Monday, April 7, 2014

Pastoral Charity: The Rock Foundation of This Priest's Certitude

There is a virtue that belongs specifically to the priest.  It is called, "pastoral charity."  This particular form of charity arises from the priest's union with Christ as Head and Shepherd of the Church.  Through this virtue, the people experience the love of the Good Shepherd through the instrumentality of the shepherd who stands in their midst and exercises priestly ministry.  Through this virtue, the priest feeds the flock, guides the flock, tends the injured sheep with the balm of sacramental mercy and unction, seeks out the lost sheep, and lays down his life for the sheep.

The priest, however, is not a hired hand.  If the priesthood were reduced simply to hired hands whose function was to perform certain duties or fill certain slots, then we would lose something significant.  Often enough, you hear it said that priests should be better trained in all manner of activities.  Cooking, maintenance, finances, human resources, and the list goes on.  These are all things that certainly could be beneficial in the life of a priest.  But they ought never become primary.  These are the types of things that could easily become idols, replacing the true dignity of the priesthood.  In my experience, the people are enormously forgiving of their priest's shortcomings in terms of natural talents in specific areas.

What the people most want in their priests is to experience the love of Christ the Good Shepherd.  There is something beautiful to me that this love is not something that the priest gives to himself, can stir up in himself, or can gain through pure willing it.  It is something that is given by Another.  This virtue is poured into the priest from the Heart of Christ.  The priest, in a sense, is a vessel for this pastoral love, a fragile clay jar that holds a heavenly treasure.  This is not to say that a priest can be devoid of the necessary human, intellectual, and spiritual attributes that make him fit for ministry.  But, it is to say that what is most important about a priest is not is natural capacities, but rather the supernatural love that has been poured into his heart by Christ.

When I think about my life as a priest, it is not my particular gifts or talents that have been most effective in pastoral ministry.  Certainly, whatever limited natural strengths I have are useful for the pastoral ministry.  But, it is the love that has been poured into my heart by Christ that has been the most effective in terms of pastoral fruitfulness.  Any natural talent that I might possess is only helpful to the pastoral ministry insofar as those talents are vivified by a supernatural pastoral charity.  This is both awesome and humbling.  It is awesome because it shows that Christ uses me as his instrument.  It is humbling because it means that being an effective priest means to be totally dependent upon Christ and not upon anything that I bring to the table.

More beautiful to me in all of this is the way in which the People of God respond to this reality.  When a priest loves his people with true pastoral charity (meaning, the charity of a shepherd), the people do not demand or expect the priest to be perfect in every way.  My experience of being a priest has shown that the faithful--be they parishioners or young college students--come to the aid of my weaknesses.  The faithful supply everything else that is needed.  They only want the priest to supply what no one else can supply, the heart of a shepherd.  And of course, the priest really doesn't supply this on his own. He can only accept this heart from the true Shepherd.

Among my favorite lines in the Psalms is, "He has put into my heart a marvelous love for the faithful ones who dwell in his land" (Psalm 16).  This love is something that wells up within me at times.  It is a love that is mine by grace and not by nature.  It is a love that is met with reciprocity by the faithful ones who dwell in the land.  When the priest accepts from Christ this pastoral love and the people respond by loving him in return, something very beautiful happens.  Something awesome happens.

Today, I was reminded on a few occasions of where I find certitude.  I need certitude in my life.  Experience shows that I do not find certitude from my own talents or strength, nor I do not find certitude in the strengths, talents, and decisions of others.  But, I do find certitude in the marvelous love he has put into my heart for his faithful ones.  I find certitude in this great bond of love between this shepherd and Christ's faithful.  Even in the life of the Church, there is plenty of real estate made out of sand.  Building on sand never gives us certitude.  Instead, I am reminded that I need to build upon rock.  Wherever the love of Christ is present--even though it comes in jars of clay--that is the place of certitude for me.  He has put into my heart a marvelous love for his faithful ones and, thanks be to God, again and again he has given me certitude through their love.  May Jesus Christ be praised.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post Padre. You are so correct in saying what people want most in their priests is to experience the love of Christ the Good Shepherd. I've been studying chapters 13-17 of John recently with the SMSS Bible Study, and one of the themes reiterated in those chapters, particularly13-15 is the fullness of Jesus' love that he sets forth (commands actually!) the apostles to follow. There are three components of this love; obedience, humility, & sacrifice. It has been helpful dwelling on those components in relation to my own vocation in life as wife & mother. We are "trained" in our culture to think of love as only a "feeling" and not a deliberate act.

    Thank you for following Jesus' example of pastoral charity!

    P.S. And I was excited to see the photo you chose for this post, we have been to Split Rock Lighthouse! It is a magnificent spot in Two Harbors, MN. Not sure if you picked just any ol' lighthouse photo or if you were aware of which one you chose :)