Jesus left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis. And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment and begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him off by himself away from the crowd. He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, “Ephphatha!” (that is, “Be opened!”) And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly. He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it. They were exceedingly astonished and they said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
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On a number of occasions, I’ve had people tell me in Confession that they haven’t been back to the sacrament for a number of years because they didn’t have a very good experience the last time. Now that’s unfortunate. But what’s even more unfortunate is that on several occasions, their reasons for staying away from the sacrament are similar: “the priest was mean”, “the priest was cross”, one time even, “the priest yelled at me”.
No matter how smart we are, how knowledgeable we are about the doctrines of the faith, no matter how well-versed we are in the teachings of the bible or the demands of canon law, if we aren’t able to meet people in a way that puts them at ease and makes them feel welcome, we fail at our task of bringing Christ to them, and bringing them to Christ.
The substance of our faith is of course important. We must know our scriptures. We must know our theology. We must know the teachings and commandments of the church. But the way by which we package all these, the way by which we communicate them to people—is just as important. As Fr. Alvarez never tires of reminding us, “meeting people where they’re at” is an essential ingredient in ministry. Without it, we will only turn people off from Christ.
But how do we do that? We only have to look at how Jesus treated the deaf man in today’s gospel reading. Here was a great and important man, someone everyone was running after, someone who had the power to heal. And yet the gospel tells us of Jesus’ act of such tender considerateness towards someone who needed him. “He took him off by himself away from the crowd”, the reading tells us.
The deaf man for Jesus was not just a “case” needing attention, or a “client”, or “customer”. No, he was someone that at that moment, needed Jesus special attention. And he gave it to him completely.
Have you ever met people who give you their full attention when you’re with them? I’ve been fortunate to meet such kinds of priests in seminary. These are persons whom you just know are there for you a hundred percent. When you talk to them, it’s as if you’re the only person that matters. It was said of Pope John Paul that when he met with people in private, he always made them feel like they were the most important person in the world.
The example of Jesus in today’s gospel reading is an invitation for all of us to be that kind of person, that kind of priest. People must feel welcome when they’re with us. They shouldn’t feel awkward or uncomfortable. They should feel at ease. And most of all, they must feel that we are there for them, a hundred percent: not as mere clients, or customers, or students. But as a person sent to us by God for us to welcome and treat in the way Jesus treated the deaf man in the gospel.
There are priests that put people at ease and those who don’t. There are priests that are warm and welcoming, and those who aren’t. Which one would you rather be?