Mark Hellinger
The Strange and Joyful Life
August 9, 2017 // Columns

Human formation and becoming a bridge

Mark Hellinger
The Strange and Joyful Life

One of the titles for a pope that I have always found interesting is “Pontifex Maximus.” This title is translated to “the greatest bridge-builder.” I, of course, have never seen any images of Pope Francis (or any pope, for that matter) in work pants and a T-shirt physically building any bridges; and yet, the title remains.

The bridges that are built by our spiritual fathers are, of course, not something physical, but spiritual. And in order for priests to build spiritual bridges, and become spiritual bridges themselves, they must have human formation. In fact, in his apostolic exhortation “Pastores Dabo Vobis” or “I Will Give you Shepherds,” Pope St. John Paul II is very clear about the need for human formation and what, exactly, it is that it accomplishes. He notes in paragraph 43 that all of priestly formation is without foundation if human formation is lacking. Why is this?

He goes on to say in paragraph 43, “It is necessary that, following the example of Jesus who ‘knew what was in humanity,’ the priest should be able to know the depths of the human heart, to perceive difficulties and problems, to make meeting and dialogue easy, to create trust and cooperation, to express serene and objective judgments.” So it becomes clear to those in formation for the priesthood that human formation is essential to becoming a bridge between God and man, and that without the qualities that foster that sort of relationship, priestly ministry is difficult.

I have always found it interesting that in the Catholic faith we often move from the human to the divine. In fact, the divinization of the human person, as we are constantly made perfect as our heavenly father, is something that can be seen all throughout the faith. I think of the prayer the priest or deacon prays while mingling the water and wine at the altar: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

For millennia, humans have been reaching out to the divine; but the only way that we could actually come into communion with him is by God becoming man. In this way, Christ is really the Pontifex Maximus of the whole of eternity and the only one who has ever moved from divine to human; but he did so that we might move from human to divine. I could think of countless examples, like the bread and wine (human things) becoming the source and summit of the faith, the God-man himself, human love being strengthened and stretched into an image of the divine love, etc. So for the everyday Catholic, this idea of movement from human to divine should not be strange, but naturally understandable.

This reality is applicable to the human person in regard to growth in the faith. In order to be a good Christian, we must be a good human. For as St. Irenaeus exclaimed, “the glory of God is man fully alive.” Therefore, we must start our lives in the faith by becoming better humans, by growing in relationship with others, by learning the depths of the heart, by making dialogue easy, by knowing and understanding problems, etc.

However, human formation is not an end in itself. It is the foundation of a well-formed priest and a well-formed Christian. Jesus did not become human to keep us in our sin; rather, he became human to bring us out of sin. Therefore, for the priest and for the Christian, we must become human so as to draw ourselves and others toward God. Without this understanding, human formation really has no clear point. There would be no movement toward God, and that would not make any sense.

Because sin makes us less human, the priest and the Christian have an essential role as witnesses to the culture of what being human actually looks like. Therefore, we must learn to affirm that which is good, true and beautiful, and reject that which makes us less human and so is not good, not true. This is the real goal of human formation: that we become so formed that we are comfortable meeting people where they are, and that we know how to and can gently draw them out of sin and into a deep and close relationship with Jesus Christ, who is the redeemer of humanity. In this way, our human formation truly becomes a bridge and not an obstacle to the relationship of humanity with divinity.

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