They Feed Us

In loving gratitude to the devoted members of the Serra Club

Summer 1990

Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord.  Who put Him there in that Tabernacle?  The Priest.  Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life?  The priest.  Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey?  The priest.

–Saint John Vianney–

            In times of severe water shortages, it drives me half crazy to see people watering their lawns or washing their cars.  Even, however, in the most unrelenting drought, there is absolutely nothing wrong with watering tomatoes.  In fact, the tomatoes’ need for water always takes priority over that of the grass and the flowers, all the more so in the driest of summers.  Why?  Grass and flowers do nothing to feed us.  Tomatoes do.

            But a successful tomato garden requires much more than an unfailing supply of water.  The tomato plants themselves need constant attention.  For one thing, the little seedlings must be nurtured under the most favorable conditions and must be set out in the garden only after the danger of frost is long past.

            Then once the plants have begun to grow, they must be supported to prevent the heavy fruit from lying on the ground.  Stakes, string, wire cages — use whatever works, but the support is a sine qua non.

            The proper fertilizer is also essential.  Too much nitrogen will produce lush greenery, but the fruit will be meager.  Tomatoes demand phosphorus.  That’s what helps the blossoms and fruit to set.  A good 5-10-5 fertilizer is what is often recommended.

            Then there’s pruning.  The diligent tomato enthusiast will want to carefully trim away the little sucker shoots, which bear no fruit themselves and do nothing more than waste the vines’ strength.  The task of pruning must be done gently and lovingly.

            Unfortunately, tomato plants do have their enemies.  We all know about the crafty ground hog that takes a single bite out of only the best ripe fruit.  There are also two more common adversaries for which the gardener must be ever vigilant.  The first is blossom end rot.  The second is the notorious tomato hornworm.

            Blossom end rot, I am told, results from inadequate watering.  The condition is very sad indeed and the cause of much frustration to novice gardeners.  The ripe fruit looks perfect in all respects, except for the telltale rotten spot on the bottom.  Blossom end rot is utterly disappointing but, thanks be to God, easily prevented.  All that is required is that the soil be evenly and thoroughly watered on a regular basis.

            What about the tomato hornworm?  This pest gets its name from the large projection protruding from its posterior.  The creature is camouflaged to take on the exact likeness of a curled tomato leaf.  This disguise helps the destructive rascal to escape detection and thereby consume massive amounts of leaves and stems.  Without a doubt, the care of tomatoes calls for sharp eyes on the part of the gardener.

            Here let me briefly summarize what I have said thus far:  When it comes to the allocation of water, tomatoes ought always to be a priority, since they provide us with a unique form of nourishment.  Committed tomato growers are, in fact, worth their weight in gold.  It is their responsibility to support the vines and provide proper fertilization.  It is their task to prune away the suckers and fend off the ground hogs.  Finally, it is their duty to combat blossom end rot and the ravenous tomato hornworm.  The end result, I think, is truly worth the effort.  What is more delicious than a ripe “love apple” fresh from the vine?  What is more pleasing to the palate than sun-dried tomatoes?

           Our English word “seminary” is ultimately derived from Latin seminarium, which may be translated “seed plot” or “nursery garden.”  There is much wisdom concealed in this simple etymology.  I know from my own personal experience that seminarians and priests are very much like plants.  I am also willing to bet that we require at least as much care as do tomato vines!

            In times of scarcity and shortages, the Church must make the fostering of priestly vocations, the formation of seminarians, and the care of priests a number one priority.  Why?  Not because we are more virtuous or more deserving than the rest of the Catholic faithful, but precisely because it is from us that the Church’s supernatural nourishment will come.   We priests are the ones from whom real food comes.  Without priests, there can be no Eucharist!

            Like tomato plants, the amount of loving attention we need is phenomenal.  In our early seminary years, we have to be sheltered from the withering criticism of an overly skeptical and cynical world.  Then, once we have been ordained, our first assignments must be chosen with great care.  Even then we are still vulnerable to the frosty blasts from our pasts.

            And do we ever require support!  There are few things worse than a fallen priest,[1] and It is so very easy to fall.  Loving words from our people, constructive supervision from our superiors, affirmation from our bishops, and above all, prayer from all quarters — these things are absolutely vital.

            Then we need a fertile environment in which to grow, one that will enable us to bear fruit.  I am still not certain what kind of fertilization is best, but too much of any one thing can lead to disaster.  At the very least, priests need regular contact with other priests, for in this one respect we are, as a good bishop once said, very much like bananas: the first one separated from the bunch is bound to get skinned. 

            We also must have time to stand still long enough so that the Lord can prune away some of our imperfections and a whole lot of our attachments to this world.  When the cutting gets drastic, we ask that our pain and our tears be respected.

            And we call upon Saint Michael to guard us from our enemies — the devils who seem to take a special delight in attacking only the best seminarians and priests; the demons who would have us hide our rottenness beneath a facade of sanctity; the horned creatures who camouflage themselves to look like healthy growth yet do nothing but devour what is good.  “Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.  Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.”

            We seminarians and priests are, without a doubt, very similar to tomato plants.  Our demands may seem great at present, but some day we shall provide you with a superabundance of nourishment – if only you support us in every way possible but especially with your prayers.  Let me dare to take Saint Paul’s words to the Corinthians and make them my own:  Your plenty at the present time should supply our need so that our surplus may in turn one day supply your need, with equality as the result.[2]  Please pray for us and commit us in your prayers to the Hearts of Jesus and Mary.  I beg this of you.

            If our tomatoes die from lack of water, we shall most likely not go hungry.  We’ll probably end up eating junk food.  If, however, the priests perish through lack of love, what will God’s people find for nourishment?  All could be lost!

[1] Note the Latin dictum, Corruptio optimi pessimum.  The corruption of the best is the worst.  

[2] See 2 Corinthians 8:14.