Q: You have devoted your life to the study of spirituality as a writer, lecturer, retreat master and spiritual director. How did you come to this calling?
A: The simplest answer is that my Dominican superiors in Ireland, directly after my ordination, asked me to go to Rome to study for a license in spirituality. I didn’t ask for this opportunity, but I think my superiors were well aware that spirituality was the area in theology that most held my interest at the time. So, I went to Rome very happily. Also, I don’t think I had, or have, a great gift for sustained, abstract theological reflection.
In my initial years studying theology in the Dominican Studium, I found myself drawn not so much to the great dogmatic and speculative treatises in theology, such as the Summa of Aquinas, but rather to the writings of saints like Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila. These writings included practical guidance for the spiritual life in the form of letters, poems, prayers and meditations. It was not so much thoughts that gripped my attention, but rather a man or woman having thoughts, or a theologian in actual meditation. I was attracted to what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls “theology on its knees.”
Q: What led you to Dominican spirituality and your vocation as a Dominican priest?
A: Some people have to struggle to find their particular vocation in life, but in my case it was made very easy. Maybe the Lord thought I wouldn’t have the wit to work it out for myself! In any case, at 17 I met up with an American Trappist monk in Lourdes. He was helping out with the sick for a week, and I was doing the same. Up to that moment, I had never thought of becoming a priest. One afternoon, to my astonishment, he turned to me and said, “It’s obvious. You’re going to be a Dominican!” And that was it. On my last night in Lourdes, I wrote in my diary, “I am thinking of becoming a Dominican, but I’m not sure what it is.”
When I finally got to know some Dominicans, I found myself attracted to their joy. ADominican who went to the same school as myself in Northern Ireland, Father VincentMcNabb, remarked once that “Sometimes people, even Catholics, are frightened away from the spiritual life. They think it aims at making us miserable.” But McNabb himself, when he entered the Dominican Order, began to breathe in an atmosphere that was altogether different. “I was immensely surprised and delighted,” he said, “to find that sadness was never considered one of the products of the religious life … if you hadn’t any joy, out you went.”
Some of my motives for entering the order were not very profound. For example, I liked the Dominican habit. And in a snobbish kind of way, I liked the idea of belonging to an ancient and venerable order. But from the beginning, I also was attracted to one of the great mottos of the Order, “contemplata aliis tradere.” That is, to pass on to others that which we, ourselves, have contemplated.
Q: You are originally from Ireland, but now you live in Rome.How do you see life in Rome influencing your spiritual life?
A: If I had to isolate one gift I think God has given me in Rome, it is a sense of the great mystery and holiness of the Church. I am aware that there are problems in Rome, as there are elsewhere within the Church. But I have been impressed by the manifest goodness of so many of the people I have come in contact with in Rome. In particular, I am thinking of the young lay and clerical students whom I have come toknow, both as a teacher and as a friend, at the Angelicum University.
Another blessing has been the number of sisters of Mother Teresa I’ve come to knowthrough spiritual direction in Rome, not to mention the great privilege of meeting MotherTeresa, herself, on many occasions. No doubt, as a result of these graces my spiritual life should show a lot more signs of transformation! Nevertheless, my sense of deep and abiding spiritual communion with the men and women I’ve been privileged to meet in Rome over the last 10 years, gives me enormous hope.
I remember once, a few years ago, one of the students asked me out of the blue, “Father Paul, which spiritual path do you follow – that of St. Teresa of Avila or that of St. John of the Cross?” I hesitated, and I think I blushed before I replied, “Spiritual path? To be honest, I feel like one of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. I’m afraid it’s the Lord who’s following me!”
Q: You have had an opportunity to meet some of the students in the St.Thomas Catholic Studies Rome program. What has been your experience with them?
A: As a teacher in the Angelicum, I’ve known many young American students in Rome over the years. Before the University of St. Thomas purchased its own residence, many of the men in the Catholic Studies program came to live in the Convitto. This gave me a chance to enjoy a fairly close and fraternal relationship with them. What always impressed me about the students, whether I met them in spiritual direction, in class, or in the Convitto, was their enthusiasm to not only be Christians, but to be CatholicChristians. They were hungry to know the living tradition, the dogmatic and spiritual tradition of the saints and the Church.
Coming from the United States to Rome, and living in Rome for several months in the company of young priests and religious brothers from Asia, Africa and South America, gave the American students an opportunity to experience the Church at a completely new level. It was an experience that was, no doubt, challenging at times, but for the most part, the American students who were in the Catholic Studies program really seized this opportunity.
Q: Today you will speak to the University of St.Thomas community about the crisis of spirituality and faith in the new millennium.Do you see this crisis as one unique to our own time?
A: Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote hundreds of pages trying to answer that question. Itstrikes me that our situation today is different from the situation we faced 20 or 30 years ago. At that time, the most immediate challenge was the problem of secularization. That problem still remains, but now more and more people are sensing the need for some kind of spirituality in their lives. Instead of looking to the Gospel andfinding within the Church the path of life, people are turning to all kinds of other spiritualpaths and teachings. Some of these paths are anything but wise or sane. As G.K. Chesterton once remarked, “When people stop believing in something, they’ll believe in anything.”
Our contemporaries want spirituality but not faith. We have to ask ourselves if this situation is entirely their fault. For if it is true that Catholics go to the Church for morality, but go somewhere else for spirituality, is this not because we have somehow failed within the Church to preach the full Gospel, and failed in particular to communicate the rich spiritual tradition of the Church?
I am convinced that if we are to keep the faith today, we need to share it with others. We need to give away, as it were, the alms of truth, breaking open the bread of mystery for others, and share with them the true wonder of our faith. Cardinal Dulles recently remarked, “If Catholics today are sometimes weak in their faith, this is partly because of their reluctance to share it.”
Q: You’ve had the opportunity to travel quite extensively around the world. From your perspective, are these spiritual problems unique to the United States?
A: I am inclined to say that the spiritual problems we see in the United States are, to a remarkable degree, the same as the problems affecting the rest of the Western world. A reason for this is globalization. One of the grave spiritual problems within the Church – a problem certainly manifest here in the United States – is the split within the community of faith between what we call the “right wing” and the “left wing.” That thereshould be diversity within the Church is both healthy and Catholic. What is sad andunhealthy is to find the living Gospel reduced to a mere ideology, a sort of manifesto of religious and theological prejudice.
Because of the conflict relating to faith and religious practice between the “right” and“left,” we risk, in our enthusiasm for one side or the other, being taken over by that passion, or what St. Gregory of Nazianzus once called our “misguided zeal.” I would like to draw attention to a short exhortation composed by Cardinal Newman. Given that its focus is on Christ, and on the light of his wisdom, it is a statement that, in an age of theological and ecclesial conflict, may well help us to keep firm and strong the bonds of charity.
Let us ever make it our prayer and our endeavor that we may know the whole counsel of God, and grow into the measure of the stature of Christ, that all prejudice and self-confidence, and hollowness and unreality, and positiveness, and partisanship, may be put away from us under the light of Wisdom, and the fire of Faith and Love; till we see things as God sees them, with the judgment of His Spirit, according to the mind of Christ.
Q: Today you will speak to an audience comprised mostly of Catholic college students.What influence do you hope your talk will have on their lives?
A: My first desire always is to engage the whole person. So when I speak I try to address both the mind and the heart. But if the theme is one that touches on the Gospel, then my whole desire is to allow the Word to resonate within my own limited words, and to impact directly on the soul or on the innermost mind and heart of my listeners. But I can never tell exactly how the Word uses poor human words to achievethis end. For whatever impact there may be during a homily or a lecture, it is always, and only, the result of grace.
One rather wonderful and humorous illustration of this fact comes to mind. Many years ago, Cardinal Suenens told the story of a conversation that took place once on a street in Belgium. A man came up to him one morning and said, “Archbishop, I want to thank you for your sermon last Sunday. It changed my life. I am a better man since.” The cardinal, of course, was delighted and more than a little flattered. “My friend,” he asked, “what exactly did I say to move you so deeply?” The man replied, “You paused in the middle of your homily and said, ‘Now the second half of my homily is …’ When I heard that phrase ‘the second half,’ I realized how I am in the second half of my life. Withnothing to show for it, I felt dreadful and swore I would make amends to the good Lord and be a better Christian in the second half of my time.” The Cardinal then remembered that he had suddenly gone blank in the middle of his preaching. He was completely stuck, and could think of nothing at all to say. So, in order to buy a little time, he used the phrase “the second half.” It had done the job!
Q: You are spending this year as the guest chair of the Theology Department at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, one of the largest seminaries in the country. What are you observing about the current state of faith and spirituality there?
A: I have the sense of having come to Mundelein Seminary at a privileged moment. Isay this because I can see, both in the staff and students, clear evidence of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council. The preaching at the Eucharist is as good as I’ve heard anywhere in the world. And there is a sense of joy in the place, a manifest joy among the staff and students, of being Catholic Christians.
I have been impressed by the lively interest shown by the students in the lives of the saints and in the great spiritual tradition. Years ago in seminary formation, spirituality used to be regarded as icing on the cake, almost an extra. But now it is being perceived as bread necessary for survival. I think the Holy Spirit is inspiring this young generation, not only with an interest in spirituality, but also with a deep love of the Church, and with a renewed devotion to Mary, the Mother of God.
Again, something else I had begun to notice in Rome, over the past few years, is also true here. A significant number of the students are converts. Either they previously have belonged to another religion, or they converted to Christ – sometimes dramatically – from an earlier life of selfishness and sin. These students bring a great grace to the seminary. They help us to recover something of the salt and savor of theNew Testament. I have no doubt that their preaching afterward, in the Church, will have a special eloquence.
Q: Can the current spiritual crisis be overcome? What needs to happen in the future to accomplish this?
A: One of the most notable responses to the current spiritual crisis, is what is now called the new evangelization. A number of fine documents have come from the Vatican concerning this matter since the time of Pope Paul VI. Instead of quoting a text from documents already familiar to you, I’d like to quote a letter written by Vincent Van Gogh. He wrote it at a time when he was being almost completely ignored by his contemporaries, a situation that many priests will certainly be able to identify with today.
There may be a great fire in our soul, but no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a little smoke coming through the chimney, and pass on their way. Now what must be done…one must tend that inward fire, have salt in oneself, and wait patiently for the hour when somebody will come and sit down near it, to stay there maybe. Let him who believes in God wait for the hour that will come sooner or later.
So fidelity to the Gospel – to the great fire entrusted to us – is fundamental if we are tobegin to reverse the current spiritual crisis. As Catholics, we should never be simply content to gather around the fire like an exclusive tribe. The Word entrusted to us is a Word that must be proclaimed to all people.
Incidentally, I have noticed that in my attempts to answer your questions, I have beenmostly preoccupied with internal situations within the Church. That is, I suppose,inevitable. But if we are to reverse the current spiritual crisis we must lift our gaze from ourselves, and consider the needs of the world. Apologetics recently has been recovered by many young Catholics as a means of confronting the present crisis. That recovery has been long overdue. But as Catholics, our best apologetics is the love we show to the poor, and of course the love we show to our Risen Brother and Lord in the Eucharist. Love – God’s love for us in Christ, and our love for one another – is the wayto overcome the present crisis.