Exodus 90 - Day 20
When my friend asked me to be the spiritual director for the Exodus 90 group he was getting together, I didn’t know what to expect. When I was in the parish, my interactions with the men there would always be mediated through some official program or function of the parish itself: the retreat weekend, the grade school basketball game, the fish fry, and so on. Each of these represented a discrete event, separate from the rest of the man’s life. My relationship with various people built up over the repetition of these events and there would be a good priest/parishioner dynamic that would result. However there was little sense that I was engaging as a priest with a man’s day-to-day life. Our relationship was defined by the structures of the parish, which fostered an encounter with the faith but aren’t the same thing as that relationship with God. There was shared activity but little sense of shared living.
That latter sense was something that I was trained in seminary to cultivate so as to be more Christ-like, for Jesus didn’t put on regular programs but lived with His disciples. That sense of shared living always felt just beyond my grasp, both because I didn’t know how else to be present to the people of the parish and also because the people didn’t know how to invite me in. Part of the problem is the large number of people who make up a contemporary Catholic parish in suburban Illinois where I live and minister. You just can’t have a deep sense of spiritual fatherhood with 8,000 families. It becomes easy to simply where the “Program Manager” hat rather than the “Spiritual Father” hat when so many people are involved. Even those in the parish I got to know well, though, were only well-known to me through those programs. I lived for those moments of real pastoral encounter: the good confession, the difficult hospital visit, the awkward conversation after Mass. In those moments of vulnerability and spiritual intimacy, I experienced the presence of Christ at work in me and in the person in front of me. You can’t plan that kind of experience, of course, but sometimes I worry our parishes do too much to do just that.
And I worried that Exodus 90 would be similar: a program that tried to plan and manage an experience of faith albeit with a pronounced asceticism and male-centered spirituality. I thought the weekly fraternity meetings would be exercises in obligation-fulfillment. However well-intentioned the men doing this exodus might be, I thought the artificiality of the required weekly check-in would make for more shared activity than shared living.
How wrong I was.
Having gathered together just three times for these weekly meetings, I am already blown away by the sense of shared living that is building up among the men in my Exodus 90 fraternity. As each man shares the joys and challenges of the past week, all the others listen attentively and with charity. They are ready to laugh with their brother who shares a moment of self-deprecation and ready to offer words of encouragement to the man struggling with patterns of sinfulness. One of the men in the group has brought a difficult family struggle to the rest of us, asking for our prayers as he tries to discern the will of God. We all want the other men in the group to succeed, and we all draw strength from being together, praying together, and talking honestly about our weeks together. This is the result of something more than a well-designed program implemented well (although it is that at a human level). Primarily, the formation of this kind of fraternity is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of unity, who desires the sons and daughters of God to live in close communion with one another. The Catholic doctrine of the communion of the saints embraces far more than our relationship with those who have died and gone before into the joys of heaven. It encompasses our communion with all the holy ones, that is, all those who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That communion of the saints can be hard to experience in the midst of the normal hustle and bustle of our day. For this group of men, however, the disciplines of Exodus 90 creates the silence and the space necessary to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit in their prayer, in their self-denial, and in their fraternity with one another.
As a Catholic man, I of course greatly benefit from this realization of the communion of saints. I cannot walk the path of discipleship alone. Jesus sent his disciples out two-by-two because He knew that we need good human support to help us trust the presence of His unfailing divine support. The grace of this fraternity, however, goes even deeper for me as a priest. To see Catholic men take the challenge of their faith seriously and commit themselves to these ascetic disciplines out of a desire for deeper relationship with God has been such an encouragement to me as a priest. There is a mutual support that ought to exist between the royal priesthood of the baptized and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained that is grounded in our shared devotion to the Trinity. Every baptized Christian shares fully in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and each son and daughter of God makes use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to sanctify the world around them. Such is the work of a priest: to sanctify. The men in my Exodus 90 fraternity exercise their royal priesthood when they pray with their families, when they offer up the hot shower in the morning, and whenever they do something for the love of God. The ministerial priesthood of the ordained – bishops, priests, and deacons – are charged with assisting and enabling the faith-life of the royal priesthood. By my sacramental ministry, my preaching, and my pastoral presence I communicate the sanctifying grace of God to others, not because of anything I do but because God called me for that work. The ministerial priesthood, in turn, experiences the love of God through the charitable response of the baptized. The prayers and support of the people of God are what keep me going, just as a child’s health and happiness keep parents going during moments of difficulty.
These first three weeks have made that connection between the royal priesthood and the ministerial priesthood come alive for me with a clarity I have not experienced before. It has created a deeper sense of shared living that truly reflects the model of Christ’s own life and ministry. I continue to be surprised at how fitting St. Josemaría Escrivá is as our patron saint. As the founder of Opus Dei, he wanted to foster a religious community of both laypeople and priests that would demonstrate that ordinary life can result in sanctity. That desire for sanctity in and through ordinary life is something I see again and again in my exodus and in the exodus of my fraternity. The communion of saints I experience with these men has kept me going through some of the challenging moments of the last ten days, and I look to depend upon it in the days that remain.
Please continue to keep me and my fraternity brothers in your prayers.
St. Josemaría Escrivá, pray for us!