Tuesday, August 10, 2004

"My Grace Is Sufficient For Thee"

I would have preferred to narrate the following experience according to the promptings of a spirit of peaceful reflection or the like. But recent events have induced me to relate it in almost a spirit of self-defense, or perhaps more importantly, in a spirit of defense of the priesthood, as it is and has been understood by the Church, and lived out by some of the best men I know: the priests whom I attended seminary with and are products of "modern" priestly formation.

I have been reticent about sharing the following, except with a few close friends, because intense spiritual experiences, experiences which hindsight reveals to be turning points in one's life, are initimate matters. To reveal them too widely risks a sort of spiritual nakedness, which can perhaps render one more vulnerable than the physical variety. I am also reluctant to share this because I do not want to be seen as "tooting my own horn".

I am prompted to share this now as a result of some comments made by another commentor over on Amy Welborn's blog (You'll have to scroll fairly far down to find the relevant comments). He and I were carrying on a running debate on various issues relating to feminism and women's ordination, and at one point he wrote:
We have too many instances of people following the way of the reluctant Biblical figure or Christian saint: aware of unworthiness, they respond anyway. (Hardly the model of modern priestly formation, I might add.) [emphasis mine]

This remark that the awareness of unworthiness is "hardly the model of modern priestly formation...", carries with it the implication that I and other recently ordained priests somehow think of ourselves as worthy or deserving of the privilege of the Priesthood, as though we see ourselves as some sort of elevated Brahmin caste. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I found the remark and the implication deeply offensive. Knowing the years of trial, purification, and sheer hell that many of my confreres went through to be ordained makes the remark all the more offensive. While the author didn't intend it this way, it seems to impugn the priesthood of all of those good men with whom I am privileged to serve as brother priests.

No doubt, there are some men who enter the seminary with some twisted idea that they are "worthy" of the priesthood, or that they are doing God some sort of favor by offering themselves for ordination. I met a few along the way during my formation. But those guys usually didn't last long, and I'm glad to be able to say that not one of those losers I encountered made it to ordination. The fact is that the difficulties and trials of seminary life simply won't permit that sort of nonsense to survive long. Furthermore, a man's classmates are usually the best bullshit detector in the seminary. I recall once, during my time at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, I heard a classmate complaining over dinner about being made to do work at his Apostolate assignment which he felt was "beneath" him. He said "these hands were meant for chalices, not callouses." I felt sickened upon hearing his remark, and at that moment lost any respect I had for him. I seriously considered "reporting" his comment to the seminary Formation Team, and believe me, that was the sort of thought I rarely entertained. But I felt that a man who harbored such an attitude was simply unfit for ordination. I was dissuaded from reporting this seminarian by my spiritual director, who advised me to hold off, and assured me that the Formation Team was "onto him". When, later that year, that seminarian was dismissed, his departure came as no surprise to, and was greeted with a sense of relief by, his classmates.

Now, after that long preface (I'm sure that purgatory for me will consist mainly of having to endure the ramblings of people as long-winded as myself), on to the narrative of an experience I had in the seminary which I think is relevant to the above-mentioned comment:

Because I transferred both dioceses and seminaries, my reception of the ministries of Lector and Acolyte (two "stepping stones" on the way to ordination) was delayed. This meant also that my admission to Candidacy for Holy Orders was also delayed. Candidacy is the formal recognition by the Church's authority that a man is in fact considered a candidate for Orders. It is, in a sense, the Church's "seal of approval", that in due course of time, when a man completes his studies, he will be ordained. Normally, at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, where I completed my formation, Candidacy is received in a man's third year of Theology. Because of my transfer, I did not receive Candidacy until the fall of my fourth year.

I received Candidacy at a regular Sunday Mass at the seminary, from the then-Rector of Sacred Heart, Bishop Allen Vigneron (now bishop of Oakland, California). I was the only man to receive Candidacy then, so I felt particularly "on the spot". I was also both touched and challenged by the fact that, as it seemed to me at the time, Bishop Vigneron's homily was directed to me personally. His admonitions and exhortations seemed to be tailored specifically to my shortcomings, strengths, and weaknesses. I did not feel threatened or oppressed by this, so much as I felt a growing sense that this was serious business.

The ritual for Candidacy includes a prescribed Instruction, with which Bp. Vigneron concluded his homily. These words seemed to leap up and challenge me:
Day by day you [the candidate] will learn to live the life of the Gospel and deepen your life of Faith, Hope, and Love. In the practice of these virtues you will gain the spirit of prayer and grow in zeal to win the world to Christ.

I began thinking, "OK, I've got the zeal, but that's about all that I have. My Faith is weak, my Hope struggles, and I can think of a dozen people who are much better than me at exhibiting the Love of Christ. Why me, Lord?"

Then, a little later in the ceremony, the bishop asks the candidate two questions:
Bishop: In response to the Lord's call are you resolved to complete your preparation so that in due time you will be ready to be ordained for the ministry of the Church?

Candidate: I am.

Bishop: Are you resolved to prepare yourself in mind and spirit to give faithful service to Christ the Lord and his body, the Church?

Candidate: I am.

At this point, my mind started whirling. I asked myself, am I really prepared? Am I really ready to give myself to Christ and His Church?

The enormity of what I was doing struck me. I realized at that moment that I was standing before the Church - the whole Church, the Church in Heaven and the Church here on earth, and saying "Ordain me. I will serve." And it seemed to me at that moment that I was no longer standing in just that seminary chapel. I felt as though the space had opened up, and I was in the midst of some vast space, surrounded by a multitude. I looked up at Bishop Vigneron, and realized that I had addressed my words, those two simple "I am's" not to Bishop Vigneron, not even to my assembled brothers, but to Christ Himself.

And the thought came to my mind "Who do you think you are? Who are you to be standing here? You're not worthy of this great calling. You're a fraud, a poseur."

And my heart sank, as I began to feel that I was committing some great effrontery.

Then, as if welling up from some great depth, I heard in my heart a voice. That voice was not my own mind, my own thought. It had a different quality than my questions and self-reproach. The voice seemed to be both from the very center of my self, and yet from somewhere else.

And the voice said "My grace is sufficient for thee. (2 Cor. 12:9) My grace, my life, my body and blood, are sufficient for thee, Rob."

And the weight, the reproach, vanished. I knew once again that this wasn't about me. It wasn't about me, my strengths or my weakness. It was about Christ. He had called, and I would say "yes." Christ was the one who would remedy my unworthiness. He was the one who would supply the sufficiency for my lack.

After the Mass, I went back to my room and looked up Second Corinthians. The full verse is this:
"My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.

This verse has been a constant part of my prayer ever since.