There are two activities in my priesthood that I find so rewarding. Rewarding in the sense that it gives me a sense of fulfillment while actually doing so little. Never anywhere else in the life and work of a priest is the law of proportionate returns so flagrantly repudiated. The result of such actions when done properly is so tremendous compared to the work expended. If the priest is indeed “a pencil in God’s hand,” a mere instrument and channel of God’s grace, it is in these activities that one can see volumes done, a masterpiece created, a best seller hitting the charts . . . with just a little pencil lead.
Permit me to tell you these activities in the concrete.
First, there was this stooped man who came to me one day. His face complements his stature, burdened by so many cares and so many guilt in life. He wanted to talk to me immediately and so we sat down in a little corner in the convent. There were no preliminaries in this meeting, no introduction, no usual niceties. When we sat down a torrent of regret, shame, guilt, in a volley of words accompanied with copious tears just flowed out of his heart. I could not stop him. I did not dare stop it even though I could not fully understand what he was saying nor make a logical assumption of what happened to him. All I knew was here is a man so burdened with guilt, here is a man who need to be listened to, here is a man who needs assurance, and that is what I exactly did. There was no advice said (how could I, without understanding anything) except for a few “ahas, ummmmho, yes” in between breaths, and I ending it with assurance of God’s love and care for all of us. He dried his tears, touched my hand, and with a grip as my response to assure him once more, he walked away this time with lighter strides.
Two weeks later he came back, thanked me profusely for what I thought was nothing. He kept coming back from that time on and after awhile I came to know that he has volunteered himself as a minister of communion. From a managerial perspective nothing was really done to win this man, no real skill involved, no persuasive words said. I just listened and Spirit did the rest. And what was it that the Spirit did? He comforted His child.
Another experience came during the anointing of the sick in the barangays. It was a hot afternoon and I was sweating profusely after attending to so many sick and old persons in their homes in that particular barangay. Then we came upon a little shanty, decrepit and about to fall. We knocked but nobody answered. We knocked again and probably because of the banging the door opened by itself. We peeked in and we saw an old woman in the little corner of the house (the house was so little it was all “corners”), on her bed, covered with a blanket that looked like torn rags pieced together. She was alone not just for that day but for most of her days as I later came to know. The smell was terrible too. She could not walk and her bed served as bed, a comfort room and dining table (if you can call what she ate, dining). Her only companion was an old radio which ran out batteries that afternoon. There was deep loneliness in her eyes, and she was so happy we were there she feebly struggled to sit up.
Sensing the need for a little companionship I got a chair intending to entertain her for a little while. Then I asked what would be my first and only question, “kamusta ka na lola?” That was it, and that started her monologue where she narrated her story, which for good or ill, started just before world war two, ending to where she was right then . . . in bed. My companions became a bit uneasy, for there were others waiting for us. But I sat still and listened. Nothing was really “done” in the true sense of the word. But I believe then that my act of listening was still part of the sacrament of anointing, in fact (which I confirmed later in my studies) it is an essential part of this sacrament. I never healed that woman (she died), neither did I gave her medicines. But the sacrament gave her the opportunity to be listened to once more, and being listened to in that time of great need brought her more than healing. Being listened to, comforted her and this is precisely the meaning of the sacrament. It was such a little act to take notice of, but the sacrament is effected and grace was given. The Holy Spirit becomes the paraclete – the comforter, the consoler, the companion through his minister. We may have done so little that afternoon but we left somebody with a smile on her face.
“Comfort my people . . .”
When Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to his disciples he called him the paraclete. Paraclete literally means “he who is called to one’s side,” the ad-vocatus. It is commonly translated as consoler or comforter.
Through the sacraments of initiation we received new life in Christ, we become adopted sons and daughters of the Father by the Holy Spirit. We were transformed and we have become a new creation. But we know however not just from scriptures but from experience that we remain not angels but humans subject to crisis and pain. Though we are brothers and sisters by adoption we know that our relationship, human as it is, remains flawed. Conflicts, misunderstanding, jealousies and envy continue to erode this new kind of relationship established by Christ.
Though we have been transformed, we know from experience that evil continues to hound and tempt us, and from time to time we fall. Though we are a new creation we continue to experience sickness, pain, disease and hopelessness. We are after all, according to St. Paul, “earthen vessels,” pilgrims living in an earthly tent subject to suffering, illness and death (CCC 1420). The new life we share in Christ then continues to be weakened and even lost by sin.
Jesus Christ who healed the sick and forgave sinners, willed that the church continue his healing and saving mission, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus we have to this day the sacraments of healing: the sacrament of penance and the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
These actions of the Holy Spirit in the Church is the action of the paraclete – to console and comfort. They are in a sense an act of consolation made by God to comfort us in our human condition. We remain imperfect, we remain subject to sin and death but we are consoled by the presence of the Spirit in our lives, most especially in these sacraments, with his forgiving and healing love. In sin we are consoled to know that we are given second chances in life, that life is a continuous struggle for conversion and perfection. In the midst of evil we are consoled to know and experience that God continues to extend his mercy and love even to us dire sinners. In an experience of broken relationships and misunderstanding we are consoled to know that we can begin anew and become one again. In the experience of an incurable disease we are consoled by the presence of the Spirit in our lives, that we are not alone, that God is with us. In the midst of pain we are consoled that God will never abandon us and he is suffering with us.
Yes, broken relationships may take time to heal, the feeling of guilt may take more than confession, and physical healing may not come necessarily with anointing, but we are comforted, we were listened to, we were touched and we were assured by the words “you are forgiven,” and “you are loved.”
In my own experience of sinfulness and disease nothing counts more than this assurance. I was never healed physically and everyday of my life I continue to struggle against evil. But the comfort that comes from the assurance of God’s love brought about by the Holy Spirit in these sacraments, is more than enough for me.