It may be possible for each [person] to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would strongly be tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another…. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
This quote from C.S. Lewis articulates well the theology that grounds my approach to pastoral care. Coming into the C.P.E. program this summer, I was pretty intimidated by the task before me… the task of ministry, which I see as a call to take up “the burden of my neighbor’s glory.” The reason this was so intimidating for me was that I saw ministry as one-sided—as simply a “work” I would perform on behalf of another person—rather than as a reciprocal effort that would engage both persons in a pilgrimage of love. Yet through my experiences this summer, I have come to understand my ministry instead as a calling forth of the freedom of another person—that is, as an invitation to a person to engage in the experience of faith. I have had patients ask me difficult theological and moral questions—questions of theodicy, health care, change of lifestyle. Sometimes, when the questions are asked, I sense that the person asking is somehow abdicating responsibility for answering these questions themselves. When I have sensed this happening, I have restrained myself from providing a lot of answers, and instead have waited for the individual to articulate their own “theology.” Sometimes I have offered some words based on my own faith, trying to be careful to preface them as such, but many times, I have simply facilitated the theological engagement of the other person. At times this has required a painful patience on my part, as I have a strong sense of the objectivity of many of my convictions, yet I have come to see it as a necessary patience. I want to be an advocate for the development of personal faith, and for faith to be personal, it must engage people at the level of their freedom, at the innermost core of their being where they confront the ultimate questions of life. This is part of my commitment to carrying out pastoral care: “One of the basic objectives of… renewed and intensified pastoral action [for and with the sick and the suffering]… is an attitude which looks upon the sick person, the bearer of a handicap, or the suffering individual, not simply as an object of the Church’s love and service, but as an active and responsible participant in the work of evangelization and salvation” (Christifidelis Laici, 54). I believe that allowing patients to grapple with their own faith commitment is part of this pastoral attitude.
However, there has been an inner tension in my ministry in this regard; there is a question that has continually haunted me as I have gone about my pastoral care in the hospital this summer: What, then, does it mean for me to be a pastor—that is, a shepherd? Am I simply a theologically trained sheep walking alongside other sheep? Or will there be something specific and unique that ordination will bestow upon my ministry? In other words, what specifically will pastoral care mean for me one day as an ordained priest?
In order to answer these questions, I have turned to the documents of the Church on priesthood as a way of grounding my own understanding of pastoral identity. In particular, I have been reading an exhortation on the formation of priests that has recently been written by John Paul II. The Pope speaks of the need “to initiate the candidate [for priesthood] into the sensitivity of being a shepherd, in the conscious and mature assumption of his responsibilities, in the interior habit of evaluating problems and establishing priorities and looking for solutions on the basis of honest motivations of faith and according to the theological demands inherent in pastoral work” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 58). My desire to get a sense of what it means to be a shepherd—to “bear the weight of my neighbour’s glory” in a specific way as an ordained priest—is one of the reasons why I decided to wear clerics during my summer internship.
So what does wearing clerics mean to me in my ministry now, at a time when I am not yet an ordained priest? For one thing, the clerical collar serves as a reminder of the responsibility I have to form my pastoral identity according to the mind and heart of the Church. This does not imply a slavish submission to some abstract teaching, but rather an assimilation of the rich theology of priestly ministry:
The exercise of his ministry deeply involves the priest himself as a conscious, free and responsible person. The bond with Jesus Christ assured by consecration and configuration to him in the sacrament of orders gives rise to and requires in the priest the further bond which comes from his ‘intention,’ that is, from a conscious and free choice to do in his ministerial activities what the Church intends to do. This bond tends by its very nature to become as extensive and profound as possible, affecting one’s way of thinking, feeling and life itself: in other words, creating a series of moral and spiritual ‘dispositions’ which correspond to the ministerial actions performed by the priest. (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 25)
Putting on the collar every morning serves to remind me of the ministry for which I am preparing, a ministry which the Church describes as a configuration to Christ. This configuration makes the priest a representative of Christ in much the same manner as an icon (cf. Pope John Paul II, Letter to Women, 11; Fr. John Saward, “The Priest as Icon,” Priest, November 1994). In the words of the Pope, “the priest is a living and transparent image of Christ the priest.” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 12)
How does the collar serve to manifest this image? I am not certain what—if anything—the Church believes in this regard, but in my own mind, I have developed a “theology of the collar” this summer during my internship. For me, the collar is like a ring (now an engagement ring; one day a wedding ring) that testifies to the spousal relationship that the priest has to the Church. In essence, the priest “marries” the Church at ordination: “The gift of self, which is the source and synthesis of pastoral charity, is directed toward the Church…. The priest, who welcomes the call to ministry, is in a position to make this a loving choice, as a result of which the Church and souls become his first interest, and with this concrete spirituality he becomes capable of loving the universal Church and that part of it entrusted to him with the deep love of a husband for his wife.” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 23)
What can serve as the source of this love for the Church? I believe it can come only from a love for Christ, a love that I have noticed slowly developing in my life as I have walked the path toward a vocation. Having experienced Christ’s love, I desire to reciprocate it:
The primary point of reference of the priest’s charity is Jesus Christ himself. Only in loving and serving Christ the head and spouse will charity become a source, criterion, measure and impetus for the priest’s love and service to the Church, the body and spouse of Christ…. This was the explicit and programmatic teaching of Jesus when he entrusted to Peter the ministry of shepherding the flock only after his threefold affirmation of love, indeed only after he had expressed a preferential love: “He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter. ..said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.” (Jn. 21:17) (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 23)
For me, wearing the collar is a symbol of my desire to love Christ through a particular form of service to his Church. In wearing the collar, I have a visible reminder of the dedication of my whole life to her service through the vows of poverty, celibate chastity, and obedience. [When I speak of dedication to the “Church,” however, I do not mean that I limit my ministry to those who have been baptized as Christians.] The collar also represents to me the authority of the priest, authority understood as service: “The authority of Jesus Christ as head coincides.., with his service, with his gift, with his total, humble and loving dedication on behalf of the Church…. The spiritual existence of every priest receives its life and inspiration from exactly this type of authority.” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 21) It is this sort of pastoral authority—marked by “no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption”—that I pray I will be able one day to exercise as an ordained priest.