For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law – though not being myself under the law – that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law – not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ – that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share its blessings. 1 Cor 9:19-23.
This article has been adapted from a reflection given at St. Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh on November 4, 2018. I’ve included the recording of the talk here:
Many, many bouquets of flowers, signs of support and of prayer, a men’s gospel choir singing, people from all walks of life, crying, praying, and standing in awe and shock. Eleven Starts of David bearing the names of eleven beautiful souls who left us so suddenly. This was the scene on Saturday afternoon at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. It is evident that this tragedy has effects the lives of so many people from that neighborhood, our city, our country, and our world. It effects the people who were driving behind those gathered on Shady Avenue, some slowing down to take in the scene, some driving right by, and still others who have driven by so many times they cannot bear to look again.
It was a powerful scene.
And I think it begs the question of all of us: How will I respond? How will this change your life and mine from this moment on?
Having a Priestly Soul
I propose to you the way to respond is to attain, or ask for the grace to attain, a priestly soul.
What is that? How is it to be described?
Well, I think one of the first things we have to strive for is to be all things to all people as St. Paul says. We have to approach everyone where they are, by finding out how they are, and who they are. That was what was so striking about Saturday for me, you have this group of people that have gathered together, some of them never having met each other before to honor, and pray for the victims of that very sad tragedy. They all came from different backgrounds, different families, and different places in order to unite to be Pittsburgh Strong. We too have people in our parishes who come from all different backgrounds, different families, some who have never met each other – and we are to aid in uniting them through the message of the Gospel – in order to share its blessings.
I have a story to share about this particular point. One is about a man by the name of Jeffery Cohen – the president of Allegheny General Hospital. There was an article about him in the Post-Gazette on All Saints Day, and the article told the story of this hospital president, this esteemed physician, this man of the Jewish faith, taking time to talk with Robert Bowers – the man accused of killing those eleven people in Squirrel Hill. He was drawn to see Bowers, and in his role as healer, asked about the man’s pain, and wanted to understand why a human being would do what Mr. Bowers did. What Dr. Cohen saw in this man was not the face of evil – but a dull man who was troubled by social isolation. A man who was “incapable of generating his own hate and so absorbing it from others.” Dr. Cohen said, “He was a baby once. He was a toddler once. And people were looking at him with all the hope in the world.” – Yet this man was troubled by loneliness.
Dr. Cohen gives us an example of becoming all things to all people –we see each person’s humanity, their suffering, and we make an attempt to heal them. Dr. Cohen and the staff at AGH treated Mr. Bowers with as much medical care as any of the other 6 victims who were shot. The priest treats everyone with spiritual care – he strives to heal them, but first we have to get to know our people, we have to become weak for those who are weak – that we may use all means to at least save some.
I think another characteristic of a priestly soul is closely connected to the previous – to have a capacity to love all people. There was a CFR priest who directed a retreat I attended. He was a graduate of Franciscan and talked to us about how he began to recognize his own priestly soul. He was discerning priesthood then, but as he thought about dating he realized that in the different young women he met – he couldn’t limit his love to only one. Now while it may sound strange at first – I think it shows the attitude we need to have. He wanted to love all those he came into contact with in a deep way, a spiritual way, a personal way. We’ve got to do that in our own families, in our workplace and at school, so that we can carry it out well in our own vocation. Not only do we have to love all of those with whom we are close, but everyone we interact with, those we pass by in our coming and going, never missing an opportunity to encounter those around us – it may an opportunity for them to encounter Christ – and for us to encounter Christ in them.
I think another characteristic of a priestly soul is the desire to sacrifice. For the priest, sacrifice is central, its his most important action carried out especially in the Holy Mass. And all of us too, we have to sacrifice for the people that we encounter. Another powerful image I saw on Saturday was located behind the eleven Stars of David that stood on that corner outside the synagogue. Each one of them was supported by a cross – and placed upon that cross are stones, and rocks of different shapes and sizes. In the Jewish faith these stones serve as a witness of the people who have visited the site, and are also symbols of the lasting presence of the person who died. We should be like those crosses, carrying with us the prayers that people give us throughout our day, prayers they’ve asked us to bring to God – and the most powerful way we can do it is through sacrifice, the sacrifice of penance, fasting, and of course the Holy Mass. On the Cross, Christ out stretched his arms between heaven and earth to become the lasting sign of the New Covenant. So too, the priest stretches out his hands and through him heaven and earth become united at the altar, continuing to bring us the lasting sign of God’s love, and as well too he brings to God those prayers with which he has been entrusted.
A third characteristic of a priestly soul is that of cheerfulness. No one likes grumpy people. Everyone we encounter should be greeted with a smile, even when it may be a sacrifice for us to do it. It may be a sacrifice because of a particular person we see, or because of the mood we’re in at the time, or because we haven’t had our morning coffee yet, but our happiness does not and should not ride on those things. This cheerfulness should be for all of us a consequence of knowing we are children of God. And the joy from this fact should help us to persevere through the hardest trials with a spirit of joy. “May no one read sadness or sorrow in your face, when you spread in the world around you the sweet aroma of your sacrifice: the children of God should always be sowers of peace and joy.” (St. Josemaría Escrivá, Furrow 60)
Our joyfulness should overflow – it should be calm, courageous, attractive, “In a few words, it has to be so supernatural and natural, so infectious that it may bring others to follow Christian ways.” (Furrow 61) In a time of great loneliness – our joy can go a long way – a joy we have in spite of and in fact because of the Cross – a joy that can reach out to all people, a joy that allows us to be all things to all people.
Everyone Christian is called to have a priestly soul – and at the end of the day, that means to imitate the Soul of Christ. We should never see our work here as routine – that is the work of bringing people to Christ in our everyday encounters. In the moments of everyday it is important for us to remember that God is always with us, in other words, to be aware of the presence of God. He’s always acting in our souls, and in the souls of those we encounter – maybe we can prevent a lonely man like Robert Bowers from committing such a terrible act, maybe we can save a soul for eternal life, if we would act like we’re children of a Father who gives us eternity – we can give eternity to many others.
Let me stress this point: it is in the simplicity of your ordinary work, in the monotonous details of each day, that you have to find the secret which is hidden from so many, of something great and new: Love. – St. Josemaría Escrivá Furrow 489