Strength in Weakness: 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Source: Grace Church

High on the list of supplementary 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 others. 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.

For instance, I think that reflection on my health journey after a serious brain tumour has helped me more than all the books I’ve read.

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, “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.

Philip Shano, SJ has many years of rich and varied experience working with Ignatian spirituality: teaching, writing and using it in his ministry. He resides in the Jesuit community in Pickering, Ontario.

  • Carole Chernecky
    Posted at 02:13h, 17 October Reply

    Thank you, Philip. Grateful for this challenge! I shall keep it.

  • Vicky Chen
    Posted at 05:36h, 17 October Reply

    “…..reflection on my health journey after a serious brain tumour has helped me more than all the books I’ve read.” Your sharing here is deeply moving for me. I echo your sentiment. Living under the shadow of a hematological malignancy that can only be controlled with daily oral chemotherapy has certainly helped me see things from a very different perspective. I am reminded of #340 of the Spiritual Exercises. However, you and I are graced with real life experience of weakness.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 11:53h, 17 October Reply

    Thank you Philip!

  • Lorraine Majcen
    Posted at 12:19h, 17 October Reply

    Thank you Fr Philip! Your message is so beautiful and such an important reminder for me and all of us, as we journey in our faith and our walk with the Lord.
    How easy it easy to be drawn into pride and a feeling of a false power, which can be intoxicating, if we allow it to take hold of us. I am so grateful to God for this message and reminder of how we must be, if we wish to serve our mighty wondrous God. Thank you again for this great message.

  • Mike Hyland
    Posted at 20:00h, 17 October Reply

    Excellent advice Philip. Advice not only for priests but all of us in ministry need to heed. How much do I “smell like sheep” is a question for personal discernment. Thank you!

  • Jim Radde
    Posted at 23:04h, 17 October Reply

    Thanks for bringing up this article by Michael Buckley.
    I’ve known it since it first came out. I continue to find
    it encouraging.

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