Thursday, June 24, 2010

Spirituality and Holiness

I've been asked more than once during my 40 years of priesthood, "What kind of priest are you anyway?" The questioner was not inquiring whether I was a diocesan priest or a member of a religious order. No, worded that way, and with a tone of displeasure, the question was posed by someone who was angry with me, in full disagreement or disgust about something I had said or done.

My answer to that indictment has always been the same: "Not a very good one!"

When I consider what priests are supposed to be, that response is not false humility but Gospel truth.

Priests are to be men of prayer, well-versed in Scripture, theology and liturgy, intent upon acquiring perfection and holiness, willing to carry out the suggestions of the pope and the bishop, solicitous for the People of God, conscious of weaknesses and marked by humility, perfect and perpetual in the continence of celibacy, conformed to Christ's poverty, supportive of their brother priests, amiable, sincere, just, courteous, constant in mind, and eager to procure the glory of God. (This list is based on the expectations in Vatican II's Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests.)

Let me hasten to say that I do not expect, want, or hope for a response from anyone along the lines of "Oh, father, you're a good priest. You do all those things."

No, I list the expectations and acknowledge my failure to live up to them not to find pity, to offer excuses, or to receive a consoling word, but rather to set the stage for a brief reflection on the spiritual life of those who want to follow Jesus Christ.

When I first took seriously Jesus' words, "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect," I lost heart. I'll never be perfect. But when I learned that the Greek word in Matthew 5:48 translated into English as "perfect" was teleios, then I found a glimmer of hope. For teleios can mean complete, mature, adult. I cannot be perfect in the way God is, but I can work toward becoming a mature human being.

Note that Luke offered a variation on Matthew's theme; he quotes Jesus as saying, "Be oiktirmones, that is, compassionate, as your Father is compassionate." In modern terms Jesus' advice might be rendered, "Have a heart like the heart of your Father!"

Spirituality has become a hot-ticket item in our day. Many in the millennial generation (born since the mid 1980s) claim that they are spiritual just not religious.

People of religion often equate spirituality with holiness. Many of us shy away from thinking that we are holy, and yet we do want to nurture the spiritual aspects of our lives.

Without re-tracing the tortuous route which brings me to my conclusion, let me propose that people are holy simply because they are made in God's image, and the degree of their holiness increases as they honor the God in whose image they are made.

Spirituality is the road, bridge, journey or plan of action by which one acknowledges and honors the Creator and becomes more intimate with the Divine One.

I have concluded that it's OK to be on the way, to be in process. One is spiritual and holy to the degree that he or she is moving forward.

The goals and characteristics of a good priest are not dissimilar to the goals and characteristics of a good person in general. If asked, "What kind of person are you anyway?" we can reply, "Not a very good one!" with the knowledge and assurance that our God loves us anyway.

Perfection eludes us, but working on maturity and trying to have a heart are do-able. Our failures need not cause us depression or despair. As long as we are making the effort, moving forward, we are spiritual, holy people.

Jesus provided the encouragement and direction. He knew it would not be easy: "Come to me all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you" (Mt 11:28). Holiness then is not defined by moral behavior but by relationship with God, and that is the path of spirituality.

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