Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Priesthood: Living an Affection that Surprises

Sunday Mass at Boston University
Recently, I was asked what has most surprised me in my life as a priest.  I'm not too great at answering questions like that off the cuff, so I asked for some time to think about it.  In recent days, I've realized that I'm surprised a lot in my life as a priest.  This kind of surprise is not the "cliffhanger" type of surprise, nor is it the type of surprise that unsettles the soul.  It is the surprise of an affection that causes a man's heart to leap with a profound joy.

It happens in the confessional before a repentant sinner.  It happens in the parish when you see your people loving each other and caring for each other.  It happens when having lunch with a young person and hearing him speak about how the Lord is working in his life.  It happened tonight as I sat in chapel and observed two dozen college students adoring the Blessed Sacrament.  It happens during the daily encounters I have at our Newman Center.  It is an affection that occurs in the pulpit as I preach and look out upon the faces of those to whom I have been sent to preach.  It is an affection that stands in wonder of the Lord's work in the lives of his people.

It is this affection that most surprises me.  It is an affection that makes me feel close to the experience of Peter and Andrew, James and John whose hearts were moved with an affection for Christ.  It is an affection that is educative.  When I read St. Paul's letters, I do so with a sense of recognition.  There lives in my heart an affection for the people that must have also been in his heart.  This affection is what belongs to the gift of pastoral charity--the virtue that singularly belongs to the priest.

To live priesthood without this affection must be a profound sadness.  Without this affection, people become mere customers.  Without this affection, the Church must suffer at the hands of clerics seeking advancement, hesitant to preach the Gospel, seeking the approval of the world.  Without this affection, there would be no martyrs and no virgins.  Instead, the Church would live solely as a bureaucracy or as a pathetic political or ideological structure.  Without this affection, the heart would no longer leap with a a joy that is easy and buoyant.  Instead, it would drag itself along under the oppression of ideology.

This affection brings with it the Cross.  When you love the people, you suffer with them.  But, in this suffering, one experiences the sweetness of the Cross.  Those who live priesthood without this affection--those whose hopes are placed in power and ideology--do not taste the sweetness of the Cross.  They too live under a weight, but it is a weight that suffocates.

This affection is surprising.  It is surprising like young David moving into position against Goliath.  It is surprising like the woman who reaches out to touch the tassel of Jesus' cloak.  It is surprising like Matthew rising from his table and following Christ.  It is an affection that is trustworthy.  

Without this affection, priesthood and the episcopacy become sheer exercises of worldly power.  But, this affection is like the mustard seed.  It appears fragile and useless, but it contains within itself an enormous power.  To be given this gift--to look with the eyes of Christ's affection upon the people--this is what has most surprised me as a priest, and it is this affection of Christ that makes me look forward to tomorrow.

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