Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Priesthood and Weakness Well, I probably should have let Todd make the 1,000th post here. As he recuperates, I can redirect your attention to his commentary on Optatum Totius (Vatican II's Decree on Priestly Training) below. There has been a lot of discussion about the priesthood lately. I would like to share part of a letter that the theologian Fr Michael Buckley, SJ, wrote to his American Jesuit brothers who were then preparing for ordination. I should mention that I first saw the letter on Mark Mossa, SJ's excellent blog, You Duped Me Lord, and that Mossa's reflections on St Ignatius' Autobiography should be part of your regular reading. Here, then, is Fr Buckley: The tendency is ... to estimate a man by his gifts and talents, to line up his positive achievements and his capacity for more, to understand his promise for the future in terms of his accomplishments in the past, and to make the call within his life contingent on the attainments of personality or grace. Because a man is religiously serious, prayerful, socially adept, intellectually perceptive; possesses interior integrity, sound common sense, and habits of hard work--therefore he will make a fine priest. I think that transfer is disastrous. There is a different question, one proper to the priesthood as of its very essence, if not uniquely proper to it: Is this man weak enough to be a priest? Is this man deficient enough so that he cannot ward off significant suffering from his life, so that he lives with a certain amount of failure, so that he feels what it is to be an average man? Is there any history of confusion, of self-doubt, of interior anguish? Has he had to deal with fear, come to terms with frustrations, or accept deflated expectations? These are critical questions and they probe for weakness. Why? Because, according to Hebrews, it is in this deficiency, in this interior lack, in this weakness, that the efficacy of the ministry and priesthood of Christ lies. "For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted ... For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning ... He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward since he himself is beset with weakness." (Hebrews 2:18; 4:15; 5:2). How critically important it is for us to enter into the seriousness of this revelation, of this conjunction between priesthood and weakness, that we dwell upon deficiency as part of our vocation! Otherwise we can secularize our lives into an amalgam of desires and talents; and we can feel our weakness as a threat to our priesthood, as indicative that we should rethink what was previously resolved, as symptomatic that we were never genuinely called, that we do not have the resources to complete what we once thought was our destiny and which once spoke to our generosity and fidelity. What do I mean by weakness? Not the experience of sin; almost its opposite. Weakness is the experience of a peculiar liability to suffering a profound sense of inability both to do and to protect, an inability, even after great effort, to author, to perform as we should want, to effect what we had determined, to succeed with the completeness that we might have hoped. It is this openness to suffering which issues in the inability to secure our own future, to protect ourselves from any adversity, to live with easy clarity and assurance; or to ward off shame, pain, or even interior anguish. If a man is clever enough or devious enough or poised enough, he can limit his horizons and expectations and accomplish pretty much what he would want. He can secure his perimeters and live without a sense of ineffectual efforts, a feeling of failure or inadequacy or of shame before his temperament or his task--then he experiences weakness at the heart of his life. And this experience, rather than militating against his priesthood, is part of its essential structure. This liability to suffering forms a critically important indication of the call of God, that terrible sinking sense of incapacity before the mission of Moses and the vocation of Jeremiah, that profound conviction of sinfulness when the vision of God rose before Isaiah and demanded response.

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