A good friend visited me recently. While observing an ordinary week in my life she asked ‘Fr. Paddy, how do you deal with all the pain you meet every day?’
It made me think. Then it hit me. The life of a priest is less about doing, more about being, more passive than active. Being there for people, listening to their hurt and, believe me, there is a lot of hurt and pain out there. Perhaps it’s because I have made no secret of my own struggle with depression that many broken people who have lost all hope come to me.
Every second Saturday I make myself available in the confessional after evening Mass to anyone who needs a listening ear. I invite them to come and take as long as they like. If it’s a blessing they need or exorcism from some addiction, or if it’s a gripe against me or the church or whatever’s on their mind – just come and sit and tell me all about it. Empathetic listening means being open to their pain and really hearing it in my heart. I am often there for more than an hour.
Don’t get me wrong! There are indeed many occasions for joy in a priest’s life too such as birth and marriage but during an ordinary week we priests meet a lot of broken people, soaking up their anguish like blotting paper. For any young person who has never heard of blotting paper, or a fountain pen either, in this digital world we live in, it’s what in the past soaked up the stains of the dark ink on the white paper. Perhaps ‘sponge’ would be a more modern and universal metaphor, a sponge soaking up the muck from a white marble floor. ‘’What do you then do’’, she asked, ‘’with all that sad heavy stuff? How do you ring out the sponge?’ Again I had to think. This below is my best attempt at an answer.
The word ‘passio’ in Latin means ‘To absorb pain’. So the Passion of Christ is, literally speaking, Jesus soaking up the pain of the world, the sin of the universe, including yours and mine. The word ‘passive’ come from the same root. He absorbed all that was said and done to him in dignified silence. Fr. Rolheiser often referred to this during Lent last year when I was on my sabbatical in Texas. It came back to mind when Pope Francis met the outrageously hurtful accusations from Archbishop Vigano with dignified silence (for the time being). Do not let people push your buttons. Stay in control. This is what he wrote in 1990 in an article ‘’Silencio y Palaba’’[Silence and Words] in which he reflected on Christ’s Passion.
‘Christ as divine does not destroy his enemies, although he could do so but allows himself in his sacred human nature to suffer most cruelly’ he wrote, maintaining that the Devil must eventually reveal himself in the light of the Cross. ‘In moments of darkness and great tribulation, when the ‘tangles’ and the ‘knots’ cannot be untied and nothing is clear, then we must say nothing; the gentleness of the silence will make us look even weaker, and it will be the same devil who, emboldened, will show himself and his true intentions, no longer disguised as an angel of light but boldly and shamelessly.’’
Mass is not just the Last Supper of Holy Thursday but also the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross on Good Friday. Jesus absorbed the pain and sin of our broken world and transformed them by his suffering at Calvary. As priests we absorb the pain and sin of the people we meet and offer it up at the offertory of the Mass together with the bread and wine, soon to become the Body and Blood of Christ. The answer is the sacrifice of the Mass.
We are at Calvary in our church at the moment, hanging painfully with Christ on the Cross. In respectful silence and faith-filled hope we await the joy of Resurrection around the corner.
Word of Wisdom
‘ We are never so tall as when we are on our knees at the foot of the cross.’