The man with the pierced heart.


The man with the pierced heart.

A Glasgow parish priest offers a reflection on priesthood for the Jubilee Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis, which runs from December 2015 to November 2016.  It focuses on different groups within the church in the course of the year.

 June 3rd, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is the Jubilee of Mercy for Priests.  Few religious icons have suffered as much from outré spirituality and worse art so it isn’t an immediately attractive image for the day of prayer for those in Holy Orders.  We need, then, to revisit the image, making a connection between it and priesthood.  I want to describe my experience of ‘pierced-ness’, first, because I don’t agree with Benedict XVI, that the crisis of priestly identity is over, second, hopefully to prompt some dialogue among us.

So, what of the icon of the Sacred Heart?  Commenting on John’s gospel, Augustine was moved by the Septuagint translation, aperuit, describing the piercing of Christ – that his heart was ‘opened’. The Fathers of the Church frequently use and develop the imagery, until Bonaventure can write ‘From his wounded side flowed blood and water, the fountain of the sacramental life of the Church’ (a central prayer in the liturgy of The Solemnity).  The same language appears at Vatican II, explicitly in Lumen Gentium (3).

This imagery of the Sacred, wounded, open heart of Jesus is extrapolated in two directions.  First, as symbol of sacramental economy, linking the blood of his pierced heart to the Eucharist.  Second, the water that flows, figure of baptism, connects to the birth of the Church itself, ‘carved from the rock of his heart’ (Justin Martyr).

It was Karl Rahner, however, who explicitly linked the imagery of the Sacred Heart to the spirituality of the ministerial priesthood.  Acknowledging that devotion to the Sacred Heart seems to be of a bygone age, Rahner suggests it has powerful contemporary resonance.  He writes,

‘The priest of today must be the man with a pierced heart from which alone he draws strength for his mission…. He is a man with the pierced heart because he is to lead others to the very core of their existence, to their inmost heart, because he can only do so if he has found his own heart… ‘

Servants of the Lord (1968)

Australian Jesuit, Bishop Greg Kelly, first dismissed Rahner’s reflection as ‘Teutonic lugubriousness’. However, Kelly now sees Rahner has revealed a rich seam for spiritual and psychological reflection for the priest himself (essentially) and ministry (existentially).  The phrase, ‘wounded healer’, is attributed to Henri Nouwen, priest and spiritual writer, but it has a longer pedigree.  The centaur Chiron, wounded by Hercules’ arrow, becomes the one wounded in order to heal others on the battlefield.  Carl Jung popularised the notion in the psychotherapeutic world, that the act of (any) healing, in fact heals ourselves.  More immediate to our reflection is the Talmudic tractate on the Suffering Servant literature.  Rabbi Yoshua asks Elijah, ‘When will the messiah come?’ – ‘Ask him yourself.’  ‘Where is he?’ asks Yoshua.  ‘He is at the city gates, covered in his wounds, sitting among the poor’.

The Sacred Heart is pierced, symbolic origin of Church and Sacrament, and can readily become an image for the minister of Sacrament, servant of Church.  So far, this reflection is essentialist – the wounded priest personally identifying with the wounded Jesus.  However – in the language of Benedict XVI – ministry is pro-existence.  We must look, then, in an existential framework, at what the pierced one is for; what this means in concrete service.

What was my generation – at least us domestically trained – prepared to serve?  The emphasis was academic but unchallenging, and I recall only three lecturers.  John Fitzsimmons imparted a love of scripture, respect for its complexity and imposed rigorous standards for preaching.  Canon lawyer Clarence Gallagher SJ had, as his shibboleth, that law always served ecclesiology, not vice versa.  John McKelvie, who died tragically young, brought his French education to liturgy, teaching us to follow the ‘negrics’, the spirit of the black-print, rather than an over concern with ‘rubric’, the red-print, in worship and prayer.  (Sadly, now the negrics are incomprehensible!)  We were to build community, through preaching the word and worthy celebration of the Sacred Liturgy.  We were to be priests in relationship – not set apart. (Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul’s Exhortation on the Life and Ministry of Priests, 43).

‘Human formation’ was a second focus.  Seminary did little to form my wounded heart nor did it enable the mature, expressible self-awareness essential for someone called to be a ‘man of Communio’ (PDV 42).  We were assessed on the ability to cope with the dynamics of a semi-monastic community (like we would never live in again!)  Were we punctual for liturgy and meals?  Able to repeat lecture content?  To manage ‘the business’ of parish and its demands?  Michael Buckley SJ says these are the wrong questions.

There is a different question, one proper to the priesthood as of its very essence, if not uniquely proper to it: Is this man weak enough to be a priest?  Is this man deficient enough so that he cannot ward off significant suffering from his life, so that he lives with a certain amount of failure, so that he feels what it is to be an average man?  Is there any history of confusion, of self-doubt, of interior anguish?  Has he had to deal with fear, come to terms with frustrations, or accept deflated expectations?

The Sacred Heart, The Fathers, Rahner, Buckley; we might sum up.  Has this man encountered the wounded-ness of his own heart; is he realistic about the reality of his weakness?  In Hebrews, it is in this deficiency, this lack, that the efficacy of the priesthood of the heart of Christ lies.  A priest is not above his people but is to be covered in his wounds, sitting among theirs.

This weakness cannot be confused with personal sin; personal sin is often how we mask our weakness.  It is rather the existential reality of one who is nonetheless called, in the words of Pope Francis’ motto, miserando atque eligendo (‘lowly yet chosen’)How is this pierced-ness encountered?  My experience of priesthood, existentially, is much blessed, filled with people and opportunities, so my cup runneth over.  Essentially, within, it has been an experience of tension such as is described in Lacordaire’s, Life of a Priest; ‘To belong to every family yet be part of none’,  a phrase that resonated in me since first I read it. To be a man of communion but alone, in celibate isolation, in the presbytery, no family of one’s own but drawn intimately into the lives and families of others.

I have always longed to be a person of prayer – ever-attractive and ever-elusive.  This too becomes a tensive space; between prayerful essence longing to integrate with existence and ministry.  Michel Quoist, a secular parish priest, wrote prayers capturing the tensions of our wounded service.  Before you, Lord describes the desire to be contemplative. ‘To be here before you Lord, that’s all – to shut the eyes of my body, the eyes of my soul. To feel, see, hear nothing.’  Yet, he goes on, we are never alone – people come into our hearts, settle down and worry us.  We allow it, that they be refreshed; we carry them to the Lord to be fed.

 Prayer on a Sunday Night describes the crowded Sunday Church, now empty and silent; the people gone to enjoy the evening as the priest walks home, alone.  Ours is a kenotic prayer, of a pierced heart, drained of energy, spent; Like Christ’s heart.  Quoist uses the striking word engloutir, being devoured by people’s hunger – like the Eucharist itself.  Engloutir also means ‘overwhelmed’, ‘engulfed’.  Fewer of us, increasing demands, battered by scandals, feeling leaderless – it is easy to feel engloutir.  But overwhelmed, too, by the affirmation of people, fellow wounded pilgrims. Engulfed, too, by the ultimate love of the One pierced for us, that we might be healed.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a potent symbol for us in this Year of Mercy.  To know that my heart, like the Sacred Heart, is pierced and beset by weakness, is not an academic property but the rudiment of freedom.  From that space, not readily understood by institutions, is born a merciful ministry, for one, also wounded, who longs to heal.

Lord, tonight, while all is still

and I feel sharply the sting of solitude,

While people devour my soul

and I feel incapable of satisfying their hunger,

While the world presses on my shoulders

with all its weight of misery and sin,

I repeat to you my ‘yes’ –

slowly, clearly, humbly,

Alone, Lord, before you,

In the peace of the evening.

(Michel Quoist, Prayer on a Sunday Night)

 Fr Jim Lawlor is a priest of the Archdiocese of Glasgow



Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.