Call Me Father!
The Angelus: Father le Roux, you spent years in Protestant regions while at Geneva and then in charge of education before becoming rector of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in 2003. Did your prior experience open your eyes to the needs of the young seminarians who knock on the door in Winona?
Fr. le Roux: I was struck by the fact that the present generation are, for the most part, what I would call orphans with parents—children born into families the parents of which come from families that were adversely affected by the revolution in morals that happened in the fifties and sixties. These parents are of very good will and transmit a great deal to the children, more than they themselves received, but they didn’t receive anything and so cannot give what they did not receive. So the children grow up in an unwholesome environment detrimental to good morals, without anything to counteract it, captivated by technologies that let them escape parental control. Growing up in a very legalistic society, these children are bereft of affection, of the kind of real, virile love that only comes from self-forgetfulness. And so they grow up in the world disarmed and unprovided for against the appeal of the world for love. It may be a squalid, debased love, but it is still love. They lack sufficient arms and answers against it because they haven’t been the object of parental affection.
The Angelus: You speak of the loss of paternity. What do you mean by virile fatherhood?
Fr. le Roux: It’s in contrast with feminine affection. An effeminate man is someone who is looking for self-gratification in the joy of being with another who likes him. So it is a self-seeking through the more or less sticky expression of feelings. Contrariwise, a real father says: The road lies ahead and you can rely on me. The going may get tough, but we’ll make it all the way.
The Angelus: Faced with the loss of the sense of fatherhood, should a priest try to fill in for the father?
Fr. le Roux: A child might think that what’s going on is a natural paternity, when in fact it really involves God’s paternity being communicated to the priest’s heart so that he in turn can bring the child with his own father to God the Father. The problem is in thinking that it is a substitute fatherhood, in which case there is a danger of giving the child something artificial with which to fight against the world’s artifice. So the danger is twofold: first, the child may refuse it because he doesn’t know what fatherhood is; second, he may hold onto it like a drowning man clutching his rescuer, and they both drown.
At first, the child will react like someone drowning. The priest needs to be prudent in giving this fatherly attention and must show at the same time that this fatherliness is not the one the boy is looking for. So the priest has to act towards the child with a reserved warmth. By this I mean that the priest needs to maintain a certain distance so that the child does not mistake the priest for a buddy or get bogged down in feelings. But, after all, the Father has to be there, as St. John Bosco says, so that the child can brace his weakness against the tutelary strength of the priest.
The Angelus: How would you define this priestly paternity?
Fr. le Roux: It’s being translucent. When the weather’s fine and the sun is shining, sunlight passes through the windows and brightens the whole house. The priest’s paternity is a continuation and communication of Jesus Christ in the Church. The priest is a window that, through his ministry and deeds, lets in the love of God to touch souls.
The Angelus: How well do you think Archbishop Lefebvre embodied priestly fatherhood?
Fr. le Roux: Archbishop Lefebvre incarnated the saying of the Count de Chambord in the 19th century: “My person is nothing, my cause is everything.” Whenever I was in his company, Archbishop Lefebvre, often styled the Iron Bishop, was someone who was always attentive to what was going on around him. He was self-forgetful so the grace of his priesthood could shine in all his actions and bring souls to this reflection: “If a man, a bishop, is this forgetful of himself and thinks only of God’s interests, this is really testimony of a higher paternity.” As Christ is the witness of His Father—that’s the whole message of the Gospel—priests are also witnesses of this divine paternity, for they are not there for their own interest but for the interest of God in relation to souls.
The Angelus: What is this interest for a priest like you?
Fr. le Roux: For the rector of a seminary, the interest is to hand on to those who will be tomorrow’s priests the mission of our Lord Jesus Christ: to reveal the Father to souls. This is what our Lord says: “Who sees me sees the Father.” There are surprising statements: “My Father loves me because I always do what is pleasing to him.” That’s what the priest is: someone who places the interests of the Father uppermost. It is more than the interest of souls, it is the interest of the glory of the Father who wants to shine in this soul. This is what makes us love the soul and avoid getting stuck in love of the person; we have the Father’s interest in that soul. The thing is to make him understand that he is loved, divinely, eternally, personally, by God the Father. We are witnesses of this love, for in nature there is a need for witnesses, models, mediators.
The Angelus: Have you perceived any changes in the generations of seminarians since you arrival?
Fr. le Roux: I have seen two generations of seminarians pass through, and I’ve definitely noticed that for the last twelve years, thanks to our schools, there is a change in the products of the District’s schools. The year of humanities is going to have to be revised. They are now coming from schools that are practically minor seminaries, and are better formed intellectually. The work that’s been done in the schools has been from the ground up, and in spite of everything, has already given very satisfying results. Now that the basics have been implemented, it raises the level of what comes after, and when we reach the upper levels, it will be very interesting. But I shall not be there to see it.
The Angelus: I was surprised by this statement of Father Rostand: “When I arrived in the United States, I found people with the same energy, dedication, and fervor as there used to be in France twenty years ago.”
Fr. le Roux: In the States there is a native generosity that is impressive. Now all the work of the priest is to take this raw generosity and refine it and turn it into a virtue. For one risks being disappointed because nature only bears natural fruit. In the seminary, our concern is for this natural germ to blossom. They are ready for sacrifices, but not necessarily for the long haul. There’s individualism and especially the fact that their virtue is not anchored in God. So it is a somewhat variable generosity. We have to tell them: Look, in following the seminary rules, in your duties and daily crosses, take into consideration the interests of your heavenly Father. They have come to understand that they are capable of being free, that is to say, of submitting themselves to the will of God. If they understand that freedom is submission to His will and His love, then it’s won.
The Angelus: What are the ingredients necessary for a priestly vocation?
Fr. le Roux: Ideally, a really Christian home with parents who educate the children in virtue and who give the child a sense of God in a life of genuine prayer—not just reciting prayers, but mental prayer; a home where the child has learned to speak to God and to listen to Him through his parents, his duties, and the particular graces that come from prayer; a home where the child is trained up in humility and purity. Concretely, we are far from this ideal, because what matters is what shows. We are back to this natural generosity that is not rooted in virtue, and so one holds on to what one can, namely formalism. What we are hoping is that the work being done in the District will result in more virtuous homes, and we know that in a few years they will bring forth generous souls grounded in virtue.
The Angelus: What do you expect of the young vocations entrusted to you?
Fr. le Roux: What we currently expect from the young men is what you would call docibilitas, the capacity to let oneself be taught, to receive. It is what I tell them all the time: “What matters is not that you learn, but that you receive. If you are not receptive, reservoirs, you will never learn.” What makes the man is what his parents have passed on to him, what he has assimilated by transmission or tradition, and through this his soul has been sculpted like a vase. Now what he is going to learn will fill the vase, the container. But without a container, the teacher can give whatever he will, but it will pass like water through a perforated tube. It takes a soul formed by what it has received, by parents and school—these are the two components—and then it will receive more from the Church.
What we expect from them when they arrive here, then, is a disposition that says, I come to receive from the Church. Then yes, they are going to learn, and they will be trained as priests. We see it very well in the opposite cases. There are boys that are intellectually brilliant but are not disposed to receive. At best, one can put some varnish on the exterior, but we—it’s not really we, but the Church—do not succeed in penetrating or forming the soul within.
The Angelus: Is this docility a kind of intellectual humility?
Fr. le Roux: That’s it. Our work is for them to leave here saying, We still don’t know everything, we still have a lot to discover. It takes a lot of humility before God, before life, as an old canon at Ecône would say: “Life is smart.” In other words, their ministry will teach them a lot. But if, on the contrary, they show up armored with their proud certitudes then they will harm souls. In fact, they ought to enter and leave saying, “I’m here to learn—to learn everything from the Church, from the spirit of Archbishop Lefebvre’s Society, in order to become a priest of the Church.”
The Angelus: In short, how would you define a vocation?
Fr. le Roux: A certitude, which grows little by little in the soul, that the soul will not be completely happy or fulfilled unless it gives all that it has and is. It is not a sentimental impression, it is a very clear certitude that without this complete gift of self, one will not be happy: “I want to sacrifice myself for God and for the good of souls.” Love and sacrifice are intimately linked. That’s what affection is: to desire another’s good. Supernatural affection is charity, which is the love of God for us. And if He loves someone particularly, He calls particularly, and so He effectively desires a particular good for this soul, and this soul understands that God, through this call, wants him to sacrifice everything because He wants his greater good.
The Angelus: It’s interesting that you say that the call of God comes little by little.
Fr. le Roux: Vocations come in every color. There’s St. Paul, who was literally unhorsed. One meets people who had mapped out their whole career, and on the occasion of a disappointment in love or a retreat or a sermon or the death of a friend, say to themselves, What am I doing here? I’m in the process of losing myself in nothingness, in a flurry of activity.
The Angelus: Don’t priests have a duty to discern vocations?
Fr. le Roux: First of all, priests in their pastoral ministry should take an interest in souls that are being called. In the confessional, he will need understanding to spot souls that may be called by God. And then he will eventually talk about it, not haphazard, but during sermons, asking where does true happiness lie. Later, when the priest sees a soul drawing closer to him, he has to test his ability to live virtuously, whether at home or at the chapel or in the workplace, priory, or school. He has to see the person commit himself, that is to say, have a prayer life, lead a life of fidelity to duty, virtue, the frequenting of the sacraments. Also, if possible, he should take on responsibilities in the chapel, teach catechism. This is important, especially if the young man has just converted. It’s a matter of acquiring a solid Christian life and of letting the vocation peacefully ripen, like good wine.
The Angelus: What is the spiritual director’s role? Should he push or suggest?
Fr. le Roux: If he sees the germs of a vocation, the priest has to carry out a personal effort between himself and God by sacrifices and prayers. At the start, especially do not pull too fast; it’s not by tugging on a plant that you help it grow—instead you uproot it. It is enough to make suggestions, offer occasions of practising virtue. If need be, if the child does not understand, then the priest can ask him, “Joseph, have you ever thought about a vocation?” But avoid going too fast and of being too natural. That’s why I emphasized the need for the priest to begin by prayer and sacrifice for this soul.
We have seen cases in which the boy told us, “I didn’t want to come, but the priest told me I have to go.” At the end of the long process of studying a vocation, the priest can say, “It truly seems to me that God is calling you, but you need to reach a decision yourself.” We aren’t there to direct grace; we are instruments and not machines for cranking out vocations. I think this misconception comes from an overly natural mentality that can translate into clerical domineering.
The Angelus: We have spoken of the role of discernment by the director of conscience. But, ultimately, the last word belongs to the seminary rector in the external forum.
Fr. le Roux: The Church has decided that the call, which is something public, should be subject to the judgment of the seminary rector, who does not have access to the internal forum. The wisdom of the Church makes the vocation an objective call and not subjective, and therefore it will be judged objectively by the Church who calls this candidate to serve totally and without reserve. In reality, everything becomes visible, even if in the internal forum there are purifications to undergo. A true vocation manifests itself in a life of virtue, studiosity, fidelity to the rule. And also by the candidate’s overall development, for the boy who has a vocation is going to bloom at the seminary like a flower.
The Angelus: You regularly send down candidates who came without a vocation. Isn’t the time spent in the seminary harmful to the personality?
Fr. le Roux: What destroys people is the lack of generosity either in giving it one’s all at the start or by making the decision that they have to leave. They come here to try their vocation and the readier they are to sacrifice everything, the quicker they will discover God’s will for them. Sometimes, they don’t want to return into the world, confront reality, live by themselves. Sometimes they are happy here, especially if they never had a happy home. One boy told me: “I thought the biggest sacrifice I would make was coming here. I was wrong; it’s knowing that I have to leave,” since he had found a family.
But the rule of the seminary is such that it will sift out those who do not have a vocation. Seminary life quickly turns into a nightmare without this call that says “Sacrifice yourself; love Me!” And since the purpose of the seminary is not for them, it becomes a shackle. That is not what the good God is expecting of them!
The Angelus: Would you like to offer the readers a last word?
Fr. le Roux: I think it is import to do an issue on vocations and the sacrament of Holy Orders, and to remind people that God calls souls today as much as before, but by an absence of fatherhood, of virtue, and a Catholic framework, they can no longer hear it. We hope that with this issue they may be led to ask themselves, Why not me? Then perhaps the answer will come: Life for me will be meaningless unless I also respond to God’s love for me totally, completely.