From the servant Jesus to Paul and then to priests

The Jerusalem apostles had to choose between waiting on tables and preaching the word of God (Acts 6:2). Yet Paul’s example reminds us that ordinary work is within the scope of the sacred ministry, though not, perhaps, as a primary occupation.

The service of ordinary work
While evangelising Corinth, Paul earned his own living so as not to be a burden to his converts. He also wanted people to know he was seeking them not their money (2 Cor 12:13-14). But this was not an absolute norm – Paul did accept help from Philippi.

From the servant Jesus to Paul and then to priests Archdiocese of Wellington The Jerusalem apostles had to choose between waiting on tables and preaching the word of God (Acts 6:2). Yet Paul’s example reminds us that ordinary work is within the scope of the sacred ministry, though not, perhaps, as a primary occupation.

We have had priests teaching in schools. Frs Michael McCabe in the Nathaniel Centre and Michael O’Dea in the Tribunal are two examples of others working outside as well as in their parishes.
Of course today there is the issue of priests doing work ‘that anyone could do’, a justifiable reaction if most of the priest’s time were taken up away from the real needs of his people, but sometimes it reflects a dislike for drudgery. Also there has to be recognition of aging among clergy and a sense of reality among an already stretched group.
Paul knew that ordinary work brought him close to those he hoped to win over for Christ. An understanding of ministry that is so exclusively evangelistic that there is no place for ordinary work (with its share of drudgery) may well be suspect.

The service of collecting money
While he was sensitive about imposing his own needs on others, Paul did not hesitate to beg in order to alleviate the poverty of the Jerusalem church. By pressing Gentile converts to give, Paul hoped to keep them conscious of their larger relationships and bind them to the churches of God in Palestine.
He hoped to teach his Gentile converts the Christian need to share. A good cause demands contribution as an aspect of charity. We have seen this in the appeal for the Samoan and Tongan tsunami.
Those who complain that church pulpits are too often the source of money appeals may well be right, but it is no insult to one’s priesthood that money has to be requested.

The service of prayer
Today there are many references to service, but do we think of praying as a service? The passage in 2 Cor 9:11-12 shows the breadth of Paul’s understanding of service as generosity.
Service is then related to praising God, a truly liturgical approach, for liturgy is ecclesiastical service (leitourgia). If the prayer of praise comes within the range of service, so does the prayer of petition for others and on behalf of others.
Paul, the servant of Jesus Christ, constantly prayed for his communities. His first words in his earliest preserved writing are ‘We give thanks always for you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers’, 1 Thess 1:2, and the theme returns at the beginning of many of his letters.
 The church has tried to remain faithful through the sacred ministry of those in major orders praying the Divine Office every day and offering a number of Masses for their people.

The service of suffering
As an apostle, Paul can most effectively present Christ to people because he bears Jesus’ death pangs in his own body (2 Cor 4:10).
A priesthood patterned on the Pauline apostolate cannot hope to escape being a life full of pressures. Paul’s external struggles consist of his sickness and of his persecutions – sure signs that the God he proclaims came in weakness and the messengers of such a God carry in their bodies the signs of weakness and suffering. The recent death of Fr Peter Kay is a good illustration ( Wel-com November 2009) and also Fr Kevin Neal’s continued suffering from stroke.

Paul’s inner anguish may well speak loudest today in a time when priestly loneliness and feelings of not being appreciated are often given as the most frequent cause for leaving the ministry. In the eyes of too many, priesthood is regarded as a dysfunctional lifestyle and little encouragement is given to the young for entertaining such a choice.
Paul describes himself as ‘set apart for the Gospel of God’ (Rom 1:1), with all the isolation this involves, ‘fools for the sake of Christ’ (1 Cor 4:9-10), the anguish of a man who feels himself both unappreciated and humanly inadequate.

The service of correction
It is a misunderstanding to think that correction is unchristian, despite its presence in the life of both Jesus and Paul. Some of Paul’s harshness comes from his fiery character and is not always of the essence of apostolic correction, for example, when he calls the Galatians ‘fools’, though one would wonder if he would have been as effective if he had been more diplomatic!
A great deal of pastoral care consists in correcting abuses among Christians – on a personal level (quarrelling, lack of charity, immorality) – abuses liturgically (divisions, lack of respect for the Eucharist – see Fr James Lyons’s article in Wel-com November 2009) – abuses doctrinally (inadequate appreciation of faith or of Christology).
Correction and the inevitable resentment it produced were not easy for Paul, but it was a matter of apostolic duty – ‘My children, I am in travail with you again until Christ be formed in you’ (Gal 4:19).

Of course we all find distasteful the priest whose sermons are largely scoldings, a travesty of the mercy of God. But it is just as large a failure not to confront one’s congregation and challenge their standards for fear of losing popularity.
The social and political are necessary areas of challenge, but so are doctrine and personal morality. It is the principle of correction and confrontation that is at stake – not being too free in wrongly labelling actions as sinful and in damning legitimate theological differences – that is implied here. Paul knew how to temper severity with love, not the least part of his lesson about correction (2 Cor 2:7).

The role of apostle encompasses a multitude of other services to others. These are only a few manifestations of the generous outpouring of self in imitation of Jesus and his faithful servant, Paul – and his faithful servants, our priests. With Paul may they all say, ‘I will most gladly spend and be spent for you’ (2 Cor 1:15).
Reference: Brown, R E,Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections , Paulist Press.