Carlo Maria Martini
Paul in the thick of his ministry
2. Misunderstandings in the ministry
“We thank you, Father, because you gather us together in your Son’ s love, in the grace of the Spirit. We thank you for this moment of silence, solitude and fellowship. Grant to each of us that we welcome it as a grace. Enable us to accept what you have prepared for each of us for this moment, so that we may know your Son Jesus Christ our Lord more deeply, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit for ever and ever.”
Let us start by calmly entering an atmosphere of prayer and fellowship, gratefully welcoming the rest we are getting by being here, rest that we all need. Perhaps as we begin this retreat we are feeling more tired because all our tension is relaxing, but this too is a grace, being able to let go a little to help us in our prayer and reflection.
In the thick of his ministry what does Paul tell us in the hurly burly of ours?
THE TEXT OF 2COR 1:12-2:11
So now let us read the text that immediately follows this morning’s passage:
For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience that we have behaved in the world and still more toward you, with holiness and god1y sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God. For we write you nothing but what you can read and understand; I hope you will understand fully, as you have understood in part, that you can be proud of us as we can be of you, on the day of the Lord Jesus.
Because I was sure of this, I wanted to come to you first, so that you might have a double pleasure; I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea. Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans like a worldly man, ready to say Yes and No at once? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God. But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has commissioned us; he has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.
But I call God to witness against me – it was to spare you that I refrained from coming to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith; we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith. For I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I carne I might not be pained by those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love I have for you.
But if any one has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure – not to put it too severely – to you all. For such a one this punishment by the majority is enough; so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. Any one whom you forgive I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us; for we are not ignorant of his designs.
Behind these words there are some happenings that we can partly reconstruct, but partly do not know about and can only guess at.
The Jerusalem Bible gives this whole long section, which finishes with chapter 8 the following title: Some recent events reviewed. It supposes that there have been incidents between Paul and the community and that the Apostle is going back over them.
To the verses we have just read I would give the title: Misunderstandings to be cleared up, because this allows us to broach a topic that I often find arising in my ministry and also in that of priests.
A realistic look
Firstly we note that there are misunderstandings in the ministry. There are bound to be because the ministry is not a solitary life in which we just have to cope with ourselves. We have to relate to others and in the course of such relationships misunderstandings are inevitable. Even in the most common human relationships in the ministry there are misunderstandings: between priests, between the parish priest and his curate, between the various priests in the parish; misunderstandings between priest and a person or group.
I remember once on a pastoral visit, in a meeting of people at deanery level, the episcopal vicar poured me a glass of water while I was speaking. Somehow the glass tipped over and I made what I meant as a joking remark to dismiss the incident. Some people misunderstood my remark and a great misunderstanding arose. I received some angry letters, which brought me down to earth with a bump. But that is the way things happen: a remark taken the wrong way or out of context gives rise to misunderstandings.
Some misunderstandings are our fault, if we do not pay attention to our human relationships, perhaps because we are too busy. Then people may feel neglected, ignored and get upset.
Sometimes however misunderstandings are the fault of others, others who are against us. Sometimes they are no one’ s fault, but simply because things are complicated: bad communication, accidental lateness which causes bad feeling, etc. Often parish life is shot through with these electric currents of misunderstandings, that create distance, strain and trouble.
It is providential that Paul also experienced these situations and he teaches us how he copes with them.
READING OF THE PASSAGE
How does Paul react to misunderstandings?
Growing in fatherhood
His first reaction comes in verses 12-14 in which he says: Look, I am honest. Even if I have been misunderstood and there have been misunderstandings between us, I am honest and I don’t want and cannot allow my honesty to be doubted. In this we feel he is very close to us.
“For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience that we have behaved in the world, and still more towards you, with holiness and godly sincerity.” I beg you to believe me that there was no duplicity or ill intentions or other things I have been accused of in me.
Naturally we ask: What has he been accused or? Perhaps we may think it has been said that Paul is not a sincere man, that he is two-timing and acts for human, negative and worldly motives, with the wisdom of the flesh; that he boasts of being a man of high principles but in fact he is double-dealing and ambiguous, saying one thing and meaning another.
“We write you nothing but what you can read and understand.” It is not true that Paul writes one thing while thinking another, even if this has been the gossip in the community.
The Apostle expresses himself with some force and also sheer pain: Whatever is being said, I hope that in the end you will understand that I care about you, I am with you, I am your boast.
He does not withdraw in resentment from the calumnies, stings and insults which cut him to the quick because they relate to his preaching (you say that we should be dedicated to our service and then you act differently, not through human weakness but because you are double-dealing and treacherous).
The heart ache is a sign of fatherhood and Paul feels his fatherhood growing through these painful experiences.
I am convinced and so are you and you will be even more so that it is by going through these trials that our fatherhood is formed, that is, we really become fathers through suffering, fathers and mothers through suffering, patience and perseverance.
So it is necessary to go through the trials of misunderstandings, even misunderstandings between ourselves, in our relationship to one another as priests. Sometimes misunderstandings are necessary even in the relationship between bishop and priest: difficulty in understanding can sometimes arise through the bishop’s human errors, or sometimes through circumstances for which no one is to blame.
We must try and sort this out without giving way to defeat, without surrendering to the immediate temptation to clam up because we have not been understood or understood one another.
It would be good to make use of this time of reflection today to look at the misunderstandings that inevitably will have arisen over the years between me and the people, me and other priests, me and my superiors. Write them down and look at them as individual incidents. Then I can ask myself: What does the Lord want me to do? Should I take the first step or wait for others to do so?
To go back over these sufferings, which, as I said earlier, we tend not to face, and go back over them lovingly, is what we must do to grow.
Entering into difficulties
Verses 1:15-2:4 speak more particularly about a specific cause of misunderstanding. It appears that Paul had proposed to make a certain journey and then he did nol. This has given rise to all sorts of notions, remarks, insults, calumnies and quarrels in the community. It seems incredible to us: merely a journey postponed. People (and we are people too) build mountains out of molehills. Some situations in parishes and deaneries grow out of nothing, they blow up out of some little thing and then people take sides and the small thing becomes a great cloud, which it is hard to know how to disperse. Things like this happen and sometimes cause serious suffering.
So we can well imagine how Paul’ s put off journey gave rise to a web of speculation and criticism, interpretations and quarrels between different parties, mutual insults, and grave insults to the Apostle.
Paul had to cope with these difficulties. How does he behave? In two ways.
Firstly he reaffirms his fundamental honesty: We decided to come to you and if we changed our plan it was for a grave reason. So I beg you to believe there is nothing behind it to speculate about.
He enters the discussion and deals with it. This first way in which Paul explains himself humbly but bravely may be called pragmatic.
His second approach is very Pauline, fine and unexpected. Following the practical explanations the Apostle rises to a splendid Christological contemplation. The incident gives rise to a supreme Christological affirmation. “The Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him to the glory of God.” This is one of the oldest testimonies of liturgical prayer and the Amen. Then he makes a fundamental statement on baptism and the anointing of the Spirit: “But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has commissioned us: he has put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (1:19-22).
Transformed into comfort
There are two things we should stress here. The first is not to lose our heads in these situations as sometimes happens. If we give way to animosity we always find “dear friends” who stir things up: Did you hear what so and so said? You can’t tolerate that; it is a disgrace!
We should stick to the facts, reduce them to essentials and clarify them. I know it is difficult, especially when the press joins in and news reports turn a storm in a teacup into a tempest at sea.
So we should not lose our calm and remember that the devil continually stirs things up trying to create trouble, resentment and bitterness in us and others. Often in these situations the first requirement is to wait for things to calm down and not judge them hastily. Paul gave up a pastoral visit; he lets the waters rage and then when they have calmed down he writes this letter of explanation. This is a splendid ex ample of prudence and wisdom in the difficult conduct of human relations in the ministry.
The second point to stress is that all this must be an occasion for growth, for deepening our faith. Then blessed are misunderstandings and bad tempers, blessed are the things they say against us. All these things are blessed if they are occasions for deepening our faith as Paul does when he contemplates Christ, his rightness, his straightness, always being God’s “Yes”. Thus having begun with a calumny against himself, that he cannot keep his word, Paul contemplates all God’ s promises in Christ for us. Of course Paul must have suffered very much because he was very sensitive and it was bound to wound him that he was considered not to be a man of his word. But this suffering leads him to more insight into Jesus’ straightness, consistency and fidelity: You alone, Jesus, are faithful, you are the only Lord whose “Yes” is constant and eternal, and from the depths of my suffering and humiliation I lean on you, the only one who never fails and is always faithful and true.
We can imagine Paul’s suffering prayer being transformed into comfort. He starts from what has distressed and agitated him and is restored by contemplating Jesus.
Blessed are our difficulties, great and small, if they lead us to these steps of faith.
The ways out
We could call the third part of this passage The tearful letter. Everything Paul did and experienced, either trying to explain what happened or to make this leap of faith, is expressed in a letter we do not have but which we can imagine: “I wrote to you out of much affliction with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love I have for you” (2:4).
So Paul had already tried to write a letter of explanation with many tears. It is puzzling to imagine what might have been in this letter. Some people think it might have been the Second Letter to the Corinthians itself, so that the past tense “I wrote to you” should be read as present “I am writing to you”. Or it is another letter immediately preceding this one. Reading the final chapters of 2 Corinthians, from chapter 10 onwards, we get the impression that Paul changes his tone of voice to a hectic and violent one, which might well be this “tearful letter”, at least stylistically. Reading these chapters we can deduce how passionate the “tearful letter” must have been.
We gather that the actual effort to express his suffering and not to remain sunk in bitterness and withdrawn into himself gradually dissolves the difficult situation.
We must always patiently look for the way out at the right time and realize that even a “tearful letter” can do a lot of good.
Sometimes I get letters from laity and priests written in painful situations. When they are not pure accusation or polemic they reveal something of this suffering to me. They hurt but they also convince me that the effect will be better understanding. We often find that when there is a misunderstanding between people or groups or a person and a group, if this finds expression in a genuine, humble and suffering way, the result may be a new and deep friendship. So often true friendships arise out of a quarrel or a misunderstanding if it has not been harbored and polemically kept up but there has been a patient effort to find the right moment to resolve it. Then people recognize each other and become fond of each other.
Sometimes even in relations between priests or between priest and bishop, we find that when there has been a painful or tense period, which has been endured with faith, patience and good will, hearts open. This also often happens in families. While in some families communication is blocked so that they merely put up with each other, there is no dialogue so relations are merely external, in others they try to get to the roots of the misunderstanding. Then at the appropriate moment they search for the right unhurtful words simply to express their personal pain and thus reach the best kind of reconciliation and true understanding.
I think understanding between people always goes through such situations sooner or later. So the Lord also allowed misunderstandings among the saints. We know that one of the most painful misunderstandings in our century was that between Pius X and Cardinal Ferrari, and it lasted for many years. Nevertheless the Lord managed to make it an occasion for holiness in both of them.
There is a mystery in these things. When I see my chapel, built by the Blessed Ferrari, I remember that the Cardinal withdrew there to pray immediately after he had privately received the news that Pius X did not wish to receive him. His biographer relates that at first the Archbishop was annoyed, he withdrew into himself but immediately afterwards he went to the chapel where he prayed for some hours. And I believe that this misunderstanding worked on the Cardinal’ s heart and advanced him in holiness more than many too easy or immediate understandings.
This letter of Paul’s brings us really into contact with the mysteries in the Church’ s life and invites us to examine ourselves so that we do not regard misunderstandings as incidents along the way which should not happen but as occasions through which the Lord invites us, in peace, to become holy.
The fundamental rule is the following: in personal relations I should not express what I feel about the other in polemical terms but in personal ones: I have experienced deep pain, difficulty and cannot very easily explain to myself how it happened. This way of expressing ourselves authentically without immediately lashing out at the other works very well because the other person does not feel attacked or in need of defending himself saying: I did this for good reasons which it is not necessary to explain to you, and that’s that. Instead he feels involved and says: I am not being attacked but here is someone expressing distress; what can I do?
This is probably the way out of quite a few situations in which Paul found himself before us and we also find ourselves in.
The last resort: forgiveness
Our final reflection is on verses 10 and 11 of chapter 2. “Any one whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us; for we are not ignorant of his designs.”
These are the fine concluding words of the passage. Here Paul brings out the very high value placed on forgiveness in the New Testament. After we have explained ourselves and may or may not have sorted things out, the moment comes when there is always the last resort, gratuitous forgiveness, which is the unique character of our God and religion.