The late Irish writer, John O’Donuhue who was sent to a parish in London as a deacon to train for a summer. During his first week working in the parish, he found an old down-and-out man at the back of the church one evening. He was eating a burger and drinking a bottle of Guinness. The correct young priest-to-be went up to him and informed him that this was a church not a restaurant and asked him to leave. The old man took no notice of him and just continued to babble away to himself. The deacon went later in exasperation to the parish priest. He smiled and said, “Ah that is David.”
It turned out that years ago he had come over from Ireland with his young wife and family. He had a great job. They were very happy and had the prospects for a wonderful future. One day a car hit David. He lost his memory totally and could never again remember who he was or recognise his family anymore. He ended up on the street. He had made the back of this church his shelter during the day. This story changed the young deacon’s view of the old man. Over the summer he often watched him muttering away to himself at the back of the church. He has a very unusual way of praying. He would kneel into a pew and babble while milling the air with his outstretched hands. The deacon never heard him utter a clear word or a coherent sentence; yet the touching image of this haunted and forsaken man always at prayer at the back of the church began to move him. On his last evening there, he went down and knelt beside the man. He told him that tomorrow he would return to Ireland to finish his study and become a priest. He asked the old man to say something to him about what a priest should be. For one moment the old man focused, looked at him and said: “The sympathy of God.”
It was the only sentence anyone had ever heard him say.
The sympathy of God.
Pope Francis puts before us the same imperative. As he spoke some years ago, “The Church above all needs the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity . . . it needs ministers of mercy . . . a Church that is a mother and shepherdess. The Church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the Good Samaritan, who washes, cleans, and raises up their neighbour. This is pure Gospel.” For Pope Francis this is never something abstract. It is something that is always situated in the people that are in front of us. As he spoke on another occasion, “People of flesh and blood, people with individual lives and stories, and with all their frailty: these are those whom Jesus asks us to protect, to care for, to serve . . . Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, “suffers” in trying to help. Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”
The sympathy of God. Sacrificial love. Eucharistic love.
This is the mysticism of priestly life: to stretch out one’s arms in the Great Prayer of the Eucharist, and to gaze upon those gazing upon him: to allow himself to feel their joy and to feel their pain, to live their questions and to carry their hope. To recognise in them the very Body of the living Lord in that Great Prayer of Jesus’ self-offering which is the very heart of Christian worship.
The most remarkable privilege of priestly life is to utter the words, “This is my body which is given up for you.” Yet, we are not only talking here firstly of the bread by which the Risen Christ wholly identifies himself so as to become our nourishment and our life. “This is my Body” are secondly also the words of Christ to the priest as he gazes upon those before him, those who form the Body of the Risen Lord. The Risen Lord whispers deeply in the priestly heart, “Behold my Body.” A body suffering, vulnerable, hungry, and hopeful. A body given you to nourish, to nurture, for which to care, for which to empty yourself, for which to give yourself. In other words, in your own body become their Eucharist. How evocatively was this expressed in a poem in the 1950s by Peter Maurin of the New York Catholic Worker:
He was old, tired, and sweaty.
Pushing his homemade cart down the alley,
Stopping now and then to poke in somebody’s garbage.
I wanted to tell him about Eucharist.
But the look in his eyes, the despair on his face
The hopelessness of somebody else’s life in his cart
Told me to forget it
So, I smiled, said “Hi” – and gave him Eucharist.
She lived alone, her husband dead
Her family gone
And she talked at you, not to you
Words, endless words, spewed out
So, I listened – and gave her Eucharist . . .
. . . My Father, when will we learn – you cannot talk Eucharist – you cannot philosophize about it. You do it.
You don’t dogmatise Eucharist.
Sometimes you laugh it, sometimes you cry it, often you sing it
Sometimes its wild peace, then crying hurt, often humiliating, never deserved.
You see Eucharist in another’s eyes, give it in another’s hand held tight
Squeeze it in an embrace
You pause Eucharist in the middle of a busy day, speak it in another’s ear,
Listen to it from a person who wants to talk.
For Eucharist is as simple as being on time
And as profound as sympathy
I give you my supper
I give you my sustenance
I give you my life
I give you me
I give you Eucharist
Thus, thirdly, the words, “This is my body which is given up for you” are the words that the priest says of himself to the people entrusted to his care. What the priest says at every Eucharist has the deepest personal significance: This is my body which is given up for you. For the priest, it is his constant provocation, and his prayer: to give himself. It identifies the very meaning of his own life and ministry. He may be only too aware of his selfishness and his woundedness. Yet, every day he seeks the courage to utter, “This is my body, given for you.” Only as his own body is given does the remarkable beauty and possibility of ordained ministry become apparent. Like all sacred vocations, including that of marriage, I have learnt that priesthood is not so much given in an event as received over time. Priesthood is received from those whom one priests, from those to whom one give’s one’s body, one’s life – sacrificially, eucharistically.
As one becomes the sympathy of God.
 Pope Francis, Interview in America, 30 September 2013.
 Pope Francis, Homily at Mass at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, 20 September 2015.
387 total views, 1 views today