I bet that most people who are about to get ordained feel the way I am feeling right now: both very excited and somewhat unworthy.
This unworthiness isn’t the false humility of people who think that they are being elevated to a higher status than others and are afraid of falling from that height. That’s not humility at all, but rather pride and vanity. There is no higher status in the kingdom of God; and the only desirable status is that of servant.
On the contrary, the sense of unworthiness comes from an awareness that we are being called to help nourish people’s relationship with the sacred, and that is an extremely delicate and at times intangible matter, a charge one doesn’t want to carry out poorly. And we are called to be models by a God who has high standards.
The good news is that we have a wonderful boss who frequently demonstrates forgiveness and gives all manners of assistance. I feel very confident that the help is there, even when I don’t feel actual confidence in a given moment.
The other goodness I have been reflecting upon for the last few days is the many people who have formed me as a priest. Foremost among these is my father, Anthony Schenone, who died in 1997. First, he modeled the Christian life more than any people I know. He modeled patience, love, forgiveness, humility, simplicity, and peacemaking on a daily basis in all of his relationships.
In my upbringing, my father was the theologian, and my mother was the ethicist. If you wanted to know what to do, ask Mom. But I had nagging questions about God, heaven, Jesus, the Church, war, poverty, racism, salvation, people of other religions, and I peppered my father with them. Fortunately for me, my father attended a Catholic high school and university, and he had studied a fair amount of theology. He treated my questions seriously, and he valued my childlike opinion.
But I am also thinking of other people who formed me, and for an entirely different reason. There are so many people that I deeply care about, but I have not used my life and ministry to help them much. I love them, I think about them, I pray for them, I mourn for them, but I don’t speak up for them very often.
I was deeply touched by a recent blog posting on the nytimes.com site. In it, a gay man wrote about a powerful experience he and his partner had on a night out in Columbus, Ohio. They were holding hands in an outdoors line for a popular pizza slice vendor when another man in line started yelling anti-homosexual epithets at them and ordered them to get out of line, leave town, etc. The other patrons in line shouted down the homophobic person, and the pizza vendor told the one spewing hate speech that he would not be served.
The writer said it was so heartening to know that straight people cherished him and his partner and defended them. It was heartening. But then I thought, do I do this enough? I have heard many stories from neighbors, coworkers, fellow worshippers, and fellow students who are gay, lesbian, and transgender about horrible things that Christians have done and said to them to dehumanize, injure, and kill them. They’ve been thrown out of churches, denied jobs, humiliated, beaten up, and worse.
I remember in particular a coworker who asked me, “Why do Christians hate us?” I assured him that I did not hate him. I assured him that most of the straight Christians I know do not hate people of other gender expressions. But then I realized, how could he possibly know that if I had never made it obvious to him? If the majority of straight Christian voices speaking out about various gender expressions are the hateful ones, how can people possibly know that many (I think most) straight Christians feel the same love and regard for LGBTQ people as for heterosexual people? It’s something straight Christians need to say and demonstrate, first for the sake and well-being of our beloved friends, fellow Church members, coworkers, neighbors, and also for the sake of Christ. Hatred, especially that which is purportedly in the name of Christ, hurts the Church. Hours away from my ordination, I feel heavyhearted that I have not been a more obvious advocate for those who have suffered. I will try to fix this.
Similarly, I hope to be a better advocate for those who are marginalized by racial discrimination and poverty, which often, but not always, go hand in hand. Some of my Franciscan ministry has been focused on being with the homeless and the hungry, and every one of those encounters has been as formational as the dinner time conversations with my dad and theology seminars at Yale. But as I approach ordination, I am aware that I have rarely used my voice in its various expressions to advocate for those who are marginalized. It is one thing to sympathize and be with others; it is another to advocate. I will try to fix this, to elevate the experiences of those on the margins to those who are not aware or do not yet know how to help.
And finally, most deeply, and most painfully, I am aware of another population whose voice is rarely heard, one whose plight is rarely noticed simply because it is so common: women who are victims of violence and enforced poverty. I was deeply touched by a brief autobiography written by the theologian Elizabeth Johnson, who writes that she keeps statistics about the desperate state of women in the world taped to her computer monitor. There’s a reason she does this: women are far more likely to be the victims of gun violence, rape, other assaults, and harmful discrimination than men. Women (usually girlfriends and wives) are shot to death and assaulted so often in this country that it fails to make the news. The woman, if mentioned, is referred to as the “girlfriend” of the famous football player who shot her, and we barely register her name.
We mourn the shooting deaths of children, both in mass shootings and in individual shootings across the country, for these deaths are tragic and shocking. We demand that something change in our society that children are better protected. The other tragic fact is that women die in far greater numbers. But we don’t seem to be that shocked about it.
And women are terrorized in other ways, as the recent story of the gang rape and murder of a young Delhi woman demonstrated so painfully. And so, in even greater numbers, are the news stories of the systematic rape and mutilation of over a half million women in Congo, a plight that doctors in the region are trying to get elevated to the UN’s attention so that they will do something.
And they are humiliated in other ways, as the Church of England’s recent vote against allowing women to be bishops demonstrates. This injustice may seem a far cry from the systematic rape in the Congo. Is the Church’s glass ceiling for a few privileged women in the UK really so bad, one might ask? But to me, all of these occurrences are tied together by the thin, diaphanous threads of sexism that so often seem invisible until held up against something very dark. Then we see those threads very clearly. I don’t talk about this, write about it, or preach about it much because it is painful for everyone to hear. It is painful to think about.
It may even seem shocking or profane to some to be reflecting upon this before an ordination. I apologize if that is the case. But to me, it would be shocking and profane not to bring this to church, which to me is the only source of help, hope, encouragement, and training in defeating evil. Like Elizabeth Johnson, I hope to keep the “statistics” ever in my sight as I perform whatever job God has given me at the moment as priest, pastor and teacher.
I regret that the gifts God has given me have not been used more frequently to advocate for those who need the Church on their side, and I vow to change that.
When I get ordained tonight, I sense that my father’s spirit will be with me. I also sense that the people whose suffering the Church hopes to relieve will also be there, reminding me what we all are supposed to be doing for them. I sense that Francis and Clare will be there. They all will be there in the Spirit whose presence will be made manifest in a beautiful service that is not meant to obscure the darkness of the world, but rather to illuminate it.
Bring it on.