We Need New Human Saints

A sudden summons from the bishop startles most priests.  It certainly startled me some decades ago when, in my first parish, the ominous call came.  In the sixties, newly ordained priests were required to send in their homily notes for scrutiny by the bishop.  Those endless moments in the waiting-room will never leave my mind.  Riffling through my foolscap, hand-written pages, the bishop beckoned me into his office, put on his glasses, smiled grimly and said, ‘Sit down, Fr O’Leary.  After reading your homily for the first Sunday in Lent, I’m left with no option but to conclude that you really believe that Jesus was actually tempted to sin.’

Much human v. divine water has flowed under the bridges of ecclesiastical debate since those days.  It still does!  One thing is sure; whatever way the age-old argument goes, there can be no denying the utter, radical humanity of Jesus. His absolute humanity is, by its very defined and intrinsic meaning, the key to the understanding of the mystery of our redemption.  Outside the flesh there’s no salvation.  And moreover, anything that diminishes our belief in the true humanity of Jesus diminishes our belief in the truth of our own humanity. It is impossible to portray Jesus as being too human.

 Jesus was so thoroughly human that he scandalised his neighbours more than once.  He came eating and drinking and they called him a glutton and a drunkard.  He showed his frustration and his impatience, his profound need for male and female company.  He took on the three great sufferings of physical pain, the loss of his good name, and a sense of ultimate abandonment by his father.  He was courageous only because he was no stranger to fear, and he confronted both the evil around him and in the demons of his own soul.  He grew in wisdom and age and grace.

Just as it was the humanity of Jesus that attracted people to him – his human friendships, his emotions and doubts – so it is with us.  It is our vulnerable humanity as servant-priests that people can identify with – not our clerical strength.   And just as Jesus had to enter into the desert of his own heart, and face his own temptations, demons and compulsions (and, pace the bishop, they were real!) so too, with us.  ‘The fundamental witness of the priest,’ said Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, ‘will always be the authenticity of his own life.’  This, in the end, is what reveals God’s compassion and saves the world. ‘The challenge,’ said Bishop Donal Murray, ‘is to humanize the world we live in.  People revere that which is closest to the human heart.’

Giving retreats to priests is a wonderful (and challenging!) experience.  Frequently at a low ebb, they desperately struggle to save their morale, their sanity, their faith, their lives.  Only at privileged times and in secure places does the truth of their inner battles of the soul emerge – battles of belief, battles of addiction, battles of personal survival. Invariably our group sharing leads us to explore the mystery of our humanity.  This is the hub around which everything else revolves.  The malaise of priesthood will never be healed by top-down discussions around magisterial directives and institutional roles.  It will only be engaged, and transcended, by returning to, and nourishing, the messy, needy heart of our common humanity.

How else could we live with our secret desires and weaknesses if we did not believe that, through their assumption by Jesus, they are now transformed?  Would we ever tell the truth in our preaching, sometimes at significant personal cost, if Jesus had not overcome his own fear of others, and spoken honestly from his convictions?  How could we cope with the betrayal, deceit and draining disappointment in our lives if we were not convinced that they played an intrinsic part in the life of Jesus, before us, and are therefore redeemed?  How would we live with the loss, loneliness and quiet desperation that haunt our days and nights if we ever doubted that they were constant visitors during the days and nights of Jesus as well?  And how would we ever keep struggling for liberation where injustice is rampant if we doubted that the divinity of Jesus is most clearly revealed in his own broken, needy and marginalized humanity?

The essence of God’s explosive power lies in the humanity of Jesus – and therefore of all of us.  When that truth goes out of focus, the true vision of God’s self-gift is blurred.  Something vital for our hope is missing.  Very often it is only when, unwillingly vulnerable, and hanging on the ropes of our pain, that we, as priests, begin to understand the necessity of that unalterable and astonishing revelation.  Unfinished, and riven with temptation as our human condition may be, it is still the only place for God to be our incarnate saviour, still the only place for grace to happen.  ‘Our daily love’ wrote Pope Benedict, ‘is the work of God within the human heart’.

Any mindset that sees the divinity and humanity of Jesus as ‘over-against’ each other, as competing realities within his person, undermines and even removes the indispensable basis of our salvation.  Put another way, whenever the incarnate and  intrinsic unity of the human and divine in Jesus is misunderstood or denied, a pervasive dualism will falsely separate God from where God wants to be, and is delighted to be found – that is, in the very imperfection and poverty of our wild, wayward and wonderful lives.  There is little room for manoeuvre in the clear assertion of Gaudium et Spes; ‘(Jesus) worked with human hands, thought with a human mind, acted by human choice, and loved with a human heart.  He has truly been made one of us . . .’  For the Christian, the divinity of Christ will ever be inseparable from his humanity.  Divinity, in fact, is fully realized humanity.

To cast any doubt on this unshakeable truth is to ruin the basis for hope that priests can offer to desperate and dispossessed souls.  And this offer can only be authenticated through the priest’s understanding and experience of salvation in and through his own damaged humanity.  Like us in every way except in the straying into deliberate sin, it is in the full assumption of our human condition by Jesus that our redemption has been accomplished.  If Jesus had not somehow taken on himself the agonies and ecstasies of our lives, the extremes of pride, prejudice and passion, then all would not have been saved.  Quod non assumptus, non redemptus.

There is a profound and current threat to the developing and spreading of this original and greening vision.  A blind and fearful clericalism, still caught in a fatal misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Fall, strikes at the heart of the beautiful revelation of the Incarnation.  This mindset is uncomfortable with, and suspicious of, authentic humanity.  It dehumanises the human God in Jesus and in us.  ‘Do we replace our humanity,’ asks Bishop Brian Noble, ‘by an inhuman clericalism?’

Pope John Paul II has left us a gem of wisdom to ponder on.  ‘What the world needs today,’ he wrote, ‘are ministers of the Gospel who are experts in humanity, who have a profound awareness of the heart of present day men and women, participating in their joys and hopes, anguish and sadness, and who are at the same time contemplatives who have fallen in love with God.  For this we need new saints.’