‘Grace is everywhere’: Reflections on 60 years of priesthood
On Dec. 18, 1963, on a chilly and overcast morning in Rome, I was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Brooklyn. In the 60 years since, I have served in three parishes, two seminaries, the Roman Curia and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.
There have been many defining moments. One of those was a visit to the ecumenical monastery of Taizé in France about 40 years ago. A friend and I spent the day there. It was crowded with young people, some of whom sat with the monks either individually or in groups, praying or conversing. The culmination of the day came in the evening with the prayer around the cross. Monks and young people sat on the ground in a semi-circular pattern with the cross in the center. There were chants, readings, moments of silence, all in an atmosphere of reverence and reflection.
I cannot guess at the religious affiliations of the young people. I doubt that many of them were Sunday Mass regulars. But the cross held their attention. And that has been the way for so much of human history—the cross of Jesus Christ drawing people to itself. That moment in Taizé was a defining moment for me, which I remember to this day because there is a power to the cross that is universal, constant and irrepressible.
I believe that the cross offers to people meaning, purpose and hope. Its meaning lies in the belief that God incarnate in Jesus Christ suffered as do all of us.
The power of the cross
What is the source of that power? I believe that the cross offers to people meaning, purpose and hope. Its meaning lies in the belief that God incarnate in Jesus Christ suffered as do all of us. Not even God incarnate is exempt from diminishment and death. Most believers do not get into debates about the impassibility of God. It is already and simply wondrous that Jesus Christ, truly God, suffered and died. If this was the fate of Jesus Christ, then indeed we can bravely, even if fearfully, embrace the same fate. He walked with us to his death, and now we can walk with him to our own death. This is God’s way.
The cross also gives purpose to its followers. Every life is burdensome. Jesus Christ took on our burdens. Nothing is accomplished without suffering. Though the Gospels proclaim directly or indirectly the joys that Jesus experienced, they also witness to the pains he experienced in announcing and actualizing the reign of God. There was opposition, threats, even betrayal. And so it is that those who know the cross of Jesus Christ are willing to take on the burdens of others or to embrace responsibilities that will bring both joy and pain or to embark on grueling journeys. Think of the mother with a child seeking safety and shelter in another country. To accept pain for the well-being of another is God’s way.
But this is not the end of the story. The power of the cross lies also in being a door to hope. The death of the incarnate God bursts the chains of death and reveals the whirling superabundance of divine life in the glorious body of the risen Jesus Christ. And the ongoing manifestation of this resurrection lies in a body of believers who, generation after generation, have continued to find meaning, purpose and hope in the cross, not finding them through some syllogism but through the story and image of the crucified and risen Son of God striking their hearts in their simplicity, starkness and glory.
Hope and the Eucharist
What is true about the cross is equally true of the Eucharist, the celebration of the paschal mystery, the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Throughout the centuries, the public visage of the church has been marked with controversies great and small. But beneath all the polemic there is the irrepressible life of the people of God seeking only one thing—the power of the body of Christ. It is most especially the poor who want that one thing. They need the meaning, the purpose and hope that the Eucharist gives. Jesus proclaims the Gospel to the poor and now they proclaim it to us. They remind us of the one thing that is necessary—beyond all the disputes of those who arrogantly take on mantles of authority.
The cross and the Eucharist will endure through all the vicissitudes of human and ecclesial history. There is no question that there are ideological and political forces for whom the Gospel is a threat. But the church has withstood onslaughts—not everywhere, not always. But even when cathedrals, churches and chapels are taken away, there is always the kitchen table. Priests and people keep finding ways to remember and find meaning, purpose and hope in the paschal mystery.
Because of the different ministries I have had over the years, I had to learn various languages. It has been a grace to celebrate the Eucharist in those languages, each of which offers a unique window into the paschal mystery because of nuances in words and even the cadences of sentences. For example, I find Italian to be lyrical and spirited, but Polish somber and weighty. English should be straightforward and direct, but the current translation is a cumbersome rendering of what reads well only in Latin. Nevertheless, each language, each culture brings a new perspective to our reception of the one paschal mystery, the mystery that binds the unity of the body of the church.
Priests and people keep finding ways to remember and find meaning, purpose and hope in the paschal mystery.
Quarrels in the church
Sadly, the harmony that flows from that unity is somewhat diminished by the quarrels and dissensions of “prophets of doom.” That was what Pope Saint John XXIII called the nay-sayers at the opening of the Second Vatican Council. But he knew history and he knew that they would not prevail. Today’s prophets of doom will also fall into the ditches alongside the road of the church’s pilgrim journey, but not without doing damage by captivating some of God’s people with their strident voices. These voices are few, but they do represent an ideological divide within the larger church that needs healing.
I hope that the unfolding of synodality as the way of the church today will be an instrument of that healing. But synodality depends on the ability to listen, and I want to propose that an important means to fostering listening is a renewed appreciation of the philosophical and theological principle of analogy. This principle has a long history in the church, but I do not hear it much invoked in ecclesial discourse today.
Analogy and faith
The word itself (or in other forms, such as “analogous” or “analogously”) is used at times in secular discourse as a way of comparing two realities. For example, a diplomat might say that relations between the United States and Russia today are analogous to the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, by which he means that they are somewhat similar but also somewhat dissimilar.
In philosophical and theological discourse, analogy has a deeper significance. Here I realize I can be accused of simplifying a principle that has been the cause of much debate over the centuries and also of not acknowledging the sources of my own understanding. But I can only write about what is helpful for me in addressing the current situation in the church. It is, after all, nearly evening.
I believe that in Christian thought, analogy is not only a way of talking about the similarities and dissimilarities between two realities but also a way of describing the participation of one reality in another. There is an unbreakable bond between the two realities. This bond may be the dependence of one reality on the other or the interdependence of two realities. On that basis I suggest that we can talk about the analogy of being, the analogy of faith and the analogy of grace.
God is not one being among other beings. God is not a being at all; God is being itself, the source of all other beings. We do not participate in God’s being as such, but we do participate in the order of beings that God has created and continues to sustain in existence. As human beings, we have been created in the image of God, and thus we are in some ways similar to the triune God (having intellect and will) but also infinitely dissimilar because we are finite and contingent beings, utterly dependent on God.
From the beginning, God sought to bring human beings into intimate communion with divine life. The unveiling of this plan reached its culmination in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As individual beings we do not participate in the being of other individuals, but since we are finite and contingent, we are dependent on one another for the fulfillment of our own being. The well-being of others fosters our own being, and the diminishment of others diminishes us also. Every individual human being is in real similarity to every other human being. The inevitable dissimilarities among human beings do not dissolve the similarity but should contribute to enlarging the humanness of each.
From the beginning, God sought to bring human beings into intimate communion with divine life. The unveiling of this plan reached its culmination in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cross as the symbol of the entire paschal mystery draws us into the depths of divine love. The human response to God’s invitation is faith driven by love. It is a faith that surrenders confidently into the mystery of the divine call.
But faith is analogous. There is the explicit faith of those who respond to God’s call through visible participation in the community of faith, the church. But there is also faith beyond the borders of the church that perhaps cannot even be named. The liturgy testifies to this. In the eucharistic prayers in Masses for Various Needs, we ask God to remember “all the dead whose faith you alone have known. Admit them to rejoice in the light of your face.”
Throughout the years of my ministry, I have looked for signs of that faith in people whom I have encountered and in literature. I have found many such signs. In his last novel, Stella Maris, the late Cormac McCarthy, raised a Catholic but later distant from the church, wrote, “Any number of truths hitherto unknown to us have entered the human domain through the testimony of a single witness.”
This strikes me as very Johannine. It is one of so many “signals of transcendence” (to use Peter Berger’s term) that I have encountered in literature and in other arts as well. The recognition of divine mystery and the call to enter it cannot be eliminated from human experience, no matter how strong the surrounding secular milieu. The voice of God is one, but human responses are so varied. Faith is analogous.
Because the faith of human beings is analogous, so too is its expression. I hope that as the way of synodality becomes more common in the church there will be greater attentiveness to the diversity of ways in which faith is lived and articulated. God’s plan is single and constant, but its reception is multiple. We belong together in God’s plan, and we grow together through the mutuality of dialogue and collaboration in our varied responses to that plan.
As we hear in the Song of Songs, love is stronger than death. The final words of the country priest in Georges Bernanos’s novel are “Grace is everywhere.”
‘Grace is everywhere’
Since faith is analogous, so too is grace. God’s self-gift is one and eternal, but the human acceptance of that grace is multiple. Humanity is caught in a circle of sin that shows itself in so many deeds of malice and injustice. What keeps that circle from becoming a downward spiral is its disruption—sometimes abruptly, sometimes gradually—by the eruption of unexpected acts of love, from heroic self-sacrifice to gentle words and gestures. Goodness surprises. Grace wins. As we hear in the Song of Songs, love is stronger than death. The final words of the country priest in Georges Bernanos’s novel are “Grace is everywhere.”
Grace is analogous. God’s self-gift is one and constant, but its appropriation is multiple. All who are graced belong together and grow together by the recognition and celebration of grace at work in one another. Grace can even be at work in those who seem to be outliers.
One of the most significant paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is No. 1735, regarding those who outwardly seem to be in sinful situations: “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments and other psychological or social factors.” Those who struggle to be disciples in the midst of ambiguity are not deprived of grace and need the accompaniment of others who also are not free of struggle. No one is. But together the grace that is analogous points to the inexhaustibility of the one divine self-gift.
“It is nearly evening.” These are the words of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, inviting Jesus to dine with them. I am glad and grateful for the journey of 60 years and for defining moments such as the prayer around the cross at Taizé. I am sorry for the ways in which I have failed the words I have written above. I am waiting for the invitation to join the supper. But not yet, perhaps?