The other night, I had dinner with four lay men who are part of the ecclesial movement, Communion and Liberation. Three of them I know, but one I met that evening. During our meal together, they asked me questions: "What do you like about campus ministry? What are the challenges? Tell me how you became a priest?" These questions are what I would describe as "human." I left the dinner feeling as though my humanity was somehow deeper as a result of our conversation. They were interested in my humanity. In that encounter, I experienced a tenderness for my life.
Oftentimes in Church circles--and especially among the clergy--our conversations revolve around policies, programs, and controversies. But, we never touch the human dimension of things. We are interested in things, but not in each other. We pass over the person in front of us in order to banter or debate about extrinsic things. (I say this as one who loves to banter and debate). This sometimes becomes the totality of conversations in ecclesial life. This is not to suggest that the issues, policies, and programs are not important, but it is to say that we approach them in a stagnant and life-taking way because we pass over the human person in front of us. The person before us becomes merely an opportunity to express our predetermined opinion on some topic.
This affects the way that dioceses, parishes, and other ecclesial realities operate. They can become inhuman. The person in front of us can be reduced to a caricature of a particular ideology ("He's a liberal." He's a conservative."). Or, the person in front of us can be reduced to a problem that requires solving, an issue that needs to be dealt with, or even just someone who becomes invisible to us.
Do bishops and those who work in chanceries know their priests? Do they ever ask, "How did you become a priest? What most impresses you about your assignment? What are the challenges?" If they ask these questions, do they ask them out of a true love for the man in front of them or is it an inquiry to be placed in a file somewhere? Do pastors know their people? Do they ask them, "How did you two get married? What is it like raising a Catholic family today? What are your struggles?" If they ask these questions, are they asked in order to develop a new parish program or are they asked because the pastor is interested in the person in front of him?
Love is not something that is experienced vaguely. If love is to be experienced, it is personal and specific. This is why God became Flesh. He came to dwell among us in a specific time and in a specific place. He was interested in those persons. He engaged them in conversations. He spoke to specific persons and healed specific ailments. He ate at specific homes and forgave specific sins. The Incarnation--in a sense--was not particularly efficient. God didn't start a blog and write daily posts about his love that could be read worldwide and immediately. Instead, he became incarnate. He went for dinner at Matthew's house, cured Peter's mother-in-law, and forgave an adulteress woman. He entered into a particular place and a particular time. The Church's method has to be personal and specific. We have to be interested in the person.
Jesus was interested in the one lost sheep. This is an inefficient use of the Savior's time! Of the many things that St. Paul wrote about love, he never said, "Love is efficient." All of us hunger to be loved infinitely. In a particular way, I am mindful of newly and recently ordained priests. They especially need to experience the love of Christ in their life. This hunger is not a sign of weakness on their part. They are men whose very reason for being is in order to prolong the presence of Christ the Good Shepherd--Incarnate Love--in the midst of the flock. In order to be convincing witnesses of this love, they too need to encounter this love. While they can experience it through the love of the lay faithful, they are firstly to experience it through their participation in the priestly fraternity--with their fellow priests and bishops.
In my own archdiocese, there are a million things constantly going on. It's a big place with lots of people, buildings, and programs. Properties being sold, assignments changing, public relations issues, human resource issues, legal issues, financial issues, personnel issues, moral issues, governmental issues, etc etc. There's a lot going on! There's just no doubt about it. But, in the midst of all of this, we need to err on the side of inefficiency. Diocesan plans and structures need to yield to the inefficiency of love. In a particular way, young priests need to feel the gaze of Christ upon them so that they can remain strong in their vocation. Young priests--new priests--need before everything else to experience intensely the gaze of Christ upon their humanity and upon their priesthood. Bishops and priests can serve their younger brothers in the presbyterate by being interested in their humanity and by loving their humanity and their priesthood. This takes time. It takes effort. It takes interest. It may at times be inefficient. That's the Incarnation.