Fr. William G. Most
Dubuque, Iowa has been called the "Rome" of the Midwest. Stretched along the Mississippi River and resting gently on the rolling hills of northeastern Iowa that rise up from the vast expanse of the heartland plain, Dubuque is a city of churches, convents, and schools whose architecture reflects the enduring contribution of Irish and German immigrants; men and women of great faith and simple devotion, often poor in the eyes of the world, but also rich in an appreciation of God's mercy and providential care—an appreciation that found its expression in their civic life.
This environment, receiving as it did the riches of the Church, was fertile ground for the development of vocations to the priesthood earlier in this century. Such vocations flourished, and with them the intellectual life that is so vital in preparing future priests for the ministry of the Gospel. It is not surprising, then, that Dubuque produced priests of keen mind and humble heart, men who saw the Universal Church with the discernment of brilliant and disciplined theologians and the faith of the simple farmers and craftsmen who nurtured them in their youth.
Discernment and faith—these are the qualities that have fashioned and nourished the priestly service of William G. Most. A professor at Loras College in Dubuque for over 40 years, Fr. Most has made contributions to theology that have been recognized all over the world. He has published twelve books and a host of articles on topics ranging from biblical studies to Mariology to Latin grammar.
Fr. William Most: scholar, theologian, classicist, teacher—such a description shows the richness of his life, yet it fails to grasp the core, the inspiration, the motivation that underlies all his work and gives it vitality. Fr. Most is above all a man of faith; a man who has a deep and abiding sense of the generous Fatherhood of God; a man who has a keen awareness of the shape that God's generosity has taken in his own life, and who seeks to make his every action a response to the call of God.
"You are a priest forever . . ." (Heb. 5:6). God calls each man to go beyond the things of this world and to share His own life. Some, however, He calls to a special conformity to Jesus Christ, that their identity might be caught up in the obedience of Christ to the Father. The young William Most gradually became aware of this special call as he found within himself a desire that the world alone could not satisfy. Born on August 13, 1914, young William grew up surrounded by the influences of that simple faith that has left its mark so deeply on Dubuque. St. Mary's Church, built by German immigrants, was right down the block, with its tall and dignified stained—glass windows and ornate interior that suggested both the majesty and the intimacy of a God Who has made His dwelling among us. St. Mary's parish—with its parochial school— made a profound and lasting impression upon the boy, complementing a family life that was stable and filled with that basic religious sense that expresses the heart of Catholicism.
Thus William's faith grew without the clouds of misunderstanding and confusion that creep in when men forget God in their daily lives. William's childhood taught him that he could—and should—depend upon God for everything, and this attitude deepened as he grew older. He entered grade school at St. Mary's, and began to experience the challenging and affirming influence of the priests of the diocese. Through his grade school and high school years (at Columbia Academy), William learned that doctrine, discipline, and love were not conflicting things, but rather were all components of God's fatherly concern. This concern was not only taught but also lived and exemplified by the priests that formed William in school.
"Whoever believes in the Son has life eternal" (Jn. 3:36). William realized that God's concern for men reached its greatest expression in the life of Jesus Christ. In Christ God goes beyond what was strictly necessary to reconcile mankind—His wayward children— and manifests the magnificence and abundance of His love. And through Christ man is lifted up beyond all merely temporal things and becomes a child of God "by adoption." Riches, honor, even the pleasures of knowledge that correspond to man's highest natural desires, are but "straw" when compared to life in Christ Jesus—a sharing in the very life of God Himself.
The Spirit of God worked this desire in William with greater depth during his years at Columbia College. He studied Classics, and developed a lasting appreciation for the great pagan authors, especially Virgil. For a time he considered devoting his life to the study of antiquity. The Holy Spirit, however, spoke in the depths of his heart: "Do you wish to devote your life to merely human things? Man is made for greater things than this world; he is made for God!"'
A passage from Scripture kept repeating itself to him: "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he suffers the loss of his soul" (Mt. 16:26). His perspective was formed and solidified. He wanted to follow Christ—to "sell all he had," all worldly interests and ambitions, which seemed so insignificant next to the light of God that was pouring into his soul.
Of course, all who are baptized in Jesus and keep His commands are "dead" to sin. But William had had a vague sense since childhood that he was called to enter still more deeply into the mystery of Christ. Christ was obedient even unto death, offering Himself completely—as Priest and Victim—to the Father. William found that he wanted to conform himself to Christ in the fullest sense, to become an instrument through which the grace and peace of Christ could flow without hindrance, through which the fatherly generosity of God could touch the world that William had known since boyhood. The Spirit enkindled this desire within him while he was still at Columbia, and by his junior year he had make his decision.
Graduation came in 1936, and the diocese of Dubuque recognized that William Most, honor graduate from the Classics department, was an exceptionally bright candidate for the priesthood. With this in mind, the new seminarian was sent to the Sulpicians in Washington, D.C. The next four years were busy ones. In addition to his studies for the priesthood at the Sulpician seminary, William also took an M.A. in Religious Studies from nearby Catholic University of America. In 1940 he returned to Iowa and on May 18 he was ordained in the Cathedral at Dubuque.
The new priest was anxious to serve the community of his home town. He had prepared himself especially for parish work; here he hoped to be like the priests he remembered from his youth—a shining example of the fatherhood of God. At this time, Fr. Most had no thoughts about becoming a college professor; teaching and the academic life were probably the last things on his mind when he became assistant at a small town parish in Peosta, Iowa after ordination.
The pastor, Fr. Drummy, was faced with a difficult task. Besides the ordinary duties of running a country parish, the church was heavily in debt, and Fr. Drummy and his parish were constantly involved in fundraising activities ranging from parish picnics to bingo to making and selling candles. Fr. Most found himself in the midst of this activity, and he plunged in with enthusiasm. The country people had a freshness and a zeal that made them a joy to serve. The new assistant was certainly needed, and before he knew it Fr. Most was running church picnics, raising money, and—of course— contributing greatly to the running of the parish. Saying Mass, hearing confessions, becoming involved and concerned with the everyday problems of people's lives—the life of parish work seemed well suited to Fr. Most and he took it for granted that things would continue this way for a long time.
"How unsearchable are the ways of God" (Rm. 11:33). Needless to say the last thing Fr. Most expected was to find himself teaching in a college classroom by Advent of that same year. As the end of the fall semester of 1940 approached at Loras (formerly Columbia) College, Msgr. Schulte, professor of Latin and Greek, suffered a heart attack. The administrators of this diocesan—run school desperately needed someone to fill in so that the students in Msgr. Schulte's classes could finish their course of study. Facing this problem, Loras remembered its brilliant and dedicated classics student of four years ago, and Fr. Most was called quite suddenly from Peosta and given temporary status on the faculty.
This status was to last for the next three years. The situation was challenging and, at times, confusing, but these years were ones of growth and unforeseen development. Fr. Most had a great love for the classical languages, but he had not done any graduate study in these areas and he had no experience teaching on an advanced level. Therefore he had to learn how to run a classroom effectively, and Fr. Most soon realized the complexities and difficulties involved with trying to communicate knowledge to students. Simply knowing the subject matter is not enough; the teacher must be sensitive to the needs of each group of students that he teaches; he must understand their capabilities and their peculiar problems.
Perhaps partly because of his own inexperience, Fr. Most began to feel a great desire to make teaching a vital component of his ministry. With this in mind, he sought further education; from 1943—1945 he pursued a Ph.D. in Classics at Catholic University in Washington, completing all the requirements in just over two and one—half years of study. Here Fr. Most became more aware of the Fathers of the Church, and became convinced that they should have a more prominent place in the study of the classical era. The Fathers, in turn, awakened in him an interest in theology that would become more significant as his academic career progressed.
That career had now become the dominant theme of his priesthood. Fr. Most's desire to be an instrument had brought him to an influential position at the very same college where this desire had first taken shape. In 1946 he resumed his teaching position at Loras College on a permanent basis, and became immersed in the intellectual life and in pastoral ministry to students.
Concern for the students was uppermost in the mind of the new professor—priest as he attended to his duties at the College. Desiring to make the Church Fathers as accessible as possible, Fr. Most paid special attention to the particular assistance that his students needed in translating patristic texts. His efforts led him to compose a textbook edition (published in 1949) of St. Augustine's City of God which included translation notes specifically designed to respond to the real needs of students. His concern, however, did not stop at the classroom; he knew that being a priest meant being involved with his students as persons—embracing the whole drama of student life and serving as an instrument of God's direction in the midst of the joys, sorrows, ambitions, and difficulties of the young people entrusted to his care.
Therefore, in addition to shaping minds, Fr. Most made himself available for spiritual direction, seeing students for up to three hours a day during these early years. As he sought to draw others more deeply into the mystery of Redemption, he found that his own understanding increased, and with it his trust in God.
One of the most important aspects of this increase was his discovery of the central importance of Mary in the Redemption. For many people, the 1940's had been a sobering time, demonstrating the frightful depths to which the human heart is capable of sinking, bringing with it war and destruction, concentration camps, and a brutal and inhuman use of technology against millions of innocent people.
As the decade drew to a close, Fr. Most began to learn that there was a profound hope for this crippled humanity—that peace for mankind rested within the heart, within the faithful obedience, of the Mother of God. Our Lady of Fatima particularly spoke to people of this age, and Fr. Most began to seek a way to include her message in his direction of students. He found that the message of Fatima could not be dismissed as simply "private revelation"; the message was the Gospel itself, the Good News of salvation preached to the present era of men from a most eloquent and authoritative source.
Determining henceforth to shape his own preaching according to this message, the essence of which he found consistently in the teachings of the Church, Fr. Most consecrated his priesthood to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and set out with a renewed mission as the instrument of her who brings Christ to all.
At about this time, several students approached him and asked if he would be willing to outline a program for a study club they were forming on Mariology. He agreed, and this task enabled him to draw together all that he knew about Mary and her place in spirituality. The outlines soon developed into a book. In 1954 the first edition of Mary in Our Life appeared, and it brought international recognition. Mary in Our Life appeared in three more editions and was translated into six languages, and in 1955 it received the Marian Library Medal from Dayton University.
The book established Fr. Most's reputation as a writer who could present detailed theological topics—particularly Marian themes—in a way that made them understandable and relevant to all. Thus the sensitivity that characterized his teaching style became available, through his written works, to larger groups of people. The underlying motivation for all his work in communicating ideas was—and remains—the ministry of preaching the Gospel. In reflecting on the priestly vocation and its presence in his own life, Fr. Most focuses particularly on the call to preach. The words of St. Paul, "l came not to baptize but to preach" (1 Cor 1:17) are not intended to downgrade the sacramental aspect of the priesthood but rather to emphasize the presentation of the Good News—in the whole life and example of the priest to be sure—but particularly in words. These words call for faith, or the enrichment of faith, from those who hear them. Expressing and communicating the word of God in every possible situation—making that "word" a salvific one in people's lives—this became central to Fr. Most's whole mission as a priest.
At this point, however, Fr. Most confronted his most difficult and troubling challenge, a disturbance that touched the very heart of his presentation of the faith. He had been studying the treatises of the great theological schools, and was reflecting on their presentations of the mystery of grace and predestination. One day in 1952, he was reading a commentary on St. Thomas Aquinas by the great Dominican Reginald Garrigou—Lagrange. The style was fluid and convincing, the thought logical and penetrating, but its implication was distressing. Pere Garrigou—Lagrange's explanation of divine providence, in its attempt to be philosophically consistent, seemed to say that God reprobates and elects "blindly"—that is, He saves or damns without any concern for the individual soul. How then can it be said that God, who cannot change or be moved by anything, really cares about each and every man, and if He does, how is it that any are eternally lost? Does not God "will that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tm. 2:4)?
Sitting in his study on that day, Fr. Most wondered about the answer to the questions that he had just raised. But this answer, as mysterious as the love of God itself, eluded him. He found himself confronted with "darkness"; he believed in the mystery of God's love, and for the present that would have to be enough. It was October 11, the Feast of the Motherhood of Mary.
"Lord I believe, help my unbelief" (Mk. 9:24). For the next two years Fr. Most carried on his ministry with an attitude of trust in God based on faith. Finally out of the darkness of faith which he had experienced that day an answer began to take shape in his mind: God is our Father. He wants all His children to turn out well and be saved. He determines to reject (reprobate) only those who gravely and persistently reject His graces. All others, He determines to save (predestines) not because of their merits— which come from His goodness—nor even because of their lack of resistance to His grace, but because in the first place He wanted all to turn out well so as to save them. Therefore He saves all those who do not prevent Him by their resistance. If we are good it is totally because of His gift, but if we are evil it is totally because of our resistance to that gift; evil men do not allow their Father to make them into His children, to empower them with "the freedom of the sons of God" (Rm. 8:21).
This understanding leads back to faith, and to the realization that man is truly nothing without God, yet because of God's goodness he is raised to the status of sonship and given an inheritance in the Kingdom. "Not a hair on your head shall be harmed" (Acts 27:34). This very simple presentation of Divine providence became the theme of a major work of theology. Fr. Most composed an eighty—one page summary of his theory in Latin, and distributed it to noted theologians all over the world, requesting their comments and criticisms. Taking all of the responses—both positive and negative—into account, Fr. Most composed a lengthy and detailed treatise, which was published in Latin in 1963. The work was critically acclaimed by many; several theologians saw in it a key breakthrough in one of the most difficult and most disputed areas of theology.
While the world reviewed and evaluated his scholarly endeavors, Fr. Most continued to attend to those who passed through the doors of Loras College year after year. He developed a method of teaching basic Latin that involved the reading of specially— designed texts rather than the memorization of grammar tables. This technique tended to maintain the students' interest and resembled more closely the manner in which they learned their native language. Fr. Most eventually published three textbooks of Latin by the Natural Method that were based on his teaching approach.
Such was the spirit and outlook on life that characterized Fr. William Most on the eve of the Second Vatican Council. He had based his priesthood on a response to the call of God, on firm faith, on total dependence upon God and His merciful providence, on docility to the Holy Spirit. Fr. Most had built his house upon solid rock; he had remained true to the essence of his calling, seeking his "treasure" beyond the limits of earthly existence even as the world gave him recognition for his achievements. Fr. Most was prepared to receive the gifts of God and be His instrument through which the Spirit of God could be poured forth, manifesting God's fatherly love.
This kind of preparation was essential in discerning the voice of the Spirit in the teachings of Vatican II, a voice too often drowned out by the confusion and turmoil that followed the Council both in the world and in the Church. The 1960's brought rebellion to college campuses, and the decline of moral standards. This was accompanied by a decrease in intellectual vigor, a loss of the "hunger" for the truth. Many in the Church were touched by these afflictions; Fr. Most saw some of his fellow priests invoke Vatican II as a justification for ignoring the Church's authority and for disposing of authentic spirituality, replacing it with a "new spirituality" that rejected any form of voluntary sacrifice.
For Fr. Most this touched the very root of his response to the call of God. That response involved sacrifice at its center; he easily saw that the priesthood is folly if sacrifice has no value. Priests must give up many things if they are to serve God faithfully; this is all part of their participation in the Priesthood of Christ, which embraces the mystery of the Cross. To be a priest is to recognize that love conquers sin in the reality of God suffering on the Cross. For Fr. Most the decline in vocations that has followed the Council proceeds from this loss of the sense of the Cross. Also, the unwillingness to sacrifice means that man's horizons are limited to this world and what it has to offer. In the present day men seem bound by these limited horizons; they are unable and unwilling to rise to the challenge of Christ, and have become deaf to the Spirit of Truth. Nevertheless that Spirit continues to speak to the world, and, as long as He does, Fr. Most will continue to manifest His offering of love to men.
One of the most important aspects of his faithfulness to the Spirit is his tireless effort to affirm and proclaim the authentic teaching of the Second Vatican Council. This he has done and continues to do in books and articles, most significantly Vatican II: Marian Council. Published in 1972, this work presents once again the central themes of Mary in Our Life along with the significant developments introduced by the Council, which, Fr. Most points out, said more about the Blessed Virgin than any previous council.
Another aspect of the Council that Fr. Most addresses is the concept of the People of God. In Covenant and Redemption he writes of the intimate relationship between God and His people, and the obligations toward these people that God takes upon Himself by virtue of His promises and in the fullness of Jesus Christ.
In response to misrepresentations of the "spirit of the Vatican II" Fr. Most has produced works on Christology and Scripture which express the continuous and ever—vital teaching of the Church. In The Consciousness of Christ he defends the human knowledge of Jesus in a manner that reflects the full implication of the Word—made— flesh. At a time when many of his colleagues are advancing novel theories about Jesus Christ, His self—consciousness, and His awareness of His mission and divinity, Fr. Most presents Christ as the Incarnate Word; aware, purposeful, and filled with power. "I lay down my life for my sheep" (Jn. 10:15).
Some other theologians approach the revealed word of God, as expressed in Sacred Scripture, with a critical spirit that reflects a secular mentality and often a loss of faith. In Free from all Error Fr. Most addresses their theories—so often surrounded by an air of authority—by displaying the real and direct action of the Spirit who has given Scripture to men, along with defending the value of critical techniques—properly used— for shedding light upon the meaning and context of Scripture.
Thus Fr. Most's theological work after the Council has centered on more basic themes, as demanded by the crisis within contemporary theology. Underlying the more recent work, however, is the same evangelical theme that has informed all of Fr. Most's theology and pastoral work: God is alive and well, active in the lives of men, majestic and powerful, yet approachable by the humble and filled with overflowing love that finds its supreme expression in Jesus Christ.
Armed with this message, Fr. Most continues his work in all facets of his priestly ministry. Above all there is the continued tireless attention to his "flock," the students at Loras College. Fr. Most is now 72 years old, yet he still teaches four classes a semester ranging from the Greek philosophers to Scripture study to the Fathers of the Church. And his classes are usually filled to capacity. Fr. Most is today one of the most popular figures on the campus. Nicknamed "Ducky" in reference to his longtime position as coach of the diving team, Fr. Most cultivates ease and rapport with his students without compromising the word he preaches, a word that often makes unpopular demands on the young people of today.
Nevertheless he always presents the truth with love. He structures his classes so that they provide the greatest benefit for students, compiling study questions and review tapes at the expense of his own time. His efforts are intended to lead students to the consideration of Christian realities, and he often uses the thought of the ancients as a springboard for the discussion of the content of revelation. In this way he hopes to focus the mind of the contemporary student, who is surrounded by the distractions of materialism, upon the profound truth of the Christian mysteries.
The communication of this truth motivates Fr. Most to continue his activity. He is convinced that his place at the college continues to be a vital component of his personal vocation as a priest. His ministry is to bear witness to a truth that might not be proclaimed to these students if he were to leave. In this way Fr. Most perceives his own role in the pervasive and loving providence of God.
It is a role that shapes his every activity. Fr. Most greets students with warmth and attentiveness in the hallways and around the campus. He takes most of his meals in the student cafeteria, listening to their difficulties and participating in their conversations— teasing them when appropriate and advising them when they seem willing to listen. In all of his interaction with students he seeks ways to communicate ideas, for all situations are ripe for the presentation of the Gospel.
Fr. Most, theologian and world—famous author, remains a priest first. As a priest he has suffered the trial of being the bearer of an unpopular and widely—ignored message. But he has endured because of his recognition of his dependence on a God who is full of goodness, and Who desires to communicate that goodness to him as an adopted son, and through him, as a priest, to others. This recognition has fostered within him an attitude of prayer, an attitude of trust in God and in the maternal direction of the Blessed Mother. And so he would be the first to affirm that his activities—whether they be scholarship, teaching, or spiritual direction—do not come from his own goodness. They come rather from the power of God that is given to him in response to prayer and for the purpose of directing himself and others to God in Jesus Christ the High Priest.
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