Conformed to a Vulnerable Savior

A Christmas Reflection for Priests

Msgr. Stephen Rossetti’s 2011 study, Why Priests Are Happy,1 gave the lie to any number of prognosticators of doom, who saw in the post-2002 Catholic Church but dying embers, a Church and priesthood on the brink of oblivion. As the numbers show, the vast majority of Catholic priests in the U.S. today affirm: that they have a good relationship with their bishop; that they are content with the commitment to celibacy; that they enjoy strong friendships with priests and laypeople; that they are engaged in the life of prayer; that their ministry is deeply fulfilling—or, in a word, that the majority of Catholic priests in the U.S. today are thriving. We are blessed with consolation in prayer, with the presence of loving parishioners, lay friends, and collaborators.

Notwithstanding myriad reasons for joy in our ministry, it is not uncommon, of course, for any one of us to experience moments of uncertainty, the shocks to the system and life-blows that knock the wind out of us. We can go through periods of isolation and loneliness; we can be troubled perhaps by a sense of our inadequacy; we can feel helpless in many cases to effect real change in people’s lives, we can endure the emptiness of ingratitude or the lack of support; we can feel used, adrift perhaps in a presbyterate bereft of priestly fraternity. And the list could go on.

What of these moments of struggle in the priesthood?

Are they an aberration? Are they not meant to be?

I still find myself surprised by these sufferings. I ask myself what’s wrong, why is this happening. I can get agitated. I tell myself ‘I didn’t sign up for this.’

Or did I?

I am still only learning the full impact of what my priestly consecration means, and what I committed myself to.

In the final moment of the Rite of Priestly Ordination, at the presentation of the gifts at the altar, the bishop in turn presents the newly ordained priest with the paten and chalice. The bishop entreats him:

Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to Him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.

That’s what we signed up for: the mystery of the Lord’s cross. To be conformed to the mystery of the vulnerable savior—radically open to suffering, to experiencing the reality of human fragility.

“He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness” (Heb 5:2). Already in Bethlehem, we behold the True High Priest, only a tiny babe, already beset by weakness.

St. Paul’s ego had to be conformed to this savior clothed in vulnerability; he had to be brought to interior submission at the word of the Father: “My power is made perfect in your weakness” (cf. 2 Cor 12:9). Pope St. John Paul II assured us that:

…the priest will never lack the grace of the Holy Spirit as a totally gratuitous gift … [and] awareness of this gift is the foundation and support of the priest’s unflagging trust amid the difficulties, temptations and weaknesses which he will meet along his spiritual path.2

In his essay “Because Beset with Weakness,” Michael J. Buckley, S.J., famously asked if the question for men aspiring to priesthood should be: not whether they are strong enough to be priests, but whether they are weak enough.3 An appeal to “weakness” should never be a cloak for vice; “weakness” can never be tolerated as code language for a priest indulging his passions, risking addictive behaviors, deliberately breaking his commitment to celibacy—or worse. A kind of grotesque twisting of Buckley’s essay in its day might have lead some to conclude that the more moral misery one accrues as a priest, the more we wallow in the muck, the more we are priests. This is certainly not what Buckley meant.

Rather, Buckley draws on the sense of “weakness” (translating the Latin infirmitas, and the Greek asthéneia) found in passages such as 2 Cor 12: 5 and Heb 5:2. For Paul, it was his lack of eloquence, his “fear and trembling,” his “constant anxiety” for the Churches, the setbacks, hurts, betrayals, and false brothers, the shipwrecks and stoning, and of course living with his own temperament (which must have been tremendous). To quote Buckley:

What do I mean by weakness? Not the experience of sin; almost its opposite. Weakness is the experience of a peculiar liability to suffering, a profound sense of inability both to do and to protect: an inability, even after great effort, to author, to perform as we should want, to affect what we had determined, to succeed with the completeness that we might have hoped. It is this openness to suffering which issues in the inability to secure our own future, to protect ourselves from any adversity, to live with easy clarity and assurance; or to ward off shame, pain, or even interior anguish.4

Does not this essential call to suffering and our inherent weakness also entail at times a sense of being unanchored, unhinged, ungrounded? It can. That is a deep suffering of the kind I have no doubt our Lord, in his pedagogy, can allow a priest to experience: a kind of existential vertigo, the malaise of often feeling “out of it,” fatigued, struggling to preach, feeling the tank is on empty. It can be the sense of spiritual paralysis, of feeling stalled in our spiritual journey, of struggling without apparent relief or success with areas of sinfulness.

This kind of weakness is real, and every priest—no matter what his age, talents, apparent successes, or virtue—will have to deal with it from time to time. Hopefully, he does this in the context of spiritual direction and the sacrament of confession. He may open his hurts to a close priest friend, or even to a lay friend, or family member. But it’s there. It’s real. And it’s every single one of us. There is no “Superman” in the priesthood.

Is it not the case, as Buckley so beautifully considers in his essay, that it is precisely across these troubled waters that Jesus comes walking to our encounter?

The priest often discovers what his vocation means in these moments, as the power of God becomes evident in the continuity of his life—a fidelity which his weakness would only seem to undermine, but actually supports, as it evokes the presence of the Lord… It is this night, and the heavy work of rowing against the storm, and the threatening waves, which brings him to us. It is not that a priest’s life would ideally be some other thing—without struggle, self-doubt, or suffering—but that circumstances have unfortunately introduced obdurance, and humiliations, and a sense of incapacity. Quite the contrary. It is in and through this night that a priest is joined to Christ, as it is in and through this night that he learns that he can trust in the Lord, that he can call out to Jesus in faith, even when this seems the most lifeless thing to do, and find that Jesus Christ is enough. Only in this way will that which we preach, and urge upon others, becomes part of our own lives: To commit our lives in trust to the Lord. It is in this experience, the experience of personal weakness, and having even limitations as the presence of Christ, of having trusted in him in darkness, and having found that one can trust him—it is the experience that joins Christ to his disciples, as he comes to them walking on the waters.5

As Buckley goes on to affirm so poignantly, much of the strength of our priesthood lies precisely in the weakness which at times seems to threaten it. This intimate suffering is constitutive of the mystery of sharing in Christ’s priesthood. If we have grasped the mystery of God becoming incarnate and beset by our human weakness, then we should fully understand that none of this has to constitute a defeat, a failure to live our share in Christ’s priesthood; on the contrary, it may well mean we are actually living the priesthood deeply and fruitfully.

Of course, the reality of human weakness cannot be the prism through which we understand priesthood; it cannot be the hermeneutic for understanding ourselves as priests. Much less can it become a license for fanciful experiments in “reimagining the priesthood.” On the contrary, we must lean into our weakness as that place where we meet Jesus, where we entrust ourselves to him, and delve more deeply into the mystery of being conformed to a God who became vulnerable, and transformed human weakness into a source of grace, divine power, and life. It is rather to understand ourselves, yes, as bearing the burden of human fragility but, nonetheless, called to excellence, to human flourishing, to holiness of life, to joy. It is to grasp that in order be an instrument of divine grace in ministry, I must first have capitulated to the incarnational logic of grace at work, in and through my weak humanity.

No priest should despair of the fruitfulness of his priesthood despite the enduring presence of weakness, of vulnerabilities, of infirmitas. No priest should entertain doubts about his usefulness to the Church, or doubt that he will be able to continue to exercise spiritual fatherhood, begetting future Christians, being an instrument of sanctifying grace, truth and spiritual life to other human beings.

As we stand before the Christmas mystery, the mystery of the Son begotten of the Father in eternity, contemplating the vulnerable babe in a manger at Bethlehem, utterly exposed, “circumdatus infirmitate,” immersed in weakness, we might recall an idea from Luigi Giusani: no one begets who has not been begotten.6 Our being ontologically conformed to the suffering Savior is our being begotten by the Father as another Christ.

We are conformed to a Savior who understands himself to be, quite simply, “the Son of the Father.” I too, who share in his priesthood, am a son of the Father—the Father, who loves me always precisely because of my misery, my weakness, my littleness, and who will always be there for me. So that when I also experience myself as the “prodigal son,” I will know deep down, (when I have come to my senses) that I can return to my Father. So that when I experience my weakness like Peter, I can discover Jesus walking toward me on my stormy seas, and I can cry out with sheer trust, “Lord, save me!” When, like Peter, I have betrayed the Master three times, I will not ever despair as Judas did, but I will always go back to Jesus knowing—because I too am a son of the Father—that the love of God the Father will always be there to sustain me.

As priests, our experience of vulnerability and weakness need not be a liability. It should be an asset. It lies, in a sense, at the very heart of what it means to be a priest. And if it leaves us feeling broken at times, we then offer ourselves with Jesus who is broken for us in the Eucharist we celebrate. Entrusting our experience of weakness to the Father of mercies, we can come to discover our own ego being displaced, more and more, by the very mind of Christ; we can find ourselves more wholly integrated as a human persons and, at the same time, more Christ-like. Our brothers and sisters will discover Christ’s presence in us. Again and again, we will have the possibility of making him present: Emmanuel.

  1. Stephen J. Rossetti, Why Priests are Happy: A Study of the Psychological and Spiritual Health of Priests (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2011).
  2. Pastores dabo vobis, 33.
  3.  Robert E. Terwilliger and Urban T. Holmes (eds.), To Be a Priest: Perspecitves on Vocation and Ordination (New York: Crossroad, 1975), 125.
  4.  Ibid., 126.
  5.  Ibid., 129.
  6. See Luigi Giussani, “La gioia, la letizia e l’audacia: Nessuno genera, se non è generato” (Joy, Gladness, and Audacity: No One Generates Unless He Has Been Generated), Tracce-Litterae Communionis, no. 6 (1997): iv, referenced in Julián Carrón, Disarming Beauty: Essays on Faith, Truth and Freedom (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 45..
Rev. Thomas V. Berg, PhD About Rev. Thomas V. Berg, PhD

Rev. Thomas V. Berg is Professor of Moral Theology and Vice Rector and Director of Admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). He is author most recently of Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics (Our Sunday Visitor, January 2017). In addition to moral theology, his areas of specialization include natural law theory, medical ethics, and philosophical and theological anthropology. He has published or been quoted in Crisis Magazine, the National Catholic Register, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He can be reached at: ftb@fatherberg.com

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