MCNEILLIE: Freedom in the bubble

May 25, 2021

St. Mary's Seminary Chapel. (Photo by James Ramos/Herald)


After reflecting on the Scriptures, the various developments of theology over the centuries, the beautiful depths of liturgical life, and the inspiring lives of the saints, the minds of seminarians often turn to art.

There are the great treasures of the western tradition, to be sure, but sometimes it’s easiest to rest in what we already know and love. For me, that’s been George Strait. During the pandemic, I turned to his music out of simple nostalgia — but it has surprisingly become a source of deeper reflection on the gifts of grace.

In his “Amarillo by Morning,” the King of Country bears a subtle witness to a deep interior sense of freedom. After cataloging his woes — a broken leg and two breakups — he proclaims, “I ain’t got a dime, but what I’ve got is mine/I ain’t rich, but Lord, I’m free.” This poignant sense of freedom is one that bears greatly on the Christian life.

Here at St. Mary’s Seminary, we’ve been blessed to live in “The Bubble” for the past year. Though we haven’t been able to leave, the normal rhythms of seminary life have largely remained the same.

Our days are spent in prayer, study and recreation: the great gifts of seminary life have largely remained intact. Thank God for the beautiful lives we live.

Though we have not suffered like George’s lonesome rodeo man, the virus has severely limited two key components of our formation here.

First have been the important experiences of serving in parishes. Our time with the people is crucial for both our discernment and development as future pastors. We have had to make due, each man finding little ways to do ministry where he can. For myself, the best day of the year was spent giving talks over Zoom to St. Theresa Catholic School in Sugar Land.

Second, we have had few opportunities to take a break from one another, to see our families and friends, and to relax from what can be a rigorous lifestyle. It has been in bearing these two crosses that my brothers and I have come to more fully understand the great freedom the Lord has given us.

True interior freedom comes in spiritual poverty — knowing always that we rely on God. Spiritual poverty is born out of suffering and loss.

In our community, we have had to rely on God in new ways. In responding to our own crosses amidst the pandemic, we have each found ourselves as weak men totally reliant on God’s grace. And that, of course, has led us to prayer. Prayer has been our consolation, our rest and our freedom.

Freedom is not being free from the suffering of the cross. Freedom is realizing that our cross is the Lord’s and letting Him enter our hearts amid that suffering.

When we receive this interior freedom, we’re able to rejoice in the gifts that we have been given. This spiritual poverty helps us see that we are each truly free in God’s grace. †

Father Richard McNeillie is the director of the Office of Vocations.