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Father Jeffrey Huard Interview: Diocesan Priests Who Opt to Live in Fraternity

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Father Huard's Companions of Christ Looks to the Model of the Apostles

ST. PAUL, Minnesota, DEC. 25, 2003 (Zenit) - Diocesan priests in the Twin Cities don't have to live solitary lives anymore.

Instead, they can choose to be part of a community of brother priests who, like the Apostles, want to respond to Christ's call to sacrificial love in their public and private lives.

The Companions of Christ has four houses in which diocesan priests and seminarians pray, eat and live together while serving nearby parishes and attending classes at St. Paul Seminary.

Father Jeffrey Huard, moderator of the group and director of Campus Ministry at the University of St. Thomas, shared why these men are committed to serving as diocesan priests and supporting each other in fraternal charity.

Q: What is the Companions of Christ? Why and how was it established?

Father Huard: The Companions of Christ is a fraternity of diocesan priests. Canonically speaking, it is what is called a public clerical association. It was begun in 1992, with four seminarians and two pre-seminarians in the diocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

Bishop Robert Carlson, now of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was then an auxiliary bishop in St. Paul, and he sponsored the initiative. We had help from many other sources as well, notably from Father Jean Beyer S.J., a canonist at the Gregorian University in Rome. We have a set of statutes and we observe a rule of life together.

The Companions of Christ can be briefly described under three heads. First, we are intentionally diocesan priests. We have not envisioned a new religious order -- good as that might be. Rather, we want to remain under the authority of our local bishops. We are attempting to fashion a way of priestly life precisely for those in diocesan ministry.

Second, we are attempting to live the evangelical counsels. Even before Vatican II, and more urgently since, the Church has encouraged diocesan priests to embrace explicitly the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. We have tried to do this in a way that is suited to diocesan life.

And third, we live in fraternity. Our households involve at least three priests who pray morning and evening prayer together, take a number of meals together during the week, and share their lives. We also have regular holy hours and retreats for the entire Companions chapter of the diocese.

Q: Why is fraternity important for diocesan priests, who often live alone?

Father Huard: When Jesus first gathered his disciples, he called them out of family life but not into seclusion. He brought them together and formed them into a company of men, a close brotherhood, whose one thought was to be the building of the Kingdom.

This apostolic band is the basis of the diocesan priesthood, in which priests are gathered around their bishop, the successor of the apostles.

Vatican II spoke of this priestly bond as an "intimate sacramental fraternity." Like the marriage bond, it is sealed in a sacrament -- in this case the sharing of Orders -- and is meant to be fruitful in its own way, in bringing the People of God to spiritual life and maturity.

Like marriage, this bond needs specific expression if it is to be real. A married couple who never see each other will have a strange marriage. Priests who have no practical means of sharing their priestly life will have an odd priesthood.

This only makes sense. The heart of every true Christian call is sacrificial love. When Jesus at the Last Supper said that they would know his disciples by how they loved one another, he was speaking specifically to the apostles and to their special fraternal bond. It is difficult to express such love alone.

On a more practical level, living together under a rule can be a great help in maintaining priestly zeal, in growing into spiritual maturity and in fostering the accountability of friendship.

Q: Why did you choose to be a Companion of Christ?

Father Huard: I have been long inspired and convinced of the truth of the Scriptures that say two are better than one and a three-ply cord is not easily broken.

Many proverbs also speak of the strength that comes when brother supports brother, for example, a brother helped is like a strong city. I have also experienced the power of Christ Jesus forming community -- wherever the life of God is, community forms.

My motivation to be a Companion and to help found the institute was driven by the conviction that this is a potent way for me and many others to live a priestly life.

The disciples were together more than for human support -- as important and good as that was, they were together to witness love. The people of God are meant to look at priests and see the love of Christ. Their experience of seeing priests living and working together should draw the response, "See how they love one another."

My conviction is that this priestly witness of community is not only a great help to me in my pursuit of holiness, but also a powerful witness to the faithful.

Q: What is the growth trend for the group? What accounts for that trend?

Father Huard: Our growth has been slow and steady. We are now a dozen priests and four seminarians. Another handful of men are inquiring at the moment. In addition, we have had many men live with us for a period of time as they have discerned their futures -- some to marriage and some to religious life. We have been very happy to be able to help these young men along the road to their vocations.

What might account for this growth at a time when priestly vocations are not abundant? Maybe this: Priesthood is inherently attractive to those who are called to it, who hear the voice of Christ deep within them saying, "Follow me." Such young men are looking for a way forward, a way to respond to that voice, often without quite realizing what they are seeking.

For such priestly calls to come to completion there is needed a living witness of a joyful and bracing priestly life, a life of willing sacrifice, a life with the love of Christ at its heart.

We in the Companions have not, of course, been a perfect witness to such a priestly life. But to the degree that we have genuinely made way for Christ, we have seen young men respond. They respond not to us, but to Christ himself. Embracing the evangelical counsels and living a deep fraternal friendship have something important to do with this. Who would want to give the whole of their life to anything but a high ideal?

It is our conviction that there is no such thing as a crisis of vocations. Christ is always calling. If few are taking up the priestly call, we need to look elsewhere for the problem. It is usually to be found in a crisis of preaching the Gospel and living its truths in such a way that a vocation can be heard and nurtured. Preaching and living the Gospel is of course a task for the whole Church -- families, parishes, renewal movements, everyone.

But a special responsibility lies with priests, whose lives must bear the pattern of the life of Christ, so that Christ himself may be seen and followed by those he is calling into priesthood. In our own small way we are attempting, with God's help, to live such a priestly life together.

Q: Besides their commitments to their parishes and this fraternity, how else do the priests who are members of the Companions of Christ minister to the community?

Father Huard: We are diocesan priests and any part of the ministry of the diocese is a possible place of apostolic ministry for us. We count nothing out, but we have a special interest in certain aspects of diocesan life.

These include: evangelization, especially of the young, which includes encouraging vocations to the priesthood and religious life; helping to foster the growth of new movements within the Church; teaching and catechetical work; and serving the poor and those in need.

We want especially to take thought for the future. What are the specific demands of our time? How can we help prepare the next generation to take up the mantle of leadership that will fall to them? What can we do to penetrate the culture around us with the saving truths of Christ and lead those who do not yet know him to find the pearl of great price?

The Lord has done so much for us. We hope to give something back to him, and we trust that he will take our offering, small as it is, and make something worthy of his Kingdom.


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