Jesus Forsaken: today's God
Existential resonances from the life of a priest

Giancarlo Moretti
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There are known or secret sufferings, which are common in the life of many priests. Some are integral of the priestly life, others typical of our time, in this “great and dramatic moment in history” (cf. Christifideles Laici, 3). The author of this article is a diocesan priest. Sincerely and profoundly he shows how much those sufferings may be illuminated and acquire a meaning and fruitfulness in the light of Jesus crucified and forsaken, High Priest who “although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8). The quotations that introduce the various parts of the article are by Pavel Florenskij.

A non “professional” ministry
but made up of substance and solidarity

Legacy of greatness is suffering,
suffering that comes from the external world, and inner suffering, that comes from ourselves.
This is how it was, it is and will be.

I’m convinced that I’m not far from the truth if I consider as a special grace the idea I had when – a few months as a priest, therefore 50 years ago – I decided to never use the word “condolences” and never try to console anyone. That’s what I did and every time the occasion arouse I repeated the questions: “what can I do to be this person’s brother, close to that deep point where suffering arises and the greatest, decisive choices are made?”

At that time, I understood. The priestly ministry couldn’t be worn out in “professional” services, perhaps carried out with delicacy and precision: my task was “to make myself one” with each neighbour in their uncertainty and in their search for greatness and harmony with themselves. I couldn’t accept to act trivially when someone simply asked for a service, a sacrament or the carrying out of another religious task. I perceived how faithful the Holy Spirit was in suggesting appropriate words when, after a disturbing moment, I attempted to go in depth trying to form transparent and reciprocal relationships, or orientating towards higher ideals.

I found it strange, yet a strong sense of emptiness was constant in me. It would hit me after intense moments lived out in administering the sacraments or celebrating Holy Mass. However little by little I started to understand a strong phrase by Chiara Lubich and I tried to live it. It’s a phrase, which I must quote in a rather approximate way because I carry it with me as an experience-based memory rather than a cultural one. “Always try to privilege Jesus Forsaken in every choice,” she said in a spiritual conference, “so choose suffering and the negative, therefore uncertainty rather than joy or satisfaction for having reached a good result.”

Gradually, but with determination, the “emptiness” is filled with a special presence. The joys of the results or the friendship, that flourished after beautiful moments lived together, were substituted by a feeling of wholeness and delight, from where arouse ideas, projects, courage, trust in people and hope beyond every limit. However fullness that leaves you in solitude, sometimes even a very bitter solitude, because the game described wants to be carried out only in front of God.

Feeling of incompleteness in the priest

We are not happy
that the question “why?” is answered, and we demand an answer to the question
“what is the purpose?”, “what is the aim?”

I’m convinced – also supported by much experience – that the sense of incompleteness that takes hold of and sometimes grips priests, leading them towards managerial options in pastoral work and individualistic closure in the private sphere, is due to a wrong tone give to this “why”, which in the end is the why of Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The presence of God is always felt as “emptiness and fullness”; the two terms are constantly gathered in their inseparableness, therefore in an intense mutual relationship.

This emptiness-fullness is then spread, overflowing into the listening community.

At a funeral, for example, how can you talk about other people’s suffering? What remains is to make ourselves one, as if the relationships of those present with the deceased were your own: our soul then becomes mute like the soul of the participants, the dismay that hovers in the church can be transformed into doubt, as it happens with most people.

Yet that disappointment lived out of love, little by little becomes desolation and starts to acquire a countenance, the face of Mary: the Desolate One. Then from the heart – even though it is full of tears like those that flow from the eyes of the closest relatives, it wants to shout, yet it sings to the suffering of the loss – starts to pour out words of joy and comfort, of mercy and hope in eternity.

Other hidden pains

Yes, life is made in a way
that we can give something to the world only with sufferings and persecutions.
The more the gift is impartial, the harsher the persecutions and harder the sufferings.

The life of every priest is marked not only by “efforts” of so-called “ordinary pastoral work”, but also by other rather hidden pains being deep and acute, able to provoke authentic spiritual sufferings. These especially derive from the task, entrusted to the priest by the Presbyterorum ordinis Decree (nn. 6 ss.), of the edification of the community.

In the current, advanced process of secularization, when in the evening the priest examines his day and reviews the most critical moments, it’s possible that this question resounds in him: “
Cui prodest?” (for whose benefit?). The offering in the Mass: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it…” seems to assume melancholic tones. It’s the moment of the most painful doubts...

Yet that is the moment most similar to Jesus: the moment that
makes him daily exclaim, “I have long desired to eat this Passover with you ...” (cf. Lk 22:15).

He is not able to find forms of encounter in approaching his neighbours, especially in certain territories where the culture is lacking any religious character. Every attempt of dialogue
ad extra reveals his complete inefficacy, with the Church having its own references towards every person and the activity of evangelization results sterile. Yet only by this complete uncertainty can a new dialogue begin and we can find a way of encounter.

Far-sighted was the perspective offered by Saint John Paul II with his first encyclical,
Redemptor hominis. He links to the Second Vatican Council and Paul VI, yet it appears so innovative. Initially he affirms the unity between Jesus Christ and every human being, in his concreteness, uniqueness and complexity and in its highest aspirations. Then he affirms, “This man is the way for the Church - a way that, in a sense, is the basis of all the other ways that the Church must walk … On this way leading from Christ to man, on this way on which Christ unites himself with each man, nobody can halt the Church” (nn. 13 and 14).

Even if we find ourselves in the tiredness of our daily work, in the aridity of our ineffectiveness and alone in front of our own fragilities, it is such a joy when we discover the Father’s mercy, which makes us one with Jesus and every neighbour we meet along the way. We remain in the darkness of our research and in the ambiguity and uncertainty of our choices, but with the certainty of being placed on a secure track.

«The» Priest who gives meaning to our priesthood

This is the law of life, its basic axiom.
Even if in your soul you are aware that this law is irrevocable
and universal, when you clash with reality, with each specific case you remain struck
as if it were something unforeseen and new.

We could examine the life of every priest and observe it frame by frame. Each of these frames would upon scrutiny bear the same image: the Face of the passion: the Holy Face painted by the angels in his soul.

Only in this conversation between “angels”, hidden to most, can we gather something of the complexity of the relationship between prophecy and structure, freedom and clerical habits, openness towards the divine and environmental conditionings, the fulfillment of ones own talents and the limitations deduced from team work.

For this reason, I prefer to conclude with the words pronounced by Fr Silvano Cola on the memorable day of April 30, 1982, at Paul VI Audience Hall in the Vatican, which gathered 7,000 priests, religious and seminarians, adherent to the spirit of the Focolare. Saint John Paul II was present and Fr Silvano gave a speech in which he spoke about Jesus crucified and forsaken and unity.

The words of Fr Silvano gave a turn to my life and I am still inspired by them to make my days as a priest feel whole:

“I truly understood what the priesthood is, because it is really through his abandonment and death on the cross that Jesus generated the Church, taking upon himself sin and universal suffering in the division between the Christian Churches, mine the doctrinal confusion, mine the lack of communication between priest and bishop, between priest and priest, between priest and lay person, mine the lack of understanding on celibacy, mine the temptation to analyze, mine the existential gap between preaching and living, mine the loneliness of priests…”

And he added: “But all this suffering is Jesus, his suffering is really that priestly suffering which if accepted, generates the Church!”