(Note: I am celebrating my 50th Priestly Ordination on Dec. 17, 2016. The anniversary is anticipated on October 7, 20116 in the US with family and friends. Likewise, the event will be observed in the Philippines with the diocesan clergy of Malolos Diocese on Dec. 9, 2016. Instead of the column, Lower Your Nets, Im publishing my reflection on my priestly life for the past 50 years.)
The Complex Sanctity of My Priestly Life
by Msgr Fernando Gutierrez
The incarnation always comes fraught with mess, misunderstanding, and ambiguity because it enfleshes the love of a God who embraces the bad with the good, the unredeemed with the redeemed, who loves us for nothing, meets us in our sin, and invariably ends up on a cross, looking compromised, hanging among thieves The great mystery of priesthood is that it tries, however inadequately, to give a human face to a wondrous God who walks with us even when things arent all pure. (Ron Rolheiser, Christs Face in Todays Priesthood September 10, 2000)
Vocation is like a dream and has its own social context. For example, as an adolescent, I had a hint of what I wanted to be a priest. Later on, during my late teens, my dream became more vigorous and realistic, not just to be a priest, but a holy one and a good preacher as well. This vocation or dream did not just dawn on me, like a lightning bolt from the sky or a call in the stillness of the night. It was born and nurtured within a devout Catholic family. My parents, especially my mother, were active in parish life. The seminary photos of my maternal uncle, who entered the seminary, but never made it to the priesthood, helped me to continue pursuing my dream. At the same time, I was impressed with seminarians from my town during their summer vacation.
However, my vocation to be realistic needs purification. In the beginning, I entertained selfish motives in the pursuit of my dream. To enter the seminary meant an excellent opportunity for me to pursue a higher education, and more importantly, an education in the metropolis. All that changed throughout my seminary formation. My vocation had gone through different phases of purification, interpretation and clarification. This purification of my life continues even after my ordination on December 17, 1966 up to the present.
In 1464, the Operai of Florence contracted Agostino di Duccio to create a sculpture of King David. Less than halfway in the project the contract was terminated. Ten years later, Antonio Rossellino was commissioned to pick up where Duccio left off. But his contract was discontinued and the unfinished marble languished in the storage for the next 25 years. In 1501, Michelangelo had been contracted and he worked for two years on the unfinished sculpture. The result is a splendid work of art the young David looking strong and eager to challenge Goliath. It was a moment of decisive action.
Regarding his sculpture of David, Michelangelo remarked,
In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.
Davids sinfulness and worldliness must be chipped out of the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition of his greatness, especially his faith in Gods mercy. His life had been disfigured by his weakness, but at the hands of the Divine Sculptor, that vessel of clay and rough marble of a human being had been re-formed as God wishes to see it.
When I was sixty-nine years old and was into my 42nd year as priest, I was in prime health, spiritually and physically. I was the Supervisory Chaplain at The Metropolitan Correctional Center, San Diego, California. I owned two condominiums, one of which I rented to a family and I resided in the other. My plan was to sell both condos when I retire and move to a smaller house. My chaplaincy did not hinder me from writing my weekly column for The Asian Journal of San Diego even though my daily schedule and weekend Masses kept me busy.
Karl Rahner said that there are always interruptions in life. According to him life is full of unfinished symphonies. It was far from any stretch of imagination that my life was bound to experience calamitous unfinished symphonies. Life is like a box of chocolates.
The book, Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami, first published in Japanese in 1987, and in English in 1989, has the following lines:
Just remember, life is like a box of chocolates. … You know, theyve got these chocolate assortments, and you like some but you don’t like others? And you eat all the ones you like, and the only ones left are the ones you dont like as much? I always think about that when something painful comes up. Now I just have to polish these off, and everything’ll be OK. Life is a box of chocolates.
Life is full of surprises; you never know what will happen next. On June 2008, I underwent a quintuple CABG (Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting). That same year, the real estate market suffered a meltdown. I was forced to put my up one condo for foreclosure and the other for short sale. Adding insult to injury, on February 2009, as I was walking out of the hall after I gave a conference to Federal Prison staff, I accidentally fell and suffered subdural hematoma that makes my legs wobbly and fingers stiff. That same year I was diagnosed with MM (Multiple Myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells or white blood cells normally responsible for producing antibodies).
During those times of desolation I experienced what St. John of the Cross described as dark night of the soul. It is a period of doubt about Gods presence. God is perceived as unmindful of ones misery. A time of abandonment as Jesus had experienced while dying on the cross (Father, why have you abandoned me?) With King David, I said also, My tears have been my bread day and night, as they ask me every day, Where is your God? (Psalm 42: 4). Lord, the God of my salvation, I call out by day; at night I cry aloud in your presence.(Psalm 88: 2). In my loneliness and seemingly hopeless condition, one time I told my sister, God doesnt love me anymore.
The Incarnation, an expression of Gods divine love, dwells in sinful and weak humanity. The complexity and sanctity of my life consist in the union of the divine grace and my vulnerable humanity. The complexities of the priests life are fraught, though not exclusive, with doubts, despair, sadness, abandonment and loneliness. In spite of what I am, weak and sinful, God continues to walk with me, strengthening and patiently purifying me little by little and hewing out what is pleasing to him until my Last Hurrah.
The mystery of the Incarnation is repeated again and again when the invisible face of God is made manifest in the human face of the priest. Though suffering with excruciating pain, sick in mind and body, sinful and vulnerable to everything that a human being goes through, not in spite, but because of these, God becomes incarnated and assumed them as his own. Though complex and fragile, yet holy; though a vessel of clay, yet the bearer of the sacred to the world that is equally weak; though broken and scoured, yet the healer of wounds, the priest is complexly holy.
Alice in Wonderland out of sadness cried profusely until her tears filled a pool. As she was about to drown, she woke up to the reality of the mess she had created. She saved herself from drowning. Her tears became her means of redemption.
When without tears I look on Christ, I see Only a story of some passion, Which any common eye may wonder on; But if I look through tears Christ smiles on me. Yea, there I see myself, and from that tree He bendeth down to my devotion, And from his side the blood doth spin, whereon My heart, my mouth, mine eyes still sucking be; Like as in optick works, one thing appears, in open gaze, in closer otherwise. Then since tears see the best, I ask in tears Lord, either thaw mine eyes to tears, or freeze My tears to eyes, or let my heart tears bleed, Or bring where eyes, nor tears, nor blood shall need. (William Alabaster, Sonnet 71: The Sonnets of William Alabaster, ed. G. M. Story and H. Gardner, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959, 59.)