A Canadian cardinal has a provocative message for priests, bishops, and seminarians struggling to attain holiness: “You must become fire.”

“If the flame entrusted to us at Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination flickers and dies, or is abruptly extinguished, and the darkness of evil envelops the priest or bishop, then havoc is wrought upon the most vulnerable, and the splendor of the Holy Priesthood is sullied,” Cardinal Thomas Collins said Sept. 18.

The Archbishop of Toronto delivered the keynote address at the 55th Annual National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors, which took place Sept. 17-21 in Scottsdale, Arizona. The theme of fire, in many forms, was integral to his talk.

“If we who are bishops and priests do not become fire, and if those preparing for the priesthood do not, but instead become trapped in the dark and cold embrace of the world, the flesh, and the devil, then we are bound for destruction...and we fail those entrusted to our pastoral care,” Cardinal Collins said.

Cardinal Collins proposed four facets of the scriptural theme of fire and applied them to the priestly life and the ministry of guiding men to the priesthood.

First, the Fire of Sacrificial Love. In the same way that a sacrificial offering is totally consumed by fire, so too should a priest be consumed by his mission, giving his life fully to Christ and his people, and not merely giving his “leftovers.”

“When the sacrificial fire goes out in a priest or bishop, then he begins to put first his own wants – not his needs, but his wants. He wants control, or adulation, or a comfortable life, or worldly success, or popularity, or satisfaction of his lusts. Outwardly going through the motions of priestly or episcopal service, and saying all the right things, his actual conviction is that Christ must decrease, but I must increase.”

“If priests or bishops lead self-indulgent lives, then we should not be surprised if shocking instances of abuse occur. Self-indulgence is the culture in which both sexual and financial corruption flourish,” Cardinal Collins said.

Rather than think himself a “narcissistic star” around whom the parish revolves, a priest should engage in selfless ministry, always hoping at the end of his life to hear the Lord’s words: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Cardinal Collins recommended that vocation directors “watch out for signs of self-indulgence and narcissim” in seminarians, and for “positive signs of humble service, concern for others, and unassuming hard work.”

He said the process of discernment and formation to cultivate this attitude takes many years, and the process ought not be “sped up.”

“Because it takes time for signs both positive and negative to become evident, it is good to have a lengthy period of discernment and formation, to allow hidden problems to surface before ordination …  in my own diocese and seminary I have lengthened the process: more time before entry into the formation community: a year or two in the associates program, four years of College Seminary for some, plus a propaedeutic year, and four years of theology, and a parish internship too.”

Collins’ second facet, Purification by Fire, is a frequent theme in both the Old and New Testaments. Cardinal Collins tied this theme back to the various ongoing sexual abuse scandals in the Church, and emphasized that the revelation of hidden evils is a “great and life-giving purification in the Church.”

“Disastrously, a toxic sentimentality, in which both the call to repentance and the vision of judgment are obscured, has entered into the Church, and never more so than in the few decades following Vatican II, from the seventies to the mid-nineties,” the cardinal reflected.

“There was a blurring of the clear lines of morality, and the creation of a distorted and highly subjective concept of conscience. It is no coincidence at all that this was the very period, we now clearly realize, in which most of the devastating incidents of priestly and episcopal abuse that are now in the news took place.”

He said that policies to deal with abuse are “surely necessary,” but added, “we surely do not need a policy to stop us from engaging in self-indulgent evil that leads to the Lake of Fire. All Christians, but especially bishops and priests, need to listen to and act on these simple words of Jesus: Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near at hand.”

“It is also true that when the moral and spiritual demands of Christianity, or of the priesthood, become no more than an ideal, much to be praised in honeyed words, but with no practical relevance, and held to be impossible to actually live, then individually and as a Church we have become gnostics,” Cardinal Collins stated.

“But neither Christianity nor the priesthood is an abstract ideal; God does not play with us, holding out to us an ideal that it is impossible for us to live. By God's grace, and only by God's grace, every single one of us can actually become a saint. Vatican II spoke of the universal call to holiness, not the universal call to mediocrity. With a vision of the purifying refiner's fire to keep us honest, we are challenged every day to be happy, healthy, holy priests. Nothing less than that. That is the reality of the priesthood.”

Collins emphasized the need for repentance, and suggested that priests recite quietly  the “Jesus Prayer”  during the elevation of the Host and Chalice at Mass, as well as frequently making use of the sacrament of confession.

“If we are to serve the Lord, and to invite others to do so, we must experience constant purification, and live in a spirit of repentance. Let the weeds and chaff within our hearts be thrown into the fire,” he said.

Third, the fire of Pentecostal Zeal is a boldness granted to the apostles that inspired them to be “on fire” for the Gospel, which Collins said all disciples of Christ should be.

This zeal is different, Collins said, from how “lively” or “quiet” a seminarian or priest’s personality might be, but rather, deep within, “profoundly committed to the life of holiness, that the fire will burn steadily and quietly throughout their priestly life.”

“There are two times when a priest or bishop is horizontal in Church: face down at his ordination and face up at his funeral,” Collins said. “In every moment between those two points, he must be on fire with sacrificial love and priestly zeal.”

Finally, the fire of “Majesty and Mystery” is the spirit of the Burning Bush found in the Book of Exodus; a captivating and personal call that comes when a person experiences the presence of God, and ultimately discerns their “glorious” vocation.

“Priests are not branch managers, and bishops are not CEOs,” Collins warned. “Woe to those who think in those terms, or who think of a priestly or episcopal career. We are unworthy servants and messengers of the living God.”

The priesthood is a tremendous privilege that most be treated with reverence, he said, and reminded the audience that the priesthood has always been and always will be “entrusted to frail and sinful men.”

He noted that “the priesthood, not the priest … must be treated with reverence.”

“Clericalism is not too high an estimation of the priesthood, but too low an estimation: it is using the holy priesthood to advance one's personal desires,” the cardinal said. “If bishops or priests use their sacred office to dominate others, to take advantage of people's quite appropriate reverence for the priestly office, or to manipulate that reverence to satisfy the cleric's self-indulgent desires, then that is not simply evil; it is sacrilegious evil.  

“Profound awareness of the majesty of the Lord who calls us must penetrate to the depths of our souls,” Cardinal Collins said. “If it does not, then priesthood and episcopate can become worldly, and can be corrupted.”