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The 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 8, 2018


    
A few weeks ago, three young men, vested in white alb and stole, lay face down and motionless on the cold slate floor up there before the altar, while a cathedral full of people chanted a litany calling on the saints of the Church, “Pray for us!”, “pray for us!”, “Hear our prayer!”  It was the Mass for the ordination of priests, and for those young men and for all of us who prayed that litany it was a profound reminder of how very small we are before God, and how much in need.

     Many times over the years I have found myself similarly prostrate before the altar – at my own ordination, of course, but also each year at the solemn liturgy of Good Friday.  But the truth of the matter is that no day goes by that I don’t experience how small I am before God, how weak, how much in need of the grace of God.  And isn’t that true for all of us?

     Many years ago when I was serving as director of vocations for the Archdiocese, I heard a memorable talk on the qualities needed in candidates for the priesthood given by a Jesuit priest by the name of Michael Buckley.  Fr. Buckley didn’t say the expected; rather, he posed this rather surprising question for us to ponder when working with candidates: “Is this person weak enough to be a priest?”

     He explained what he meant by weakness. Weakness was, he said, an ability to live with a certain amount of failure, along with an inability to separate one’s self from human suffering. He then expressed the hope that candidates for priesthood would have experienced some struggle with self-doubt, fear and inner anguish, and that they would have learned how to live - as all people of faith must – with a certain amount of ambiguity: without easy, pat answers for every question.  He ended by relating it all to Christ the priest in a familiar passage from the Letter to the Hebrews: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses… He can deal gently with misguided sinners because he himself is beset with weakness.”

     Weakness.  It’s not something we normally view as desirable in a leader, is it?  We have political leaders, for instance, who model just the opposite: thumping their chests, talking big, flexing their muscles, and throwing their weight around. That’s the way of the world - a far cry from what Fr. Buckley was talking about. And it’s certainly a far cry from Jesus who always modeled servant leadership – Jesus, who knelt before his followers to wash their feet, and who himself struggled with the demons of dread, anxiety, and fear. How else are we to understand the Jesus of Gethsemane, the Jesus whose “sweat became as drops of blood”?

     Perhaps thoughts like these can help us understand St. Paul who, in the second reading, actually boasted about his weakness. Paul, I feel certain, was no more inclined than we are, humanly speaking, to feel good about being weak or vulnerable.  But God had his way with Paul as God does with anyone who is serious about following in the footsteps of Jesus.  God gave him a “thorn in the flesh” to remind him of his weakness.

     Scripture commentators have argued for centuries about what exactly that “thorn in the flesh” might have been for Paul. Was it some physical ailment or disability he suffered from?  Was it some form of mental anguish such as depression?  Was it a recurring temptation, or maybe a troublesome person, a fellow believer who turned against him?  We don’t know.  And we don’t need to.  All we need to know is what Paul came to learn through it all: that God’s grace was there for him in the midst of it. All we need to know is what Paul was able to affirm with such conviction when he wrote those extraordinary words, “I am content with weaknesses… for the sake of Christ.  I will even boast of such things so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

     My friends in Christ, I began by recalling a powerful image of weakness here in this cathedral a few weeks ago when those young men lay prostrate before the altar. What happened at that moment – grace working its wonders in human weakness - is a thread which runs through the entire story of our salvation.  It’s the Moses story - the tongue-tied Moses who stood down the great Pharaoh; it’s the David story – the ruddy youth who slew the giant; it’s the Jeremiah story – the reluctant prophet who knew not how to speak.  It’s the Mary story – the lowly servant in whom God the mighty one worked great wonders; it’s the story of simple shepherds called to the manger and of unlettered fishermen called to be followers.

     And it’s also the story of those outstanding athletes who are participating these days in the Special Olympics, and it’s the story I get to witness every time I gather for Mass with the L’Arche community at one of their houses over on Capitol Hill. If I ever needed evidence of how God works wonders in and through the little ones of this world, and of how the weak and vulnerable touch and transform the so-called wise and strong of this world, it’s in L’Arche, that marvelous movement founded by Jean Vanier where people living with intellectual disabilities live together in communities of love, acceptance, and joy.

     My friends in Christ, the words of St. Paul are kind of a gospel in themselves and we need to take them to heart: it’s in weakness that God’s grace is made perfect, “for when we are weak it is then that we are strong.”

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

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