Saturday, July 23, 2016

Does Your Priest Pray? Bishop Forester on the Great Lacuna

18.  To Monsignor Charles Bouverie, D.D.
St. Vitus’ Mental Home, Epsom,
Friday, January 21st, 1977.

Dear Monsignor,

    I have followed your career with deep admiration:  Vice-rector of the English College; Rector of the Diocesan Orphanage; Parish Priest of Thistleford (a dump I know well, as I was once P. P. of Grumby not twenty miles away); chaplain to the Sisters at Hogsholt; and now assistant chaplain at a lunatic asylum.  Everyone knows why.  There is no more honourable career in the Universal Church.

    I also wish to express my profound admiration for the three publications of yours which I have read.  Your book entitled Four Abbots on Chautard, Marmion, Chapman and Vonier is admirable.  Your two long essays on “The Direct Perception of God” and “The Mechanism of Prayer” are splendid.  You are the man I want.

    I enclose an Ad clerum which I issued a week ago.  You may have seen reports of it in the papers.  Now, it seems to me inevitable that I shall have to re-open the diocesan seminary.  I only have five senior students at the moment but, even now in the first week, I have over thirty applicants of varying ages and backgrounds:  ten ex-seminarians, fifteen new vocations between 17 and 21, eight between 23 and 55.  On paper twelve seem admirable and only three more than doubtful.  I need two things: firstly, expert opinion in interviewing these men; secondly, if a reasonable number of them—say six or more—seem suitable, a Rector for my seminary.  Are you interested?  Incidentally, I have given no appointments for interview before the weekend of January 29/30th, so that you may be present to advise me if you so wish.

    I shall also want to discuss with you the curriculum.  The old system had enormous merits and I am deeply grateful for what I received at my seminary.  Nevertheless it is abundantly clear that the system has FAILED—yes, in capitals.  Every bishop, every priest had been through a seminary course.  Every bishop, every priest came away convinced that he had the answer to every question.  It only required that this be dubbed “triumphalism” and to suggest that questions are meant to be asked, not answered, for every bishop and every priest to be left dumbfounded.  We lacked the techniques to question the questions and still tried to give answers which nobody wanted.  Moreover, our certitudes were closely bound to a given set of symbols.  Change the well-defined Latin term for an undefined Greek one and every bishop and every priest found himself at a loss.  We knew the catechism by heart; mention catechesis and we are no longer sure who made us and why.  We could manage a dogmatic sermon all right but just listen to our homilies!  We were absolutely firm about confession and contrition; all our firmness vanished at the one word metanoia.  We knew exactly what the Mass was; the Eucharist is hazy.  Even the Consecration and the Real Presence have been engulfed in the mist of anamnesis.  All this is patently true, is undeniable.  We had received a solid theological training in our seminaries.  It did not stand the test.  It collapsed overnight without leaving track or trace.   It requires explanation.

    I am not saying that the seminaries were to blame for the collapse.  This would be quite untrue; there are other causes.  What I am saying is that there must have been some lacuna in the system which rendered the whole edifice vulnerable.  That it lay in the seminaries is certain, since they provided the only ground common to every priest and every bishop.  What was it?

    It is quite clear that we all believed in the Trinity; in the Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord; in the Seven Sacraments working ex opere operato; in the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption and so on.  Yes, we all believed in them but apparently in a disembodied sort of way, as abstract propositions not as immediate realities.  An abstract proposition can be more or less true according to the available data; realities cannot be changed because they are the data.  Unless I am talking complete nonsense, the problem thus becomes:  how is it that our seminaries failed to translate the abstract propositions of the Faith into an immediate reality?  Worse still:  how is it that students who arrived with the realities of their catechism soon found them evaporated into abstract propositions?

    I think there is an explanation.  The translation of an abstract proposition into the reality of Faith comes about on the divine side by grace but in the human response by one means only:  prayer.  As far as I know, there was not a seminary in the world which included in its curriculum a course on prayer:  its physics, metaphysics and theology.  Spiffs by spiritual directors and petty devotions are no substitute.  To my mind, the first year at a senior seminary should be devoted almost exclusively to the philosophy, theology and practice of prayer.  Incidentally, when I say “practice” I do not mean that they should be made to pray, because it cannot be done, but that they should be acquainted with how it has been done from the lapidary sentences of the Desert Fathers, through the great mystics, medieval and otherwise, down to your Four Abbots.  Also, I say “almost exclusively” because a little history and general culture would relieve the tension.  That is why I want you.  It is clear from your publications that you have the ideas and ideals which seem to me necessary.  And my opinion of your publications was not belied on the couple of occasions when I had the pleasure of meeting you.

    Incidentally, I have not the slightest doubt but that prayer is the fundamental lacuna in the clergy today.  One only has to look at Vatican II.  There were a couple of thousand bishops, all honorable men, discussing pastoral problems.  The only subject which failed to get a mention was the one that concerned their flock:  prayer.  Why?  Because it never crossed their minds; it is the great lacuna.  Later the New Ordo was produced:  it is a function designed for participation but not for prayer.  One can function it all right, but precisely in the measure that it is functional it is unprayable.  That is the trouble:  for many years now the seminaries having been churning out functionaries, ecclesiastical civil servants, instead of men of prayer, priests of God.

    There are also several purely pedagogic problems which I want to discuss with you.  Do you know that I went through my whole seminary course without having seriously to put pen to paper?  Just end-of-term examinations as a test of memory, that was all.  I consequently never had to to think but merely remember.  And I wonder how many priests have actually read a single work by one of the Fathers or Doctors of the Church?  Now that they no longer say the breviary, their ignorance in that direction must be simply appalling.

    Yes, I want to revive the diocesan seminary.  I want our perennial philosophy and theology to be taught therein.  I also want the lacunae to be filled.

    Please come to see me as soon as you conveniently can.  Please accept the Rectorship as I feel sure that we shall agree on the curriculum.

— Bryan Houghton, Mitre and Crook, 1979, pp. 60–63.