The good shepherd – Fr. Kentenich’s fatherly priesthood
In a time when priesthood had so many different characteristics and experienced the deepest crises, Fr. Kentenich lived and promoted an understanding of priesthood marked by deeply fatherly characteristics. This was the experience of thousands of people who knew him, dealt with him and received the gifts of his priestly actions.
Father showed the boys at the Pallotine seminary the first of these characteristics when he became their spiritual director in 1912. During his first meeting with the group, which was particularly rebellious, he told them something which was surprising for at least two reasons: firstly, because what he told the boys was unusually personal and secondly, because it places his emotional warmth at their disposal. He told them: I am “firmly decided to carry out my duties to each and every one of you in the most perfect way. For this, I place myself entirely at your disposal with everything that I am and have, with my knowledge and my ignorance, with my strength and my powerlessness, but above all, my heart belongs to you.”
Service to others begins with the heart
We can see how from the beginning of this priestly ministry, Fr. Kentenich understood that his service to others began with the heart. He believed that it is not possible to educate someone or help them educate themselves without love. This is a service that does not start with intelligence and good will but it is an emotional commitment beginning with the heart. It was this deep conviction that would later lead him to formulate his definition as an educator: “Education is a service requiring self-denial, a lack of self-interest as well as a passion for life and the originality of the person being educated.” There is no education without love because love is the only thing that can produce openness in others and opens them towards life’s values. He clearly took these words of Jesus’ very seriously: “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also.”
The Good Shepherd knows his sheep and his sheep know him
Fr. Kentenich adopted this attitude in this own priestly life by taking up the biblical image of the Good Shepherd. He would repeat Jesus’ words many times throughout his life: “The Good Shepherd knows his sheep and his sheep know him.” A personal and unique interaction with each person is necessary if the priest is to act as a father and an educator. This is why Fr. Kentenich again quotes from John’s Gospel (ch. 10): “The Good Shepherd calls his own sheep by name…and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger…” This is how Father understood his priestly relationship with those who confided in him: a mutual knowing of the other. Nobody opens their heart to another if they feel uncomfortable, that they are not respected, that they are not loved. This is why the shepherd priest must call each of them by name, so as to acknowledge the uniqueness of each person and serve the real-life situations the person brings when they come in search of advice and guidance. But it is not only the shepherd who knows his sheep. The sheep must also know the shepherd. If the shepherd appears inaccessible, they will not know him and the relationship of trust and welcome that pours forth from the heart and lips of the educator, in this case, the fatherly priest, would be non-existent.
We can therefore identify three priestly characteristics in his relationship with those who trust him and entrust themselves to him: to concern himself with his own as does the Good Shepherd; to care for his own as does the Good Shepherd; cultivate the Good Shepherd’s loyalty for his own. If we observe Fr. Kentenich’s life, we can see how he lived these three priestly aspects intensively. We see this in the way he prayed to the Blessed Virgin while he was in the concentration camp, never forgetting his own: “Look on my own, on those you have entrusted to me. When I see them engaged in battle alone, trusting only in you, then I can continue on my way.”
Manifesting God’s merciful love
When I met with Father for the last time, several days before his death, he walked out of the Sisters’ training house on Mount Schoenstatt and headed towards the garden. I was with a group of young people and when we saw him, we ran towards him. He waited for us with joy and peace even though we noticed that he was not well. After listening to us for a few minutes, he told us with great sensitivity: “Now I must leave you because I am going to pray the rosary for the conversion of sinners.” How did these words, uttered in August 1968 touch me? They reminded me of other things he said 56 years earlier when he explained to the seminarians why it had been difficult for him to accept the task of being their spiritual director. He wanted to “to dedicate all my time and efforts to the laity, especially the conversion of old and hardened sinners. I wanted to go after the so-called “paschal lambs” and my greatest joy as a priest was when one of them came burdened by the weight of an old yoke…that the confessional even creaked.”
What touched my heart? The confirmation of how he kept the desire of being a manifestation of God’s merciful love from the time of his ordination to the very end of his life. This is the God who announced and proposed as an image of and for the “newest of times,” the mission of “the Church on new shores.” When we renew the covenant of love on 18 July, we can continue telling our Father and Founder: “Father, our heart in your heart, our thinking in your thinking, our hand in your hand, your mission, our mission.”
Fr. Alberto Eronti, Argentina