Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ministry of Presence

Ministry of Presence

This is one of the most misunderstood phrases in all of ministry that I have ever come across.  It is also the guiding motto of the ministry of Glenmary brothers, such as Craig Digmann (see this article on his extensive ministry of presence to non-Catholics in eastern Tennessee).

Imagine taking a group of energetic college students on a week-long immersion trip to do outreach work.  They come equipped with hammers and paint brushes and are full of energy to help the less fortunate.  Then you tell them, "Your job this week is to be present to people."  I can almost visualize the disappointment taking physical form and falling from their faces, for they have come ready to build houses for the homeless and cook large meals for the hungry.  Time is short and there are many things to be done!

People may ask in puzzlement, "What are you even asking us to do?  What does it mean to be present?"  Those would actually be excellent opening questions.  Being present to the poor requires exactly thatbeing personally involved, asking questions, sweating it out.  It is not about sending a donation in the mail or absentmindedly checking items off a to-do list while thinking of something else.  There is no list.  In fact, there probably cannot be.

We are a culture of doers.  Being present can seem so passiveat least, at first. 

The truth is that this approach is the opposite of passive.  In order to be truly present, we have to be fully engaged and active with the individuals and community we serveto know them, to walk with them and to suffer with them as they suffer.  Then—and only then—are we in a position to do something with and for them.

"Compassion" word cloud from
It is hard not to think of the passion and death of Jesus as we are in the midst of Lent.  "Passion" in this sense means "suffering."  It is at the root of the word "compassion," which therefore means "co-suffering."  In other words, to be compassionate is to be so present to someone at the depths of their very wounds, to be so in tune with what they are going through that we suffer right along with them.  This includes all the awkwardness, discomfort, boredom and other unpleasantries that might seem to be there on the surface.

Look Before You Leap 

Presence is a beautiful word.  It is not about judgment.  It does not have an agenda for a person, although it does hope.  It is more than simply being there, although just being there is most definitely the first step.  You have to show up in every sense of the word.  It is being truly available with all of our senses and all of our attention.  It is ultimately imitating Christ who showed us through the Incarnation that He is deeply present to all of humanity.

After listening and simply being there for a while with someone in need, then certainly sharing helpful ideas, acts of service and words of advice can follow.  Those acts will be better guided and more sensitive to the unique situation if they are grounded first in presence.  Those acts must always be kept in check with an emphasis on listening and solidarity first and foremost.  They have to come out of a true communion in caring, concern and empathy rather than a pronouncement from a detached place.

The First Pastoral Commandment

Pope Francis recently said it this way:  "The first pastoral commandment is closeness: being close to the people. Closeness." 

The Pope continued: "We cannot go to a family with sick or hungry children -- or those that have fallen to vice -- we cannot go with 'You must, you must, you must,'" said the pope. "No. We must go with closeness, with the caress that Jesus has taught us.  To save us, God was made close to us, was made one of us: Jesus, and suffered like us!" said Francis. "This is the way: Closeness."


If Jesus is Here, Then Where Should I Be . . . ?

The Christ of the Breadlines by Fritz Eichenberg

The infamous painting above tells a Gospel truth.  Jesus is so fully present to the poorest of the poor that he could say, Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me (in Matthew 25:31-46, NRSV translation).  That homeless man in ragged clothes standing in line for bread—that man is Jesus and should be treated as such, as far as any believer is concerned.  Yes, Christ is present to all of humanity, but Christ is indeed present to the poor and suffering in a special way—a preferential way, as it is said in Catholic Social Teaching.

It follows that if Jesus is in solidarity with the poorest of the poor, then His Church—which is His very Body—ought to be there, too.  Anything other than that would not make sense.  How can His Body not be where He is?  This is a challenge for the whole church, and it is the special mission of a Glenmary brother.

Jesus instructs us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner and care for the sick.  He does not, however, tell us how to do this.  But he calls us to be his Body and that means being with those who are suffering, because that is where He is.  Our presence is therefore the first step, and from that place, we will know better what else to do.

The Christ of the Homeless by Fritz Eichenberg

A Good Shepherd Knows His Sheep

Glenmary Catholic parishes are in areas where Catholics make up less than 3% of the population and where the poverty rate is at least twice the national average.  And that is just the starting point.  

Br. Craig is part of a ministry that greets school children as they arrive off the buses on Mondays.  He says you can see right in their faces how many of them are burdened with difficult family circumstances.  A simple welcome and cheer can change their whole attitude.  Br. Crag is also a companion to people who have lost a loved one and need someone to listen to them.  He drops in on folks in various circumstances just to check in on how they are doing.  He constantly circulates in the community and is a part of the lives of the people he serves.  All of this is in addition to his stunning bridge building with non-Catholic churches, as reported in the previous post.

Br. Craig (Right) visiting a community member in Tennessee—
checking in on him, inviting him to an event
and just staying up to date with his life and needs.

Full, Conscious and Active Participation


Being present does not mean just hanging out.  It is "full, conscious and active participation," to borrow a phrase from Vatican II.  This phrase was originally coined for describing the hoped for attitude of the faithful in Catholic liturgy, but it really applies to all of Christian life, as good worship unfolds into our lives. 
These are not just "feel good" moments, this is at the depths of the Gospel message itself. Jesus himself is the Incarnation, being fully present to the human condition, calling us likewise to be fully present to each other. Christians argue a lot over who has the right theology.  I sometimes wonder how often we do this to avoid opening and stretching ourselves into the daring invitation that Jesus offers us.  It is hard enough to manage our own pain, and Jesus wants us to enter into the pain of others—yet this may be the key to unlocking our own pain, as it gets us out of our false selves to find the Kingdom within.

You could argue that the main gift of the Incarnation of Jesus was simply His very presence with us and the awesome revelations that come as we come to understand what that must mean for us.  Glenmary brothers like Craig work hard to live into this message.

Folks may ask, "So you are just present with people... what do you actually do?"  The answer is a marvelous interplay of "everything and nothing."  It has to be both, and it has to transcend either one by itself.

To sum it all up succinctly, it may be true that ultimately the greatest present you can give someone is your presence.

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