In class today, our prof shared with us Michael Buckley’s letter to ordinands. It’s ordination season, and perhaps you are fortunate to know a newly minted sacramental priest or two.
There is a practice among us Americans, common and obvious enough, in estimating a man’s aptitude for a profession and a career. You list his strengths. Peter is a good speaker, possesses an able mind, exhibits genuine talent for leadership and debate. He would make an excellent lawyer. Steve has good judgment, a scientiﬁc bent, obvious manual dexterity and human concerns. He would make a splendid surgeon.
Now the tendency is to transfer this method of evaluation to the priesthood, to line up all the pluses — socially adept, intellectually perceptive, characterized by interior integrity, sound common sense and habits of prayer !– and to judge that such a man would make a ﬁne priest.
I think this transfer is disastrous. There is a further pressing question, one proper to the priesthood, if not uniquely proper to it: Is this man weak enough to be a priest? Let me spell out what I mean. Is this man deﬁcient enough so that he can’t 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? Because it is in this deﬁciency, in this interior lack, in this weakness, maintains Hebrews that the efﬁcacy of the ministry and priesthood of Christ lies.
What holds true for ordination is certainly true for lay ministry. And more, it rings true for any sincere and honest penetration into the life of holiness. From Hebrews 2 & 4:
“For because He Himself has suffered and been tempted, He is able to help those who are tempted…For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we, but without sinning… He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since He Himself is beset with weakness.”
How much of this definition fits Christ? (Check the link for the full comparison of Jesus with another martyr of history.)
Weakness is not much loved in today’s world. I don’t think it gets a welcome mat in many corners of today’s church either. But this is the bottom line, and I found it personally convicting:
What do I mean by weakness? Not the experience or sin, though it may contextualize sin, but the experience of a peculiar liability to suffering. A profound sense of inability, both to do and protect even after great effort, to author, perform, effect what we have wanted or with the success we would have wanted, an inability to secure one’s own future, to protect oneself, to live with clarity and assurance or to ward off shame and suffering.
If one 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 failure or inadequacy or shame before what might have been. But if you cannot‐‐‐either because of your history or your temperament or your situation‐‐‐then you experience weakness at the heart of your lives. And this experience, rather than militate against your priesthood, is part of its essential structure.
In my reading of the Spiritual Exercises, this seems very apropos of the seeker coming before God in the early days, and placing one’s whole life before the Lord. Will I come out of this a loved sinner? Or just a plain sinner–nothing else?
What if I don’t have my competencies to fall back on, a resume, a degree, connections, a sense of accomplishment, and all that? Do I think God is really impressed with what I can do? God knew it all in the womb anyway. It might impress my new friends, but God is looking for something more, I suspect.
What if we had a wider recognition that this brand of weakness is an essential part of the call to holiness? That ministry is founded not only on ferreting out weakness, but celebrating and praising God for it, rather than attempting to eradicate it?