Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Man of Sorrows

In a comment on a recent post that examined the relationship between the life of the Church and the American character, Magdalena (a regular commentator on this blog) asks:

What interpersonal and social skills do you feel a priest should be required to master?

As I thought about the question, I looked to my own experience and to the fathers of the Church.

In a sermon on Matthew's Gospel, St John Chrysostom says that:

The person characterized by humility, gentleness, mercy and righteousness does not build a fence around good deeds. Rather, that one ensures that these good fountains overflow for the benefit of others. One who is pure of heart and a peacemaker, even when persecuted for the sake of the truth, orders his way of life for the common good.

Of all the things I think a priest needs, the ability to keep his attention focused on "the common good" of the community he serves is most important.

Contrary to what we often assume (and how some priests behave) the priest does not serve the common good because he has some privileged knowledge about God's will for the community. This is far from the case in fact.

Often the priest has less knowledge about what is going on in the parish then anyone. As a priest, I have come to know some communities and some parishioners very well. I have to admit that there are other communities and parishioners, I hardly knew at all. Sometimes this reflected indifference on either my part or theirs, but more often it simply reflected the inherent limitations of being human.

So if the priest doesn't "know better" or "know more" about what God wants from the parish, how does he serve the common good? What I've learned as priest is that I serve the common good first and foremost by my willingness to abide with people when they suffer. Let me explain.

Someone once asking me: "What do you like best about being a priest?"

I answered hearing confessions, sick calls and funerals. This surprised the person and they asked why I thought these were the best part of the priesthood. I told the person that everyone gets to go to weddings and baptisms, but the priest is the only one who is invited into those moments when a person stands vulnerable and ashamed before God. At that moment the priest is called to be a witness to God's mercy, love and forgiveness. It is nprecisely those moments in our life when we feel most estranged from God that the priest realizes most fully his office. As a result it is only through his willingness to abide with others in their suffering that the priest can hope to serve the common good of the parish.

Thinking about this I am reminded of the words of the prophet Isaiah. He says about the Messiah:

He is despised and rejected by men,/A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief./And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;/He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.//Surely He has borne our griefs/ And carried our sorrows;/Yet we esteemed Him stricken,/Smitten by God, and afflicted.//But He was wounded for our transgressions,/He was bruised for our iniquities;/ The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,/ And by His stripes we are healed.//All we like sheep have gone astray;/ We have turned, every one, to his own way;/ And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.//He was oppressed and He was afflicted,/Yet He opened not His mouth;/ He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,/ And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,/ So He opened not His mouth (53.3-7).

Taking Isaiah at his word, and Christ as our model, the priest is despised, rejected, stricken, smitten, afflicted, wounded, bruised, chastised, oppressed, slaughtered, and silent. In a phrase, the priest is a man of sorrows.

This understanding is different than the image often presented to young men considering the priesthood. The vision of the priesthood is often glorious and noble, but just as often divorced from the witness of the Suffering Servant so beloved by Isaiah.

And Isaiah offers us a view of the priesthood than that which is typically expected by the parish and the bishop. Not unreasonably, we want priest to be well-educated, knowledgeable men who can preach, teach, and counsel.

While these are important, they aer all at the primary task of the priest: To bear with people in their suffering. The priest is a man of sorrows because he is called by Christ to suffer alongside people and bear witness to the mercy, love and forgiveness of God. And this he does especially in those moments when people are most in need of God and least likely to reach out to Him.

And this witness is always personal, it always points to human weakness and suffering. Suffering especially has a way of binding us together and it will bind the priest and the person together. Ideally this bond is a shared (if imperfect) openness to God's grace. If it isn't then, then human weakness and suffering come to dominate every thought, gesture, word and meeting. In the latter case, the priest soon discovers that even those who bear the Name of Christ will turn away from, and even turn against, him. And so, in his willingness to bear loneliness and even isolation and exile in the midst of the community, the priest is again a man of sorrows.

Again, because the witness is always personal, the priest's witness to the redeeming presence of God requires from him a willingness not to ignore, minimize or exploit the weakness of others. From my own experience I have discovered that this requires not only that I root out sin from my life (a never ending task to be sure), but that I also root out the myriad socially sanctioned lapses that allow me to overlook, and at time even exploit, other people.

The priest is called to suffer for his people, by suffering with his people. This suffering doesn't mean that the priest allows himself to be beat up—this serve no good purpose for the parishioner and only drains the priest of the strength he needs to care for others. The real suffering of the priest, the one "skill" he needs I think above all, is the ability to stand with people, often silently, and remind them that their suffering, their failure, and even their sinfulness, does not exhaust the meaning of their life.

And more importantly, he must bear witness to the great, redemptive truth that human physical and moral weakness does not negate the mercy, love and forgiveness of God.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory