Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Devil Prefers Abstraction: The Priesthood and the Bridge of Incarnation

When I was a seminarian, I assisted a priest who was saying Mass at a prison.  Before Mass, I spoke with this young guy who was articulate, likeable, and faith-filled.  In the context of the conversation, I learned that he would be in prison for twenty years.  As I recall, he was there because he was found guilty in the death of another human being.  I never really thought much about what I envisioned a typical inmate to be like, but this guy probably wouldn't have been what came to mind.  I'm not saying he didn't belong in prison.  I'm just saying that my disposition is different about inmates because I had met one.  He was no longer a category, but rather a person.

Similarly, I've often found that when people talk about "illegal immigrants," they think about categories.  But, once you've met somebody who is here illegally from another country, working non-stop, trying to raise a family, and sending money back home to relatives, it changes your way of thinking.  Again, I'm not advocating for a particular immigration policy.  I'm just saying that when we think of "this immigrant" instead of "immigrants," it changes us.  This immigrant has a story, a family, a name, a smile, and a history.  He or she is not a statistic.  I remember once speaking to somebody who was very upset about the illegal immigrants in this country.  I mentioned a couple of persons that we both knew who are here illegally.  The person said, "That's totally different.  They are good people just trying to help their families.  I'm talking about other people!"

Quite often, I hear people speak about "the Church."  In doing so, they are often complaining that, "the Church" hates divorced people or homosexual people.  The Church has too much money.  The Church doesn't do enough to help the poor.  And, if I try to convince them otherwise, I'm often dismissed because they think that I get paid the big bucks to defend "the Church" no matter what.  But, sometimes we think about the Church too abstractly.  The Church is not an abstraction.

The Church is Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict.  The Church is the Blessed Virgin Mary and Padre Pio. The Church is aSister Honorius--my grammar school vice principal, my parents, my parishioners, those immigrants illegally in the United States from Ireland and Brazil, and that prisoner I met many years ago.  Do they all have too much money?  Do they do too little to help the poor?  Do they hate homosexuals or divorced people?  

The Church is the Bride of Christ.  He chose her.  He loves her.  But, it is individual Christians who disfigure the Body of Christ.  It is through my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault that I do not love enough, have too much pride, too little purity, too much anger, too little kindness etc.  It is not "the Church" who fails to love everyone.  It's me.  It's not "the Church" who isn't generous enough to the poor.  It's me. 

One of the things I've loved about being a priest is being a very public face for "the Church".  Obviously, my faults, sins, and weaknesses can obscure the true face of the Church.  But, when I do it right, I find that I can help people really to love the Church.  When I'm on my game, they discover through my ministry that in the pulpit, the full glory and beauty of the Gospel can be proclaimed, but that this fullness of truth doesn't crush the weak or cast anyone away.  You can preach the Third Commandment in its entirety, for instance, and still have the people who aren't following the Third Commandment know that they are loved.  You can preach the full truth about marriage and still have divorced and remarried people know that they are loved. 

An ancient term for a priest is "pontifex."  It means, "one who builds bridges."  The priest builds all sorts of bridges.  Through his ministry, his first responsibility is building the bridge between God and man.  He does this through preaching the word, offering the Mass, administering the Sacraments, prayer, and through his very being.  But, the priest also builds bridges between individuals in the parish, and between the parish and the larger church.  He keeps them both from making abstractions of one another.

A few years ago, I recall a big political issue about the "bridge to nowhere."  I think in the life of the Church, if we think only in terms of "homosexuals, immigrants, priests, parishes, archdioceses, prisoners, the sick, the poor etc," we risk weakening our communion.  Tomorrow, I am travelling with a group of priests to the Holy Land.  Among other places that we will visit is the Church of the Annunciation.  A priest friend of mine always mentions that in that church there is a sign that reads, "Verbum Caro Hic Factum Est--The Word Became Flesh Here."  In Christianity, specificity matters.  The Word became flesh in a particular place at a particular time.  Priests--men who build bridges--do not build bridges to nowhere.  They link particular persons.  They bring the Gospel to particular divorced persons, particular poor persons,  particular homosexual persons, particular young people, particular unbelievers etc.  They link particular persons in particular parishes with the particular bishop and the particular persons who assist him.

Particularity is definitely more work.  It would be easier to deal with vague abstractions.  I would rather deal with my vague sense of "not being as good as I should be" rather than my specific faults.  I would rather have a general sense of forgiveness than to forgive that particular enemy for that particular offense.  Priests build bridges between specific points.  Sometimes, it can feel like we are building the Bridge Over the River Kwai!  Just as it nears completion, somebody blows it up!  But, the priest is to keep building.  He builds bridges between God and man, between spouses, between the parish and the diocese and the Universal Church, between enemies, and between believers and unbelievers. 

If any one of us should fail, it is not "the Church" who has failed.  It is the individual.  The Gospel and the New Evangelization are all about particular persons.  Priesthood is about loving and building bridges between particular persons.  Although the priest shares in the office of "bridge building" in a unique way, every Christian is called to work in the building of bridges.  So, let's all begin again today.  Jesus is the one true priest. He builds (and is) the particular bridge from the Father to each one of us.  He builds (and is) the bridge between each one of us.  So today, whether it be homosexuals, the divorced, the poor, the Church, prisoners, the charismatics, the Latin Mass folks, the sick, the parish, the archdiocese, immigrants or whatever, let us not be distracted by abstraction.  Abstraction is the Devil's game.  Christianity is about particular persons.  It's about particular persons encountering the particular person of Jesus Christ.  Each particular person needs to hear the Gospel in all of its fullness.  Each person needs to experience the love of Christ as particular to that person.  

Pope Francis--whose twitter account is "pope francis @pontifex" is the "Greatest Bridge Builder, Pontifex Maximus."  He keeps driving his security details crazy because he seeks to express his pastoral love with particularity.  He doesn't just want to talk about loving the poor, caring for the sick, or taking care of priests.  We read stories that he heard some priests were having lunch, so he showed up and ate with them.  He goes to a particular prison and washes the feet of particular inmates.  He stops the "popemobile", gets out, and hugs a particular boy who has cerebral palsy.  The Gospel of Truth and Love are directed to particular persons.

Perhaps one reason that the Catholic Church in the United States is shrinking is because we have yielded so much to the abstraction of the Devil.  We need to preach the Gospel (in all of its fullness) to individuals.  We need to embrace and love individuals.  We need to be a people of particularity and not a people of abstraction.  If we are not dedicated to particularity, then we really are building a bridge to nowhere.  Let's begin again today to love, forgive, and embrace with particularity.  Let the Word become flesh, here.


  1. Wow. Father Barnes TREMENDOUS POST! Enjoy your pilgrimage, may it renew your faith. You are in our daily prayers.

  2. Amen, Father! I have found that bringing Christ to others almost ALWAYS requires a very particular approach based on the particular type of person. Teaching and ministering with regard to particulars can be the most difficult but most rewarding way of bringing others to the Truth. Keep on keepin' on!

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