Mark Hellinger
The Strange and Joyful Life
October 4, 2017 // Perspective

Pastoral formation: jumping into reality

Mark Hellinger
The Strange and Joyful Life

There were many opportunities for me to grow while I was working construction and out in the field during my high school and early college summers. A common situation for me, especially since I was at the bottom of the food chain as a summer intern, was the need to get down into a muddy hole and clean out the bottom, as we were laying the foundations of a building.

I am a generally clean person, meaning I keep things organized around me and don’t enjoy getting dirty unless I need to for some reason. So every time, I would try to get the extra dirt out of the hole while working from the outside of it. This way, I thought, I would stay cleaner and still accomplish my task. That method worked occasionally. More often than not, however, I would reach a point where I realized that it simply would not work for me to continue trying from the outside, and I would have to jump into the hole.

I see this as a kind of analogy to what pastoral formation is all about. There is a very real temptation, often, to stay on the “outside;” to look at the messiness of people’s lives and think that a little bit of effort from the outside — a pastor’s comfort zone — can help change it. But this is not the case.

The challenge of the Christian life is to come into full contact with the reality of life: its joys, struggles, hopes and disappointments. This engagement requires a complete and total investment of self, jumping into the reality of life with one’s whole self, if you will. St. John Paul II says in his letter “Pastores Dabo Vobis” that, “The essential content of this pastoral charity is the gift of self, the total gift of self to the Church, following the example of Christ. ‘Pastoral charity is the virtue by which we imitate Christ in his self-giving and service. It is not just what we do, but our gift of self, which manifests Christ’s love for his flock. Pastoral charity determines our way of thinking and acting, our way of relating to people. It makes special demands on us.’”

In order to give ourselves fully, we must possess ourselves fully. This is really the work of the other dimensions of formation. Through the work of the human, intellectual and spiritual dimensions, a candidate for holy orders should learn, above all, who he is. In this knowledge of self he is then able to make the total self-donation that good pastoral work requires.

Further, the endgame of pastoral formation is very similar to human formation (becoming a bridge). Pastoral work should draw people to an encounter with Christ that calls them out of their pain, sin, disappointments, etc., and draws them into the life of the church, the very life of Christ himself. It is there that we see our connectedness as a community, and most importantly that our pain and suffering has its redemption in the cross of Christ, and therefore has a reason. On the other side of the human experience, good pastoral work is also done in the celebration of our joys, the realization and fostering of our hopes, the development of our relationships, etc., when it moves our hearts toward an encounter with Christ in the good things that we experience in life. It is by the very fact that the pastor has self-knowledge and has made a total self-gift that he is able to shepherd people to the love of his life: Jesus Christ.

In a way, the pastoral dimension is the hardest of the dimensions of formation to relate to every Christian, because it is generally specific to men who are in formation to be pastors and shepherds of souls. At the same time, our baptism makes us priests, prophets and kings after the model of Christ’s threefold ministry, and in that respect we are all called to some sort of pastoral work. We all must build up the body of Christ and draw people to Jesus.

I think that ultimately the pastoral work of the Christian is simple, but very hard to fully achieve. It all rests in our ability to know who we are in Christ and, after gaining that self-knowledge, making a total self-gift to the work we are called to do in building up the church. For every person this looks different, and there is immense beauty in that. For the priest, it means entering people’s lives at critical moments such as birth, death, sickness and joy, facing the human condition head-on and in a real way. It means learning to accompany God’s children with the love of the Father and gently drawing them toward their creator. What we need to ask ourselves when thinking about pastoral formation is: Who am I as a Christian, and where is God calling me to give my whole self? What muddy hole is God calling me to jump into to do his work?

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