So I have a bit of a public confession to make. I never learned how to snap my fingers until sophomore year of high school. I was in the choir at the seminary, but I’ve never actually learned how to read music, much less play an instrument. I can be bullheaded when there’s something I passionately believe in, but at the same time, I can be a coward. I’m impatient, quick to anger and frustration, indecisive, and weak of will. But when I look out from the pulpit today and see all of you, my spiritual children, or when I stand at the altar, holding the Body and Blood of Christ in my hands, I can’t help but feel gratitude for my priesthood. That gratitude isn’t because I deserve what I’ve been given, but because I know I don’t deserve it.
In second reading, we hear the words of St. Paul reflecting on a pretty similar idea. One thing you have to realize about St. Paul was that he wasn’t perfect, nor were any of the saints that we have statues of here in our church. (St. Peter turned his back on Jesus, St. Ann might have slapped the Blessed Virgin Mary for acting like children usually do – the BVM!!! – and St. Wendelin…well…) But all of them were human beings. They had to face problems, hardship, suffering, and temptation, just as we do! They didn’t live carefree lives, but it was their very challenges and failings that God used to make them saints. St. Paul in the reading is reflecting on all the incredible mystical experiences he’s had of God’s grace, but at the same time, he’s talking about a thorn in his flesh!
So what was this thorn? Nobody knows, but it could have been some kind of physical ailment like a bad back or sore feet from walking all over the Mediterranean world. It could have been some sin or temptation like lust or greed. It could have been the discouragement that he felt by being rejected over and over and over again. It could have been his fiery temper that always seemed to get him thrown into this jail or that one. Whatever it was, it was something that was pretty irritating to St. Paul. He was always aware of it. But rather than saying, “No, I’m not worthy to be a disciple of Christ,” it was through that weakness, through that thorn, that he became stronger. We might wonder, “Well, if God loved him so much, why didn’t he take that pain away?” Well, the weakness reminded him that he wasn’t strong enough to find salvation or to do the work of God on his own. But it let him to say, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”
So when you and I have those weaknesses, or those favorite sins that we seem to struggle with every day – that thorn in our flesh, maybe – it isn’t God’s anger or displeasure. It’s not a punishment. It’s not because we’re not good enough or worthy enough to be saints. In a way, God permits it out of love for us. It’s a sign that God is teaching us true wisdom and humility, like he did with St. Paul.
Here’s another example: look at our parish Youth Group, who will be leaving to go to Cincinnati for the week. We’re a bunch of rowdy teenagers or tired old adults! We’re loud and out of control at times, which is why I’m so looking forward to the 6 hour drive there. We’re untrained in the things they want us to do. We’re sinful and weak people, and yet, the things that we are going to accomplish by the end of the week are amazing: helping the poor, caring for those in need, and helping others to see Christ through us. Is it because we’re good at it that those things will happen? Probably not. Is it because we’re expert disciples that they will happen? Absolutely not. But we can see in the end result and the graces that will come to those that we help that there is something else at work in us than just us.
In a way, we should be proud of our weaknesses. Not because they’re good for us – sin is a cancer on the soul. And we shouldn’t revel in our weakness and sinfulness out of some misguided social or religious idea that it’s our sins that bind us together. Rather, it’s what happens despite our sins and weaknesses that makes us who we are. Our weaknesses are useful because they constantly remind us that we depend on God for his mercy.
Sometimes people joke about why they haven’t been to confession in so long. They’ll say, “Oh Father, we’d be in there for 4 hours!” I just don’t get it. So we’ll be in there for 4 hours – what the heck do you think it’s there for??? That is precisely the whole point of why we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If it were just for those who were perfect, why would they need it? While I can’t reveal what people say in confession under pain of excommunication, I will tell you that although I’ve experienced a lot of things I didn’t expect as a seminarian, (so much so that there’s nothing anybody tells me that I’ve never heard before) I have never experienced someone perfect coming into the confessional. It’s scary because of our fear of inadequacy or weakness, but it’s our opportunity to depend on God alone. Whatever that thorn is in your side, it is when you are weak, and vulnerable, and painfully open to expressing that weakness, that you are strong. And it’s only through an encounter with God’s mercy and loving grace that we find that strength. When we acknowledge that weakness, and our dependence on God, we can say together with St. Paul, “I am content with my weakness for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak, then I am strong.”