Chambers of Her Heart,
Madonna House & Priestly Formation
CHAPTER 1 - OUR PROGRAM IS SIMPLE
In a letter to the Canadian Bishops dated July 26, 1980, Catherine Doherty, the foundress of Madonna House, and one of the most prophetic women of the past century, wrote:
What was being clarified was, as far as I am concerned, very extraordinary. What it amounted to – and I must confess it with a feeling of great fear in my heart – was that Madonna House should serve, with the permission of our bishop, as a sort of spiritual formation centre for future priests.
Catherine did receive the necessary permission from the Bishop of Pembroke at the time, and ever since we have offered our community experience as a spiritual formation program for young men considering the priestly vocation.
Even before this letter (but very close to the same time, which, to me, indicates Catherine’s being in touch with the mind of the Church), the Congregation for Christian Formation in Seminaries, issued a document, January 6, 1980, which stated, at the end:
The ideal which we have in part described is not easy to attain. The generous young men who offer themselves for the priesthood come from a world in which inner recollection is almost impossible because of continuous overexcitement of the senses and of overabundance of concepts. Experience shows that a period of preparation for the seminary, given over exclusively to spiritual formation, is not only not superfluous but can bring surprising results. There is evidence from seminaries in which the number of candidates has suddenly gone up. In these the people responsible attribute this to such a brave initiative. This period of spiritual apprenticeship is welcomed by the students. It appears that it is the diocesan authorities who are rather opposed to this spiritual propaedeutic period. This seems to come from a lack of priests and a view that it would be foolish to institute such a practice. In reality, were it tried, they would soon become convinced of its benefits. Permit us to insist that this suggestion be tried.
This period of preparation would benefit from being conducted somewhere other than the seminary itself. (Emphasis added) It should be of sufficient duration. Thus something could be achieved at the beginning which might be very difficult or impossible to achieve later on when the seminary training is taken up with a great deal of intellectual work. Then the students often do not have the leisure and the freedom of mind to accomplish a real spiritual apprehension. If this suggestion is followed, the things indicated in this circular would have a good chance of success and one could expect they would bear rich fruit. (L’Osservatore Romano, April 21, 1980)
In her letter to the bishops mentioned above, Catherine indicated that she had read this Vatican document. But, significantly, she had been thinking of such a need several years before. The document gave her the boldness to make her offer.
In subsequent years the Church has continued to insist on the need for such a propaedeutic program. In paragraph #62 of the post-synodal document Shepherds After My Own Heart (hereafter SAMOH), March 25, 1992, we read:
And, in the following quote from Merton’s book (referred to above), and although he is speaking about the preparation for contemplation, Merton is reflecting on the same need expressed above: how to make the transition from a too worldly existence to a deeply Christian environment and vocation:
As I hope to show, our Madonna House program corresponds closely to what the Church and Merton are advocating. In 1994, through the initiative of our bishop at that time, Brendan O’Brien, our program was included in the Apostolic Visitation of Canadian Seminaries. Bishop Jose Martins, a member of the Secretary for the Congregation of Christian Education responsible for seminaries, wrote to Bishop O’Brien after the visitation. In his letter he highlighted some of the important aspects of our program which we shall be considering more in detail in this book:
We would like, first of all, to commend the generosity of spirit which moved Catherine Doherty, and consequently the whole Madonna House community, to open their home and their hearts to young men in the process of discerning a call to the priesthood or preparing themselves spiritually for entry into the seminary. The intention was to make Madonna House available to candidates for the priesthood who would come from across Canada and elsewhere to discern their vocation, appropriate the rudiments of Christian discipleship, and learn to work and pray, with the richness of the liturgy as their basic experience. The programme, which has been in existence for some fourteen years now, seems to have met with some success in helping people to discern the state of life to which they are called, and in instilling in them a love for prayer and communion with God.
Among other Christian qualities that make Madonna House an appropriate setting for this undertaking, the community exhibits a reverence for the priesthood, a love of simplicity and Gospel poverty, and a deep-rooted Marian devotion.
The Visitation team was impressed by the rich tradition of communal prayer and liturgy, including a well-prepared music ministry, in Madonna House. The pre-seminarians participate in the community liturgical schedule which includes morning prayer and a late afternoon Mass celebrated each day. In addition, once every three weeks, they experience the ‘poustinia’ which involves solitude, prayer and fasting in a secluded location. Each pre-seminarian must have a spiritual director, and he is free to choose from among the various priests appointed to the task.
May we conclude by offering our thanks to Madonna House for this service which they offer to the Church in Canada. In wishing every blessing upon the members of the Madonna House Apostolate, we also assure them of our prayers for their devoted work in helping to prepare young men for the seminary.
Since our initiative began in 1980, it may be one of the oldest pre-seminarian programs in North America. Certainly we have gained some practical wisdom concerning the kind of spiritual formation young men welcome as a preparation for seminary life, and which has proved beneficial. Besides those who have gone on to the priesthood, many others have testified that it was very beneficial for their Christian lives.
At the time of this second edition of this book (2004) Madonna House is an acknowledged centre of Christian formation in the Church. In SAMOH Pope John Paul II wrote: “The Synod asks that the Congregation for Catholic Education gather all the information on experiments of such initial formation [pre-seminary programs] that have been done or are being done. At a suitable time, the Congregation is requested to communicate its findings on this matter to the Episcopal Conferences." (#2) What is shared here is a response to this request. We hope it may be beneficial to other such programs.
Also, may this book be a stimulus for seminaries themselves to consider a more holistic approach to formation. The Vatican documents have pointed out the over-concentration on academics in seminaries. Could seminaries incorporate more manual labor, more experiences of solitude, more in-depth community life, more simplicity of life-style, and other aspects of Christian discipline you will read about here?
Catherine’s prophetic book, Dear Seminarian (1950) contains some of her vision for seminary formation. In Madonna House she embodied many of those elements. I will, therefore, be quoting from her book, to show that the desires that were on her heart in 1950 have received a “jump start” in our present community. That is why she offered our way of life to those contemplating a priestly vocation.
I was director of our program from 1993 to 1998. I must pay public tribute here to one of our Madonna House priests, Fr. Jim Duffy, who really developed the basic approach to our program and laid its foundations. Perhaps no greater tribute could be given to him than the following testimony, written by one of the young men after his participation in the program with Fr. Jim:
While I will be sharing my own approach during my time of being director, I have learned much from Fr. Jim. I’m sure he would agree that the basic formation is the community life itself, and this emphasis has remained a constant throughout the years. It is this communal experience that will be the chief focus of this book.
Pope John Paul’s Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata (VC), the fruit of the 1994 Synod of Bishops on the Consecrated Life, has this to say about formation in general:
Formation should involve the whole person in every aspect of the personality, in behavior and intentions. The community is the chief place of formation. Through fraternal life each one learns to live with those whom God has put at his or her side, accepting their positive traits along with their differences and limitations. (#65, #67)
We believe our community offers such a holistic formation.
Fr. Jim’s great thrust in formation, and which, of course, is the very heart of the Christian life, was to develop a great personal love of Jesus Christ. Part of the prayer to our Lady of Combermere (of whom we’ll hear more later) is this: “O Mary, you desire so much to see Jesus loved. Since you love me, this is the favour that I ask of you: to obtain for me a great personal love for Jesus Christ.” Whatever is said in this book about formation, this is the goal of goals: a passionate love for Jesus. This was Catherine’s passion, and it should be the center of every Christian’s heart.
In preparation for this book I asked members of the community, “What would be the one grace you desire for these men in our program?” One said: “The beginning of a passionate love of Jesus Christ.”
Another strong emphasis of my own has been a vision of the priesthood. The men who come to us are wondering if the Lord is calling them to the priesthood. They must have the Church’s vision of the priesthood in order to choose it. “Without a vision, the people perish”(Pro 29:18). The vision of the priesthood presented by the Church will also help to clarify whether or not the Lord is calling them to that vocation. (Often, as a result of the program, they discover they are being called to another way of life.) A strong and unambiguous vision of the priesthood can clarify their true vocation.
Another aspect of my approach is to emphasize that the young man himself is the chief agent of his own formation. “We are our own parents,” said St. Augustine. Liturgy, prayer, studies, poverty, obedience can be presented from the outside, but unless the person acquires a love for these foundations of the Christian life, they will never take root in his heart in a living way. St. Paul said, “As you sow, so shall you reap.” One must willingly plant and water the seed in one’s own heart for it to grow.
Each person who comes to us is like a very small seedling in a hot house. Seedlings are very delicate, very fragile, needing just the right amount of water and sun. Little by little they develop their own powers of assimilation, and then begin to grow. At a certain stage they can be transplanted to a more demanding climates and soils.
If I could put into a few words my own vision of the general goal of the program, I would say that we try to quicken in the men what the Fathers of the Church call our "“spiritual senses." There is a spiritual tasting and seeing and loving: "Taste and see that the Lord is good." Taste how? See how? Through a living experience of the Lord’s presence, love, truth, beauty. Through the experience of the community the Lord seeks to give them a “good taste” of himself, of his Mother, of the Church; a good taste of silence, poverty, liturgy. In all these manifestations of the Christian life, the Lord himself is present, trying to draw us to him.
How many people in our society have a “bad taste” of Jesus, of God? The bad image they have probably ought to be rejected! But once they have tasted the real Jesus, and have come to know Mary’s tender love for them, they will seek to deepen these relationships. Once they have tasted the delights of true prayer, the peace of silence, and the strength discipline gives them, they will continue to desire this food for their continued journey and life with the Lord. Once they acquire a “good taste” of such food, they will begin to grow from the inside, to parent themselves, even as they appropriate the nutrients from without.
For several years I had been thinking of writing a book on the priesthood as a small contribution to the Church of the third Millennium. My appointment as director of the pre-seminarian program reminded me that during my own stay in the seminary (1961-67) I had written a book (unpublished) called As You Sow. It was written for seminarians, to inspire and guide them as to how they must take an active part in their own formation, instead of complaining all the time about what is not happening.
During that time I was convinced that the formation of a priest during the seminary years is equally as important as the ongoing formation for the rest of his life. “As you sow, so shall you reap.” The seminary is the seed bed of the flowering of the priest. As the root, so the tree. This book combines my experience in the seminary and priesthood with my participation in Catherine’s own vision of Christian formation.
May I share with you some personal background.
I have had a particularly profound experience of just how crucial early formation years are for one’s life as a priest. Before I went to the major seminary I had been two years in both the Trappists and the Carthusians. I therefore had a deep internal experience by which I could compare what was, and what was not, being offered in the seminary by way of formation. To some extent I had already internalized my own spiritual formation program. If certain elements were missing in the seminary, I simply supplied them myself. (I know my classmates were not so fortunate.)
As I had done after leaving the monasteries, so in the seminary, I continued to pray daily, fast, have a spiritual director, seek silence, read spiritual books – in short, I kept building on the important foundation stones of the spiritual life that I had learned in the monasteries. There I had “tasted” the goodness of these spiritual nutrients and, thanks be to God, I have never lost theses tastes! So, I know in my bones that it is possible to acquire these tastes, and retain them for life.
It is something of this kind of formation that the Vatican is strongly recommending for the diocesan priesthood. I can testify that those spiritual tastes that I acquired in the monasteries have ever afterwards been part of my deep spirit, and have been the foundation of my whole life as a priest.
While I hope, as I mentioned above, that this book will be helpful for all those responsible for priestly formation, as well as all who come Madonna House, both men and women, I am primarily addressing it to young men who think the Lord may be calling them to the priesthood. My reader, won’t mind, therefore, if my personal “you” is addressed to these latter.
Some of the men who have completed our program have continued their journey to the priesthood in a new community in Ottawa called The Companions of the Cross. The present superior, Fr.Roger Vandenakker, had this to say about the men coming to him from our program:
As a community of priests and seminarians preparing for the priesthood we have had several ‘brothers’ who have been through the pre-seminary program at Madonna House. Overall I have been most impressed with both the feedback I have received from the men and the impact that I have observed this program has had on them. Not only did they speak highly and appreciatively about their experiences, but I noticed real positive growth and change in their lives.
Specifically I would emphasize the healthy combination of an intense spiritual life in a vibrant eucharistic community surrounded by an equal emphasis on and integration with manual `down to earth’ work, stressing such fundamental attitudes as ‘the duty of the moment,’ ‘practising the presence of God’ throughout the day, and ‘doing little things exceedingly well for love of God.’
What the men lived and came away with was a strong experience of the Gospel incarnated, or what has been referred to as a truly incarnational spirituality. I believe that their year not only resulted in a real growth in faith and clarity of discernment for them, but laid a strong foundation for them to continue growing and discerning their vocations. Of course not all of them have continued to pursue a vocation to the priesthood, but I believe they all have been enriched by their participation in this program and are better men, and men of faith, as a result of it.
And, from a young man who had gone through the program:
One of the laymen of our community, Larry Klein, said once: “The life works, if you live it.” This sounds simple – and it is – but it’s not easy. To profit spiritually from our way of life, you don’t really have to know “how it works.” But it may help!
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