Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was one of my heroes in minor and major seminary (1976-1988). His epic Gulag Archipelago mirrored the conditions in many seminaries across the country at that time. The eerie parallel was obvious to anyone who had ears to hear or eyes to see. The Soviet Union had an elaborate system to identify, discredit, disgrace and isolate political dissenters. Anyone who dared defy the Communist Party was considered a traitor regardless of their patriotism toward Mother Russia. Communism was the only valid means of showing one's love for country and disloyalty to the party was seen as a threat to national security.
Likewise, anyone who did not embrace theological dissent (ala Charlie Curran, Richard McBrien, Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, et al), who did not engage in illicit liturgical innovation or who did not publicly disdain Cardinal Ratzinger was considered a 'problem'
Solzhenitsyn described how psychiatrists were on the Communist party payroll so they could crank out predetermined evaluations. Anyone not 100% loyal to the party could easily be diagnosed as having psychopathic anomalies which required isolation and extensive psychotherapy. Political dissenters and religious leaders who dared expose the nakedness of the state would be labeled as mentally incompetent. Ironically, anyone who dared defend the Magisterium and/or the Roman Pontiff were similarly diagnosed as 'rigid', the infamous code word liberals use to disavow their 'right-wing, conservative traditionalist' colleagues and classmates.
He told how the enemy used informants to spy on the prisoners in the Gulag. Words were twisted and taken out of context so that an ironclad case could be brought against the troublemakers. We, too, experienced certain seminarians who were faculty favorites and who listened at closed doors and literally spied on their contemporaries just to make reports to their dark lords and masters in formation. Since most bishops would not see it as negative that a seminarian had healthy Marian devotion, the double-speak technique was used so that a poor unsuspecting candidate for Holy Orders would have a notation in his evaluation saying: POSSESSES POSSIBLE SIGNS OF OEDIPUS COMPLEX. If you were known to oppose women's ordination, your file listed you as a potential MISOGYNIST. If you were loyal and obedient to the Pope, you had a distorted perspective of authority which expresses itself in domineering PATRIARCHIALISM.
We were not exiled to Siberia but orthodox papist seminarians were socially exiled and distrusted. Faculty, peer and psychological evaluations were the weapons used to frighten, intimidate and coerce 'dissidents' to stop quoting Denziger's Enchiridion Symbolorum or Aquinas' Summa Theologica. These were the pre-Catechism days, so only the SPIRIT OF VATICAN II could be invoked, never the actual LETTER as found in the authentic documents of the Council. Theologians and liturgists who pooh-poohed anything prior to 1965 claimed an equal dual Magisterium to the Pope and Bishops, namely, themselves. Situation ethics, probabilisim, consequentialism, etc., were party lines you never dare question just as in the former USSR it was forbidden to question the superiority of communism over capitalism. Christology from BELOW was national policy. Espousing dangerous ideas like the Divine Personhood of Christ or the inerrancy of Scripture or papal infallibility could get your chances of being ordained as slim as Solzhenitsyn's chances of being named Secretary General of the Soviet Union.
Reading Gulag Archipelago opened my eyes to the tactics and strategies used by dissenters to either brainwash orthodox vocations or to prevent them from ever getting ordained. The truth was that some of us were considered 'too Catholic' but our files shown to the bishop and diocese said things like: rigid, argumentative, uncooperative, narrow-minded, arch-conservative, etc. Just as Colonel Hogan and his heroes found a sympathetic Sergeant Shultz to help them, we, too, found some good guys on the faculty we could trust despite their colleagues attempts to be like Major Hochstetter of the SS.
The aftermath of the clergy sex scandal, however, bodes poorly for seminarians. In the old days, if you were expelled for being 'too rigid' (meaning, you were orthodox and probably a bit traditional), you could theoretically find a sympathetic bishop and diocese to ordain you and where you would serve Holy Mother Church for your entire priesthood. Now, in the alleged premise of weeding out potential pedophiles, any seminarian who gets kicked out of seminary and/or diocese has an almost impossible chance of finding refuge. The real perverts know how to play hide and go seek, but the innocent vocation seeking to remain orthodox in a mediocre to liberal seminary might get thrown out with the rest of the trash. Collateral damage does not have to occur. Some brave bishops and seminary rectors can and have been saving potential solid candidates for the diaconate and priesthood regardless of their past track record in notoriously heterodox places. Some seminaries, like Mount Saint Mary's in Emmitsburg, MD, and others, have surpassed themselves in previous and current high caliber education, formation and faculty.
My seminary career spanned the twilight of Pope Paul VI and the vim and vigor years of Pope John Paul II. My priesthood has experienced the heavy cross of his final years and now my time as pastor has entered the era of Pope Benedict XVI. We have an excellent bishop and a terrific vocation director in our diocese of Harrisburg, PA. If this combination PLUS the access to orthodox and spiritual powerhouses that every seminary should be, there would be NO vocation crisis whatsoever and the people in the parish would be in good hands once these pious men got ordained.
Father Robert J. Levis, PhD, celebrates his 60th Jubilee of Ordination to the Priesthoodand is in good health
GOD GRANT HIM MANY YEARS GOD GRANT HIM MANY YEARS GOD GRANT HIM MANY HAPPY YEARS
Father Bob Levis celebrated Mass of the Extraordinary form of the Roman Rite on Saturday, August 2nd, at St. Ann Church, Erie, PA. A packed church came to offer thanks to God for six decades of priestly service (and many more to follow) given by this unsung American hero. The former Director of the Pontifical Center for Catechetical Studies is also professor emeritus at Gannon University and president emeritus of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy. He was one of the founding fathers of the same CCC and hosted several television and radio series on EWTN. Father Levis is best known and beloved, however, for his consistent, staunch orthodox preaching and teaching and for his indefatigable defense of the Magisterium and the Roman Pontiff amidst a culture and climate of dissent, apathy, scandal, irreverence, infidelity, et al.
I first met my mentor while in minor seminary. Before the Catechism (1992) existed, Father Levis had his graduate students do linear critiques on the various catechetical textbooks being used in parochial school and CCD programs across the USA. Using the General Catechetical Directory and the National Catechetical Directory as a litmus test, they demonstrated the horrible deficiencies in most religion books at that time. Dogmas such as Original Sin, Real Presence, Sacramental Grace, Immaculate Conception, Papal Infallibility, etc., were conspicuously absent from some or all grade levels. Children were not taught all seven sacraments or that Jesus Christ was one Divine Person with two natures, human and divine. Almost everything their parents and grandparents had been taught at the same age level by the infamous Baltimore Catechism were now deemed 'too complicated', 'too technical', and of course, 'too traditional'. Memorization was seen as draconian since experiential formation was seen as superior to catechetical formation. Ironically, those same kiddies were being asked to memorize elements from the Periodic Table, States and their capitals, and all the Presidents in order. Learning the Ten Commandments in order, on the other hand, was seen as being 'pre-Vatican II'
Many of my generation remember when we went from Baltimore Catechism content to butterflies, clouds and balloons. While my parents learned O Salutaris and Tantum Ergo, I had to learn the insipid Kumbaya. I received my First Holy Communion on the tongue from the altar rail. By the time I graduated from eighth grade, however, the second graders were receiving in the hand and while standing. Deo Gratias, I met Father Levis who introduced me to the National and General Catechetical Directories and to Denziger's Enchiridion Symbolorum. I had clandestinely studied the 1917 Code of Canon Law on my own while in minor seminary and remember a professor once saying the next edition will be radically different. I graduated from college seminary the same year the 1983 Code was promulgated and eagerly awaited the upcoming 1992 Catechism. Father Levis got a copy of the French edition and was asked to give comments to help the American bishops at their next national conference meeting. While vindicated by both golden treasures of JP2, no one recognized that orthodox priests like Levis had remained faithful all along and never deviated one iota from the deposit of faith. The same could not be said of many of his contemporaries who dissented from Humanae Vitae, who advocated women's ordination, who embraced every liturgical innovation and abuse while disdaining every legitimate rubric.
When my vocation was being tested (on numerous occasions), it was Father Levis who preserved and saved me. I would not be a priest today were it not for his example, support, advice, prayers and friendship. It took me three seminaries and three dioceses to finally get ordained a priest in 1988 but had it not been for the tireless role model Father Bob exemplified, I would probably be doing talk radio today and nothing else.
Though he has never received any ecclesiastical honors or offices, he has always been a good, holy and devout priest. His orthodoxy is only outdone by his compassionate, priestly heart. He alone would visit my little brother Michael (who was wheelchair bound from Muscular Dystrophy) once a month to bring him Holy Communion and hear his confession. Fr. Levis drove through blizzards and snowstorms to anoint people their own pastors neglected. He always has time for divine mercy. The only time you would ever find him not wearing his Roman Collar was when he was on his sailboat, the Scrimshaw. A twenty-six footer, he would sail Lake Erie but usually take a small crew of potential seminarians or some uncommitted agnostics or a fallen away Catholic or two. While in the middle of a great lake, he would hear confessions, teach the faith and save souls as a true FISHER OF MEN. I was his worst first-mate since I could not swim and committed a mortal sin of boating: one time I had one foot on the boat and one foot on the dock and two began to separate. "Fall in" he said "and I'll fish you out." "I CAN'T SWIM!!!" He stood there incredulous and replied, "well, I'll bless you as you go under and preach a good sermon at your funeral Mass."
All kidding aside, having Father Levis at my ordination and vesting me and then at my First Mass the following day, was a great honor and joy for me. He asked me to preach at his 50th anniversary, which was the same year as my 10th. Imagine, a ten year ordained priest preaching at Golden Jubilarian! What an honor. I was asked again this year to preach at his 60th as I just celebrated my 20th. I expect my mentor to preach my Silver anniversary and seeing what good shape he is, had better prepare another sermon for his Diamond Jubilee fifteen years from now. In the meantime, I ask all of you to pray for Father Levis and to thank God He blessed the Church with such heroes. Vilified, shunned, ignored, persecuted, ridiculed, ostracized, maligned, misquoted, misunderstood, harassed and harangued; nothing could stop this priest from being the Alter Christus he was ordained to be so he could act in persona Christi to teach, to sanctify and to lead. I have heard many attack his character, his reputation and his honor yet I have only witnessed solid orthodoxy, manly piety and a huge, generous priestly heart. When my mother had to bury her second and third child and then her beloved husband of 39 years, only Father Levis and Mother Angelica could console her with their solacing words of wisdom. If I could be at least 1/10th the man and the priest Father Robert Levis IS and HAS BEEN for over 60 years, I would be grateful. I could never follow in his footsteps but I will do my best to emulate his example and his priestly zeal.