Monday, November 29, 2010

The challenge of kindness, for those seeking to reflect the image of Christ (Reflections on the healing of the centurion's servant, Mt. 8:5-11)

A great deal has been said about the strength of the centurion’s faith. Today though, I propose we focus on an aspect of the gospel that’s often overlooked: the centurion’s kindness and humanity towards his servant.

“Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.”

If the miracle of his servant’s cure was the fruit of his faith; his kindness towards someone who was literally his property—was the soil in which that faith was planted. It was the fertile ground that anchored that faith; without it there would have been no faith, no miracle, no healing.

Kindness—or as it is known by its Latin name, humanitas—is a disposition, an attitude, and is one of the virtues that defines a truly good human being. There’s no denying the strength of the centurion’s faith; yet it was the man’s kindness and compassion towards his servant which made that faith even more remarkable. Consider these two things.

First, most of those who came to Jesus for healing came to him for themselves, for a child, or for a friend. The cure of the centurion’s servant is the only recorded instance in the New Testament in which someone comes to Jesus asking him to heal a ‘servant’. It’s true that masters were responsible in keeping their servants healthy, but that didn’t extend to seeing to it personally.

Second, servants who fell ill were immediately removed from their master’s home for fear of spreading the disease. They were usually sent to relatives or friends till they recovered or died. Not the centurion though; he took a personal interest in his servant’s well-being. Here was a man of power and authority, acting in a very unexpected, even unusual, way towards someone whose status was far lower than his own.

It’s fascinating to think that perhaps, as the Incarnate Son of God who stooped down to save fallen humanity, looked into the eyes of this centurion, he couldn’t help but see a mirror image of himself. And as these two men stood there face to face, one can’t help but wonder if they in fact felt a certain kinship—a reflection of oneself in both the power and kindness of the other.

“I too am a man subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes… Say only the word and my servant will be healed”.

In his letter to Titus, St. Paul refers to Jesus as the φιλαθρωπία (philanthropia), the humanitas, the “kindness of God” (Tit. 3:4). In today’s gospel, Jesus, the “kindness of God” saw a reflection of himself in the centurion, and found himself “amazed”.

We who are called to be reflections of Christ could learn much from the centurion’s attitude. Speaking of our humanity as the foundation of our priesthood, Pope John Paul in Pastores Dabo Vobis says:

“The priest who is called to be a ‘living image’ of Christ should seek to reflect in himself the human perfection which shines forth in the Incarnate Son of God and which is reflected in his attitude towards others… the priest should mould his humanity in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Christ”. (PDV, 43)

My old spiritual director used to tell me, you want to know what a seminarian will be like as a priest? Observe only how he treats others: those below him, those equal to him, and those above him.

If there’s one thing my years in seminary formation have taught me, it’s that this is a powerful indicator not only of the kind of priest a seminarian may eventually be, but of his viability as a candidate for the priesthood itself.

Two cases always raise question marks:

A seminarian who shows great deference (and even fear) towards superiors but shows little kindness or is mean towards his peers or those he sees as inferiors is going to be problematic as a priest (no matter how clever he thinks he is). For unless the soil of his humanity is converted and conformed to Christ, he will mistake bullying for shepherding when he gets ordained. He will most likely have very little problem cozying up to his superior later on, but don’t expect him to be kind to his flock. Remember, Jesus was strong; but he was never rigid or arrogant; and he certainly wasn’t a bully.

A priest who shows great respect and deference to his bishop and to those in authority in the diocese, but is mean-spirited and unkind to his parishioners or people working under him is anything but a reflection of that “living image of Christ” of which John Paul II speaks.

On the other hand, a seminarian who shows kindness to his peers and to his inferiors, but hides from his superiors or is unreceptive to them, equally raises red flags; for he will most likely pose problems for his superiors when he gets ordained, and will dismiss fraternal correction as a priest. He will most likely be nice to his flock; but when the time comes that he has to preach the hard truth, he will buckle and even sell-out. Remember, Jesus was kind and compassionate; but he was neither soft nor weak; and he certainly knew what he stood for.

A priest who is very popular, or builds a ‘following’ among his flock, but gives little importance to the principles that are meant to guide the life of the Church (in doctrine, morals, and worship) or shows little value to the promises he made at ordination (especially obedience to his bishop) is also anything but a reflection of that “living image of Christ” of which John Paul speaks.

There’s the third type of course—the type we’re all invited to become. It’s the seminarian, it’s the priest who knows that being truly conformed to Christ means respecting and being kind to everyone: superiors, inferiors, and equals alike—just as Jesus did, and just as the centurion in today’s gospel has shown.

His story is an invitation for us to look into our own attitudes and dispositions and ask: Which of these three types am I? Which of these three kinds will I be if I do become a priest?

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