In the interests of probity I suppose I should reveal that I celebrated the 19th anniversary of my ordination to the Sacred Priesthood on the feast of
Ss Peter and Paul, and therefore my original nom de plume of Iuventus (“youth” in Latin) sounds increasingly incredible, not to say rather vain. However, it wasn’t originally adopted for reasons of vanity but rather to convey the sense that any young priest could share similar experiences. I saw him as a sort of clerical Everyman.
There’s nothing particularly momentous about a 19th anniversary. As a number, 19 has few significant concomitants. There’s the proverbial 19th hole, I suppose, but it hardly seems relevant. The only other noteworthy 19th I can think of is the 19th Annotation. This rather John Buchan-sounding name describes an adjustment St Ignatius made to his Spiritual Exercises, so that what was originally designed to be done in an intense, continuous retreat of 30-days’ duration, might be spread out over a longer time within the context of one’s daily routine.
That’s not a bad analogy for my priestly life to date. There has been such an intensity of grace spread out during the past 19 years. Not one unbroken, calm intensity, but great grace integrated into the daily routine, sweetening and rescuing times which have included their share of drudgery, routine and difficulty. The desire to focus more exclusively on my own spiritual life, to retreat into swathes of time and peaceful solitude, grows to the same height as the responsibilities. This is the enduring challenge at the heart of secular priesthood – which Everyman has to navigate in much the same way, I would imagine, as spouses or parents crave “me time” but sacrifice it for the good of their family, sometimes easily and willingly and sometimes with a sedimentary resentment which reveals itself in the pouring out.
We are only human and therefore should be realistic in our expectations of whether it is prudent or possible to drain the vessel completely to the lees. We have a responsibility to those we serve to see this doesn’t happen. If there is no joy in tasks which previously brought fulfilment, we have probably got down to the dregs of the bottle which are not meant to be drunk. It’s time to throw them away and refill.
From the distance of 19 years, what the Lord did on that day of my ordination seems more awe-filled than ever, not least because with the passage of time it becomes more and more obvious that He had reckoned with my weakness and inadequacy, and adjusted the grace he gives accordingly, so that my ministry has been fruitful out of all proportion to any of my own gifts or efforts.
Such a realisation is profoundly liberating. I am just a servant. All I have to do is be faithful to the prescribed tasks and trust in the power of Christ. The constant evidence of God writing straight with crooked lines allows me to give glory to God and to echo the words of both Peter and Paul: “Now I know it is all true … the Lord really did send his angel.” The powerful reality of the supernatural gift I received that day becomes more and more apparent in what God has done through me and in spite of my ego’s understanding of what was or wasn’t being done. “The Lord stood by me and gave me power … to him be glory for ever and ever.”
This sense of glorifying God for what He has done is not, I hope, a complacent but a necessary one. For with some experience and with the direction which my ministry has increasingly taken – namely, that of ministering to those with histories of deep trauma in the healing programme Grief to Grace – it is often a challenge not to be intimidated by the weight and apparent power of evil, by a growing awareness of the extremes of light or darkness towards which humans gravitate by force of circumstance or choice, and by the mystery of why some seem to respond to grace in a way that others can’t or don’t.
I feel more convinced that we really do live in a valley of tears and that any illusions that people are easily “fixed” with glib solutions and pieties are the refuge of someone who cannot himself face the Cross of Christ. Paradoxically the priest, as alter Christus, must be someone whose own faith has been genuinely scandalised by the darkness of sin and death, so that he is driven to seek to flee towards the only true light which darkness cannot overcome, and can therefore speak credibly of Him in whom there is no darkness at all.