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James Francis Stafford was ordained a priest in 1957. Since then he has led one of the most varied careers of any American in the Catholic Church.

Cardinal James Stafford at Catholic University in 2008. Credit: Ryan J. Reilly (CC-BY-2.0)

Serving first as an assistant priest in a parish in his native Baltimore, he was then sent to the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, where he trained as a social worker. When he finished his studies, he returned to Baltimore, serving as first assistant director and then director of the Archdiocesan Catholic Charities and eventually as auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese.

In 1981, Pope St. John Paul II named him Bishop of Memphis, and then Archbishop of Denver in 1986, before appointing him prefect of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome ten years later. 

In 2003, Cardinal Stafford became the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican legal department which deals with violations of the confessional, and the forgiveness of sins so serious they are reserved to the Holy See. He retired from curial life in 2009.

Now 89 years old, the cardinal spends much of his time in prayer — communal prayer whenever possible. He is set to deliver a lecture on the Liturgy of the Hours and parish life, at the St John Vianney Seminary in Denver — which he helped to found.

Stafford sat down this Easter to talk with The Pillar about a life spent in dialogue with God through prayer, and about what it means for the Church to be a “canticle of praise.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


You talk about praying the Liturgy of the Hours as a kind of dialogue of love with God through Christ. 

For Catholics who haven’t had this experience of prayer, how can they approach the Liturgy of the Hours as something sustaining, rather than see it as a kind of intimidating regimen or even a burden?

It takes an enormous Catholic imagination to identify with the Liturgy of Hours. So the challenge that the Church is facing is to recapture the Catholic imagination.

I think we can only do this if we have a true love of Christ and understand the invitation of Christ and willingness to identify ourselves with the life of Christ who also understood the need for prayer, I mean, he was the one told us five times to pray ceaselessly. He did that. He prayed ceaselessly. 

We use the words “sursum corda” — lift up your hearts.

We have lifted them up to the Lord, but that lifting up is something that we have to repeat throughout the day if we are following Christ. And it's not onerous when you love Christ to follow him in his prayer life.

I mean, when you think about a father handing over his son and the son being obedient to that father so that we might have life, it is Christ who is the one that gives us the pattern of living, sursum corda, to pray ceaselessly to your father in heaven. 

So, the key is the conversion of the individual Christian, including an individual priest, who is able to speak about how profound Christ has been in lifting up his heart.

The Liturgy of the Hours is essentially poetry, 150 poems, and in poetry is a concentration of the heights and depths of human life. And it is not simply poetry, but it is the highest form of poetry. The poetry that speaks to us, not only of God, but God speaking to us — God has given us this keyboard to the unlocking of human emotions in prayer, saying, for example, that “my shepherd is the Lord” or that “my only companion is darkness.” And we're saying that to God, we're saying that to our father, and Christ experienced this on the cross. 

So the poetry that the Church is offering in the Liturgy of the Hours touches every, every human,  experience in a profound way through Christ, saying to us “You are not alone.”

Was this something you first encountered in the seminary?

My whole life, I guess, since the age of 13 has been dominated by one person, and that is the person of Jesus Christ.

I was 13 in 1944, when I first felt the violence of the 20th century with the bombing of Dresden.

We had just learned in the seventh and eighth grade about just war, and how war can be justified. I found it very difficult. This was the war which began [for America] in 1941. At that point I was nine, so the war played a very dominant part in my life, as I think it played in the lives of everybody else. The violence of the 20th century was formative for everybody. 

And when I heard that we, the British and the Americans, had dropped bombs on Dresden, and had killed women and children — kids, my age — I understood that these were “my people,” they were Americans who were representing us, and I just couldn't understand how that was done. I was really shaken by that experience and I don't think I ever resolved it until I found the mystery of Christ and his cross and his resurrection. 

But why the Liturgy of the Hours? Jesus, himself prayed it in the Gospels, and I strive to imitate Christ, not very successfully, but I’ve tried to imitate Christ in every aspect of my life. He prayed at various times of the day to his Father, and it’s said throughout the Gospels that he went to the temple to pray at various times. And, of course, he prayed after the Last Supper in the garden just before his arrest. 

So I sensed that this incredible human being was the only one that saved me from a sense of loss that I found to be almost irreparable at the age of 13: Who to believe, and how to live in this violent world?

So the Liturgy of Hours was a way of the imitation of Christ and he was the only one that I considered to be a model of what it meant to be God's child, God's beloved son.

Practically, what did that look like?

I bought a book called “My Psalm Book.” I bought it in high school and it was divided into hours, but, you know, there weren't readings, there weren't hymns and so forth — just the Psalter, but they were divided into hours. All 150 Psalms were there, I’ve still got the book. It's just a tiny book, but that's where I learned to pray the hours.

And, of course, it is one thing to pray throughout the day, but the issue is: how does one live as a Christian? 

So I think I prayed throughout the day as the Church did, that is morning prayer, evening, prayer, prayer before meals and after meals. I went to a Catholic school, and high school, and prayed before class. I frequently went to the chapel to pray, as many other other students did.

So, I was very aware of Christ urging us to pray ceaselessly. And I found myself enjoying that in a very, very deep way.

And then when I went to the seminary, which was in my third year of college, that was the first time that I experienced the communal Liturgy of the Hours. 

We had every Sunday afternoon vespers and it was a very beautiful, full liturgy, and it was done antiphonally, in a very old, the oldest seminary chapel in the United States, in Baltimore, which is antiphonal in its geography, in its architecture: everywhere the seats are facing one another. 

So we would on one side sing the Psalter, in praise, in penance, in petition, in sorrow and in joy, and then the other side would respond. That was a new and wonderful way of knowing God through one's brothers and their sincerity in praying, and in singing, because it was done in antiphonal form, in Latin, with the Gregorian chant, which is a wonderful way of coming to speak to God with tremendous respect and beauty. 

The Sulpicians in Baltimore had a deep sense of the coming to God through liturgy and a beautiful liturgy, and I bought all of that. And so did my brothers. 

You know, these guys that I was with in the seminary, they were an enormous influence. Many of them had been in the seminary six years before I came, and I just was just very much influenced by their example.

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I think that a lot of Catholics are aware of the Liturgy of the Hours, but vaguely — and without understanding the Liturgy of the Hours as a rhythm of life. 

To the extent that most Catholics are aware of it, many probably think of it as something that's particular to the clerical or the religious way of life. 

But is that the Church's intention? 

No, I don’t ever think in my time the Church felt that way. I think the Church recognized the kind of crisis that was facing Western culture, and the world really, in the 20th century; a century in which it gave a positive response to the organized violence in those wars. 

I mean, I went into the seminary during the Korean war. I had been hoping, you know, from 1946 to 1950, that [war] was all over; that the Dresden experience would not be repeated. But June 25th, 1950, I thought “Hey, this is all happening again.” 

So I think the wars of the 20th century have played an enormous part in the formation of the modern psyche and the modern imagination. And I think there's a great deal of despair in the modern heart over how we’re going to get beyond this. 

And my response to it was: It is only Christ that can do it!

I mean, it really was Christ, it wasn't anyone else. I could not have gone to the seminary otherwise. I was too committed to that blessed secular world, a world that suddenly lost its splendor in Korea, which I just perceived as being ever a repetition of 1939 and 1941.

So, the Church responded, she understood what was going on in the hearts of people, that there was a sense of nothing being out there. And then that nothing within us was just being compounded by the violence that we were wrecking on each other. 

Some of my best friends were killed in Korea, and those deaths played a very real role in my life because it just compounded my sense of questioning.

“Do I bring kids into a world like this?” I mean, I did ask that literally. That was in my mind.

I wanted to marry, I wanted to have a family, but I just saw this as a huge wave that was breaking daily in the 20th century. 

So anyhow, I think the Church understood that. And she understood the lack of joy because of this. There was hope, but without joy you can't sustain hope. And it was joy the Church was looking for: How do we call people, how is God calling us back to a joy in being able to call him father and to call Jesus his son — his beloved son. 

The Church was saying, in 1971 for example, the response is the Canticum laudis [the apostolic constitution which promulgated the revised form of the breviary], the renewal of the Liturgy of the Hours, the canticle of praise: that’s what the Church is. 

The Church is saying this to us in response to the question “Why? Why praise God that allows all this to happen?” 

The Church is saying these hymns, these songs, 150 of them, have a place for all of the sorrows and joys of the human heart, the penance and the tears, and the clapping of hands and the kneeling down before God in joy in adoration. It taps every emotion in the human heart, and it did for me.

When I heard the antiphonal chants in the chapel of the seminary in 1950 or 51, I heard that joy from my brothers, and I heard that penitence in those tears, and all to God who understood them,

So I guess the Church was searching for a way to put joy into our hearts again. The Church renewed in us a prayerful way of expressing all of that. And of course, not only through the liturgy of the hours, also through the other great liturgy, especially the rediscovery of the liturgy of the Eucharist. 

I think Paul VI was definitely saying, and all of the folks that followed him, that we have to rediscover joy. I find that even to this very day here at the seminary, when I pray communally, with the whole Church, as the Liturgy of the Hours should be prayed, not alone with the breviary, which is a substitute, a good substitute, but not a full substitute. 

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I think you've probably had one of the most varied careers in the Church that's possible, as a priest, a diocesan bishop and archbishop, leading a Vatican department like the Pontifical Council for the Laity, and then as the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary. 

What has stood out to you from those different ways of looking at the life of the Church? 

In the penitentiary one sees a lot, a lot of darkness, people who have gone through all of the reserved sins — dreadful sins, but also dreadful in their isolation and their loneliness and their sense of, of being so guilty that they cannot be forgiven. 

They’ve lost hope at some point in their life, so the guilt is a very heavy burden on those that come to the penitentiary, but it is true for all of us, this is an influence on each of us. One becomes very aware of that in Rome. 

Getting back to the lack of joy in the Church, this has really struck me. 

When I read about people in the Church, it’s often about parish councils and so forth. It’s about structures in the Church, and priests, and priests’ structures in the Church. That’s not where it is, but that seems to be where we’re stuck. 

The best way that we can know joy is to know the Father.

And the best way to come to know you, Father, is through your Son. For your Son is the exact image of you, Father. And when I pray that way, I find great joy. 

Getting back to the initial conversation, this is the prayer that we should be saying in the breviary, that’s how it opens up each day, with the 95th Psalm: Come let us sing for joy to the Lord, shout with joy to the rock, the rock who saves us. 

I’ve felt for a long time about the Liturgy of the Hours, that it's a wonderful way to know the joy of being with God. And that I think is what is most lacking in the Church today, joy — not structures, or reform and all that business, but a deep prayer life that just suddenly appears and it's there and it's a great gift, without any, you know, any sweat.

You say there’s a lack of joy in the life of the Church. Do you think the Church is missing something in how the Christian life is lived in parishes?

I think the Trinitarian aspect of prayer in the Church is very, very important, and I don't see it anywhere. What does that mean? Well, why did Augustine leave behind five volumes of homilies on the Psalter? 

He was a pastor, a bishop. He was a pastor in a very small diocese. So something that would be, you know, for us today, like a large parish, and he has five volumes on the Psalter.

I studied Augustine for years, and I asked myself: “You know, I don’t think I've written one homily on a Psalm, and he's written eight or nine on a single Psalm and it all adds up to five volumes.” 

Augustine’s “De Trinitate,” his commentary on the Most Holy Trinity, was begun the year that he was ordained as a priest, about 394-95, and he didn't stop writing it until two years before his death. So his whole pastoral life as a bishop was committed to the Psalter, but above all to praying the Psalter through the Trinity. I mean, Augustine said the basis of all pastoral life is the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.

How do we define “church” today? How do we define a parish today? Usually when we look at parishes, they serve people, they have a ministry of service. When I was visiting parishes as a diocesan bishop, I would say “bring along your pastoral statement or pastoral mission.” And they all had it, usually the parish council, together with the parish priest, would all work on it. 

But invariably, the emphasis was the parish is to be a sign of Christ as servant. And that’s legitimate. And with my background as a social worker, I affirmed that. But if I were going out today, I would ask about the parish as also being canticum laudis, the canticle of praise to the Father, the body of Christ? That’s what the parish is. 

I think the Second Vatican Council has shortchanged the parish. A lot of people say “No, no, that’s where it all began,” but no, the Council put great emphasis, page upon page, on the diocese and the universal Church, but there are just a few lines on the parish. 

So I think that the parish is the poor man in the Church, but it is where the rubber has hit the road in every single life that is Catholic, that it is Christian.

And I think it is important for the parish to know that they are — each parish is — the body of Christ. They are united with their head in giving eternal praise to the Father.

We are part of the gift that has been given by the Father to the Son. We are the love that is between the Father and the Son. The parish is that, and there is immense joy in that, but it's done as the body of Christ — we are one with our head in giving eternal joy in thanksgiving to the Father, through the Holy Spirit. 

So, I think, to recapture that is going to be the key to unlocking the mystery of the Trinity for the parish.

There is enormous joy even when I'm praying the breviary alone, but when we pray with all of our brothers we are the body of Christ, giving eternal praise to Father for what he has given to us in Christ, and in our own lives and all of our own families and everything. 

That is the key to renewal, I think: to recapture the Trinitarian basis of everything.

It's a completely different way of thinking about the parish. Not as a group of people, or a territory, or a mode of pastoral or sacramental delivery — it is rooted in all those things too, of course — but as a voice of prayer.

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