are considering Sacred Heart as their seminary and will welcome a number of visits this fall from prospective dioceses.

Building

The signs of life and growth continue to be evident with the tireless work by Mr. Duncan, Dc. Lazarus and the members of the building administration, as it relates to our building and property. In particular, the restoration of the porch has been a two year project and greatly enhanced the entry to the seminary. I think you will agree with me that it has been a joy to see people enjoying the porch, with its furniture and umbrellas, enjoying the outdoors and enjoying the company of others over the summer. It certainly makes for a warm welcome to see these improvements and to see the impact it has on our life here.

This project, along with the many day to day projects make the seminary a beautiful building in which we can truly carry out our mission.

New Faculty

This year, we are pleased to welcome two new priest faculty members to Sacred Heart. Both priests are familiar faces to us, and both will make wonderful contributions in the years to come.

Fr. Clint McDonell: Fr. McDonell is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and he has been studying at the Catholic University of America in the graduate school of philosophy. He will complete his PhL this fall. The scope of work for Fr. McDonell will be as a full time faculty member in the Undergraduate School of Liberal Arts and also a member of the Formation Team, serving in the external forum as a formation advisor.

Fr. Ryan Ford: Fr. Ford is a priest of the Diocese of Marquette. Fr. Ford has been an associate pastor and served the bishop in a variety of ways. The scope of Fr. Ford’s work will include work on his STL and also to serve as a spiritual director and a member of the formation team. Both of these priests are wonderful additions to the seminary and please join me in welcoming them.

Conclusion

As I bring to a close my address this year, I return to my considerations at the start. You and I have an important role to play in the formation of our students, preparing them to be strong, heroic, authentic witness of Jesus; preparing them to be courageous of heart; preparing them to engage the culture with a deeply rooted sense of confidence and humility. We need them to see that culture is not a thing to be conquered but rather a dynamic reality made up of hearts that need to be fed, that need to be taught, that need to be guided to true friendship in Christ. This is who we are; this is what we do. Friendship in Christ is a privileged pathway for living the new evangelization.

This year we will see and participate in a number of significant events. The Archdiocese of Detroit will have a Synod, calling upon the Holy Spirit to enliven us to a deeper encounter and friendship with the living God. There will be the Synod for the Family at which bishops and experts from around the world will offer direction about the vocation and mission of the family in the church and the contemporary world. The Holy Father will make his first pastoral visit to the United States. A Year of Mercy will begin in December and call us to a deeper awareness of the abundant mercy of the Father and our call to imitate that mercy.

As the next few years unfold, there will likely be significant shifts in cultural attitudes, the rhetoric of politicians will likely become more flamboyant and shocking, there may be more pressure, humiliation, and marginalization of Christians who hold that Sacred Scripture contains the revealed Word of God and the truth for our salvation, there may be those who misunderstand our desire to protect human life, the sanctity of marriage and the goodness of religious liberty.

But, in the midst of it all, we are encouraged never to lose hope, knowing that our work here forms hearts for Jesus, and those hearts become an ever expanding reach of the friendship and mercy of God. How could we not rejoice in that, and commit ourselves again with confidence to this great mission.

“Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of God rests upon you” (1 Peter, 4: 12-14).