Ongoing Formation
PDF file

Carlo Maria Martini
Paul in the thick of his ministry

1. Suffering and comfort

“Grant us, Lord, to begin our day in your sight, to understand your plan for us. Grant us a broad vision of what you call us to, so that we may grasp each thing that happens in our day in the context of your mystery of love for humanity.
Grant us, O Father, to understand Christ, the centre of our lives and pastoral work.”

AMID THE DAILY GRIND

We have taken Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians as the meditation text for our retreat. I have been reflecting on it for many years and I am very attached to it because it shows us Paul in the thick of his ministry. The Apostle is not day-dreaming, he has no illusions, as for example we might have in our seminary years when we naturally create fantasies about our future ministry. In this text we find Paul in the hard slog of his ministry. After twenty years of it, during which he has passed through so many trials, disappointments and difficulties, he speaks as a servant of the Gospel in the midst of the daily grind. So we feel he is very dose to us.
While he is writing the letter Paul is experiencing three main trials.

The first is feeling himself rejected by the majority of his Jewish brothers and sisters. He thought that Jesus’ first intention was to give him with the mission of preaching to the Jews, as he did when he went from city to city preaching in synagogues. He imagined that, despite inevitable difficulties, the Jews would understand, but this proved to be an illusion and his mission to them has failed. In his Letter to the Romans, dated at about this rime, we find he still has some hope but is resigning himself to the fact that a break has come, which causes him enormous pain. In our text it is easy to see that this has been the first great disappointment of his ministry: those to whom the Word was first addressed do not respond. To Paul’s sufferings are added the questions: But why has God allowed it? Why do things happen like this? Why is the Word not received by those to whom it was directly and primarily addressed?
This trial reminds me of the anguish expressed by Cardinal Montini at the alienation of the working class, the gulf – he called it – that had arisen between the Church and the world of ordinary people, who should have been the first to have the Gospel preached to them.

The second trial has arisen from the internal disputes in the communities. The Apostle dreamed of united communities, harmonious, enthusiastic and unanimous. Instead, his bitter experience – previously expressed in his First Letter to the Corinthians, but here reaching its peak – is to find communities in which there are many serious rifts. Not only internal disputes, but also different opinions about him.
Thus the Second Letter to the Corinthians is written to clear up misunderstandings, lack of confidence and prejudices about him in the community.

A third trial is internal. Paul refers to it discreetly but plainly. It is difficult to understand what these sufferings might be. Bearing in mind Paul’s temperament we can imagine high and low moods, enthusiasm alternating with depression, tiredness, boredom with the ministry, overwork.
The Second Letter to the Corinthians because it brings to us these three trials the Apostle is undergoing seem more akin to us and a useful text to reflect upon during a pause in our ministry. Your ministry and mine. Each of us has problems in our lives and it is important to seek the right way of dealing with them. Saying that Paul is in the thick of his ministry means not only in the thick of activities but also of sufferings.
When I was thinking about this meeting I listened to the letter again and certain things emerged which I will suggest to you in two periods of Bible reading. I suggest that in your free time you read the whole of this letter right through, in order to grasp the intensity of Paul’ s feelings.

RESONANCES OF THE SECOND LETTER TO THE CORINTHIANS

Three things stood out when I read through the whole letter:

1. Firstly I was struck by the extreme confidence in his own charisma expressed by Paul throughout.
In contrast to the difficult situations we have mentioned, we find a man who is absolutely certain that everything around him may crack but not his own charisma. Even when he gives vent to his sufferings most forcefully, he emerges absolutely certain of the charisma that has been given to him, his vocation, his mission as a gift of the Holy Spirit. In the light of this gift of the Holy Spirit he judges everything else and in the midst of his trials his charisma becomes still more authentic and radiant.

This is impressive, because his troubles could have made him weaken and become afraid. They might have made him wonder: Is this really my charisma? Is it that strong? Must I trust it to the last?
Paul’s faith in his charisma also gives strength to us. I may say that I have often regained my faith in my charisma as priest and bishop by turning to Paul’ s words in this letter.
Everything can fail but the charisma remains sure, as Paul also writes in his Letter to the Romans: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom 8:35). We may suffer internal and external misfortunes, so many things can fail, but nothing can separate us from God’s love that is in Christ Jesus our Lord, who chose me and called me.

2. This strong faith in his own charisma persists in humble, obscure and painful circumstances. Although there are circumstances to comfort the Apostle, on the whole his situation is difficult. His mission is only getting to a few people. Paul hoped he would reach a multitude (at least the Jewish people). Instead he is only reaching small communities with little effect on public opinion. These humble, obscure and painful conditions bring daily problems: people’ s malice, inconstancy, the betrayal of friends, machinations, deciding who are true and who are false apostles, in a medley of doctrines and claims.
Such circumstances, which would normally have caused confusion, sadness and dismay, are in contrast to his strong faith in his own charisma: everything can fail but not this certainty.

3. From many pages of the letter it stands out that all this is going on while at the same time he feels an unshakeable love for his community. We see that people who are rather unkind and hostile to Paul are constantly loved tenderly and constructively. The community has tried to push him out, to smear his name, and he is struggling to present himself as a loving father who is neither indignant nor bitter. He greets his community with authority and with almost violent affection.
There is something extraordinary in Paul’ s love when we consider how easily we can close up if we are not welcomed, or only by some while others remain cold, critical and reserved.

In the letter we feel Paul’ s suffering but we do not find a single sentence which can be called withdrawal. Indeed this letter is medicine for the apostle in his difficulty. It is nourishment, a tonic, because its words are full of strength. And for anyone who believes that they come from the Holy Spirit they are so apposite, they also restore our faith in ourselves, our ministry. They help us keep a large vision amid nasty little circumstances, and keep loving in spite of everything.
These are three points for you to ponder in your rereading or re-hearing of the letter. I listened to it again asking myself the following question: How does Paul cope with the trials of his ministry and how do I cope with situations like his? This question makes the letter very relevant to us.

READING AND MEDITATION ON 2 COR 1:3-5

With the above points in mind let us now begin reading the first page of this letter:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother.
To the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia. [So the letter is written to a parish, Corinth, a large urban parish and also to all those outside it in the surrounding region.]
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundant1y in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; he delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessings granted us in answer to many prayers.

Comfort for sufferings

So what title can we give to this section as a whole? The Bible edition I am using has an excellent one: Suffering and comfort. This title speaks for itself, because it does not say: Suffering and joy, which is our ordinary experience of life. In our lives we experience sufferings and joys, and try to find a balance between the two, because we cannot imagine life being nothing but joy and we could not endure it if it were nothing but suffering.
Paul’s attitude is very different. He does not seek a balance between suffering and joy but he experiences suffering and comfort in and from suffering. I think this is a rare insight of his: not suffering and joy as elements making up human life, but suffering and comfort that comes from the trials he is experiencing.

We see this clearly in the text: “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction” (cf. vv 3-4). It is not a general joy but a comfort that is in the suffering. It comes from within it. And the next verse takes us further into this relation between suffering and comfort: “W e share abundantly in Christ’ s suffering”. They are no longer Paul’s sufferings, but Christ’s and we understand that the Apostle instinctively experiences his sufferings not as a solitary personal fate, but as Christ’s sufferings in him, because they occur within the ministry that the Lord Jesus has entrusted to him. In this way his life is united to Christ’s. He calls them Christ’s sufferings in himself, because their cause is that he entered the ministry for love of the Lord.

And as such sufferings abound – they are many and frequent, not few and sporadic – “so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (v. 5). There is a close connection between Jesus’ suffering in him and comfort through Jesus in him. Paul finds the mystery of death and resurrection in his personal and community trials. By entering into the mystery of death, he also shares abundantly in the mystery of Christ’s resurrection, comfort and consolation.

Put to the test

Moving on to meditate on verses 3-5, we can ask ourselves: what is the connection between suffering and comfort in pastoral work, which allows comfort to come in and from suffering?
It means that comfort comes from being put to the test. Comfort is not something incidental, or a reward for suffering. It actually comes from being put to the test.
When we are put to the test, we can go into it physically, even psychologically and yet not existentially. In this way we dose ourselves off from Christ’s comfort. If we do not stake our very existence, we do not enjoy comfort within suffering.

This is a very interesting phenomenon, I feel it happening to me and I try to explain it. The trials of the ministry are various: physical and nervous exhaustion, bad moods, the daily grind, states of repugnance, negative states in which we feel like rejecting people and situations. These states affect us physically and psychologically and yet we can withhold ourselves from them, because we do not look them in the face, we deny them, we put them aside, perhaps because we are afraid that we cannot face them openly. In some way or other we consider them as side effects of our lives, that should not occur, and which are better re-assimilated unconsciously. We inject a sort of psychological anesthetic into these trials.

I think we often deprive ourselves of the strength we could gain from entering into Christ’s sufferings, because in facing them we hold our breath, dose our eyes, go on just the same. We do not confront them in prayer or in conversation with Christ. We do not take them into ourselves and so our trials remain like foreign bodies, they are not integrated into our experience and therefore they cannot be transformed into comfort.

I meet many pastoral parish councils and I find they experience quite a few of these troubles, perhaps small internal divisions, difficulties in their relationship with the parish priest, especially strain and distress at their loneliness in the community as a whole (the community does not know us, does not appreciate us, does not value our work). All this seems to require a missionary spirit. In fact I think they endure these trials with a certain instinctive and unconscious intolerance, ill humour, even irritation with themselves and others. They do not endure them as Christ’ s tests, suffering that Christ and the Christian must face, entering into them, taking them upon themselves and then feeling Christ’s strength in them. Because if they are accepted in this way it is much easier to talk freely and bravely about them, almost impartially, with the fire and life of the Gospel typical of Paul’ s own tone in the Second Letter to the Corinthians. The Apostle does not blame himself, he does not recriminate, does not block himself, as many communities do who are also good and generous and really want to serve Christ. They have not yet understood what cost the apostles themselves a lot of effort to understand: that only by entering into the suffering and the cross of Christ can we share in his comfort. These communities seem to take Peter’s attitude: “God forbid, Lord!” (cf. Mt 16:22). How can this happen? It should not happen. They have not reached the second stage of Mark’ s Gospel, welcoming Christ’ s trials, to be comforted for them by him with his strong comfort, with the grace of the comfort of the Spirit, which is only poured out when these trials are welcomed.

From the beginning of the letter we find excellent instructions for our daily lives and that of our communities. Verses 4 and 5 have offered us a first thought: the comfort from the sufferings of Christ in us. It is very significant that it speaks of Christ’s sufferings in us, because it is not a question of my weaknesses, my failures, my personal defeats (I thought I was a good preacher of the Gospel, a good apostle, a leader, and in fact circumstances have proved me wrong, even though I still have a few joys!). It is a question of Christ’s suffering in me and this makes things look different. I understand that suffering is a way in which Christ works in me, and that it is he himself who suffers from my weakness in the difficulties of the ministry and the problems in relating to people.

READING AND MEDITATION ON 2 COR 1: 6-11

Verses 6 and 7 of the first chapter stress that this comfort is for others.

Apostolic comfort

The apostolic comfort generated by the Spirit in the faithful servant of the Gospel, which means so much, is not for himself. These are not joys which we might think of as rewards for suffering. It is apostolic comfort for others.
“If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted it is for your comfort” (v. 6).

Paul sees this suffering followed by luminous moments as an aspect of his service. His affliction is for others; it is not an incident in his ministry but an ingredient of it. The failures are not simply incidents but educational ingredients, because through them I attain God’ s educating and working love.

So, comfort for others. In verse 7 I read something that made me ashamed: “Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.”
I think of certain encounters that sometimes irritate me, when people are mean-spirited and narrow-minded because they are closed in upon themselves. Heartbreaking meetings with some pastoral councils because they fail to see the signs of the Gospel, or very few of them. It is all heavy going, frustration. How difficult it all is! What is to be done?

Comparing my temptation with Paul’ s words I realize that I would not be capable of saying instinctively: “Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.” It needs a strong faith to see troubles and difficulties in the community – blocks, divisions, prejudices – as a suffering that brings release. How would I manage to say to a group of young people who tell me their troubles, the lack of spirit in their group, their failures: “At any rate my hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.”
We are trying to help a community, a group of young people and this kind of reading helps us say these things to them.

The mortal affliction

Verses 8 and 9 could be subtitled The mortal affliction “For I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself’ (v. 8).
Paul reveals a crack in his strength, which on other pages appears so impregnable.

I said earlier that in this letter Paul expresses strong faith in his own charisma. Here he confesses that the trial he suffered in Asia (probably caused by persecution, quarrels, deep disappointment in the community, perhaps temporary failures in psychological strength) caused him to be “so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself’.

Sometimes we too can feel unbearably crushed, beyond our strength. However when we make a true analysis of the situation we realize that it could be worse and that the Lord has still spared us.
But even if we do reach the point of saying that we are “utterly, unbearably crushed” we would then be like the Apostle “despaired of life itself’: that is, things can’t go on, we are finished. “W e feel that we have received the sentence of death; but that is to make us rely not on ourselves but God, who raises the dead” (v. 9). We see how the paschal mystery is not an abstraction for Paul. God who raises the dead also rescues me from a situation with no way out, a blind alley.

We should meditate again and again on these verses in God’ s presence: Lord, what is the meaning of the strength of the charisma you have given me?
Paul’ s charisma is in me through the imposition of hands. It is not a charisma of the kind that you think you have and therefore follow a certain path. Ours is a sure apostolic charisma, absolutely guaranteed by the physical gesture of the laying on of hands, uniting us to the grace that was in Paul. Paul’ s own grace has come to me through the laying on of apostolic hands.

A human relationship

The theme of verses 10 and 11 is the sharing of the community. Paul says: (If) I got over this moment which, I confess, was very very difficult (it is) also thanks to you and your prayers. Continue to pray for me and thank God for me.

I wonder: Have I ever had such a relationship of trust with the community? Have 1 ever reached the point of saying: Pray for me because I am in a very difficult situation? Look, 1 was in a very difficult situation and I got over it thanks to your prayers and support?
When we succeed in having this kind of relationship, the community reacts very strongly and it shakes their idea of the ministry in which the minister is either unreachable and infallible or criticized as faithless and incompetent.

The community is restored to a more human relationship. The ordained minister, the servant of God, has his grace but also his weakness and needs prayer. He needs to feel that people are united in his struggle and efforts.

Of course it is hard to find the right words, especially because the community is not used to such confession and may be scandalized. But why? Should we not be comforted and reassured by the bishop, and the priest? People’ s image of the bishop or the priest is of someone who never wavers, never doubts, never has problems, who should reassure others. If he has problems he must turn to God.

Of course the opposite image is also mistaken of a man showing weakness and demanding pity. The right one lies somewhere between the two: that the community should share in the priest’s sufferings, just as the priest shares in the community’s.

Reading Paul’s words we are astonished at his openness. “He delivered us from so deadly a peril and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (v. 10).
Perhaps you will have noticed that everything becomes easier when this deadly situation of suffering takes the form of physical suffering, because then we succeed in speaking about it and we immediately obtain the community’s sympathy. Indeed there are communities that become reconciled with their pastor when he becomes gravely or even mortally ill. People are transformed and the relationship becomes more human.

I remember with feeling an example of grave physical suffering in a Bishop, who died recent1y: Filippo Franceschi, Bishop of Padua. When the diocesan community heard about his state of health and he asked to receive the anointing of the sick publicly before the priests, a large crowd gathered during the Maundy Thursday celebrations because the people were very aware of their pastor’ s weak state of health and his suffering in illness. They felt involved with their bishop. Their attitude to him became more human and more genuine, they stopped criticizing him and demanding everything from him.

This often happens. Of course we should not will it to happen, but it is a symbol of that more human and genuine relationship Paul is talking about here. We should now reflect on it in silence before God asking:

Lord, how do I react to the trials Paul experienced? Do I manage to say the same as him. Do I feel the same as him? How far am I from this attitude? Lord, give me the comfort of your Spirit!