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Cutting to the Spiritual Core

by Dr. Tom NealNovember 07, 20173 Comments

A few years ago, I had the amazing privilege of interviewing Nigerian Francis Cardinal Arinze, Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (whew), while I was serving as a Catholic radio show co-host in Iowa. He was there to give the keynote address at a Catholic conference, and made time, at the fraternal encouragement of Des Moines’ Bishop Richard Pates, to sit down for a nearly hour-long interview.

He is a brilliant and holy man who exudes both conviction and humility. After the interview was over, and my friend Lisa Bourne had taken photos, I asked him if he had a moment for a question.

We stepped off to the side of the room and I asked him, “What advice would you give to me as a catechist and as a theologian?” He replied, without taking even a moment to think, “Are you married?” I replied, “Yes.” Again he queried, “Do you have children?” Again I replied, “Yes.” Then he said:

"Well, you know that your first duty is to be a good husband and a good father. That’s more important than catechist or theologian. So, first you must get your priorities right and be faithful to your first vocation.

Anything else I could say to you about being a theologian or a catechist would be nice, and I gather you work hard at what you do or you wouldn’t have asked for my advice, but if I had one thing to say to you today it would simply be to love your wife and children, help them become saints, and the rest flows from there. Okay?"

I was so unprepared for that reply that I awkwardly said, “Okay. Yes. Good. Thank you, Eminence. Will do.”

I had an equally amazing privilege meeting a 90+ year old Vietnamese gentleman, and his wife, last year. He and his wife had come to visit the seminary and go to Mass. I saw them at Mass in the front pew and noticed how intensely he participated in the Mass. They came to lunch afterwards in the seminary dining room. I sat with them at their table and spent the next 45 minutes speaking with him (his wife smiled but did not seem to speak any English).

Though I struggled to understand everything he said through his thick accent, I was able to discern the main lines of his story. He told me about life growing up in poverty in Vietnam, about their families’ immigration to the U.S., and about their love for the Church and the priesthood. He asked me what I did at the seminary, and when I told him I was Academic Dean, responsible for the intellectual formation of the seminarians, he became very animated and said,

"Oh! What an honor! Oh God has blessed you. Do you know that? Do you see God chose you? To help make priests of Jesus Christ. Make them holy priests. How unworthy! Do you know that? We are all unworthy! But God has chosen you to do this. And do you know what the secret is to doing good work? Being holy. You must be holy.

Do you know how to be holy? Praying! You know what else? Praying! And holding on to Our Lady. And the Rosary. Do you pray the Rosary? You must! Do you think you will make it if you don’t? You won’t! Pray the Rosary, okay? Stay close to Our Lady, okay?

Do you understand what I am saying? Oh, God has blessed you! But you do nothing without God, right? And Our Lady. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing."

Like my conversation with Cardinal Arinze, I felt sucker punched when he was done and said something inane like, “Yes, right! I agree. I will! Thank you!” And I wanted to go to Confession right away. Because of the intensity of the conviction I experienced as he spoke I felt like—this sounds crazy, I am sure—he exposed and saw all my sins and weaknesses.

I thought later, why was I so affected by his words? It was the way he said it, the passion and love in his voice, the way his eyes looked into mine as he leaned across the table, smiling and speaking with such energy. It was also the power of a long life of fidelity, of suffering, of praying for so many years that gave his words power to the heart. It was as if Christ Himself were peering into my soul through him. As the fifteenth century English anchoress Julian of Norwich beautifully puts it, it seemed clear to me that this man and God were one.

After he was done with his monologue he returned to his quiet, reserved self and finished eating. It’s not something I will forget. Later that night when I was praying, I had this thought that at my judgment before Christ this Vietnamese man and his wife would be standing there next to Jesus, smiling and saying, “Well?” 

About the Author

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal presently serves as Academic Dean and Professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans...

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