Written by Father Louis Cunningham, Archdiocese of Seattle, Class of 2018
It was an odd day on Mundelein’s campus, and it wasn’t just the humidity. All of us had just taken our graduation photos with Cardinal Blase Cupich, and we were all waiting to file into the auditorium. We didn’t really know why we were there, and it definitely showed in our behavior. Sure, we all were glad to be done with school — some more than others — but honestly none of us saw graduation as the fulfillment of our education and formation. Ordination was.
So, as we piled into the auditorium, I wasn’t particularly excited to sit through a couple of long speeches. Could we all just get to the celebratory dinner already? But I think we all knew that when a giant of the seminary takes the stand, we should all at least try to listen. That’s how I felt when Father Larry Hennessey came to the microphone. And the line that he repeated multiple times during his speech was “good theology is always pastoral.” Good theology is always pastoral. What did that mean?
As I have begun my life as a priest, these words have resonated in my mind and have been confirmed in so many encounters. Recently, I received a set of questions from our Confirmation group that they asked anonymously. Some of my favorites: “Why are there so many Sacraments? How did the original idea of Christianity turn to Catholicism? Why does Father kiss the altar? How good do you have to be to go to heaven? Will God take anyone? Why did Jesus make me ugly and stupid?” That last question was my favorite. Because they have no idea that I am going to answer that question for them, too! Good theology is always pastoral. What I have found is that people are so hungry for the faith to make total and comprehensive sense. How does Jesus want to enter into this moment? How is it more concrete than a flippant nicety about God loving me? How? Why? What does it mean that Christ through the Catholic faith desires to take in and to sanctify every aspect of my life? The questions that Christ’s faithful have are good, thorough and worthy of good, thorough and comprehensive answers. And now as a priest, every time I read the sermons of Augustine or Bernard or Gregory, I hear the questions of the people, demanding their pastors to help them. Good theology is always pastoral.
“The questions that Christ’s faithful have are good, thorough and worthy of good, thorough and comprehensive answers. And now as a priest, every time I read the sermons of Augustine or Bernard or Gregory, I hear the questions of the people, demanding their pastors to help them. Good theology is always pastoral.”
Another kid asked, “Father, do we have to know all of this history and stuff?” And this is from one of the more engaged students! My answer was, yes! And then I explained the Creed — how “begotten, not made” wasn’t created by a committee somewhere to confuse us and “consubstantial” wasn’t just a long word meant to trip us up but that it means something. Good theology is always pastoral. These words have animated me to help people encounter: to see that the great tapestry of the faith has meaning, and each part has its “golden thread” bound up by the Incarnation — the great love story of God for His People that He gathers to Himself in the Church.
One of my favorite, and demanding, things that I do is preaching. What a great adventure, to ask the same questions Christ’s faithful are asking and trying to provide something helpful! I feel so indebted to Father Dan Siwek and Father Bob Schoenstene in showing me a wonderful way to engage the text — and to engage the person! What does the text actually mean? What can I use of myself to get this across better? More accurately? More uniquely my own?
When we had Bishop Robert Barron for “Doctrine of God with Bob,” in seminary he would say to us, “OK, soul doctors, what do you do?” At first, that analogy was striking to me, but as I have gone to do anointings, I sometimes joke with people that we must have more schooling than doctors because they call us when they don’t know what to do. In reality, I have found Barron’s encouragement from that class to be extremely helpful, because it helped to open my eyes to all of the questions — the good, deep, insightful questions that people have that has revealed to me how much my priestly life is not about making people “feel good,” but to help them truly encounter the depth and breadth and treasures of the mystery of Christ. I have found that people are comforted when they know that a priest knows that he is a sinner and can also make the faith come alive in all of its splendor.
This article originally ran in the Winter-Spring 2020 issue of the seminarian-produced BRIDGE magazine. The full magazine can be viewed here.
Photos by Katie Kolbrick Photography.