Making Christ Present
Ministry of presence calls us to bring God to the lives of others
A few years before I entered seminary, I had the opportunity to speak with a well-known bishop on the topic of preaching. In the course of our conversation he said something that has stuck with me: when he preaches, first and foremost, he is preaching to himself. He explained that with each of his homilies he tries to preach the message he believes God wants him to hear, so he himself can continue to be converted and grow in holiness and love. He continued by saying that if others also benefit from his message, so much the better. But he was convinced that without his own ongoing conversion his words would soon become empty and ineffective to others, and so he intentionally approached his ministry of preaching always from the perspective of, “Is this a message that I need to hear in my own life?”
I share this story because it captures perfectly my own thinking regarding this article. I had the sense that I needed to write it primarily because I need to be reminded that behind our common call to Christian discipleship and to faithful priestly service is the Lord’s gentle invitation for us to be men who are present, men who, above all, are intentionally present to God in prayer and in daily living, and after that, men who are generously present as father to the people under our spiritual care. I need to hear again the message that, in addition to caritas being patient, kind and the entire litany of other qualities described by St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, love is also and especially present.
Presence of God
The English words “present” and “presence” are derived from French and Latin words that mean “to be before someone,” “to be at hand” or “to be within reach.” This offers us an insight into the reality of presence, but we can further grasp its significance by contrasting it with its opposite — namely, absence. Who of us has not felt the stinging absence of someone we love who, for whatever reason, was unable to be before us, or to be at hand or within reach? And, as priests who probably celebrate more funeral Masses than any of us would like, we regularly see firsthand the many tears that bear witness to love’s hatred of that vacuum known as absence. All of this is to say, then, that when one loves, one desires to be totally present to and in the presence of the beloved. Truly, love wants nothing more than to be within reach of the beloved. Presence and love go hand in hand.
This insight into the strong bond that exists between presence and love is confirmed by the Gospel and by salvation history. For at the very heart of our faith is the truth that the omnipresent God of creation — whom St. John tells us “is love” (1 Jn 4:8) — so loves us sinful men and women that he has gone to the most extraordinary of lengths to make himself present to us and to save us from the eternal absence of him (hell) that our sins merit. Furthermore, what is salvation history if not God’s gradual unveiling of “the breadth and length and height and depth” of his loving presence (see Eph 3:18), which culminated in the Incarnation when our creator became present to his creation? And so, throughout history — but above all in Jesus of Nazareth — we see that, because God is perfect love, he perfectly loves us and, being moved by his perfect love, he cannot resist making himself present to us. Christmas proves that our God is not an absentee Father. And this is because he who is love actively loves us.
‘Eyes Fixed on Jesus’
But even though we know with the certainty of faith that God is present to us — above all in the Eucharist — I think it is easy for us to lose sight of this at times. With so many demands and burdens placed upon us priests these days, with never-ending to-do lists, with many of us living further removed from daily support and encouragement from our brother priests, with a secularized culture that is hellbent on keeping us from staying focused on God and the things of God, and with our own sufferings and difficulties constantly crying out for our undivided attention, it is easy to follow the example of St. Peter who took his eyes off of the Lord before beginning to drown (see Mt 14:22-33).
|A Prayer From Brother Lawrence|
My God, since you are with me and since,
by your will, I must occupy myself with
external things, please grant me the grace
to remain with you, in your presence. Work
with me, so that my work might be the very
best. Receive as an offering of love both
my work and all my affections.
— “The Practice of the Presence of God”
Although God continuously is present to us, both on the level of nature by his essence, knowledge and power, and on the level of grace by his Holy Spirit, don’t we at times, like St. Peter, find it difficult to be fully present to him? That is, don’t we find it difficult to remain aware of his abiding loving presence within our lives, in every detail of our every day? And despite the encouragement offered by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, don’t we at times find it difficult to keep “our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of our faith” (12:2)?
It was about 15 years ago, while I was still a college student, that I first learned about the essential spiritual discipline that countless saints have recommended throughout the centuries to combat this all-too-common human difficulty — namely, the practice of the presence of God. Like many others, I was introduced to this practice through the writings of Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century Carmelite, whose inspiring words on the subject have been read widely. Before learning about this practice, I tended to operate like most people these days who have spent their entire lives breathing in the toxins produced by the secular culture rather than the purities of the Holy Spirit. And so, instead of living in continual awareness of the God who is ever present or who, in the words of St. Augustine, is closer to me than I am to myself, I tended to live more or less unaware of his presence except for those occasional religious moments, such as when I would attend church or read the Bible or say my prayers.
But slowly things started to change as I struggled to embrace and practice this universally recommended spiritual discipline. As I became more intentional in thinking of God throughout my day, in looking for him in all things — especially in trials, in my neighbors and in the mundane — and as I became more intentional in placing myself into his loving presence before and in all that I did, I gradually began to become more aware that he really is everywhere. And this awareness began to change everything in me, because it touched upon everything — and it still does. It inspires, it encourages, it heals, it strengthens and it brings profound meaning.
Some years later, I began to think about the saints, those men and women who had learned to live continuously aware of God’s presence — the Brother Lawrences of the world — and I saw something radically different, and I couldn’t help but appreciate the contrast. These faith-filled souls wrote and spoke about such mundane things as sweeping floors, caring for the sick and washing dishes as if they were the most exciting and important things in all of the world. And for them, they were, because these tasks were being done in the presence of Christ and for Christ, completely wrapped in love. It struck me, then, that for those who cultivate the habit of living in God’s loving presence, everything, even that which seemingly is insignificant or meaningless, becomes eternally significant or meaningful because of love — and because these things are done in the presence of and for the God who humbly made himself present to us that first Christmas morning and continues to do so in countless ways.
Making His Presence Known
In recent years, much has been said about us priests being called to a ministry of presence. And this is true, but we must be clear about what this means. I would like to suggest that it means so much more than you or I simply sitting with someone who is grieving and listening to him or her, or attending a graduation or birthday party, or checking out the local high school football game on Friday night — as good as all of these things may be. After all, anyone can do these things, not just priests. Rather, I think the ministry of presence, in its fullest sense and as it applies to us who are priests of Jesus Christ, means that we, as the Church’s ministers, intentionally make ourselves present to our people as best we can so as to prolong the Lord’s incarnation into their lives. In other words, we who have become aware of God’s abiding and loving presence in our own lives, we who have been marked by his presence in a special way at our ordination and now who are able to act in persona Christi, and we who are daily nourished by his real presence in the Eucharist, are commissioned and sent by the Church to present our very selves to God’s people in fatherly love so that they will come to know the love of the Father and grow to appreciate his presence in their own lives and in the world around.
|Pope Francis and the ‘Culture of Encounter’|
“I know that you face many challenges, and that the field in which you sow is unyielding and that there is always the temptation to give in to fear, to lick one’s wounds, to think back on bygone times and to devise harsh responses to fierce opposition.
“And yet we are promoters of the culture of encounter. We are living sacraments of the embrace between God’s riches and our poverty. We are witnesses of the abasement and the condescension of God who anticipates in love our every response.
“Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the one who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the 11th hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16).”
— Pope Francis, in a meeting with the bishops of the United States, Sept. 23, 2015
So should we listen to those who are grieving or visit the sick in the hospital? Absolutely! And should we attend the birthday parties and athletic events of our people? Certainly! Let us fight to make time to do all of these good things! But when we do so, we must strive to give not only ourselves to our people but, above all, Christ who is present within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. And this is why we must first be men who intentionally and faithfully are present to God in our own lives. After all, one cannot give what one does not have. And, so, if we are not faithful to practicing the presence of God ourselves, if we are not spending time with him in prayer before the real presence of the Eucharist, if we are not present in mind as well as in body when praying the Liturgy of the Hours, etc., then however will we be able to be present to his people with his presence when they need us — or, rather, need him?
Christ in the Eucharist
It is true, then, that our ministry is one of presence. Our people need us to be available, to make time for them, to visit them and to listen to them. But what they really need more than anything else we can offer on our own is Jesus. They need him to be present, to be at hand, and we can do no better than to lend a hand in helping to foster such a holy encounter.
In closing, I want to share the beautiful and inspiring words of the 19th-century priest St. Peter Julian Eymard, who spoke somewhat prophetically about our broken world and our shared universal need for Jesus, and, in particular, for Jesus really present in the holy Eucharist. He writes: “Society is dying because it has no center of truth and charity. … Each one is isolated, turned inward, self-sufficient. A breakdown is imminent. But society will be reborn full of vigor when all its members come to be reunited around our Emmanuel. … What must be done? Return to the source of life: not merely to Jesus of history in Judea or to Jesus glorified in heaven, but to Jesus [present] in the Eucharist. … With the Eucharist we can actually come and adore him like the shepherds; we can prostrate ourselves before him like the Magi; we need no longer regret our not having been present at Bethlehem or Calvary.”
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Praise God that he loves us so much as to make himself so wonderfully present in the Eucharist! And may it please him to help us always to stay close to his Real Presence, to grow in our daily awareness of the countless other ways that he is present to us, and joyfully to share his loving presence with all those to whom we are called to be spiritual fathers!
FATHER SCOTT JABLONSKI serves as the pastor of Blessed Trinity Catholic Parish in Lodi and Dane, Wisconsin, and as the director of the Office of Continuing Formation of Priests for the Diocese of Madison.