Friday, October 1, 2010

A priest is a road that doesn't end in itself (Reflections on self-effacement on the Feast of St. Therese of Lisieux)

A priest is a “bridge”, a “path”, a “pointer” whose life and entire being is meant to lead and allow those to whom he ministers to come in intimate contact with the Transcendent-in-their-midst: God whose instrument a priest is.

And that is truly what a he is: an instrument, nothing more, and nothing less. For in his very being, he shares in the work of Christ who, in the end, is the beginning, the middle, and the ultimate point and reference of everything he does.

A poet once said that all we really do in this life is “contribute one verse to the everlasting poem written by the hand of God”. One verse—just one—but a verse nevertheless; as such, it is no less important than the entire poem, for without it, the poem would hardly be complete. But the priest is not the poem, no matter how beautiful it might be. He is never the sun, only the moon who reflects a light that is never its own.

Therese of Lisieux once wrote: “I have never wished for human glory… I ardently desire to be forgotten”. In a very real sense, one discerning the vocation to the priesthood, and one who is already ordained, has to find a way to allow that same desire to plant itself deeply in his heart and soul.

The ‘trajectory’ of a priest’s life must always be ‘downwards’, towards hiddenness, anonymity, and being-forgotten. Why? Because it is Christ alone who must be the point of everything he does; never himself. But this isn’t an easy thing to do, for the allure of power, prestige, popularity, and even wealth is very strong, even in the Church.

When I began working in seminary formation many years ago, I received these powerful words of advice from an old priest who had given more than half a century of his life to forming future priests: “Love your students”, he said. “Love them with all the energy you have. But never forget, they aren’t ‘yours’. They’re never ours. And if one day you find yourself assigned to a parish, love your flock with all your might. But never forget, they aren’t ‘yours’. They belong to Christ, never to ourselves”.

A priest is one whose life belongs to everyone and to no one. And detachment and letting-go—two of the most difficult, perhaps even excruciating things to do—are the hallmarks of his life and ministry. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer could not have said it more eloquently: “When Christ bids you come, he bids you come and die”. A priest must learn to die to himself, to his attachments, to his sources of affirmation, support, and even strength; because in the end, he must attach himself and find his own ultimate source of strength and affirmation, in Christ alone.

A priest touches the lives of many; that is an undeniable fact. But the lives he touches are never his to keep. They merely pass through his hands. People will pass through his life, and then he has to let go. And he has to know in his heart that that’s alright, and that they will be alright—for in the end, that is what he is as a priest: not the destination, only the path, not the goal, but only the road—one that ends not in itself, but in God alone whose work he does.

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. Amen.

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