Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"I shall not harm" (Cura Animarum: The Priest as a "Doctor of Souls")

There’s 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, not to become ‘professional seminarians’, but 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 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 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, and pompous. Worse, he starts 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. The spectacle of some priests, bishops—and yes, even seminary students—acting like primadonnas is something all-too known to many of us.

Instead of being a tender of God’s Word meant to console and comfort the weak and sorrowing, his words 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 sprinkles salt on them and heightens their agony. Instead of empowering the weak, he makes 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 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, titles and positions. 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 his ego.

It is here that we must resist the temptation to think, say to people, and act, as if our assignments would collapse once we are removed from them and they are given to someone else. It is the height of arrogance to imagine that it will, simply because it is “no longer I” who am there. Here you have the comic spectacle of priests who ruin the reputation of their successor by going back again and again to their previous assignment in order to chat with a loyal following they’ve left behind—who gossip about the failings of “the new guy”.

Here too you have the situation in which some newly assigned priests seeking to build a reputation for themselves begin by sullying the good name of their predecessor, “discovering” all sorts of wrong things that have been supposedly left behind, and immediately turning the new assignment upside-down in the attempt to show that they are better by suggesting everything the predecessor had done was inferior and ineffective.

It’s a sad tale that unfolds over and over again. “Oh, I’m enjoying my new assignment”, the narrative would usually start. “Everything’s fine”. And then the tirade begins. “But I just wish my predecessor did this and that. The parish he left is in really bad shape. I discovered such and such anomaly in the office. The parish grounds are awful”. The commentary goes on ad nauseam. And then the punch line: “That’s why I’m instituting so many reforms”.

Granted that this might actually be the case in certain instances—I do know of priests who have left their post like a pigsty—we must nevertheless ask, What purpose under heaven does it serve to tell others about the failings of our predecessor, glaring as some of these might be? We must not build our dreams on the ruins of others’ lives. To do so is to choose the way of insecurity and the downward path towards a priest’s eventual loss of soul. It’s the easy way, but it isn’t the narrow way, and priests are meant to choose the latter. We preach Christ. We do not build a cult of personality around ourselves.

The Incarnation is the key to avoiding these traps and the gateway 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 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.

- From "Journey into the Heart of Christ" (Claretian Publications, 2004).


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