By Tim Johnson
HARRISBURG, Pa. — In this Year for Priests promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI, it is easily discerned that priestly formation is a high priority with Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades. His priestly duties have included pastor at an inner-city parish, seminary rector as well as bishop.
The former rector of Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., from March of 1997 to Dec. 9, 2004, was also an instructor of systematic theology, canon law and Hispanic ministry as a full-time faculty member for the two years prior to his assignment.
“I felt very blessed to be invited and sent to teach there,” Bishop Rhoades said. “I was very surprised when I was asked to be the rector of the seminary.”
That was a big responsibility. Mount Saint Mary’s is a national seminary, the oldest in the United States, and seminarians from throughout the United States attend there. The seminary is noted for its strong spiritual life. Prayer life includes a holy hour every day of eucharistic adoration besides daily Mass and liturgy of the hours. And the academic program is very rigorous.
Rector, spiritual father
“I really saw my role there as a spiritual father,” Bishop Rhoades told Today’s Catholic from his office in Harrisburg, Pa., in early December. “That is how I thought of the role of being the rector.”
Bishop Rhoades gave weekly rector’s conferences where he talked to the seminarians about different facets of priestly life and ministry. And while rector, he continued to teach a course on the priesthood.
“It was very rewarding,” Bishop Rhoades said, “I would say they were very happy years there, but also very humbling to be a part of the preparation of men for the priesthood.”
He said, “I was very much guided throughout my priesthood, but also as rector by the teaching and the example of Pope John Paul II, and I think the way I led the seminary was very much in accord with the thinking of Pope John Paul when he wrote that wonderful apostolic exhortation, ‘I Will Give You Shepherds.’”
The exhortation outlines how men should be formed for the priesthood.
As rector, he was concerned with the spiritual, intellectual, pastoral and human formation.
“It is really joyful for me when I go around now to different dioceses, I see these men who were seminarians doing such wonderful work as priests. It is very edifying for me,” he said.
Bishop Rhoades said it is so important in seminary that the habit of prayer, continual study, being faithful to the teachings of the church be developed in the priests, so they can, as Pope John Paul II said, “be shepherds after the heart of Christ.”
Preparation as a bishop
Bishop Rhoades’ days as a seminary rector was great preparation to be a bishop. As the head of an educational ecclesial community, the rector was in charge of employees, he supervised faculty and seminarians, and he held a role of spiritual fatherhood.”
It involves Christ the Good Shepherd. “In a sense,” Bishop Rhoades said, “I think that’s how a rector is in the community of a seminary, that’s how a bishop is in his diocese.”
“And that is how I look at the role of bishop,” he said, “not so much as the CEO or the administrator, but really spiritual father of the diocese — both for the priests, but also for the people.”
Culture of vocations
Bishop Rhoades credits the movement of the Holy Spirit as the impetus to the great increase of seminarians in the Diocese of Harrisburg — from 11 in 2004 to 26 today and creating a culture of vocations in the diocese.
“One of the things is we had to make this a priority,” Bishop Rhoades said. “From the first day I became bishop I spoke about this. There is a very wonderful young priest who is vocation director (in Harrisburg) and very energetic. We started programs of retreats for young men. They were very successful.”
He added, “I think the most important thing was getting all our priests on board that they would promote priestly vocations in the parishes and in the schools, and that our priests participate in these retreats where they told their vocation stories to the young men.”
“I think also the importance of doing in our high schools and our colleges youth ministry programs that really welcome and introduce the young men to the possibility of God’s calling them to the priesthood,” he said. “So it really has to be a culture of vocations in the diocese.”
And prayer was most important in this culture. “We have 10 perpetual adoration chapels (in the Diocese of Harrisburg) where people are particularly asked when they make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament to pray for more vocations to the priesthood as well as the consecrated life.”
Bishop Rhoades said, “We also have taken some initiatives to encourage young women to consider God’s call to religious life.” There has been success with vocations to the religious life, “but we still need some work there,” Bishop Rhoades said.
Qualities of a good priest
Bishop Rhoades spoke of the qualities that makes a good priest. “I think you have to start with the very human qualities — personality,” he said. “One of the things Pope John Paul said was our personalities need to be a bridge and not an obstacle to people’s encounter with Christ.”
Also priestly formation has its basis in the basic human virtues, he added. “I think generosity of spirit, kindness, thoughtfulness, integrity, truthfulness, courtesy — all those are so fundamental to the Christian life, but they are fundamental to the priestly life, because without those basic virtues they may become more of an obstacle than a bridge to people’s encounter with Christ.”
“Then you go a step further for a priest, the primary thing is what Pope John Paul wrote was pastoral charity,” Bishop Rhoades added, “that in imitation of the charity of Christ that we see his self-giving love to the point of the cross, that self-sacrificing life.”
He said the strong priestly virtues of self-gift is very much the same for marriage “where a husband gives himself to his wife and to his children, the priest needs to learn that same spirit of selfless, service giving, in this case to his spouse — the church — and to the spiritual children that he begets as a spiritual father.”
Bishop Rhoades added some important aspects to priestly life: fidelity to the promises made in the priesthood; obedience; a healthy life of chaste celibacy where one has the affective maturity to live celibacy faithfully; and a detachment from material things — a certain amount of simplicity of life.
“It really is about conformity to Christ the Good Shepherd in the end, it’s being Christlike,” Bishop Rhoades concluded.
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