I WAS THINKING about writing a column during this advent season about gratitude when I came upon an essay entitled “Gratitude” by Henry Nouwen that many years ago I had clipped out of a Dec. 4, 1982 issue of Commonweal magazine. Finding the essay after so many years was like receiving a gift. Planning to write a column about gratitude, I felt grateful that Nouwen had written so insightfully about gifts and gratitude. Though I had no recollection of reading the essay when it originally appeared, when I looked at it a few days ago I found that Father Nouwen was offering insights that helped me see ministry in a new light. He even helped me to see all interpersonal relations in a new light. Father Nouwen is reminding us that whenever we approach others with a gift, we are going to be recipients of a gift. Commenting that most people hesitate to make themselves available to others because they are afraid that they will be manipulated, used and exploited, Nouwen writes the following:
“True missionaries are people who are hunting for the divine treasure hidden in the heart of the people to whom they want to make the good news known. They always expect to see the beauty and truth of God shining through those with whom they live and work.
The great paradox of ministry therefore is that what we bring is most of all our weakness, which allows us to receive from those to whom we go. The more in touch we are with our own need for healing and salvation, the more open we are to receive in gratitude what others have to offer us.” (p. 152)
As a teacher I am fond of quoting Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics from the musical The King and I: “If you become a teacher by your students you will be taught.” I have experienced how true those lyrics are. Something analogous to what can happen to teachers can happen to ministers. The minister, like all human persons, is finite, needy and weak and so the minister can receive from those the minister is trying to help. I think the minister can meet the Holy Spirit who lives within the person the minister is trying to help. Unfortunately many, and I count myself as previously among that group, think of evangelizers as those who have been evangelized and now are on some higher plane than those they are trying to evangelize. Being evangelized is an ongoing experience. The Church and its members should be in a constant process of being evangelized.
Trying to help others can turn into an experience of being helped by those others. More than 30 years ago I assisted at a wedding. I gave the homily but another priest was the church’s witness. In his introductory remarks he said, “We must never enter another person’s life without bringing God with us.” I would add to it that as we bring God with us we may also encounter God in the other. One of the most important claims that Pope Francis has made is that he is certain that God is part of everyone’s life.
In his wonderful book, “Church, Faith, Future: What We Face, What We Can Do” (Collegeville., Minnesota: Liturgical Press 2017, pp. 104) Father Louis J. Cameli stresses that there should be an ongoing process of the Church being evangelized and evangelizing:
“To accept, to understand and then to live the reality of church as a community that is simultaneously and continuously evangelized and evangelizing sets us in a very new horizon or, at least, one that is newly identified. It taps a dynamism that has always been a part of the life of the church but not always recognized, appreciated, and lived. Think, for example, of the great saints of our tradition. Francis of Assisi evangelized, because he was continuously being evangelized – continuously encountering and coming to know anew the living Christ.”(p. 62)
I love the expression “God is not finished with me yet.” It states something wonderful about the fidelity of God and also something about our journey, a journey on which we can occasionally feel alone. We can count on God’s never ending love. We will never cease to receive God’s blessings and graces. The covenant between evangelizers and God began at baptism. Others may let us down and disappoint us. God will never. Even all our prayers are answered better than we hoped.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.