Strength in Weakness – 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
High on the list of prayer material that I offer to retreatants who are preparing for service such as the diaconate or priesthood is a piece by Michael Buckley, S.J. “Because Beset by Weakness.” Buckley’s article from the 1970s is his elaboration of the question: “Are you weak enough to be a priest?”
The article is quite helpful to ordination candidates, but it also applies to all of us. It’s Buckley’s reading of the “high priest” language that we find in the Letter to the Hebrews. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”
His basic stance is that rather than asking if a candidate is strong and skilled enough to be a priest (as we normally consider in job applicants), we should ask whether the person is weak enough. Buckley’s notion of weakness is that it is a quality that relates us profoundly with other people. It allows us to feel with them the human condition, the human struggle and darkness.
It’s no different from what Pope Francis calls the smell of the sheep. Weakness more profoundly relates us to God, because it provides the arena in which God’s grace can be seen. Buckley’s piece is really very good. Check it out if you have not seen it.
I also see in Buckley’s article the insights of writers such as Saint Paul, Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier. As believers, the irony is that we discover strength in our personal weakness. Paul reminds us that God’s grace is sufficient for us, precisely because God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.
In light of that notion of weakness, we know what Jesus is saying to James and John in today’s Gospel. They crave places of honour. Jesus explains that they just don’t get what he has been saying all along. “You do not know what you asking.”
Jesus’ point is that, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Their clericalism is blatant. Most people are more subtle and political in clamouring for places of honour.
It’s not a bad idea for us to think about all of this as we hear more and more about the attitude of clericalism and the damage that it has inflicted on the Church. Perhaps it’s not just candidates for ministry who need to read Buckley.
If I were charged with providing an orientation kit for new bishops, I’d include this article. I’d also ask them to do what Saint Ignatius asked the Jesuit delegates to the Council of Trent to do. He offered a number of suggestions for “helping souls,” outside the actual Council.
One suggestion was that they visit the sick in hospitals and “hear the confessions of the poor and console them, even bringing them something if I could.” My criterion for the ministry would be to have them do something that gives the smell of the sheep. It’s difficult to get too clerical if I’m weak and vulnerable and humble.