Being a Protestant demands being busy. Work is what we do; it’s our culture, our ethos, our ethic. Capitalism was said to have been built on our fear of being thought idle. All of which is OK, but it does make for individualism, pride, and a lack of charity towards others less fortunate.
In ministry, the Protestant work ethic creates a sense that one must be constantly busy. Being able to tell church members how many people one has visited or how much work has been achieved are marks of being a “good clergyman.” However, it creates a conception of ministry that is about doing rather than being, and it leaves little space for prayer, or reflection or the non-tangible things.
Getting back into the September rut, I found the current edition of the Dominican journal Spirituality had a very moving piece by Father Des O’Brien SJ. Diagnosed with cancer, Father Des found his voice had all but gone and with it his understanding of what his ministry had been about. Reading a decree from a Jesuit General Congregation held in 1983, Fr Des found what he was looking for,
“Where the text speaks of ‘old age’, I put in incapacitating illness. . . .it talks about, ‘the time when external work must cease (because of old age) and one is tempted to think that his life has lost its primary purpose.’ It continues by pointing out that the Jesuit ‘needs to learn from the Lord that, on the contrary, he is being offered a new way of carrying out his Jesuit apostolic mission … which in no way diminishes his priesthood and true apostolic vitality. Even if he can only attend the Eucharist and pray privately for the Lord’s blessing on the work of the Church and his fellow Jesuits, it is precisely in this that he continues to be a valued apostle and worker.’
It is remarkable how precisely these words described where I actually found myself, attending the Eucharist and praying privately for the work of the Church and fellow Jesuits. When I didn’t feel too sick from the effects of chemotherapy, I was in the habit of concelebrating one of the daily Masses in our parish. That was consoling for a while. But as the weeks and months went by, and I still wasn’t able to recite a part of the Eucharistic Prayer out loud, do a reading, preach, or hear confessions because of my feeble voice, I had the nagging feeling that my life had ‘lost its primary purpose.’ I felt I was being I forced into premature and silent retirement. To say the least, it was disconcerting.
One Sunday morning, however, having concelebrated a parish Mass, I walked down the aisle with my companion to the end of the Church to greet the congregation, as is the custom. As we shook hands and greeted people, an elderly lady made a beeline for me and grabbing my hand, said, ‘Thanks, Father, for those words.’ Surprised by this comment, I replied, ‘But I didn’t say anything, my voice is too weak.’ Leaning over, she whispered in my ear, ‘Being up there silent on the altar with us every day is a powerful homily.’ These few simple words connected me in an extraordinary way with the deeper mystery underlying my present circumstances which I had begun to sense but was resisting, how to be a priest without any normal or visible ministry.
Fr Des O’Brien passed into glory on 17th July, ministering to the last.