Sunday, December 21, 2008

Reflections on the Priestly Life, Ten Years into the Ministry, December 21, 2008 (St. John Vianney Seminary, Miami)

On the 21st of September 1998, I left Louvain, Belgium after six years of priestly formation at the American College and further studies at the oldest Catholic university in the world, the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Two days before, on the 19th of September, I defended my doctoral dissertation at the Higher Institute of Philosophy. It was on Process Thought and had the title: “The Self and Its Others”.

The day before I left—on the 20th—I said goodbye to my moderator, Professor Jan Van der Veken, one of the kindest and most caring men I have met in my life. He also happened to be a priest who valued learning and education just as much as he loved his work and ministry as a priest. I always thought it was an amazing combination—teaching philosophy and ministering to the students of the university. Professor Van der Veken used to organize student meetings at his house on the Predikherenstraat. Discussions ranged from philosophical to theological topics, and to just about anything that mattered in the lives of his students as well as colleagues. Some of the best philosophical conversations I’ve had were at his house, surrounded by his collection of owls, from paintings to figurines. They were all over the place.

As soon as I arrived back in the archdiocese, I was assigned as spiritual director to the youngest students in the seminary. These were high school graduates, both from the high school seminary as well as the regular high schools. I was also assigned to take care of the archdiocesan library, a ministry I did for five whole years.

On the 21st of December 1998, the cardinal archbishop of Manila, Jaime Sin, ordained me to the priesthood at the Manila Cathedral. [I was ordained a deacon in Louvain the previous year, on the 6th of December, 1997, the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra.] My ordination to the priesthood was quite a memorable event. I was naturally excited of course. But it was made even more memorable because of two things. First, the country was celebrating the 300th anniversary of the ordination of the first Filipino diocesan priest; and second, it was the cardinal’s first public appearance after having been hospitalized for more than two months. [Cardinal Jaime Sin died in 2003. God rest his soul.]

The cathedral was packed, even if I was the only one being ordained. (Class ordinations in the archdiocese are always held in September, but I guess the authorities thought ordaining me in December would be a good way to celebrate the cardinal’s recovery.) A lot of government officials were around for the celebration—not because of me of course, but because they wanted to see the cardinal and wish him well after his hospitalization. The media was also out in full-force—again, because of the cardinal. Though I did land on the front page of all the national newspapers the following day—with my back to the camera, as most of the photos were of the cardinal laying his hands on my head during the ordination rite.

My whole family was there, my parents, brothers and sisters, nephew and niece. So were my teachers in grade school and high school. In fact I have a photo with all of them. My classmate from Louvain, Fr. Mark Bowers was there too; he preached the homily at my first Mass. Three other friends from Louvain, Fr. Bernard Healey, Fr. Doug Klein, and Fr. Kenny Steckler came two weeks earlier to visit but had to return to the States before the ordination as they were needed at their parishes for Advent activities. Still, it was good for them to come and see me before I finally got ordained.

I was ordained in the morning of December 21, 2008. That evening I celebrated my first mass at the seminary, attended by family, friends, and of course the whole seminary community. For the next five years, I was assigned to do formation ministry at the seminary of the archdiocese. It was job I enjoyed so much, notwithstanding the fact that my assignments kept increasing with every single year. After being spiritual director for two years, I was made vocation director, then human formation director, then director of pastoral formation. After that I was made dean of men and director of the college department of the seminary. On top of all that I was the director of the archdiocesan seminary library, professor of philosophy and theology, and I was also teaching at two of the major universities in the country, one run by the Jesuits, the other by the Christian brothers. It was a lot of work, but I enjoyed every bit of it. On weekends I had the opportunity to celebrate masses in nearby parishes. One in particular I found to be quite an enriching experience. It was at a relatively poor parish whose parishioners were just the nicest, kindest, and most generous persons I’ve met.

In 2003, five years after ordination, and having completed my stint at the seminary, I asked my bishop to be allowed to pursue academic and scholarly work in earnest—hoping that by doing so I could discern whether it is in this particular area that God wanted me to focus on in my ministry as a priest. I did have excellent role models of priest-scholars and priest-professors throughout my seminary days: my first spiritual director, a Belgian priest who made me read Martin Heidegger’s “Being and Time” when I was all but 17, the dean of studies at the college seminary, an Aquinas scholar who painstakingly taught his kind of “dogmatic” Thomism to his students (while I learned a great deal from him, I eventually decided that it was Thomistic philosophy’s “spirit” and not so much its “letter” that was of greater importance to the church’s intellectual life), and finally, my moderator for my doctoral studies in Louvain, Jan Van der Veken.

In 2003, I began my scholarly and teaching ministry at Providence College in Rhode Island. I also did spiritual direction for seminary students at Our Lady of Providence Seminary while helping out at a parish whose pastor, Fr. Bernie Healey was a classmate in Louvain and a very good friend. In Rhode Island I had the opportunity to do a lot of research and teaching. At one point, I was teaching as many as 300 students per semester at Providence College, as I was not only teaching philosophy and theology, but was also team-teaching a class in Western Civilization with professors from the Philosophy, Theology, History, and English departments. I ended my stint at Providence College in 2007, after having completed the manuscript for my first philosophy book which was published by Macmillan in August of 2007.

In late August of 2007, I once again began working full-time in seminary ministry as I joined the wonderful community of Saint John Vianney College Seminary in Miami. It has been my home for two years now, and I am grateful that God gave me the opportunity to celebrate the 10th anniversary of my priesthood in a work and context that I truly love: seminary formation. There are not too many words I can use to fully articulate how amazing I think this place is, from the priests I live with, to the students I teach, to the lay professors and staff I work with. There’s that line St. Augustine uses to begin his ruminations in the Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee”—well, I think God has given my heart a bit of “rest” here at St. John’s. I truly love this place and its people. And if finding that place where one’s heart can rest means finding the place where God wants one to be, whether for a moment or permanently, then I think this is where God wants me for now.

A few weeks ago, one of my students asked me a question I found to be a source of much reflection afterwards. “Which assignment over the last ten years have you enjoyed the most?” It was really hard to answer the question—for the simple reason that I think I’ve truly been blessed to have found happiness, fulfillment, and peace in every single assignment I’ve had. That doesn’t mean everything has always been smooth and struggle-free, but in every single one, I’ve always felt that I was “in the right place” and therefore, where God “wanted me to be”. I also recall the words of one of my former professors in seminary. “Bloom where you’re planted”, he’d always tell us, his students. “Make the most of whatever situation, context, assignment, job, ministry, work, or relationship you find yourself in. Learn everything you can learn. Take the good and be grateful for it. Leave the bad and do not let it be a baggage you’d carry around. Just leave it, but not before you learn from it.” I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that was the gist of his advice which I have taken to heart.
Ten years have past since I became a priest. It’s amazing how time flies. When I think of the many persons I’ve met, ministered to, taught, had arguments, even debates with, I sometimes wonder what effect, impact, or difference my priesthood has made in their lives. I know that, as one of my former spiritual directors used to tell me, we priests “merely plant the seeds. God does the watering, the nurturing, and the harvesting”. Still, I can’t help but wonder every once in a while—in the hope perhaps that—while it is, in the end, God’s work that we do (and not our own), and while it is God’s people that we serve (not our people)—we remain effective and perhaps even ‘useful’ instruments in God’s hands. That isn’t always easy to figure out or even ‘feel’. The ‘results’ of a priest’s work, just as the ‘effects’ of his life and ministry are not always that tangible. Not like other ‘callings’ or ‘careers’; not even like other ‘states’ in life. Think of fathers, for instance. They have children: sons and daughters—tangible outcomes of their lives, and who will continue their legacy long after they’re gone. We priests don’t have that.

When I was newly-ordained, I remember visiting former classmates who had gotten married. It was always a beautiful experience for me to visit them, to see the amazing thing love does to two persons who have found joy and peace and friendship with one another. To be able to give oneself and one’s love totally and completely to another human being, and to receive the same love from that person, is surely one of the most beautiful things in life. Marriage is truly a great gift, one of the most profound manifestations on this earth of the radically human yet absolutely transcendent nature of love. And while I’ve never been one to over-magnify the sacrifice the church asks of its priests in the promise of a celibate life, I’ve also never underestimated its powerful demand to one choosing the priesthood, to give up something that for countless men and women have been the greatest source of completion and wholeness. If, as Augustine says, a sacrament is a “visible sign of an invisible grace”, then the church is right to call marriage a “sacrament”. It is, for the many couples I’ve come to know and minister to as a priest, truly the clearest and most concrete embodiment of something our finite and limited language can only call “grace”. Ten years into the ministry, the same former classmates who got married are now with children, sons and daughters who have given them much joy and an even greater sense of fulfillment in their married lives. Some of these children I myself have had the privilege to baptize, just as I had the privilege to celebrate and officiate at their parents’ weddings. Every time I do get to baptize a friends’ son or daughter, I feel as though I were myself, part of a family, going through the stages and phases that any man goes through. And as I watched these children of my friends grow over the years, I’ve learned to share as well in the joys their parents themselves have had, knowing fully well that I will never have children of my own. Yet, ten years into the ministry, ten years into the celibate life, I am happy still.

When I defended my doctoral dissertation on September 19, 1998, there was something Prof. Jan Van Der Veken, my moderator who was also a priest, said that has guided my reflection and, hopefully, gradual growth into an ever-deepening appreciation of priestly celibacy. Having to introduce the topic of my dissertation to the professors and students gathered at the Mercier Hall, under a huge painting of the great Christian thinker himself, Thomas Aquinas, Prof. Van Der Veken spoke words that I believe will be forever etched in my mind and seared into my priestly and professorial consciousness: “I am about to retire”, he said. “Ferdi is one of the last of the students whose dissertations I will be guiding. I do not feel old. I feel I have much yet to do. And yet, this defense is one of the last I will be moderating. I have taught at this university for more than 40 years. I have taught countless students. And Ferdi is one of them. I feel joy at knowing that I have taught so many. And yet I am also somewhat sad, knowing that a part of my academic career is coming to an end. And yet I am happy and thankful. Because I know that wherever my students are, there I will be. Wherever Ferdi goes, there I will be. Whomever he teaches, I will be teaching. Whatever he accomplishes, I will be part of it. I will live forever in my students. And Ferdi is one of them”.

I will never have children of my own. Not in the same way as my friends and former classmates do. People call us “father”, but no one will call us “dad”. People will love us and appreciate us, but no single one will be there for us to love alone, and who will love us alone. And we will not have children to carry on our name. A priest gives himself completely to his ministry, to the people given to his care, to the task the church gives to him, and then he moves on, knowing that the ministry is ultimately not ‘his’, the people are ultimately, not ‘his’, and the task ultimately belongs to someone larger and greater than himself, and will continue long after he is gone, just as it went on, long before he answered the call to become a priest. If we can speak of “sacrifice” in the life of a priest, this is it. But if we can speak of the priest’s “immortality” and therefore “greatest happiness”, this is it as well: that in giving himself and keeping nothing back, he “immerses” and “inserts” his life into that life that is Life itself. Prof. Jan Van der Veken was right, “we live forever” in those we serve, minister to, teach, whose lives we touch, whose joys we share, and whose pain and suffering we help bear.

Ten years into the ministry, and all I have is a deep sense of gratitude for having been given this amazing opportunity to be part of this “grand adventure”. The priesthood, I have come to gradually realize, is really a great adventure into the heart of life itself, it is an immersion into the very same mystery that God chose to be part of when he became one of us. It is entering into the “forest” of life and coming face to face with its profoundest depths, and there discovering as if for the first time, something one feels he has always known all along. And then, as he leaves that experience, he carries with him something that will only allow him to feel whole and complete if he shares it with others who will then continue and take up what he himself took up and continued before. In this he becomes a “bridge”, a “pointer”, a “marker-along-the-way”, a “sign” of something beyond, a “visible sign of an invisible grace”.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Last Homily of 2008 for the Seminary Community (Tuesday of the 2nd Week of Advent Year I: The Parable of the Lost Sheep)

I have a lot of happy and funny memories of exam weeks past, both as a student and later as a teacher. None perhaps more memorable than my experience with Gilbert, one of my students who was very diligent and hardworking, but not really very bright. He was also very nervous, especially with exams. During the final oral exam, Gilbert got so nervous that he literally sat on the edge of his seat and was getting tongue-tied as he answered my questions. At one point, his anxiety got so bad that he grabbed the cup of coffee on my table without realizing it was mine. He had already taken several sips before it dawned on him that it wasn’t his. And he got even more nervous. “Please don’t fail me, father”, he said. “How could I?” I asked. “We already drank from the same cup?”

A few weeks ago, somebody asked me what I thought was the single biggest difference between teaching at a university and in a seminary? I don’t think it’s that university classes are more difficult or more demanding. I don’t think it’s that material covered is more challenging and extensive in a university. I don’t even think it’s the definite “Catholic” character or identity to seminary teaching that necessarily spells the difference. That’s a given after all.

I do believe though, that teaching at a university can be far more “Darwinian” by nature. Teaching in a seminary (which is what all teaching should be anyway—whether in seminary, university, or elsewhere) is, what Nietzsche would call “stupid”. But let me explain.

University teaching is, for the most part, “sink or swim” for students. If you’re bright, quick, and fit, you’ll make it. You won’t only survive. You’ll thrive. If not, you’ll be left behind, and pretty soon you’ll be at the bottom of the class.

Teaching in seminary recognizes the bright, the quick, and the fit, but it doesn’t leave behind nor consign to the bottom of the food chain, those who aren’t. In fact, the voice of the weak is considered just as important as the voice of the strong. Everyone’s ideas are valuable: bright or otherwise.

But that’s stupid! Nietzsche would argue. By doing so, you water down what you teach and thereby weaken the strong without necessarily strengthening the weak. If you apply that kind of thinking to ordinary life, you’ll weaken the strong, and nobody wins.

Life is struggle. It’s survival of the fittest. Look at the animals. They allow weak offspring to die. Nature doesn’t look kindly on runts. They’ll only weaken the gene pool. Nature eliminates the feeble. It weeds them out.

Nietzsche calls caring for the weak, “stupid”, an abomination against nature. Jesus would call it “human”, an elevation of nature. And we are men, not animals.

It’s the way of humanity to take care not only of the strong, but especially the weak, the least, the needy, the poor, and the lost. And judging from today’s gospel, it’s the way of God as well.

So what’s the single biggest difference between teaching in a seminary and in a university? Seminary teaching should form us to be more like Christ, and less like Nietzsche: to care not only for the strong, but especially the weak. After all, as priests later on, God expects us to look after that one sheep that strays, and not just the ninety-nine that remain.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent

Every time a semester ends, every time I celebrate mass and greet people as they leave—I always find myself asking: “Did I make a difference?” “Did my teaching make a difference in the lives of my students?” “Did my preaching make a difference in the lives of those with whom I celebrated mass?”

It’s often hard to tell. Last Friday I was telling Dan that I had completed my 30th semester of teaching, turns out it was only the 29th. But over the weekend, as I did my readings, my prayer, my journal, I decided to go over my old school and student records that are, by the way, still saved in one of my files. I’ve discovered that I’ve taught approximately 122 classes, taught 3400 students, taught at seven seminaries, nine universities, and have celebrated at least 2500 to 2800 masses. That’s a lot of words!

Do my words make a difference? Do I even make a difference? A few years ago I had a student who had shown much promise in school. He was bright, hardworking, was a normal, well-balanced kid. He left in the middle of his college studies, and while he kept in touch for a while, after some time, I no longer heard from him. A couple years later, I learned from one of his friends that he had gotten involved in a gang, did drugs, killed someone, and was now in jail. I didn’t know the details of what had actually happened to him, but to this day, whenever I think of that former student, I couldn’t help but wonder: “Did I make a difference in that kid’s life?”

It’s one of those questions priests, doctors, teachers, counselors, and many others in the helping professions find themselves asking every once in a while. “Did I make a difference?” And I’m sure you have found yourselves asking that question as well. Whether its to your family, your friends, your classmates, or the people you meet or serve in the many things you’re asked to do as seminarians.

When I was newly-ordained and was particularly concerned whether I was being effective in what I was doing, I remember talking to this old Belgian missionary who had been in the missions for more than fifty years. “You plant the seeds”, he said.
“God does the watering. He does the nurturing. He does the harvesting as well. All you can do is plant the seeds”.

John the Baptist is one of the most important characters in the NT, after Jesus. The text we read today, the beginning of the gospel of Mark--scripture scholars tell us--is the actual beginning of each of the four gospels, that is, before the infancy stories were added to Matthew and Luke, and before the prologue was added to the gospel of John. In fact, check it out, Matthew and Luke 1 and 2 contain the "infancy stories", while the next chapter, Matthew 3 and Luke 3 have the same story as the gospel we just read. And in John, after the prologue from John 1:1-18, verse 19 begins with the same story about John the Baptist, we just read. John's preaching "opens" each of the four gospels.

John is such a prominent figure in Scripture. And yet, over and over again, John says he is no more than the messenger. He isn’t "worthy to untie the straps" of Jesus' sandals. He must "decrease" while Jesus must
"increase".

We are, in truth: seminarians, future priests, priests, every Christian, like John. We are but messengers. Our task is to plant the seeds, and leave the rest to God: the watering, the nurturing, the harvesting. We are, like John, but messengers. Christ is the message. We are pointers. Jesus is the point. We are road signs, Jesus is the way as well as the destination.

To realize this does two things to us: First it teaches us humility. It’s God’s work that we do. Not ours. It’s God’s people we minister to, not ours. It’s God’s church, not ours. Like Moses we hear God speaking to us: “Take off your sandals. The ground you walk on is holy ground”. Jesus saved the world two thousand years ago. We aren’t asked to save it again. A poet once said that all we do is “write one verse in the everlasting poem written by God himself”.

Second though, it teaches us confidence and trust in God whose work we do. We don’t have to keep worrying how our words, our preaching, our teaching, our homilies, are ultimately received by people. We simply plant the seeds. God does the watering, nurturing, and harvesting. And so there is nothing for us to worry about. For as the protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer, who was murdered by the Nazis, once said: “Our work is in good hands”. In God’s own time, he will bring to fruition the work he had us do. Or as Blessed John XXIII was said to pray when confronted by big problems in the church:
“It’s your Church O Lord. I’m going to bed. Amen.”

Have I made a difference? Perhaps we can never fully tell. But with humility and trust in our hearts, we know that God has made that “difference”—hopefully through us.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Homily for the First Sunday of Advent

A few days ago, as I was preparing for today’s homily, I turned on the TV and had Seinfeld going as I worked on the computer. It was that episode where one of Elaine’s girlfriends kept finishing every single one of Jerry’s sentences. And Jerry kept asking: “What does that mean? What does that mean?” Obviously, the idea was that he and this girl were getting to know each other too well and it was freaking him out that they were finishing each other’s sentences.

It’s true though. I’m sure some of us know people who are like that.

My grandparents were that way. I noticed it when I spent summer vacations as a boy at their house. My grandfather would be walking around looking for something and would say, “Have you seen…” “It’s on top of the fridge…” my grandmother would continue. While I thought it was freaky at first, I later found it quite fascinating. These two persons have been together for 60 years that they could pick up cues from one other and finish each other’s sentences. Their presence to each other made them know each other so well.

The First Sunday of Advent marks the day when we begin preparing to celebrate God’s presence to us at Christmas. And today’s readings speak, in turn of our presence to God and to others. It puts it in terms of being “awake", of being "ready". The gospel reading ends with a very important word from Jesus. "Watch", he says.

Being "awake" and being "ready" means being present in a way that goes beyond simply noticing. It means paying attention. It’s like what we do when we read the fine-print before signing important documents. Otherwise we could miss very important details.

Advent invites us to be more aware of God’s presence in our lives. But it also calls us to be awake to the kind of presence we have towards others. It invites us to pay special attention to them, so we can value and appreciate them more.

This whole season is really about being present to each other and to remember the importance of our relationships. It’s a great time to think of how we value one another. “Stay awake”, Jesus says. We enjoy life more when we are awake, when we don’t take each other for granted. Perhaps we’ve been unable to express our appreciation for those we love this past year? Advent is a time for making up for a lot of things. Later may never come.

In 1998, I returned home after almost seven years in Belgium. My grandmother was quite ill when I was away, and I had wanted so much to talk to her when I got back. She was already bedridden and I knew she wouldn’t last much longer. She was the first one I visited when I arrived. But she was asleep that evening. So I decided I’d come back some other time. But, I got so busy the next two weeks, I just kept putting off seeing her. One night, I got a call from my mom. My grandmother had passed away. I kept saying later. Later never came.

We would do well to be mindful of Jesus’ words today. Because Advent doesn’t only remind us of the value of what we have. It’s also a time of warning. It warns us that if we fail to value what we have, and make every effort to do what we can, while we have the chance—we may just realize one day that we’ve missed some really great opportunities.

Today’s celebration urges us: Don’t put off valuable things till later. You never know if there will be one.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A PRAYER TO GOD, FOR THE GRACE OF LETTING-GO

Loving God, I give you thanks for having called me
to this great and wonderful adventure called seminary life.
While my heart is filled with joy and my spirit with great excitement
I am slowly discovering that this path I have chosen
asks that I give up many things which have already become part of my life.
And let me be honest with you, I’m not finding it easy at all.
It is not always easy to let go of what I’ve gotten used to, Lord.

It’s difficult to let go of late night outings with my friends instead of studying.
It’s difficult to let go of mornings when I can stay in bed instead of going to prayer.
It’s difficult to let go of the good food I enjoy at home.
It’s difficult to let go of the freedom to go wherever and do whatever I please.
It’s difficult to let go of my friends, especially that girl whom I like so much.
It’s difficult to let go of those moments when I choose to be by myself
instead of having to deal with others in community.
It’s difficult to let go of my biases, prejudices, and ideas that give me comfort and security.
It’s difficult to let go of many more things, old habits really die hard.

This new life scares me at times too.
How do I know all this letting-go will bear fruit?
How do I know that giving up all these things
will result in my becoming happy with the path I have chosen?
How do I know that letting go of my former ambitions and dreams
will really allow me to give my life entirely to you?
How do I know that all this sacrifice will make a good priest out of me?
How do I know that I will not fall later on and cause pain and sorrow to your church?
How do I know that this is your will for me and not something I merely imagine?

Speak, Lord, your servant listens.
Let me put my trust completely in you.
Allow me to see that though the initial stage of my journey
may be dark, difficult, and uncertain,
your presence is more than enough to calm my fears,
to lighten my burden, and to give me the strength and courage
to stick to this path that I have chosen,
in the firm conviction that you who have called and asked me
to let-go of many things that have given comfort and security to my life
will give me in their stead, the greatest consolation there can be:
the knowledge that wherever I go, whatever happens, whomever I become,
you will always be there to love, guide, and protect me.

Amen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"Service": The new and only name for "power" Jesus gave his disciples

Power is an ambiguous reality. Exercised in and by the church throughout history, it has brought with it tremendous good as well as enormous suffering, pain, destruction, and yes, evil. No age in the history of the Christian community has been spared from its fortunate as well as unfortunate effects. This is perhaps the reason Christ, Scripture tell us, “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7), and commanded his church to speak another language. This is also why before commanding his disciples to preach the Good News in Matt. 28:18, Jesus reminds them first that “all power in heaven and on earth” had now been given to him (and to him alone). He also chose to give it a different name altogether when exercised by his followers. (Mk. 9:35) He called it ‘service’.

This isn’t ‘power for the sake of service’, nor is it ‘service exercised in and through power’. These are modifications and distortions of the simple and straightforward Gospel message by what became an imperialistic medieval Christianity whose claim to fame are the bloodbaths of the crusades and the torture and burning of countless souls. There’s can be no ‘power interpretation’ here. Christ called it ‘service’, period. And one who doesn’t get that is no different from James and John, and pretty much the rest of the disciples who, at one point, couldn’t understand that Jesus did away with the language of power once and for all. Of course, not all ‘couldn’t’ understand; some simply ‘wouldn’t’. And the spectacle of individuals throughout the church’s history who sought to ‘qualify’ or ‘modify’ Christ’s statement in order to accommodate ‘power interpretations’ is proof of this.

Consider Judas, supposedly the most intelligent of the disciples. Scripture scholars tell us that Judas most likely knew in his heart of hearts that Jesus was the Messiah. More than any in Jesus’ ‘inner circle’, he was the one who was most convinced that this carpenter was indeed the savior Israel was waiting for. Why otherwise would such a bright and clever man choose to follow a nobody? But more than any disciple as well, Judas was the one who not only failed to comprehend the kind of ‘power’ Jesus preached, he was also the one who refused to do so. And so began his effort to ‘qualify’ and ‘modify’ Christ’s message—according to his own interpretation. It was in fact Judas’ belief in what had become for him a ‘distorted’ understanding of Christ’s version of ‘power’ that led him to commit that fatal mistake.

We must not imagine Judas’ betrayal as a mere act of hatred towards his master, even if this might seem logical given the rebuke he receives from Jesus earlier on in the gospels (Matt. 26:6). It is rather, very possible that Judas, realizing that Jesus would never go the route of power as he understood it, resorted to something more drastic, something that in his mind, would force the hand of God to reveal to the world, once and for all, that this man Jesus was his Son, the all-powerful Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. If an act of betrayal would cause God’s only-begotten to suffer in the hands of the unrighteous, and if that would lead to the Almighty coming down with all his might and fury at the tormentors of his Son, then Judas was willing to take the chance and betray Christ—anything to once and for all show to the world, the might that he was convinced Jesus always had.

Sadly, Judas miscalculated, and in despair took his own life. Jesus would never go the way of power, especially not in the way the world had understood and wielded it. Judas got it all wrong. For the Incarnation, the kenosis or “self-emptying” of God represented the death-blow to power; and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ was the final act in the drama whereby power, though it continued to wield its influence in the world and its allure among men, would have forever been defeated. Christ’s death on the cross is the Father’s final ‘stamp’ in the saga of power’s demise and the ultimate affirmation that from hereon, the way of the “suffering servant” is the only way:

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”. (Mk 8:34)

Judas, however, wasn’t the only one. Neither was Peter, the ‘prince of the apostles’, an easy convert to Jesus’ understanding of power as ‘service’. Peter would hear none of the suffering Christ would endure (Matt. 16:32), and had flat-out rejected Jesus’ offer to wash his feet. He probably thought it unbecoming of a leader to stoop down and wash dirty feet (Jn 13:6). But Jesus was clear about it. Rebuking Peter in the gospel of Matthew for putting an “obstacle” on his way (Matt. 16:23), he lays down in very clear terms, for his disciples and all his future followers, the way power was to be understood from hereon:

“Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him”.
(Jn. 13:12-16)

‘Service’ is the only genuinely Christian way of understanding power, there is no other. We on our part, however, have often reduced Christ’s action to a ‘symbol’—like the washing of his disciples’ feet on Holy Thursday—that we fail to see how literal it was and how ‘non-symbolic’ is the demand attached. Service isn’t a ‘symbolic act’ done in order to merely recall Jesus’ action two thousand years ago. Service is a ‘real’ and ‘literal’ act expected of a Christian, especially a priest, in order to continue Jesus’ two-thousand-year old action, making it present in every age. Service is no after-thought, no icing on the cake, no mere sugar-coating. Service is what we are, or at least what we as followers of Jesus ought to be about.

Service is the only language of “power” those who wish to follow in the footsteps of Christ ought to use, for it was the only language Jesus himself employed. And self-effacement is the only acceptable response to the inevitable interpretation that the world will give to the service that we render—for the world can’t do otherwise. It will call our service, ‘power’, or ‘influence’, at times ‘clout’ or ‘importance’. At other times it will entice us with the thought that has entered the minds of a not a few well-meaning churchmen: that it’s perfectly alright to seek power as long as we seek to use it for good as well. Perhaps the unspoken idea is that it’s better to have it than not, for by having it, one can use it for doing good.

I was once talking to a fellow-priest (a friend from seminary in Belgium) who was so happy he was being given a new ‘title’—for him an obvious promotion. “This isn’t only a personal honor”, he told me when I asked why he seemed so delighted at the prospect, “this is also an opportunity for me to make use of the position and the title to further my pastoral plans and projects for the church. It’s not just for me, it’s for the people I’m serving as well”. Knowing he was a good man, I kept silent, inclined with all my heart to believe him and wish him well as he embarked on what I knew was going to be a dangerous and tricky game. In my mind meanwhile, a phrase I remembered from literature class in seminary kept repeating itself:
“He who sups with the devil must use a long spoon”.

Power is a corrupting reality. On rare occasions perhaps, and with the rarest of men, it may fail to do so. Think of Pope John XXIII, for instance. There was a man who understood quite well Christ’s warning about power. But how many among us can withstand its corruptions once it becomes ours? Mind you, Jesus himself said a very clear ‘no’ to it, right from the start. The temptation story in Matthew 4:1-11, as the theologian Bernard Harring says,
“totally unmasks the satanic temptations to use religion for the sake of utility, self-exaltation, and earthly power; and it reveals these temptations to be in direct opposition to the vocation of the Servant-Messiah”.

In his book Priesthood Imperiled, Häring tells an interesting event at the end of Vatican II:

“At the Second Vatican Council, warnings against Church triumphalism were frequently sounded. At the very last session, several cardinals, patriarchs, bishops, and some theologians, including myself, were gathered to discuss a final proposal to the Council, and it was this: We had planned that the Council Fathers should not return to their respective dioceses without first having solemnly pledged apostolic poverty and, above all, apostolic simplicity by renouncing all antievangelical titles... Several hundred bishops were ready for this step. However, time was pressing, and the proposal never came to pass”.

One can’t help but wonder what the church would be like if things had turned out differently, if what Häring relates came to pass. But that’s all wishful thinking now. What is certain is that we all have a long way to go in living out the ‘new understanding of power’ which Jesus had inaugurated, spoken in the plain and unadulterated language of self-effacing service that says simply, “I serve. All power belongs to Christ”. We have but to remind ourselves of what Paul and Barnabas did at Lystra when those who saw them heal a cripple wanted to offer them gifts and sacrifices, thinking they were gods (Acts 14:9-18). The pair refused the adulation, telling everyone that they were no different from them, and then pointing to God as the source of their good deed. (Acts 14:15)

The desire for power in whatever shape or form is a betrayal of Christ crucified. It’s a betrayal of the Christ who was baptized by John in the Jordan. It’s a betrayal of the Christ who washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. It’s a betrayal of the Christ who refused Satan’s offer of power in the desert. Make no mistake about it, and do not think that there can be a justification for seeking it. Calling it ‘responsibility’ doesn’t work, nor does saying that with it one can ‘do more’ for the church. And neither does piously declaring it to be a ‘burden one does not seek but which was merely placed on one’s shoulder’ make it more palatable. True discipleship consists in service, minus the trappings of power, honor, prestige, and popularity. Incidentals you call them? Then we can do away with them. They don’t belong to the substance and essence of what we are and what we’re supposed to be about anyway. There’s only one kind of ‘power’ that sits well with the Christ of the Gospels, its name is ‘service’. It has no other.

Strive, even in seminary therefore, to rid your minds of any possible ‘qualification’, ‘modification’, or ‘personal interpretation’ of the message of Jesus who came “to serve and not to be served” (Matt. 20:28). Instead, take the plain words of Christ literally, and take it to heart. There are some instances in which we must simply allow the plain and simple voice of Scripture to speak to us, with no attempt at dissembling. And the admonition to service is clearly one of those instances. Jesus’ rejection of the devil’s temptations in the desert is proof of it. One who seeks to follow in his footsteps must not only avoid actively seeking power and authority, he must not even think about it, especially not when he thinks of the service he is asked to render. This isn’t easy. But it has to be done. We must not deceive ourselves; it is best to steer clear of power, even the thought of it. Do not even contemplate what you would do if you were given the position “without seeking it or working for it”. This is idle thinking, and idle minds are the devil’s workplaces. Just free your mind of such thoughts and when they do enter your heads, banish them as quickly as you can. Remember, “He who sups with the devil must use a long spoon”. “Serve”, that’s all that Jesus asks us to do.

Monday, September 22, 2008

“I shall not harm.” (THE PRIEST AS PHYSICIAN OF SOULS)

The Hippocratic Oath, traditionally taken by physicians, believed to have been written by Hippocrates in the 4th century B.C., and (in a modern form), is still taken by students graduating from medicine today. (The modern translation is at the end of this article.)

Ὄμνυμι Ἀπόλλωνα ἰητρὸν, καὶ Ἀσκληπιὸν, καὶ Ὑγείαν, καὶ Πανάκειαν, καὶ θεοὺς πάντας τε καὶ πάσας, ἵστορας ποιεύμενος, ἐπιτελέα ποιήσειν κατὰ δύναμιν καὶ κρίσιν ἐμὴν ὅρκον τόνδε καὶ ξυγγραφὴν τήνδε.
Ἡγήσασθαι μὲν τὸν διδάξαντά με τὴν τέχνην ταύτην ἴσα γενέτῃσιν ἐμοῖσι, καὶ βίου κοινώσασθαι, καὶ χρεῶν χρηίζοντι μετάδοσιν ποιήσασθαι, καὶ γένος τὸ ἐξ ωὐτέου ἀδελφοῖς ἴσον ἐπικρινέειν ἄῤῥεσι, καὶ διδάξειν τὴν τέχνην ταύτην, ἢν χρηίζωσι μανθάνειν, ἄνευ μισθοῦ καὶ ξυγγραφῆς, παραγγελίης τε καὶ ἀκροήσιος καὶ τῆς λοιπῆς ἁπάσης μαθήσιος μετάδοσιν ποιήσασθαι υἱοῖσί τε ἐμοῖσι, καὶ τοῖσι τοῦ ἐμὲ διδάξαντος, καὶ μαθηταῖσι συγγεγραμμένοισί τε καὶ ὡρκισμένοις νόμῳ ἰητρικῷ, ἄλλῳ δὲ οὐδενί.
Διαιτήμασί τε χρήσομαι ἐπ' ὠφελείῃ καμνόντων κατὰ δύναμιν καὶ κρίσιν ἐμὴν, ἐπὶ δηλήσει δὲ καὶ ἀδικίῃ εἴρξειν.
Οὐ δώσω δὲ οὐδὲ φάρμακον οὐδενὶ αἰτηθεὶς θανάσιμον, οὐδὲ ὑφηγήσομαι ξυμβουλίην τοιήνδε. Ὁμοίως δὲ οὐδὲ γυναικὶ πεσσὸν φθόριον δώσω. Ἁγνῶς δὲ καὶ ὁσίως διατηρήσω βίον τὸν ἐμὸν καὶ τέχνην τὴν ἐμήν.
Οὐ τεμέω δὲ οὐδὲ μὴν λιθιῶντας, ἐκχωρήσω δὲ ἐργάτῃσιν ἀνδράσι πρήξιος τῆσδε.
Ἐς οἰκίας δὲ ὁκόσας ἂν ἐσίω, ἐσελεύσομαι ἐπ' ὠφελείῃ καμνόντων, ἐκτὸς ἐὼν πάσης ἀδικίης ἑκουσίης καὶ φθορίης, τῆς τε ἄλλης καὶ ἀφροδισίων ἔργων ἐπί τε γυναικείων σωμάτων καὶ ἀνδρῴων, ἐλευθέρων τε καὶ δούλων.
Ἃ δ' ἂν ἐν θεραπείῃ ἢ ἴδω, ἢ ἀκούσω, ἢ καὶ ἄνευ θεραπηίης κατὰ βίον ἀνθρώπων, ἃ μὴ χρή ποτε ἐκλαλέεσθαι ἔξω, σιγήσομαι, ἄῤῥητα ἡγεύμενος εἶναι τὰ τοιαῦτα.
Ὅρκον μὲν οὖν μοι τόνδε ἐπιτελέα ποιέοντι, καὶ μὴ ξυγχέοντι, εἴη ἐπαύρασθαι καὶ βίου καὶ τέχνης δοξαζομένῳ παρὰ πᾶσιν ἀνθρώποις ἐς τὸν αἰεὶ χρόνον. παραβαίνοντι δὲ καὶ ἐπιορκοῦντι, τἀναντία τουτέων.

A literal translation of the oath reads:

I swear by Apollo, Asclepius, Hygieia, and Panacea, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath.
To consider dear to me, as my parents, him who taught me this art; to live in common with him and, if necessary, to share my goods with him; To look upon his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art.
I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.
To please no one will I prescribe a deadly drug nor give advice which may cause his death.
But I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts.
I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.
In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or with men, be they free or slaves.
All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.
If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practice my art, respected by all men and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my lot.

* * * * *

There is a very ancient image of the priest which patterns itself after the identity of Jesus as healer. Ancient Christians understood Christ’s role as “savior”—soter in Greek and salvator in Latin—in terms of carrying God’s healing and life-giving balm. Jesus is the one who brings health and wholeness to a broken and sinful world. (The English word “salve” is itself derived from salvus which means “healing”.) In line with this thinking, the priest as an alter Christus is seen as one who mends broken hearts, heals hurting souls, and applies God’s soothing balm on pained and wounded lives. He is a “doctor of souls”.

The person of Jesus is the source of healing for the Christian, and conformation to his ‘image’ by means of imitation is the key element in the process. Jesus is the ‘image’ or ‘icon’ of the Father, the highest manifestation of God’s love for our fallen and broken world and his pledge of healing for souls that bear the wounds of sinful humanity. The Incarnation is the ultimate proof of God’s healing love, the ‘door’ through which one who desires his life to be made ‘whole’ passes. A person who is conformed to Christ, the Incarnation of God, also finds his life transformed from one that is shattered and fragmented to one that has become ‘whole’ and now has room for growth and enlargement.

Just as Jesus is the ‘icon’, the revelation of the Father’s healing love, the priest likewise serves in an iconic capacity—mirroring for the people to whom he ministers, the image of Christ, in much the same way as the bronze serpent crafted by Moses in the desert healed all those who looked upon it. There’s a certain ‘representationality’, even ‘sacramentality’ that’s going on here. For the priest is precisely that—a ‘representation’, ‘image’, ‘symbol’, ‘sacrament’, and ‘reminder’ of who and what Jesus is.

A priest’s very existence is encompassed and defined by such a relationship. In this relationship we find the essence of his healing ministry; apart from it he is a hollowed-out shell, able not to heal, but to harm. For just as the serpents in the desert poisoned and killed the Israelites, and it was the power of God, not the bronze serpent that healed those who were dying, so it is the person and the power of Jesus and not the priest, that heals the sorrowing heart.

It is important that our being healers in the image of Christ begin as early as our days in seminary. It happens when we strive to mirror to one another, Christ’s unconditional love and acceptance for us. Despite the relative comfort afforded by seminary life, there is much in seminary that causes pain and difficulty. The close proximity by which we live with one another and go about our daily business of formation sometimes gets the better of us. We sometimes tend to forget that we are in formation to approximate day by day, the loving, accepting, caring, and compassionate person of Jesus Christ. Patience with one another, tolerance, understanding, charity in speech, a thoughtfulness and concern that constantly anticipates the needs of those we live with, these are only some of the means by which we can gradually grow into the healing persons that priests are called to be.

However, just as there are ways by which we can imbibe the healing character of Christ, there are also ways by which we can not only lose it, but actually act against it. “I shall do no harm”—medical doctors make this ancient oath of Hippocrates, the father of medicine, reminding them of both their responsibility to heal, but also of the possibility that they can in fact end up hurting people instead of healing them, and destroying lives instead of building them up.

The Hippocratic Oath is a recognition that even a healer can in fact cause pain if he isn’t careful. And the difference between healing and wounding is sometimes defined not accidentally, but by a conscious choice on the physician’s part. The priest’s case, as a physician of the soul, is no different. For him, what spells the difference between causing pain and bringing healing to people, is a conscious choice to live, speak, and act never in himself, but in the person of Jesus the healer. Apart from this conscious choice, a priest can cause very great harm.

In this thoughts. A priest can cause harm when he fails to remember and recognize that he is not the source of his strength but Christ, that he is not the source of healing and therefore must not claim credit for himself, but always point to Christ as the sure foundation and ultimate purpose of his ministry. Failure to do so could lead him to wound others, because while they may find a temporary solution to their pains in him, this can only go so far, and ultimately, he fails to provide them with the complete and lasting healing of their wounds which only Jesus can give.

And he also wounds himself in the process, for when his personally-made solutions no longer help those he assists, he discovers in himself a yawning abyss and he is left with the most profound sense of ultimate uselessness and despair. He comes face to face with his nothingness. If Christ’s healing balm is not applied to this self-discovery, the priest enters into the downward spiral of self-destruction, dragging along the way, the lives of others he had originally intended to help. This is a tragedy of gigantic proportions, and priests must be careful that they do not enter into this path.
Pride comes before a fall.

In his words. When a priest loses sight of the intimate connectedness of his healing-work with the ultimate font of all healing—Jesus Christ—he begins to see himself and his ministry in a grossly exaggerated way. He becomes proud, vain, even pompous. Worse, he can start seeing others in a most deprecatory light—as individuals who are utterly dependent on him, and therefore, of second-rate status to himself, who is the “star of the show”. He comes to see himself as the repository and oracle of truth and the final arbiter of what is right and good.

Instead of being a tender of God’s Word meant to console and comfort the weak and sorrowing, his words can become like sharp knives that cut through the already scarred flesh of those he now looks down upon as his inferiors. Instead of binding the wounds of those weaker than himself, he can sprinkle salt on them and heightens their agony. Instead of empowering the weak, he can make them even weaker by making them utterly dependent on him. He starts to find joy in the thought that “they can’t survive without me”. But surely they can survive without him! The world and the church have existed long before we are born, long before we were ordained, and they will continue in existence long after we are gone. Jesus saved the world two thousand years ago, the priest is not meant to duplicate this saving act.

In his actions. When a priest forgets that he is no more than an instrument, and not “the healer” himself, he loses sight of his true identity and value, and begins to build monuments to himself. The repository of his self-worth, once the deepest part of his being where he is intimate with Christ, is now found externally—in his projects, his building plans, his programs, his crusades, his ambitions, degrees, and titles. He ceases to be a “wounded healer”, but a “wounding” one, running roughshod on anyone who stands in the way of his work. His ministry and service become a show. The people he assists and serves become means to an end. And his priesthood degenerates into a hollowed-out shell, an empty temple at the altar of which is erected no longer Christ, but himself.

The Incarnation is the key to avoiding this trap and is the first step to a priest’s conformation to the image of Christ the healer. The Incarnation is at the heart of the iconic understanding of the healing work of the priest. Just as Jesus is the Incarnation of the Father’s love for a broken world, so the priest is called to be the Incarnation of this continuing love in every age. He is tasked with communicating, not his own message, but the message of love and salvation that is from Christ. But it’s a task that can only be carried out to the full if the priest has become empty in himself and full of Christ. Even for his task as doctor of souls, kenosis--the emptying of self--is for the priest, the order of the day.

This is not self-debasement, instead it is the discovery of the greatest source of self-worth there can ever be, namely, knowing that one is an instrument in the hand of the Great Physician himself. It is the confidence wrought by knowing that I belong to Christ and am an extension of his healing work begun two thousand years ago and continues to this day.

* * * * *

Modern Version of the Oath taken by Graduates of Medicine Today:

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug.I will not be ashamed to say "I know not," nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient's recovery.I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

Text of the Modern Version written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University, and used in many medical schools today.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

THE PRIEST AS A "MAN FOR OTHERS"

There are many good and wonderful things that one learns in the years he spends in seminary. There is much growth, development, and personal improvement that one experiences through the many programs, activities, assessments and tasks that the seminary provides. In many ways, a seminary ‘pulls’ and ‘stretches’ a student in all sorts of directions in order to see how much of his potential can be realized—all for his personal good as well as the good of the church.

Good seminary programs are structured in a way that would allow those passing through them to become well-rounded, mature, and intelligent young men who will one day become effective ministers of the church. Do not wonder then if at times you would feel yourselves seemingly ‘swamped’ with a thousand-and-one things to do or attend to in seminary. And avoid as much as possible, the temptation to complain too much that you can no longer seem “to find time” for yourselves. Believe me, it’s early training, and good too. For when you do get ordained, one of the things you’ll discover you have to live with and accept, and later on appreciate perhaps, is the fact that there will really be very little time for yourself. Your day will be largely filled with activities, some of which you yourself arrange, but many still will be arranged for you by others.

Naturally, you will be expected to learn to keep everything ‘balanced’ as you go through it all. This means that as a seminarian now and later on as a priest, it is the expectation that while you will know how to set aside time for yourself: for prayer, rest and relaxation, reading and study, for a hobby here and there, the greater portion of your time will still be spent “laboring in the vineyard”, where there is indeed much to be done. While we must never neglect our personal needs—otherwise we risk frustration and burnout—the fact remains that as priests, God’s people come first. However good, effective, and efficient we might be as priests, our first and utmost priority must always be the service we render people, whatever shape or form that might take in our day-to-day living out of our ministry.

People come first. They always come first, within reasonable limits of course. But this statement, more than simply telling us that we should do as much good as we can for others, is actually an invitation to consider why in fact a priest (and a student preparing to become one) does the service that he does. And the answer is really very simple: that’s what a priest is. He’s “a man for others”. Take away all the trappings and peripherals that often hide who we are and what we do, strip away the layers of degrees and honors and positions that “come with the territory” and you will get to what is really the heart and core of what a priest is meant to be.

Living for others is a priest’s calling. In fact that’s what (hopefully) attracted him to the priesthood to begin with. And living for others was most probably one of the initial reasons we chose to be in seminary in the first place. It was for us, the first articulation of the reason behind what to other people may have been an incomprehensible decision: to want to become a priest. It may have been no more than a vague “feeling” or “desire” on our part, but that’s what was most definitely there at the initial stage of our journey in formation. And seminaries are meant to be environments where that initial, and often vague and uncertain “feeling” of wanting to “live for others” is nurtured, directed, and concretized through the different programs that take care of your intellectual, spiritual, communal, personal, social, and pastoral formation.

So as you can see, “living for others” is the raison-d’etre of everything we do in seminary from the very first thing you do when we get up in the morning, to the last prayer we say before retiring at night. The “other” is the ever-present glue that holds together our entire life as a seminarian and as a priest. The desire to “live for others” is also the ever-present spirit that should direct all our efforts, activities, and goals in seminary formation. Seminary students are young men who are being formed to be “other-centered” persons. As priests, this orientation towards others is absolutely indispensable in living our calling as ministers of the gospel and servants of Christ’s flock. There is simply no alternative.

In our concrete day-to-day life in seminary, however, it is sometimes difficult to fully understand or even be reminded of this. How in fact does living in seminary make one a “man-for-others”? Do not imagine this to be an easily answered question, for we know only too well that while the seminary tries to train us in generosity, hospitality, and service-orientedness, there is also much in seminary that can make us turn too much towards ourselves. How many seminarians become, over the years, seemingly too involved, preoccupied, and concerned with themselves?

The ever-present admonition in seminary to “be mindful of oneself”—meaning to understand oneself, one’s strengths, weaknesses, sins, etc.—is meant for our good. The constant reminder to us to look into our hearts and souls is meant, we are told, to “purify one’s intentions” and rid us slowly of things in us that do not befit a future minister of the church. But like any good thing in this world, there is also a ‘downside’ to this admonition, and that is it could degenerate into unnecessary ‘navel-gazing’ and an introspection that loses touch with its original goal—to rid oneself of the ‘self’ in order to live for others.

This exercise in the seminary contains a tremendous paradox—going into oneself in order to lose that very self so that one can live no longer for himself but for others. And it is precisely because of this paradox that we can get waylaid at times and forget that “going into oneself” is meant to allow us to “lose that very self” eventually. But it doesn’t happen for everybody, and despite outward appearances and talk about “living for others” and “serving others”, they remain mired in concern for the self. Be careful then, and be awake to the dangers inherent in analyzing yourself, however well-intended such activity might be, for you may lose yourself in the labyrinth of selfhood and never get out.

“The unexamined life is not worth living”, said Socrates thousands of years ago. While agreeing with the father of western philosophy, however, we must also add: “The overly-examined life is not worth living either”. For the basic nature of the human being—actually of all created things—is to live “outside oneself”. Remember those worn-out truisms about us being “social animals”, and that “no-man-is-an-island”? Well, they’re more than just truisms. They’re an articulation of a basic fact of all life. We only find our true self by losing it, and although losing it initially requires us to immerse ourselves in an understanding of it, we must never forget that this initial immersion is no more than a means to a ‘selfless’ end. It’s never the final point of the exercise. Kenosis, the Greek word for the “self-emptying” activity whereby God incarnated himself as one of us, must always remain the pattern of a seminarian’s life, now and later on as a priest.

These ideas do sound high and abstract: kenosis, self-emptying, other-orientation. Too lofty, they seem most difficult to reach, which is probably why most either give up somewhere along the way, or simply reject it as too naïve and idealistic a goal. It really isn’t though. In fact it’s quite readily achievable, but it does take constant practice, and it requires consistency. How? Through what we can call “the art of being thoughtful”. You see, thoughtfulness is a virtue so simple, and yet so rare, especially in our society and world today where people seem too preoccupied with personal needs, wants, worries and concerns.

Thoughtfulness is the key to steering a middle-ground between being consistently mindful of our selves and the need to be constantly on guard against the danger inherent to it. Thoughtfulness is what can enable us to live the “examined life” and the “other-oriented life” at the same time. And it is an art, which means it isn’t something we naturally become. While even the human (and some natural sciences) today tell us that our very nature as individuals is “socially-oriented”, that’s just a seed. Nurturing it requires a lot of effort on our part, a daily, even hourly effort. Concretely, this means “thinking of the other person” first, putting the other person first, caring for and loving the other person first, with the firm realization that only in this way do we then manage to genuinely know and love ourselves. I do remember one of my professors in seminary saying that to us. “Live for the other”, he said, “it’s the only true way of living for your self”.

When you get up in the morning, put yourself into that mode of thinking by telling yourself “I will do good to and for someone today. I will actively seek out persons to help and support. I won’t wait for people to come to me seeking my assistance. I won’t be nosy, but I will look for good deeds to do”. And throughout the rest of the day, do not only seek out good things to do for others, be mindful as well of how your actions, decisions, and choices affect them. This doesn’t mean that others will determine what you will decide, choose, or do, but it does mean that others—and your “thoughtfulness” of them—will become a genuine ingredient in what you do, eventually leading to a situation whereby “thoughtfulness of the other” becomes a genuine ingredient in who and what you are.

Friday, September 19, 2008

LOVING THOSE WHOM WE OFTEN PASS BY (Homily for Friday, Sept. 19, 2008, 24th Week in Ordinary Time)

“Jesus journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources”. (Luke 8:1-3)

* * * * *

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, shelo asani ishah.

These are lines from the ancient Aleinu, a prayer Jewish males during the time of Jesus would pray every morning. Translated, the line means:

"Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who did not make me a woman."

Imagine that! There’s nothing surprising about the prayer though (and I must add that Judaism has in fact reformulated the prayer so that the negative reference to women is no longer included in the Aleinu’s contemporary form.)

Still, there’s no denying that women during Jesus’ time were regarded as ‘inferior’ to men—on so many levels. And this wasn’t just the case with the Jews. Their neighbors, the Greeks and Romans were no different. Plato and Aristotle, for instance, regarded women as “inferior by nature”, and insisted that women came about as a “degeneration of human beings”. Aristotle went as far as to call them “infertile males”.

Jewish rabbis would not normally have women tagging along with them, especially not as followers or disciples. In fact associating with women openly in public was something that was simply frowned upon. Remember that encounter Jesus had with the Samaritan women at Jacob’s well? When Jesus asked her for a drink, her reply was: “How could you, a man and a Jew, be asking me, a Samaritan and a woman, for a drink? She didn’t simply say “Samaritan”; she had to add “woman” to that.

Or recall the gospel reading from yesterday (Luke 7:36-50), when Simon the Pharisee was simply scandalized that this prophet and holy man who had come to his house was allowing this sinful woman to bathe his feet in perfume and tears and wipe them with her hair. “If this man were a prophet,he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him”, declares the horrified Pharisee.

And yet that is precisely what Jesus did. He didn’t only associate with these second-rate members of his society, he even welcomed them in his group—as today’s gospel reading tells us.

When I first entered seminary many years ago, I was asked to be part of a group of students who served at the cardinal archbishop of Manila’s masses. It was fun as we got to meet a lot of people—usually archbishops, cardinals, and bishops, and we got to go wherever the cardinal went. We also got to skip classes whenever there was a service and we were needed. (That was probably one of the things I enjoyed he most!)

One time, I was loading the seminary van with the things we needed for a mass. One of the boxes was a little too heavy and I was having problems lifting it up. A student, George, who saw me came running and offered to help. “Where’s the mass this time?” he asked. “At the cathedral…the cardinal of Cologne is visiting and we have to serve at his mass”, I replied. “Must be great to serve at the cardinal’s masses”, George said. “Sure. Haven’t you served at any of them?” George suddenly became quiet, and then replied: “I doubt I’ll get to serve at any of them. I’m not presentable enough”. I didn’t really understand what he meant by that. I do remember George being a very short and rather overweight kid who had sort of a hunched posture. I figured that’s what he meant.

I totally forgot about that conversation. A few years later, after I got my doctorate and was ordained, I began teaching in seminary. Now I’ve always liked having smart and intelligent students in class. Back then, however, I only had time for them. If there were four or five very bright students in class, I would often allow them to ‘monopolize’ pretty much the whole conversation in the classroom. Sometimes without my realizing it, I was actually talking only to them. I was paying so much attention to the bright ones, I didn’t realize I was neglecting the other students.

One day, Albert, one of the older priests in the seminary who’s like this grandfather-figure to everybody called me aside and said to me: “I need to tell you something. You know, one of your students came to me. He was rather sad and disappointed because he thought you were only interested in the bright students in your class. He said he really liked your class but didn’t feel you were giving him and the others enough attention.”

Suddenly, I remember that conversation I had with George many years ago. How could I be so blind? I had gotten so interested in my smart students and had totally neglected the others who weren’t as bright and articulate.

You see, it’s far easier to like smart people, pleasant people, presentable people, and nice people. It’s far more difficult to like all the others who aren’t. Just as in Jesus’ time, women, children, tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, lepers, the poor, and the outcasts were neglected and often forgotten, so it is in our time.

The actions of Jesus in today’s gospel challenge us all. When we become priests, are we going to treat with greater concern and deference those who are smart, wealthy, presentable, pleasant? Or are we going to have what the late Pope John Paul called a “preferential love" for the poor, the needy, the outcasts, the difficult, the not-so-smart, the not-so-presentable, and all those who are often passed by because they are not easy to like and to love?

Jesus cast his lot with those at the margins. Today he challenges us to do the same.

"Run, jump, shout. But do not sin". - Saint John Bosco, Patron of the Youth

Our religion, our faith is one of joy, of liberation, of strength of courage, of the attitude that says “with God nothing is impossible” (Lk 1:37). It is a religion that seeks to make us happy in this life and hopeful for the next. Suffering, pain, oppression, weakness and disappointment have value only in so far as they can be transformed into instruments or pointers to the joy that comes after. Good Friday is valuable because a Christian knows that there is going to be an Easter. “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your victory, o death where is your sting?” (I Cor 15:54-55) Death is not the final word. Life is. Suffering and pain are not the promised lot to those who believe. No, it is happiness and joy. As such, Paul is able to declare: “With Christ we are more than conquerors” (Rom 8:37).

Put in very simple terms, God wants you to be happy. He is not an isolated God, untouched and unmoved by our plight. Nor is he a vengeful God who seeks only that he be placated by our suffering and pain. We must—and here we have to somewhat agree with Nietzsche—disabuse ourselves of that “nonsense”. It is what keeps people weak, and it gives religion a bad name when it wrongly stresses that suffering is always good and life is misery and pain. No. Life is joy, and victory over sin. Our vocation is one of happiness and fulfillment in Christ. And seminary is not a miserable place to be in, where one must live in constant fear that he might be having too much fun and thus is possibly committing a sin.

“Run, jump, shout”, says St. John Bosco, the great modern apostle to the youth. And then adds, “but do not sin”. Seminary life should be a true celebration of vocation, an explosion of joy at being called by God, and humility at finding the heart to respond to that grace. Seminary formation should be a joyful and generous outpouring of oneself to the stirring of divine grace in the hearts of young men who have reached deep inside their souls, and found a calling to lead others to the joy they have experienced, and who cannot help but reach out to a God who has so lovingly called them to give themselves in trust to his invitation that they follow him to a land unknown, with nothing more than the promise that he shall be with them every step of the way.

The words of God addressed to the prophet Jeremiah are also addressed to the young men he has called and who have responded to his gracious invitation: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you” (Jer 1:5) These are not words of privilege or predilection, rather they are words that manifest the great tenderness and care that God has for those whom he has chosen to serve him. In seminary we are often told to have faith and trust in God because “the one who has called us will also see to it that we are provided with everything that we need”. What more can we ask for?

“Consider the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more important than they? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you?” (Matt 6:26-30)

It is trust in the love and providence of God that must lie at the foundation of your joy and happiness as seminarians. As priests, it should also be the source of our strength and consolation, not anything external to ourselves like our accomplishments, projects, degrees or titles. These are all ‘peripheral’ and ‘marginal’ to who and what we are as individuals called by God to a unique kind of relationship with him—a relationship so deep that he alone becomes the source of our happiness, our fulfillment, and personal worth.

As early as now therefore, strive to develop in yourself that sense of joy and happiness that should characterize the life of a faithful follower of Christ. This is the single greatest blessing you can share with those to whom you shall minister in the future. This is also what the “Good News” is all about. And we are meant to be its messengers. This does not mean that we shall never encounter difficulty, heartache, sorrow, or even tragedy in our lives. Those are “givens” of human existence. “All life is suffering”, is one of the most important teachings of Buddhism. But while there is much truth to it, and while it is important for us to realize the limitations of human life, it is also possible to take that idea to an unhealthy extreme.

Gipsy Smith, an American evangelist once said, “There are five gospels of Jesus Christ—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and you, the Christian. Many people will never read the first four”. For many people, the life that we as followers of Christ live, will be the greatest and perhaps the sole gospel or proclamation of Jesus’ message that they shall ever encounter. Would that what comes across to them is a message of joy, hope, and victory, and not one of defeat. This attitude, of course, is not necessarily something we’re born with, though some of us may have a sunnier disposition than others. Neither is it something that is learned overnight. Nor is it an attitude you pick up when the bishop lays his hands on you at ordination. Rather, it is something that we should imbibe, develop, and master while still in seminary. Call it “the art of being happy” or perhaps “the art of seeing the seminary as a place where one can be happy”.

John Bosco’s admonition to his youth, “Run, jump, shout, but do not sin”, should be the motto of every seminarian. Seminaries should not be places that form dour and sad-looking young men who walk around as if they were carrying the burden of life and existence on their shoulders. They’d end up dour and sad-looking priests later on. Parishioners don’t appreciate that. Seminaries should instead be places where young men live in an atmosphere of gratefulness to God for allowing them to be there, of profound joy and happiness at discerning and growing in God’s will, and of unshakeable trust and confidence that
“with God all things are possible”.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

THE PRIEST: A PRAYER ON A SUNDAY NIGHT (From: Michel Quoist, Prayers of Life, pp. 49-51.)

Tonight, Lord, I am alone.
Little by little the sounds died down in the church.
The people went away,
And I came home,
Alone.

I passed people who were returning from a walk.
I went by the cinema that was disgorging its crowd.
I skirted café terraces where tired strollers were trying
to prolong the pleasure of a Sunday holiday.
I bumped into youngsters playing on the footpath,
Youngsters, Lord,
Other people’s youngsters who will never be my own.

Here I am, Lord,
Alone.
The silence troubles me,
The solitude oppresses me.
Lord, I’m 35 years old,
A body made like others,
ready for work,
A heart meant for love,
But I’ve given you all.
It’s true of course, that you needed it.
I’ve given you all, but it is hard, Lord.
It’s hard to give one’s body; it would like to give itself to others.
It’s hard to love everyone and to claim no one.
It’s hard to shake a hand and not want to keep it.
It’s hard to inspire affection, only to give it to you.
It’s hard to be nothing to oneself in order to be everything to others.
It’s hard to be like others, among others, and be an other to them.
It’s hard always to give without trying to receive.
It’s hard to seek out others and to be oneself unsought.
It’s hard to be told secrets, and never be able to share them.
It’s hard to carry others and never, even for a moment, be carried.
It’s hard to sustain the feeble and never be able to lean on one
who is strong.
It’s hard to be alone,
Alone before everyone,
Alone before the world,
Alone before suffering,
death,
sin.

Son, you are not alone,
I am with you.
I am you.
For I needed another human vehicle to continue my Incarnation
and my Redemption.
Out of all eternity, I chose you.
I need you.

I need your hands to continue to bless,
I need your lips to continue to speak,
I need your body to continue to suffer,
I need your heart to continue to love,
I need you to continue to save,
Stay with me.

Here I am Lord,
Here is my body,
my heart,
my soul,
Grant that I may be big enough to reach the world,
Strong enough to carry it.
Pure enough to embrace it without wanting to keep it.

Grant that I may be a meeting-place, but a temporary one,
A road that does not end in itself, because everything to be gathered there,
everything human, must be led to you.

Lord, tonight, while all is still and I feel sharply the sting of solitude,
While people devour my soul and I feel incapable of satisfying their hunger,
While the world presses on my shoulders with all its weight
of misery and sin,
I repeat to you my “yes”—not in a burst of laughter, but slowly,
clearly, humbly,
Alone, Lord,
before you,
In the peace of the evening.

St. Paul's "all things for all people" doesn't mean "jack of all trades, master of none".

Modern science has come a long way because it developed two very important ways of looking at life: focus on the particular and specialization. Focusing on the particular has freed it from the chains of the medieval penchant for vague and general conclusions with little interest in careful observation and thoroughness in testing. This has allowed science to develop an arm that has entered the life of so many human beings today—technology. Specialization on the other hand has allowed it to study particular objects with a focus so fierce, scientists get to know them in their smallest detail. This results in a tremendous power of control and mastery over many things.

Because of specialization and particularity of focus, progress, development, and knowledge of the natural world have become synonymous with science itself. This has not only given science its tremendous respectability and made its success the envy of every other intellectual enterprise, it has also assured it of continued success and progress for generations to come.

Of course, there is also much that is undesirable to these ways of modern science. And we hear a lot about it, mostly from religious folks who decry its lack of ‘humanity’, it’s often disregard for what is ‘valuable’ and ‘sacred’ in life. We must also not fail to mention that the particularity and specialization which are science’s strengths are also its weak points, since they prevent it from seeing “the larger picture”, as well as the “meaning”, and “significance” of things (although we must add that these are really not its primary concern). Be that as it may, the fact remains that there is much that we can learn from the scientific way.

One of the things I found most disconcerting as a seminarian, and most counter-productive to formation when I got assigned to seminary, was the idea that one had to be good in everything. Don’t get me wrong, the church is absolutely right to insist that its future priests be “the best they can be” and develop as many talents as possible and be good in as many areas of ministry there are. Still one can also have too much of a good thing, and forcing oneself to be good in something one obviously doesn’t have a knack for is just as bad as insisting a priest who has no gift for working with young people, be assigned to work with them.

This doesn’t mean of course that students must ‘pigeon-holed’ in seminary, figuring out where one is good at and insisting he there without the possibility of exploring other possible areas of skill and talent. Part of the adventure of seminary life is precisely discovering as many gifts we have and realizing these as ways of preparing ourselves for the work of ministry in the future. The point therefore is not to close oneself to the possibility that there may be other areas that one can be good at, it is rather realizing that eventually, we shall have to settle on which of these areas we really wish to be good at, to be “experts” or “masters”.

Adrian Van Kaam, in his book “Religion and Personality”, says that the mature individual is one who realizes that while there are many areas of specialization and expertise he may choose to go into, there is really just one or two that he can finally opt to be truly good at in life. Part of growing up as a person is realizing that paths do need to be closed, not all roads need to be taken—simply because they can’t, and finally, that choice is really important, because it is what makes us realize what shape we would really like our life to have. Being good at a lot of things is important, especially for one preparing to be a priest one day. But being good at a lot of things must never preclude our being “extremely good” at one or two things, i.e., being a “master” of a particular domain of human interest or in our case, a specific area of ministry.
Are you interested in psychology, counseling, sociology, the natural sciences, philosophy, theology, human relations, management and administration, diplomacy, education, research? Are you interested in dogmatic or pastoral theology, liturgy, scriptures, homiletics and preaching, canon law, church history, music, art, moral theology? One can be many things as a priest and part of seminary formation involves allowing the student to discover his “area of interest”, which can later be transformed into his “area of expertise”. It represents a recognition of the human drive and desire not only for self-fulfillment but also for excellence, not for one’s sake simply, but especially for the sake of the church.

We must be, as St. Paul says, “all things to all people”. There is no denying that. But within that larger goal, it is not only possible, but very much advisable, that we find smaller goals or areas in which we can fulfill that deep-seated human longing to give the best of ourselves, to spend ourselves as much as we can in order to allow our spirit to burst free and join in the creative Spirit of God that continues to transform and renew the world by drawing upon the best in each human being. It is in this way that we can become true “instruments” in God’s hands.

It would be a sad day for the church if its pastors, especially one of its future ones—yourself—were to misunderstand Paul’s words and turn yourself into some kind of “jack of all trades, master of none”. It’s a sure recipe for spreading yourself out too thinly and then experiencing stress, disappointment, frustration, and burnout. It is also one of the chief culprits behind some priests’ inability to delegate some authority and responsibility to subordinates and lay people. Thinking that “the whole world rests on their shoulders” and living still in that worldview which says “Father knows all”, some of us become “micromanagers”, forgetting the all-important principle of subsidiarity in the church. [My old spiritual director used to constantly remind me: “You’re not meant to save the world. Jesus already did that two thousand years ago”. I believe he’s right.]

A priest who is a “jack of all trades, master of none” will have very little appreciation for the expertise of others, whether fellow-priests or laypeople. He will have a tendency to downplay the strengths of those around him or worse, feel such self-doubt that he will quash and stifle any possible leadership potential that may arise among his parishioners for instance. This could very well arise from feelings of fear and bitterness as the jack-of-all-trades priest sees others in the church taking on responsibilities that used to belong to priests alone. And since at one point practically everything did belong to the domain of the priest, he will more and more see the growing expertise especially of laypeople as an “encroachment” upon his traditionally held bailiwicks.

‘Letting-go’ and having confidence that others can be just as good, perhaps even better than himself at executing important tasks, is probably the biggest hurdle a jack-of-all-trades priest will have to face. Trust in God’s Spirit always at work in the world—in himself and others—is the most important virtue he needs to develop.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

WHAT GIFTS ARE YOU BRINGING TO THE CHURCH?

When I was assigned dean of men in seminary many years ago, I remember inviting the students to give trust and openness a chance in order that good things may result. And while it took a while for many of them to accept that invitation, it did come eventually; and while I was aware of how difficult it was for some, it was truly gratifying that by the time I was getting a new assignment, most of them had in fact found their way out of their shells and opened themselves up to the possibility that the priests who were assigned to form them really had their best interest in mind. To put it more simply, while it took a while before it actually happened, most if not all, of them eventually trusted that we were genuinely interested in them, and were not merely doing our job.

This calls to mind a conversation I had with my spiritual director in Louvain. Fr. Rick Friedrichs was a wonderful priest from Rhode Island, whose ways with us his students spoke very clearly of his care and concern for those he was guiding. At one of our meetings, during a pause in the conversation, I remember asking him a question which probably caught him by surprise, but which, I guess, didn’t really bother him. “Do you really care for your spiritual directees or are you just doing it because it’s your job?” I was afraid I had offended him by asking a question that seemed to suggest that I didn’t trust him enough. Always the perceptive guy however, Fr. Friedrichs must’ve sensed that I was asking a sincere question. “Both”, he said. “It is a job”, he added, “I wouldn’t deny that. But it’s not just a ‘job’. It’s what I do. I’m a spiritual director, and I love what I do, I like guiding, assisting, and caring for people very much. And you’re one of them”. His response was both sincere and real. I was to have a very similar conversation with one of my students in seminary years later.

That answer I got from my spiritual director—“loving what we do”—is a great way of bringing together the two sides of our concept of ‘vocation’. On the one hand, vocation is about God calling us, inviting and drawing us to him. But vocation is also about us responding to that invitation, of being attracted to God’s invitation, because of a seed that he has planted deep in our hearts. What exactly is this ‘seed’? In the first chapter of the gospel of John, we find what could well be a most profound way of understanding what this ‘seed’ is. Two of John the Baptist’s disciples begin following Jesus after the latter points to him as the “Lamb of God”. Out of a great curiosity, or a strong initial interest perhaps, they tail Jesus for a while, until he turns around, looks at them both and asks: “What are you looking for?” (Jn 1:38)

“What are you looking for?” A better sense-translation of the Greek, ti zeteite, would probably be “What do you want?” The Greek zetein— “to search”, means in a more profound sense, “to desire for something”. What Jesus was asking the two curious ones was in fact, what they “desired”—i.e., what they most eagerly wanted, what in their heart of hearts they longed for more than anything else. To which they respond of course, with a question that spoke of what was in their hearts: “Teacher, where do you stay?” It was a question that in effect meant, “We want to know you more. We want to know who you really are. Show us where you live. Take us there. Take us with you.” What is most interesting about this episode is that Jesus takes them with him, saying: “Come and see”. (Jn 1:39)

Desire is the force that powers the universe. We’re not talking about some superficial kind of ‘wanting’ here, like wanting to be wealthy or popular, or powerful. Nor does this kind of desire include in its scope, desire for what is obviously wrong and misguided. What we’re referring to instead is, knowing what one, in the “innermost core” of himself, earnestly seeks in life. We’re talking about vision and goal, of ultimate purpose. We’re talking about what we normally mean when we use language like “what I am called to do”, “what I would like to be”, “what shape I would like my life to take”. Just as Jesus’ question to the curious followers of the Baptist was the foundational question that led them to follow him more closely, so too is that question which God himself has planted deep in our hearts—“what do I so earnestly seek in life”—the foundational question of all true vocation.

Noli foras ire, in te redi, in interiore homine habitat veritas, says St. Augustine. “Do not go out of yourself, go within, truth dwells in the inner man”. God has placed the seed of vocation deep within our hearts and souls and it is there that he speaks to us, inviting us, and showing us the way. Unfortunately, most of the time, we are like the disciples after the Ascension, constantly “looking up to heaven” for signs that should rather be sought from within. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” (Acts 1:11) Vocation is about looking into ourselves, taking stock of the gifts, talents, skills that God has given us, and asking ourselves in all honesty, what it is that we would like to make of these blessings. “What would I like to do with these gifts?” “What would I like to do with my life?” “What would I like to be?”

“What would you like to be when you grow up?” was a question we were all asked as children. As we do “grow up”, however, we learn two important things: first, that being “grown up” is not so much a final stage one arrives at in life, it’s rather a long and never-ending process; and second, we never really outgrow that question, “What would you like to be?” Life after all—our “calling” to “be all we can be”—is very much like “growing up”, it’s a never ending process that calls us to never cease responding to the invitation placed before us by God himself. Put more simply, it’s being aware of those special gifts, the “charisms” we have, and putting them to good use.

As a student in Louvain, I had the opportunity to be among six students interviewed by the board of benefactors of the seminary. One of the questions I remember from that encounter was asked by the owner of a large European company. After telling us that he appreciated everything we said about our faith, vocation, studies, etc., he paused, took a deep breath and said: “Now gentlemen, tell me, what do you wish to do as priests?” He wasn’t at all expecting the usual “celebrate the mass”, or “be a good or holy priest”, response. He was asking us what line of work, what specific area of ministry, we wanted to go into as priests and which we thought we would be good at. In terms more familiar to us, he wanted to know what “charisms” we believed we had, were bringing into the church, and wanted to realize and live out as priests.

My spiritual director’s answer to the question I asked him hit the nail on the head. He was happy with his work, his ministry. He was good and effective at it, because he “loved what he was doing”. He was “a spiritual director”. That was his gift from God, that was his charism, and being a good spiritual director was his way of realizing that gift and responding to his vocation. One always goes the extra mile when he truly appreciates, enjoys, and loves the work he does. And that was why when we, his spiritual directees, would talk about him, the common experience we all shared was that this was one happy and fulfilled priest, who loved his ministry and whose life was “whole”. And that happiness, fulfillment, and “wholeness” rubbed off on everyone he met and ministered to, his directees most of all

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

BECOMING AWARE OF OUR GIFTS (CHARISMS)

“A person who likes what he does will always be happier than one who feels himself ‘a square peg in a round hole’”. These are words of advice I received from an old priest who used to talk to me all the time about “charisms”. St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians says: "Every one has his proper gift [charisma] from God; one after this manner, and another after that" (I Corinthians 7:7). ‘Charisms’ are the spiritual graces and qualifications granted to every Christian to perform his task in the church. Whether as seminary students or priests, a key to being happy with our chosen state of life is knowing what we want to be and do. “Being aware” of our charisms and gifts, and “being awake” to our interests, goals, visions, and dreams for our formation and ministry are indispensable in keeping our hearts in the right place. But it’s a “key”, not a “magic formula” to secure happiness and fulfillment.

However, it is quite easy to fall into either of two extremes here. On the one hand, we could be too preoccupied with our charisms and talents and their ‘realization’ that we become frustrated and disillusioned when we find ourselves in a situation that doesn’t always allow to us utilize and develop them to the full. On the other hand, we can also be cynical at the outset and simply tell ourselves that since there’s no guarantee that we can get what we want anyway, then there’s no reason to even consider what we want as part of what could give us happiness and joy in our chosen state of life.

Both attitudes are really unhealthy, and run counter to what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ. Many years ago, a seminarian expressed his disappointment to me at not being able to give all his time to his academic pursuits when he was so convinced that his intellect could be his greatest contribution to the church as a priest. Another lamented the fact that he wasn’t being allowed to pursue his musical interests more, when he was as a matter of fact, good at it. But being good at something is one thing, insisting that because we are good at it—because we are aware of our talents, because we know our skills—then we must always have the assurance that things will go our way, and we will get what we want in realizing them, is another.

This is a sure recipe for frustration and disappointment. For it is a basic reality of our lives as seminarians and priests that we live under obedience. And although the present climate in the church really doesn’t seem too keen on using the term anymore, it is in fact, one of the promises of ordination. And formation in the seminary requires a good deal of it. True, it’s a promise one doesn’t formally make until his day of ordination, but that doesn’t mean we can’t already strive to live and build it up day after day while yet in seminary. Besides, whoever said it would be completed and perfected on the day we’re ordained, such that the struggle to live it would come to an end? The struggle to live under obedience only takes on a more public form at our ordination—becoming something for the sake of service to the people of God. It doesn’t begin nor end there.

While yet in the seminary, our ‘obedience’—if it is to be genuine—must take the form of struggling to live with the tension that necessarily accompanies our deep knowledge and acceptance of our uniqueness as persons as well as our charisms, with the rightful demands of the seminary program that seek to develop not a few of these gifts, but as many of them as possible. Maximization of an individual’s potentials should be the chief aim of formation, allowing the student to view the grand vista of the many possibilities his God-given talents would allow him, for his own good and for the good of the church. But this should also be the motivation of each student. To focus on just one gift and to insist that it be the sole aim of one’s formation is myopic and while it might give the impression that one is developing a particular gift to the full, it’s actually quite minimalist since it prevents him from discovering that there might be greater possibilities for personal growth that he is overlooking.

Even as a priest, one is never guaranteed that one’s personal charism will always be fully utilized. This has been a source of frustration for some priests, but it has also been a blessing to many who have found other, or should we say ‘additional’, strengths, while remaining fully aware of where their happiness truly lies. What is important is that we “do know” what we want, that we are “aware” of what we’re all about as a person, as a man, and as a priest. Being men who have given our word to minister wherever the church needs us, it is vital that we are “awake” to this foundational component of our vocation—our “charism” as an individual.

But because we do in fact live lives in the service of the church’s needs, it is also absolutely important that we do not equate our ”full knowledge” and “appreciation” of our gifts with being able to “fully actualize” them. We must avoid equating “knowing what we want”, with “getting what we want”. These are two different things. And while they sometimes coincide, they won’t always do. And while coinciding doesn’t always guarantee that we’ll be happy and fulfilled, neither does the fact that they sometimes don’t, amount to immediate unhappiness.

In fact, being fully aware of our gifts and charisms, rather than making us disappointed that we aren’t always able to realize them, should instead makes us stronger and more courageous in undertaking whatever task the community, the people of God, the church, asks of us. It is not so much the realization of one particular talent that is important within this context, it is rather the knowledge that one in fact has a particular gift, a God-given ‘potential’, if you will—understood in the old scholastic way as a “power” to accomplish something. That is encouragement enough to say with St. Paul, that because we are followers of Christ, we can be “all things for all people”, and that “in Christ [we] can accomplish all things”.

On a more practical note, when it comes to being asked to do something, whether in seminary or later on as a priest, it is important to keep in mind that in some instances, appreciation, i.e., one’s ‘liking his assignment’, will in fact be there at the outset—as when we’re given our ‘dream assignment. This is an ideal situation, and one who finds himself in it should thank God that at this particular point, he has been blessed to find himself “at the right place at the right time”. But it’s an ideal situation. In most instances, our appreciation for the assignment could very well come at the end, or sometime later—as when we find ourselves “growing into the job” and learning to love it despite our initial apprehension and dislike for what is “unknown territory”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)