The seminary is an interesting community. There are not many places where 225 celibate men live, work, and play together in preparation to become Roman Catholic priests. It is easy to forget that there is a humongous world outside of the seminary and to see the little daily hardships here as the end of the world. In these moments, it is easier to give oneself to cynicism and negativity instead of taking the time to search for the good in situations and (most importantly) in your brothers, and offer an encouraging word or affirmation.
On October 21, our new rector Father John Kartje addressed the seminarians and faculty on the topic of encouragement. Referencing the words of St. Paul to the small Christian community at Thessalonica, Father Kartje set forth an important aspect of his vision as rector: “Encourage one another and build each other up!” (1 Thess. 5:11) At the heart of any program of priestly formation must be a healthy culture of encouragement and affirmation. Father John Kartje explained that these actions of affirmation are not “empty flattery or praise, but rather a recognition of each man’s gifts and strengths and a challenge to build upon that foundation by honestly addressing where and how God is inviting him to grow in his identity as a beloved son of God and a spiritual father.”
Affirmation and encouragement are vital because every person needs his or her heart to be confirmed and called on. To “encourage” literally means “to get into the heart.” It is a powerful thing to live in the midst of men who know me and love me as I am now, but who also call me on to be better, to become more fully myself in the image and likeness of God. The love of the Father is a love that accepts and affirms, and is coupled with a mercy that challenges the recipient to let go of his cynicism and mediocrity. In an authentic culture of encouragement, this love is present in the community at large and in individual hearts of the men who become brothers and friends.
The overall culture of a place is deeply affected by the dominant presence of either encouragement or cynicism. Both of these phenomena have the power to change hearts and shape attitudes, and when hearts are changed, so is the culture. Culture isn’t just a bunch of people following some common set of rules. Culture is ingrained in us and refers to the way we follow the rules and way of life that exist above, below, in, and around us.
The only way to shift a culture away from negativity and toward encouragement is to change the hearts of those around me; the only way to change the hearts of those around me is to get right out there, affirm the goodness already present, and encourage others to become more perfectly aligned to the heart of Christ. Father Kartje exhorted us to encourage and affirm one another so that we can get into the hearts of our brothers here and really come to know the other men with whom we live. In this way, each man will play a role in the transformation not only of his brothers, but the transformation of the entire community.
Affirmation and encouragement are choices, and we must choose to both give and receive them. In all walks of life, most assuredly here at Mundelein, we occasionally come across those who do not accept affirmation, either because they feel above it and thus don’t need it or they feel below it and don’t deserve it; both of which are deeply problematic. The same goes for men who never offer affirmation or encouragement to others. Both situations require one to look at himself and his own self-image and to take swift and steady action to root out problems of inadequacy, self-inflation, and everywhere in between.
Encouragement serves as a way of prodding the heart and, little by little, breaking down walls of cynicism and negativity in our own hearts and in the hearts of our brothers, bringing peace, joy, and true self-acceptance and acceptance of others to any community. In the spirit of encouragement, of affirmation, and of building one another up it is absolutely vital to give those around us the benefit of the doubt in all things. There is the temptation to forget that my brothers are still human beings with faults and shortcomings, but the good is always there. Always search for the good, even if it looks like that may mean an adventure through the rocky terrain of someone’s inner life.
In the Pauline spirit, I encourage you (pun intended) to seek the good of your brothers and sisters, wherever it is you live, work, and play. Be the presence of Christ to them, affirm their good qualities, and lend them a helping hand out of the all too comfortable (and all too common) proverbial La-Z-Boy of Mediocrity, and helping them get back on the narrow way, through the narrow gate, and into the land of rest.