"Every man, by the nature of his being, is called to generate love."
So the Rev. James A. Wehner tells his seminarians, from his perch as rector of the Josephinum, a pontifical college and seminary in Columbus, Ohio. His is a message necessary to the training of priests to a calling that has been marred by scandal, but also to a society that has been afraid to talk frankly about how essential the unique masculine gift of fatherhood is to our lives, our families and our culture.
A man's nature does not change because he has been called to the priesthood. As the Rev. Wehner explains in his annual inaugural talk to seminarians: "The generative love of spiritual fatherhood is not denied in the priesthood. Rather, it is expressed through celibacy, a desire to teach, to cultivate something in others, and to save souls. It is seen in work with at-risk kids, the elderly in the nursing home, and those in the county jail."
Wehner, who was ordained in his native Pittsburgh in 1995, explains: "As a spiritual father, you see the people as your flock. You want to love them, feed them, teach them." At the Josephinum, Wehner is intent on training his priests to be immersed in the lives of the people they are called to serve.
At the heart of the mission of the Josephinum is the motto "Forming Renaissance priests: spiritual fathers for the new evangelization." A renaissance priest is not on retreat from the world. He is, explains Wehner, "a man of virtue. He is confident, and has right judgment and even temperament. He is a man of his word, a man formed by culture in the best sense. He knows who he is, he has a sense of mission, and he is not afraid to be a man. The renaissance priest inspires a sense of awe, mystery and curiosity. He has his act together, and makes other men think twice about what it means to be a man." He "is not arrogant, disconnected, unmanly or of poor humor. He does not shrink from people. … He is not insecure about himself, and does not hide behind something else that is strong."
With an admonishing humility, Wehner tells his spiritual sons: "Not long ago, when priestly identity was not so clarified, what was projected was a weak, disconnected, angry, aloof man -- maybe even a man insecure in his own sexuality, projecting that which does not reflect a healthy masculinity. The renaissance priest cultivates the best of the human virtues for the service of others, and he does so with good attitude, without selfishness, without cynicism and rancor."
Part of what is key at the Josephinum -- and to its eventual graduates -- is fellowship and accountability. There's a lesson there for laymen, too.
How are we spending our time? What habits occupy our daily routines? What and to whom are we tweeting and why? What are we doing in the down time? Where are we browsing? Would we be ashamed if someone found out?
The world needs people of virtue who strive each day to live according to principle; who expect more of themselves and encourage the same from others, not through sermons but through inspiring example. The world needs men who are not enslaved by low expectations; so much of our culture is an insult to men and fatherhood. The world needs heroes who will sacrifice in witness and service to the world. Grace continues to provide: Enrollment is increasing at the Josephinum, as it is in the North American Pontifical College in Rome.
"The people of God are tired of cheaters and they are tired of liars. The people of God want to hear only the truth," says Wehner, who radiates a paternal -- and fraternal -- holiness, with the same kind of flair for communication New York's archbishop Timothy Dolan recently demonstrated while walking Al Roker and Matt Lauer around St. Peter's Basilica.
Last year, Pope Benedict XVI expressed encouragement and gratitude for true spiritual fathers, for those men who sacrifice for the sake of souls: "Dear friends, be conscious of the great gift that priests are for the Church and for the world; through their ministry, the Lord continues saving men, making Himself present, sanctifying. Know how to thank God, and above all be close to your priests with your prayer and support, especially in difficulties, so that they will be increasingly shepherds according to the heart of God."
Beyond the pain, debates, headlines and late-night jokes, there are well-integrated men who make healthy albeit radical sacrifices, to serve in surrender to a calling greater than any human desire. Spiritual fathers who are truly living for and in Christ are great gifts for us all -- of all faiths and none -- a beacon in a culture restless for a moral renaissance in ways small and great.
In this way, there is a great light on North High Street in Columbus. And, I pray, in a Roman collar near you. In a culture that needs exemplary men, this new renaissance is worth a prayer this month. Thank and encourage a priest this Father's Day. And you can tweet that.