Fr. Matthew's 50 Years of Priesthood

 Fr. Matthew Habiger, OSB Celebrating 50 Years of Priesthood

Fr. Matthew Habiger, OSB
Celebrating 50 Years of Priesthood

My 50th anniversary of being a Benedictine Priest is 14 June 18.  It is a good time to reflect upon the meaning of these 50 years of priesthood.

When a man is ordained to the priesthood, he has no idea of what the good Lord has in store for him.  The candidate simply makes himself present to the Lord, and offers himself as an instrument to accomplish the will and the work of God.  The priesthood has the task of relating the values and principles of the Gospel to the world and times we live.  There are always challenges, both positive and negative, to the Faith.  In the 1960s there was the sexual revolution, the Vietnam War, the theological battles over the meaning of the Second Vatican Council (the documents vs. the spirit of Vatican II), the arrival of the Pill and widespread contraception, Roe V. Wade, and the beginnings of radical feminism.  All of these factors helped shape the culture in which the priesthood had to be exercised and expressed during the past 50 years.

These are the rather abstract principles of the priesthood that apply to all priests, whose number throughout the world today is over 400,000.  Now I become more personal and relate this to the priesthood that God has entrusted to me.

Ordination (14 June 1968):

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I was ordained on 14 June 68 with my father, John, and older brother, Benedict, by Archbishop Edward Hunkeler at the Abbey Church in Atchison.  Obviously, this was an unusual event: a father and his two sons being ordained together.  The ways of divine providence are mysterious, but for me, growing up in a strong Catholic family and progressing year by year in the call to religious life and priesthood, all this seemed perfectly normal.  Unusual, yes, but completely normal.  My father’ practical wisdom drawn from real life experience, was a stabilizing influence upon me during the early post Vatican II years.  Pope Paul VI released his encyclical Humanae Vitae on July 25, one month after our ordination.

Fr. John enjoyed four years of priesthood before his death in 1972.  After my father’s death, my brother went through his identity crisis, and came to the conclusion that this was not his calling, or what he had anticipated, and he requested a dispensation from his religious vows and priesthood.  Yes, I can identify with families whose sons or daughters had second thoughts and serious doubts about their vows, and concluded that they could not honor them.  The human person is very complex, but so is God’s grace.

Parish Work in Burlington, IA (1968-72):

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My first assignment was to our largest parish, St. John’s in Burlington, IA.  Fr. Basil Finken OSB was the newly assigned pastor, and Fr. Placidus Kiefer OSB was the carryover assistant pastor.  Over the years many vocations to the Abbey came from that parish.  During those four years I learned what the priesthood means as an assistant pastor for 3 years, and then the acting pastor for 1 year.  In addition to the many parish duties (Masses, homilies, Confession, Marriages, Baptisms, Funerals and visits to the sick) there were many addition challenges.  These included teaching religion at Notre Dame High School and helping the school through a major crisis, coordinating the CCD program of the parish, learning the new role of a parish council, bringing down the parish debt and upgrading weekly collections, becoming a member of Kiwanis, the Ministerial Alliance, and adult education groups.  The life of a young priest is very busy!

Newman Chaplain at the University of Kansas (1972-76):

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My second assignment was to become the Catholic chaplain for the University of Kansas.  These were the Nixon years, Watergate, Roe V. Wade, and the end of the Vietnam War.  Pope Paul VI did not write another encyclical after Humanae Vitae because of all the turmoil and rejection of that encyclical.

The Benedictines held that post in Lawrence, KS, for 19 years, and I was the last of the group.  Those were foundational years, when we had only a house chapel for weekday Mass, and had to use three different locations on the campus for Sunday Masses.  This is a very important post for the Archdiocese, and eventually it invested greater resources in building a Church, and expanded its properties for a student center and housing for priests, sisters, and others associated with campus ministry.

Campus ministry at a state university is to a select, or narrow, clientele: undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff and their families.  This is where future leaders of society and parishes are being formed.  It is imperative that the Church accompany these young people, as they prepare themselves for their future work.   It makes greater demands upon the chaplains and those involved with campus ministry because this is also an intellectual apostolate.  In addition to the regular sacramental services, there are the issues of the day, new developments in science, questions of morality, the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue and the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialog and explaining why the Church teaches what she does.  All these have a way of coming to the Catholic chaplain for explaining how the Faith relates to them.  

Fortunately, there was good cooperation with the other campus ministries, Fr. Vince Krische at Washburn in Topeka, and Fr. George Seiferling at Emporia.  Fr. Brendan Downey OSB was still teaching at the School of Religion when I arrived.  He was elected Abbot on 21 March 73.  These were also the years when the Pierson School of the Humanities was in full bloom on the campus.

Further Studies in Theology:

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I always felt that the four years of pastoral theology leading up to ordination was insufficient preparation for all the challenges facing Church during those years.  As a result I made a concerted effort to deepen my theological understanding.  While in Burlington, I searched for a graduate school to attend during the summer months.  Abbot Thomas Hartman gave his approval with the stipulation that I had to return to the parish each weekend to help with all the Masses, marriages and baptisms.  That narrowed the search down to Webster College at St. Louis and its program for a Master’s in Religious Education.  Fortunately Frontier Airlines had a flight between Burlington and St. Louis with a clergy half-fare.  You have to be young to carry on a schedule like that!  Webster College was going through its secularization stage with Sr. Jacqueline Grennan.  She succeeded in completely secularizing this college formerly run by the Sisters of Loretto.  Most of the faculty during those summer months were in the progressive camp, and many were former sisters and priests.  It was a time for me to experience firsthand the trends and ideological thinking of liberal Catholicism.  When I became a confirmed neo-conservative, my critics could not accuse me of not knowing what the liberal church was thinking.

During the summer months while at KU, I pursued a master’s degree in academic theology at the University of San Francisco.  The intellectual environment of KU, a state secular university, motivated me to seek deeper answers to faith related questions.  At that time, USF was bringing some of the best, and well-known, theologians from all over the world to their summer program.  It was a highly stimulating experience for me: 4 summers and one semester.  It was also a time for me to discover the West Coast, with its cultural contrast to the Midwest.  Graduate studies made all this possible.

With three master’s degrees in theology, I was well equipped to teach theology at Benedictine College when the Atchison Benedictines handed the KU Newnan chaplaincy back to the Archdiocese, and I returned to Atchison in 1976.

Teaching theology and serving as College Chaplain at Benedictine College (1976-80):

This was a time when the after-shocks of the earthquake caused by Vatican II were beginning to become very obvious.  Many priests and religious men and women were questioning their callings, and decided to leave their ministries.  Over the years, SBA lost 35 of its members, many of whom had advanced degrees and were teachers.  The atmosphere was charged with speculation about the future course of the Church and all her various institutions.  Usually the actual documents of the Second Vatican Council were not referred to and quoted; rather, the “spirit of Vatican II,” or what various writers thought it should have said, became the steady fodder of most Catholic periodicals and journals.  The religious orders were updating their statues and customaries.  

Pope Benedict XVI writes that there were two interpretations of Vatican II.  One was disruptive, and demonstrated a lack of continuity with previous ecumenical councils.  For these people, the Church and her institutions were headed in a new, more fulfilling, direction.  The other interpretation was that of continuity with all the former ecumenical councils, but a legitimate development of the faith to respond to the needs of the modern world.  Rupture and discontinuity vs. continuity and development.  

These opposing interpretations were in play at Benedictine College.  College students are quick to reflect the culture around them.  There was a strong skepticism among many students about what the Faith was all about.  The theology department was renamed the “religious studies” department.  The former indicated that the coursework reflected the teachings of the one, true Church.  The latter indicated that Catholicism was simply one among many competing religious worldviews, and that her claim to reflect the mind of God was held suspect.  An example of all this was one of the popular courses offered in the religious studies depart at that time:  Belief and Unbelief.  Since so many students were in disbelief, or incredulity, the department offered a course on what real atheism looked like using such examples as Marxism and Freud.  Most students decided that they didn’t want to go in that direction.  Another much used book was Harvey Cox’s The Secular City.

The new Catechism of the Catholic Church was not published in English until 1982, so there was no convenient synthesis of Church teaching available that demonstrated how the 21st ecumenical council was a natural development of all the previous living Tradition of the Church.  Speculative theological thinking had more appeal than basic orthodox teachings.  Not many teachers in Catholic colleges and high schools were up to the task of integrating the past and present teachings of the Church.  Many lay faculty had little theological preparation, and depended upon the journals and newspapers they were reading, with their various presuppositions, for what they were supposed to think.  All this was in play at BC during those years.  From my two posts in the college as a college chaplain and assistant professor of theology, I came into direct contact with these tensions.

Pope John Paul was elected Pope in October of 1978, and he began the slow process of reasserting what the Second Vatican Council actually taught.  He was a first-hand observer and major player at the Council.  He knew all the other key players and the controversies swirling around the Church.  But many of his efforts were impugned by those who wanted the Church to go in a different direction.   Perhaps he was chosen at the conclave of cardinals for his first-hand knowledge of the Soviet Union and its brutal repression of the Faith.  He succeeded beyond all expectations of cracking the foundation of atheistic communism and bringing down the Soviet Union.  For this he was applauded.  But for his firm and well- reasoned defense of the faith and morals of the Church he was scorned in many circles.  Subsequent history has pronounced him to a saint and great teacher and leader for the last quarter of the 20th century.  But during his lifetime there were many harsh critics, and clergy and religious were among these critics.

Working on a Doctorate in Moral Theology at Catholic University (1980-86):

After teaching theology and serving as a college chaplain for four years, it seemed appropriate to make the plunge and pursue a doctorate in theology.  My personal preferences was systematic theology, but Abbot Brendan Downey insisted that I focus on moral theology, “because that is where all the problems are.”  He was very right in that description of theology, but it took me some time to make the adjustment to doing moral reasoning as a way to help explain why the Church teaches what she does on morality.

I chose Catholic University of America because I was strongly interested in Catholic Social Teaching, or what you could call social morality (vs. private morality), and because of the presence of Dr. William E. May, an outstanding Catholic lay moral theologian.  At that time there were no Catholic universities that offered a doctorate in Catholic Social Teaching.  Located in Washington, D.C., the center of our government, with the well supplied Library of Congress, and CUA’s many contacts with governmental agencies over the years, it made good sense to choose Catholic University.

During those years I experienced theological dissent up close.  I had a front row seat.  CUA was the flagship of Catholic universities in this country.  If a dissenter could teach and publish from this platform, he would have much credibility in the eyes of secular reporters and among many Catholics.  Fr. Charles Curran, the leader of the revolt against Humanae Vitae in 1968, was still teaching and publishing.  Some bishops were still inviting him to give clergy conferences in their dioceses.  For two years I was in residence at the Redemptorist house of studies, where Fr. Francis X. Murphy (the Xavier Rynne who authored the reports on the Vatican Council for the New Yorker magazine) was the rector.  Their vision of the future of the Church was very popular among the university students, and much sought after by the press.  It was also directly in contradiction to the Church’s teaching on the entire sexual ethic and marriage.  The liberal camp was very successful in placing their graduates at teaching positions in Catholic higher education and dioceses.  I was amused to learn that Fr. Curran refused to debate Dr. Bill May on a shared stage at CUA.  But they taught in the same theology department.

It was a time for me to deeply investigate the Church’s teaching on God’s plan for marriage, spousal love and family.  My great interest was in social ethics, or Catholic Social Teaching, but any good society depends completely upon the wellbeing of marriage and family life.  Without these in place, then there would be no solid foundation upon which to build a society.  I was fortunate to study, and meet, some of the Catholic moral theologians who were re-working moral theology according to the expectations of Vatican II.

My priesthood found expression those years by assisting at the National Shrine (now Basilica) on the west side of the campus.  James Cardinal Hickey, who presided over the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and was the Chancellor the CUA, kept the Shrine very orthodox.  However, he was unable to dislodge Fr. Curran from CUA until Cardinal Ratzinger directly intervened to declare that Curran was “both unsuitable and ineligible” for teaching at a Catholic university.  During my last year at CUA, while writing my doctoral dissertation on the topic “Teaching on Private Property: 1891-1981,” I was in residence at the Dominican House of Studies, which I found to be an oasis of sanity for those times.

Living in Washington brings you very close to the inner workings of our government.  Seeing the intricacies of how an advanced democracy worked was to all to my advantage for my work in future years. 

Teaching Moral Theology and Serving as College Chaplain at BC (1986-1990):

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The next four years were a time for teaching, writing articles, and preaching.  I knew firsthand all the arguments used against Humanae Vitae, and where they were seriously flawed and inadequate.  Preaching on a regular basis, and classroom teaching were two major platforms to work from.  But the mood at the college had changed since I left for graduate studies.  All the issues for reform (women’s ordination, radical feminism, acceptance of contraception, cohabitation, the removal of clerical celibacy, and acceptance of the homosexual life style, the New Age movement) were being discussed and popular opinion was moving towards their acceptance.  

I thought that good moral reasoning to demonstrate the validity of the Church’s moral teaching would be convincing to my colleagues.  That was not always so.   The positions of the liberal camp were more acceptable.  I thought that college officials would back my insistence for a “cracked-door policy” in the dorms when men and women were visiting in their rooms.  This precaution was especially needed when in previous years there was a rash of pregnancies on campus.  Sadly, that support was missing.  Eventually I came to the decision that it was pointless for me to continue to be the college chaplain if there was little to no backing from authorities from whom I had a right to expect support.  I resigned as chaplain during the spring semester of 1990.  That year my contract to teach at BC was not renewed.

Several good things counteracted the serious problems for me in 1990.  Mother Angelica of EWTN asked me do a series of 13 half-hour presentations on Catholic Social Teaching.  In effect, that meant writing 13 terms papers, and fortunately now I had more time to do the writing.  In addition, there was a group of young men who were very interested in the priesthood, and I decided that they deserved more of my encouragement and attention.  They were all part of a Catholic charismatic prayer group that gave them spiritual support in a rather unsupporting student body.  I helped them start up a pro-life committee on campus, called Ravens Respect Life (RRL).  This remarkable group of young men, and women, saw what the problems were in Catholic life, and they decided to do what they could to correct them.  Many stories come from this period in the life of the college. 

 I left Atchison in 1990, but delighted in seeing how RRL continued to grow and make its impact upon the student body and faculty over the years.  Dr. John Lang, who succeeded me as the faculty sponsor of RRL, once said that RRL had a greater impact upon the student body than did the Student Government.  Today many of those young men are ordained priests.  One is a bishop, another is our present Abbot, another the former chancellor of a diocese, another became a Dominican theologian and is the Master of 30 young Dominicans preparing for the priesthood, another is a national chaplain for FOCUS, etc., etc.  All of which goes to show that even in the most difficult times, there is much good to accomplish. Perhaps most especially in difficult times. 

Working with Human Life International and 55 Countries (1990-2000):

I found myself in a very strange position in 1990.  I had earned a doctorate in moral theology, but was not wanted to teach at our college.  I was well versed in good theology with considerable pastoral experience, but my superiors did not really know what to do with me, or where to place me.  Thus, I was in the strange position of having to find gainful employment for myself.  Not exactly what I anticipated when I took monastic vows in 1963!

The summer of 1990 was a very rich one for me.  I went to Birmingham, AL, to film the series on “Church and Society,” which was used again and again by EWTN both on satellite television and shortwave radio.  I spent two weeks at the Library of Congress researching an article for the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum.  I gave the keynote address for the annual convention of the Creighton Model of NFP at Omaha.  I decided to give one week of my vacation to Human Life International, then located at Gaithersburg, MD, to explore possibilities.  

Fr. Paul Marx, OSB, of St. John’s Abbey (Collegeville, MN) was encouraging me to come join him in the colossal battle against abortion.  What I found at HLI was amazing: total appreciation for the Church’s teachings on marriage, spousal love and family, secretaries and staff, office equipment, opportunities for writing articles and lecturing, massive correspondence, and connections with pro-life leaders throughout the world.  This was an ideal place to put my background as a moral theologian to work.  Because HLI worked with the whole globe, in effect I was changing my working platform from a small Catholic college to a world stage.   

With the permission of Abbot Owen Purcell OSB I began a 6 month arrangement at HLI and 6 months at Atchison, which soon turned into a fulltime position at HLI.  Then began a series of pro-life speaking tours throughout the world.  The forces promoting abortion, contraception, sterilization and population control were massive and hard at work throughout the world.  Our job was to expose them, and show where their bad arguments went wrong, while explaining the goodness and reasonableness of the Catholic Church’s teachings.  Over the 10 years while at HLI, I helped organize pro-life conferences all over the United States and Canada, and made speaking tours in over 55 countries.  These speaking tours usually involved clergy conferences, addressing seminarians and university students, high schools, and gatherings of laity and medical doctors.  We wanted them to know the life issues, and who was promoting the culture of death. 

 It was heavily an educational apostolate.  We had HLI centers located in key places all over the globe.  By means of our newsletters (HLI Reports and Special Reports, PRI (Population Research Institute) Reports, and many others to selected audiences, we could reach a large reading audience.  We distributed thousands of cassette copies of major talks given at our HLI World Conferences.  Our mailing room sent tons of brochures, books, audio and video cassettes, films and posters to pro-life leaders and workers all over the world.  We had a direct connection with the Vatican through the Pontifical Council for the Family and Cardinal Lopez Trujillo.  

The 1990s were very challenging, but exhausting, years.  By the year 2000 I came to the conclusion that it was time to pass the baton of leadership at HLI on to the next generation, and returned to my monastery at Atchison.  It was comforting to know that more and more people were joining the pro-life movement, and becoming informed about the life issues.  HLI made its impact upon the world, and still continues to do so.  The vitality of the pro-life movement everywhere is remarkable to see.

Promoting God’s Plan for Marriage, Spousal Love and Family (2002-16):

Back at the Abbey in Atchison, it was a time to assess what faith problems needed to be addressed.   I began to learn Spanish for the much needed Hispanic Ministry, promoted retreats at the Abbey, gave occasional lectures at Benedictine College, and provided pastoral ministry for various parishes.  In 2002, Fr. Dan McCaffrey, the founder of NFP Outreach (Natural Family Planning) asked me to come work with him in the battle against contraception and sterilization.  

Both of us understood the strong connection between contraception and abortion.  Abortion was being used as a foolproof backup to failed contraception.  And the contraceptive culture was leading to a cluster of social pathologies: widespread recreational sex, cohabitation, pornography, a lack of commitment in marriage and easy divorce, the postponing and reduction of marriages, and a drop in fertility rates.  Contracepting families are not open to generosity.  And this shows up not only in many small families but also in the decline of candidates to religious life and the priesthood.

With Abbot Barnabas Senecal’s permission I began to work fulltime with NFP Outreach.  This meant traveling to parishes all over the USA, upon request, to give NFP parish weekends.  I used the Abbey as my base, which was conveniently located in the center of the country, with a major airport just 35 miles away.  Now the task was to promote the encyclical Humanae Vitae.  This involved giving clergy conferences, making presentations at pro-life and diocesan conferences, along with the steady demand for giving all the sermons of a weekend at parishes.  

Confronting contraception is a tough assignment.  The Pill has become an accepted part of our culture, and Catholics use it as much as the general public.  Most Catholic doctors prescribe it.  Less than 2% of them refuse to do so.  Our culture has been heavily shaped by such groups as PPFA, NARAL, and SIECUS.  Most sex ed courses in government schools simply promote “safe sex.”  We live in a sex saturated society, which depends heavily upon contraception.  The most difficult part was to convince clergy that they must address these issues from the pulpit, clearly proclaiming God’s plan for spousal love, marriage and family.  This problem continues today.

From 2016 to the present:

Around the year 2016 the demand from dioceses and parishes for the services of NFP Outreach began to dry up.  Thus there was no just reason for me to accept a salary from NFP Outreach.  I am now the “normal” monk, doing what older monks generally do: regular community prayer and activities, and a variety of in house assignments.  At the age of 76, I welcome this change of pace, since with age comes a drop in energy levels and, in my case, a drop in hearing.  

As the Abbey librarian, I select and order all the books for the Abbey library, which, after circulating in the Abbey, eventually end up in the stacks of the college library where we share resources.  This provides me with the opportunity to order, and then read, a wide variety of books that attempt to integrate the Faith into the arts, sciences, history, biography and literature as well as theology and philosophy.  Good books, and journals, have never been so inexpensive.  It is a great time to be an avid reader.

Then the unexpected happened again.  Fr. Louis Kirby OSB came to us, along with four other of his confreres, when his Holy Cross Abbey in Canon City, CO, closed due to too few monks.  There are nine prisons within a ten mile radius of Canon City.  Many of the monks there were involved in prison ministry.  Fr. Louis adapted the Benedictine Oblate program to the needs of prisoners.  He continued this apostolate here at St. Benedict’s Abbey, completely by correspondence.  When he died on 5 Oct 13 the program fell into limbo, with no one to pick it up, since we are so short-handed and over-stretched.  

Then out of the blue two of the Oblates in Colorado wrote to me and asked if there was any way to revive the program, since it had done so much good in the past.  I was reluctant to take on another major project, but promised to help coordinate the program until someone could be appointed to be its Director.  These two Oblates did a huge service to me by providing me with all the necessary forms that are used to introduce the program to new members.  When my NFP Outreach apostolate came to an end, I had more time to devote to the Oblates in Prison.  That program has grown from less than a 100 when Fr. Louis died, to today when there are over 430 in the database.  The program involves a monthly Newsletter (some of the Oblates in Prison help write it), purchasing and sending books of a spiritual or theological nature, and much correspondence.  Usually I receive and answer 30-40 letters a week.  It is all an effort to help men find meaning and purpose in their lives, using Benedictine spirituality as one of their guides.  Prison live can be very harsh and discouraging.  Faith and a strong prayer life help an inmate to develop a good relationship with God.  Then he feels better equipped to meet the challenges of prison life. Then, they in turn, find ways to share their faith with others in the prison community.  I am blessed to have much institutional support from the Abbey and Benedictine College for this apostolate.

On 23-4 March 18 Benedictine College held its 6th annual Symposium for the New Evangelization.  The Theme was: Humanae Vitae – 50 Years Later: a Call for Self-Gift.  For me this was the highlight during this 50th sacerdotal anniversary year, since in many ways that encyclical has defined my priesthood.  In so many ways, these 50 years have been directed to explaining God’s plan for human relationships, marriage and human sexuality.

50 years of priesthood!  Only God knew what all lay ahead when Archbishop Hunkeler placed his consecrating hands on my head back in June 14, 1968.  I highly encourage any young man who feels called to the priesthood, to follow through with that invitation, and confidently entrust himself to the service of God and His people.

Jesus established the priesthood to continue His work throughout the centuries and in all the cultures.  He wants to draw all people closer to God.  He wants them to be in a loving relationship with Him.  He wants them to keep His commandments, which are His best designs for them.  And, finally, He wants to bring them to Heaven to be in communion with the Father, Himself, the Holy Spirit and all the angels and saints.  How could we ever be sufficiently thankful for such a gift as the priesthood?