My priesthood? What priesthood do I have? It doesn’t make any sense. Yes, I am a Catholic sister who is deeply committed to Christ and the Church. Jesus is my center. But I have no desire to be a priest.
The words came as I was preparing for a 30-day silent, directed retreat. This is part of your priesthood. I put the phrase away and concentrated on the details of the retreat: a journal, a Bible, and good snow boots for walking in the winter woods of January. And then I began the rhythm of the retreat. Prayer, prayer and more prayer. Slowly, as I walked with Jesus from before his birth through his childhood, through the waters of baptism and his friendships and healings, his own friendship with me began to deepen. Praying through the crucifixion was different this time. It was to be witness with a close friend. I mourned with the women at the tomb. I sat vigil in the emptiness of death. And then the sun rose again. Jesus rose. My surprise and wonder were fresh and new. My love had returned. He had conquered death and the whole world was changed.
I sat with the disciples in the upper room. We were waiting. We were praying. My prayer time with the disciples blurred with the shared silence with my fellow retreatants. Gathered around the fire in the evening in total silence, a deep reverence grew, one which I had never known. We were from all walks of life and we were truly just being ourselves. I opened my Bible to the assigned reading, John 20:19-23, and my body stirred as I read these words:
“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. [Jesus] said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
In that moment I knew that we are all sent. We all have a priesthood to share the mission and love of Jesus in the world wherever we are. All life is holy. And Jesus is the center of so many people’s lives: whether they are married, single, ordained or religious. We are sent.
The Church refers to this as the universal call to holiness. Especially since the documents of Vatican II, we speak of all the baptized being called to be priest, prophet and king. We all participate in the one priesthood of Christ.
I pray with those, especially women and married men, who feel a call to ordination within the Catholic Church. I pray for their wounds and for their healing. I hope not to diminish their journey. At the same time, I know in my bones of the holiness of each unique call, the consecration of life itself by our God who calls us and loves into being every day.
Sister Sarah Hennessey, FSPA is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration based in La Crosse, Wisconsin. She grew up in North Carolina as an active Quaker and became a Catholic in 2000. For her, Jesus’ Messy Business includes falling in love with Christ AND with the People of God! Her heart is on fire for the Hispanic community, poetry, singing and accompanying people through birth, death and the living that comes in between. She currently ministers as the perpetual adoration coordinator at St. Rose Convent, as a Mary of the Angels Chapeltour guide, and a volunteer at Franciscan Hospitality House.
On Sunday, I stood in a Church parking lot with about a dozen teenagers preparing for confirmation. I held a pile of paper plates under my arm, a black marker in my hand. The youth all stood behind a line, listening to me as I described their task: moving as a team to another line many feet away. The challenge was my version of the team building game, Stepping Stones.
“That line, over there, represents the Kingdom of God that you are called to build up. Right now you are in Church on that side of the line, but you must move outward, as a Christian community. You will venture out into a world where the focus is often not on the things of God, where you are often pressured to be someone you are not called to be, someone who is selfish and greedy and mean. Instead, you must be a community and work together and not fall into temptations. (If anyone in your group touches the swamp of sin, then you all must start over.)
“All you have are these stepping-stones, representing the Christian practices that keep you strong, faithful and focused on Christ. If you let go of any of these practices (if you are not touching the stone as you move forward) then you cannot use the stepping-stone; the hungry sharks (your confirmation sponsors standing over there, watching on the sideline right now) will snatch them up.
“In order for you to have these stepping-stones available to you, I need to hear you name a Christian attitude or action that will enable you to have strength, to build up God’s kingdom and remain on the path of holiness. What do you say?”
The teens started to name typical Christian behaviors. I wrote each one on a plate and handed the plates to them one at a time, so they could use them as stepping-stones to help them move to the other line.
“Go to Church.”
“Be nice to people.”
“Read the Bible.”
“Good, good. What else? You have more plates here that could become stones if you say more things that Christians do.”
What was said then totally surprised me, even though it was absolutely right.
The next day, Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate,” was published; it means “Rejoice and be glad!” As I read the exhortation, I couldn’t stop smiling, thinking about the teens who are about to get confirmed and our discussions during the retreat. It was very clear that they already understood the universal call to holiness; now my prayer for them is that they will boldly follow that call, no matter how messy Gospel living may be.
I hope we all do.
What follows are a few highlights from “Gaudete et Exsultate,” sorted into categories I made in order to highlight how moving on the path of holiness and living with joy is often messy, challenging work. As we live this way, let us rejoice!
“To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by labouring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.” (#14)
“That mission has its fullest meaning in Christ, and can only be understood through him. At its core, holiness is experiencing, in union with Christ, the mysteries of his life. It consists in uniting ourselves to the Lord’s death and resurrection in a unique and personal way, constantly dying and rising anew with him. But it can also entail reproducing in our own lives various aspects of Jesus’ earthly life: his hidden life, his life in community, his closeness to the outcast, his poverty and other ways in which he showed his self-sacrificing love.” (#20)
EVEN SAINTS MESS UP
“To recognize the word that the Lord wishes to speak to us through one of his saints, we do not need to get caught up in details, for there we might also encounter mistakes and failures. Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person.” (#22)
“May you come to realize what that word is, the message of Jesus that God wants to speak to the world by your life. Let yourself be transformed. Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit, so that this can happen, lest you fail in your precious mission. The Lord will bring it to fulfilment despite your mistakes and missteps, provided that you do not abandon the path of love but remain ever open to his supernatural grace, which purifies and enlightens.” (#24)
GOD IS IN THE MESSY PLACES
“Nor can we claim to say where God is not, because God is mysteriously present in the life of every person, in a way that he himself chooses, and we cannot exclude this by our presumed certainties. Even when someone’s life appears completely wrecked, even when we see it devastated by vices or addictions, God is present there. If we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit rather than our own preconceptions, we can and must try to find the Lord in every human life.” (#42)
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. The world tells us exactly the opposite: entertainment, pleasure, diversion and escape make for the good life. The worldly person ignores problems of sickness or sorrow in the family or all around him; he averts his gaze. The world has no desire to mourn; it would rather disregard painful situations, cover them up or hide them. Much energy is expended on fleeing from situations of suffering in the belief that reality can be concealed. But the cross can never be absent.” (#75)
“A person who sees things as they truly are and sympathizes with pain and sorrow is capable of touching life’s depths and finding authentic happiness. He or she is consoled, not by the world but by Jesus. Such persons are unafraid to share in the suffering of others; they do not flee from painful situations. They discover the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief. They sense that the other is flesh of our flesh, and are not afraid to draw near, even to touch their wounds. They feel compassion for others in such a way that all distance vanishes. In this way they can embrace Saint Paul’s exhortation: “Weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). Knowing how to mourn with others: that is holiness.” (#76)
HOLINESS CAN REQUIRE MAKING A MESS
“Jesus himself warns us that the path he proposes goes against the flow, even making us challenge society by the way we live and, as a result, becoming a nuisance. He reminds us how many people have been, and still are, persecuted simply because they struggle for justice, because they take seriously their commitment to God and to others. Unless we wish to sink into an obscure mediocrity, let us not long for an easy life, for “whoever would save his life will lose it” (Mt 16:25).” (#90)
HOLINESS IS ABOUT GETTING INVOLVED, GETTING UNCOMFORTABLE
“If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out, or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space. Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ. That is what it is to be a Christian! Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being?” (#98)
“For Christians, this involves a constant and healthy unease. Even if helping one person alone could justify all our efforts, it would not be enough. The bishops of Canada made this clear when they noted, for example, that the biblical understanding of the jubilee year was about more than simply performing certain good works. It also meant seeking social change: ‘For later generations to also be released, clearly the goal had to be the restoration of just social and economic systems, so there could no longer be exclusion.'” (#99)
“Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.” (#101)
“Hedonism and consumerism can prove our downfall, for when we are obsessed with our own pleasure, we end up being all too concerned about ourselves and our rights, and we feel a desperate need for free time to enjoy ourselves. We will find it hard to feel and show any real concern for those in need, unless we are able to cultivate a certain simplicity of life, resisting the feverish demands of a consumer society, which leave us impoverished and unsatisfied, anxious to have it all now. Similarly, when we allow ourselves to be caught up in superficial information, instant communication and virtual reality, we can waste precious time and become indifferent to the suffering flesh of our brothers and sisters. Yet even amid this whirlwind of activity, the Gospel continues to resound, offering us the promise of a different life, a healthier and happier life.” (#108)
“Such inner strength makes it possible for us, in our fast-paced, noisy and aggressive world, to give a witness of holiness through patience and constancy in doing good. It is a sign of the fidelity born of love, for those who put their faith in God (pístis) can also be faithful to others (pistós). They do not desert others in bad times; they accompany them in their anxiety and distress, even though doing so may not bring immediate satisfaction.” (#112)
“I am not saying that such humiliation is pleasant, for that would be masochism, but that it is a way of imitating Jesus and growing in union with him. This is incomprehensible on a purely natural level, and the world mocks any such notion. Instead, it is a grace to be sought in prayer: ‘Lord, when humiliations come, help me to know that I am following in your footsteps.’” (#120)
“Look at Jesus. His deep compassion reached out to others. It did not make him hesitant, timid or self-conscious, as often happens with us. Quite the opposite. His compassion made him go out actively to preach and to send others on a mission of healing and liberation. Let us acknowledge our weakness, but allow Jesus to lay hold of it and send us too on mission. We are weak, yet we hold a treasure that can enlarge us and make those who receive it better and happier. Boldness and apostolic courage are an essential part of mission.” (#131)
“God is eternal newness.He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! He is always greater than our plans and schemes. Unafraid of the fringes, he himself became a fringe (cf. Phil 2:6-8; Jn 1:14). So if we dare to go to the fringes, we will find him there; indeed, he is already there. Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and in their profound desolation. He is already there.” (#135)
HOLINESS MEANS ENTERING INTO THE MESSINESS OF GROWTH
“Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things. Yet the challenges involved can be like the storm, the whale, the worm that dried the gourd plant, or the wind and sun that burned Jonah’s head. For us, as for him, they can serve to bring us back to the God of tenderness, who invites us to set out ever anew on our journey.” (#134)
“Along this journey, the cultivation of all that is good, progress in the spiritual life and growth in love are the best counterbalance to evil.Those who choose to remain neutral, who are satisfied with little, who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord, will never hold out. Even less if they fall into defeatism, for ‘if we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents … Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner, borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil.'” (#163)
“Nonetheless, it is possible that, even in prayer itself, we could refuse to let ourselves be confronted by the freedom of the Spirit, who acts as he wills. We must remember that prayerful discernment must be born of a readiness to listen: to the Lord and to others, and to reality itself, which always challenges us in new ways.Only if we are prepared to listen, do we have the freedom to set aside our own partial or insufficient ideas, our usual habits and ways of seeing things. In this way, we become truly open to accepting a call that can shatter our security, but lead us to a better life. It is not enough that everything be calm and peaceful. God may be offering us something more, but in our comfortable inadvertence, we do not recognize it.” (#172)
“When, in God’s presence, we examine our life’s journey, no areas can be off-limits. In all aspects of life we can continue to grow and offer something greater to God, even in those areas we find most difficult. We need, though, to ask the Holy Spirit to liberate us and to expel the fear that makes us ban him from certain parts of our lives. God asks everything of us, yet he also gives everything to us. He does not want to enter our lives to cripple or diminish them, but to bring them to fulfilment.” (#175)
I am trying to teach myself how to French braid hair. As the mother of two daughters, one of whom was able to donate 10+ inches of hair at age three (with pigtails to spare), I feel that mastering this skill now is a savvy investment in my future time management.
My first attempt at a French braid several months ago was pathetic. Upon seeing herself in the mirror, even my four-year-old felt the need to be gentle with my ego, reassuring me in a Daniel Tiger-inspired pep talk: “Well, it’s not the best … But keep tryin’! You’ll get better!”
She was right, of course. After months of disastrous braiding attempts, I can now send my daughter to school with her hair in a style that is (if not quite red carpet-ready) at least identifiable as a French braid.
It occurred to me, while doing my daughter’s hair on Ash Wednesday, that a French braid is a pretty good metaphor for the Lenten spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Throughout Lent we are meant to attend specifically to these three “strands” of holiness; weaving them together, bolstering each one as we proceed. They should be united in a tight, well-ordered plait. If we neglect any one of them—if, for example, we fast but do not pray—then our Lenten braid is lumpy and uneven.
My Lenten braids are always lumpy; at times, they are so disheveled as to be unidentifiable. I tend to begin Lent with lofty expectations of my imminent spiritual accomplishments, only to be disappointed by the reality of my own clumsiness. I usually have to “start over” at least once before the end of February.
But, just like French braiding, the more time I spend attempting to fast, pray, and give alms, the easier it is to do so … and the more natural it feels to integrate one into the other, weaving them together.
Though fasting is only one-third of the equation, it’s typically the “celebrity” pillar of Lent. In past years, I have taken the path that Pope Francis advocates: fasting from a specific uncharitable attitude or behavior. This year, though, I wanted to try to assume those fasts of the soul into a more traditional fast of the body: specifically, abstaining from alcohol.
As I politely decline a glass of wine with dinner, I am reminded to say a prayer of thanksgiving for all the necessities and luxuries I can enjoy this day, and—before bed—I donate the cost of a drink to charity. In researching the charity to which I wish to donate today, my mind and heart are opened to the multitude of crosses that others bear, and the multitude of ways in which I could train my fingers to better be the hands of Christ in easing their burdens.
I fumble; I fail; I begin again. The more I practice, the tighter the strands become.
By the end of Lent, I emerge with a braid: imperfect and unglamorous, but nonetheless beautiful in God’s eyes.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge writes from the Seattle, Washington area, where she is attempting to teach herself some basic middle-school skills. Next up: sewing on a button.
I am in the woods on Mount Subasio above Assisi, Italy, at a sacred place of prayer called La Carceri. It’s July 20, 2014. I am on a pilgrimage, thrilled to be praying in this holy place where St. Francis and the early friars spent much time in contemplation.
I too am in contemplation on this holy ground. I am pondering what I just heard preached during the Mass, where our Franciscan pilgrimage group gathered around a stone altar underneath some tall trees.
I was reminded that the path to holiness is a journey of struggle. Even though we’re living a religious life, we’re just as human as everyone else. And, when we’re real with ourselves, we can admit that much of our life is spent wrestling with the reality of our own frailty, our own sinfulness. St. Francis spent more than 200 days in hermitage each year, even while admitting that…
Usually when people find out I’m a Catholic sister there follows some basic assumptions. Some people wonder where I’ve put my “black get-up” or habit, my wooden ruler and my stern look. More stereotypes than assumptions, I’m still surprised how often these come up. Behind these images are the ideas that I must be a teacher, I probably pray all day and I most certainly could lead the rosary at a drop of a hat. Actually, I work in a parish, my day integrates prayer, ministry and social time and, as a convert, the first time I was asked to lead the rosary I immediately Googled “how to pray the rosary.”
Catholic sisters do not (and maybe never have) fit the narrow boxes that popular culture wants to put us in. I’m sure this is true for most people and whatever stereotype clings to them. Individuals are always gloriously unique and rarely fit neatly into categories. One assumption about Catholic sisters remains most insistent: that in some way I live a holier than average life and enjoy a special intimacy with God.
The recently published, lengthy interview that Pope Francis gave intrigued me in many ways, no more strongly than in his first few sentences. They appear in the Sept. 30 issue of America magazine and the article “A Big Heart Open to God” by author Antonio Spadaro, S.J. He describes the beginning of his interview: “I ask Pope Francis point-blank: ‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ He stares at me in silence. I ask him if I may ask him this question. He nods and replies: ‘I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.’”
It’s not false humility or a way to avoid answering the question. I am a sinner. That’s how I know myself most intimately and raw, honest and real. That’s how God knows me and loves me still. God loves me in my most broken places and that is true holiness.
Sarah Hart, a Catholic singer-songwriter from Nashville, performed a concert at our church this weekend. It wasn’t a distant, stiff performance; instead, she shared her life and faith so honestly she made us stretch beyond our comfort zones. We couldn’t sit back and observe. We were changed.
Better Than a Hallelujah, one of the songs she wrote, (recorded by Amy Grant and nominated for a GRAMMY award), shows this truth of God meeting us in our brokenness. As Sarah sang, “Beautiful, the mess we are.”
God loves a lulluby
In a mother’s tears in the dead of night
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes
God loves the drunkard’s cry
The soldier’s plea not to let him die
Better than a Hallelujah sometimes
We pour out our miseries
God just hears a melody
Beautiful, the mess we are
The honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a Hallelujah
The woman holding on for life
The dying man giving up the fight
Are better than a Hallelujah sometimes
The tears of shame for what’s been done
The silence when the words won’t come
Are better than a Hallelujah sometimes
Better than a church bell ringing
Better than a choir singing out, singing out
(Better than a Hallelujah sometimes)
Better than a Hallelujah
(Better than a Hallelujah sometimes)
I know I find God when I am at my worst. Sarah Hart’s song reminds me that God doesn’t view me through my own lens of fear and shame. God knows I am a sinner. And God’s mercy still reigns. “Better than a Hallelujah sometimes.”
I’m a modern Franciscan sister and live in a way that keeps me pretty tapped into the problems of the world. This morning was not unlike other mornings. I woke up, made coffee, said some prayers and then checked the weather on my laptop.
When I opened my laptop this morning, though, my email inbox appeared and it was jammed with news. I learned that Troy Davis had been executed over night. I had an email from one of my Catholic Worker friends about a shooting in Kansas City. Then, I had the usual emails asking for my assistance with campaigns for environmental, agricultural, immigration and economic justice from a variety of activist groups.
As I gain awareness I usually become overwhelmed or angry. Fires burn in my belly and I am compelled to respond. The challenge is to respond with love.
On my way to work, I prayed prayers of lament. I begged God for mercy. I asked that all of the unjust systems that humanity has so sinfully created are reformed. As we are converted, may the ways of humanity be converted.
Soon after, I am with my students. I decide to be real with them. “I feel so angry about what’s wrong with the world today that I want to go scream in the streets,” I tell them. “I am trying not to take my anger out on you. Let’s try to have mercy on one another and be open to God’s goodness.” They nod in agreement.
In my classroom, we grapple with the theology of love. I am taught by my students through their encouragement and kindness.
I try to teach them something too. I play this little video for them and we marvel at how great the world would be if humanity really lived out the basics of our faith, if we really lived with love: