Jerry Ryan joined the Little Brothers of Jesus in 1959. He lived and worked with them for more than two decades in Europe and South America. He and his family now live in Massachusetts.
By this author
Hervé Janson, the superior general of the Little Brother of Jesus, is the only non-priest who is participating in the Synod on the Family with voice and vote, having been elected to represent the Union of Superior Generals. The following is a translation of his intervention at the synod.
First of all, I would like to clarify the uniqueness of my situation among you, bishops from all over the earth, since I am a simple brother, the moderator of a religious congregation which is international, to be sure, but very modest, with less than two hundred brothers: the Little Brothers of Jesus, inspired by the example of Blessed Charles de Foucauld.
My brothers of the Union of Superior Generals told me that they voted for me because, by our vocation, in the imitation of Jesus of Nazareth, we live among the people in their neighborhoods, shoulder to shoulder with very simple families who often struggle as best they can to live and bring up their children. We are witnesses of so many families who, for me, are models of holiness; they are the ones who will receive us into the kingdom! And sometimes, I suffer from what our mother the church imposes on their backs, burdens which we ourselves would not be able to support, as Jesus said to the Pharisees! For there are many women and men who suffer from being rejected by their pastors. Through a very special grace which dumbfounds me but for which I should thank you, I find myself the only brother who is a full-fledged member of this synod of bishops which is reflecting on the situations and mission of families. Astonishment and trembling, all the more so in so far as the status of the sisters is different, the same as that of the families. But we cannot ignore the fact that families make up the immense majority of the People of God that we are. But what value do we give to our reflection upon them?
There is an Oriental proverb that says: “Before you judge anyone, put on his sandals!” The paradox of this affair: we are all celibates, for the most part. But can we at least listen to people, listen to their sufferings, their propositions, their thirst for recognition and proximity?
I am thinking of these African Christian women I knew when I lived in Cameroon, spouses of a polygamous Muslim husband: they felt excluded from the church, unaccompanied, very much alone.
Outside of Bolivia, I don’t think many people knew of Luis Espinal before Pope Francis, during his recent visit to that country, stopped to pray at the site where Espinal’s body, riddled with bullets and showing signs of torture, was found in a landfill. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, gave the pope a replica of a wooden crucifix that Luis had sculpted; it portrays Christ nailed to a hammer and sickle.
A while back I was asked to write about “what the person of Jesus meant to me.” I took this as a request to describe my personal relationship to Jesus. To my humiliation—and perhaps to my enlightenment—I realized that I didn’t have a clue about how to answer this. Did I even have such a relationship? In faith, I believe that Jesus has a relationship to me—but is this reciprocal? And to what point? In the ordinary course of my days, my chief preoccupation is not to put on the mind of Christ, to refer everything to him as to one constantly accompanying me.
I could see it coming. For many years I had worked at demanding and dangerous jobs as a Little Brother of Jesus: more than a decade in foundry work, a few years of lumberjacking, a stint in a brick factory. This was partly by choice. I wanted to take the last place, as Jesus did, to do the jobs nobody wanted to do in solidarity with the oppressed. But most of the time that was my only option anyway since I was living abroad and could get a work permit only for the jobs the “natives” didn’t want. When I returned to the United States I was already in my forties.
The only physical experience I’ve ever had of the “supernatural” occurred during Dorothy Day’s funeral Mass. When the gospel reading began, I saw sparks coming from Dorothy’s coffin. My first thought was that there was a short circuit somewhere, but no one seemed concerned. Once the gospel reading was over, the sparks stopped. I dared not mention it to anyone at the time, and no one commented on it. It took me years to muster up the courage to ask my friend Patrick Jordan if he had noticed anything unusual at the funeral. He hadn’t.
Daniel Bourguet is a French Lutheran pastor who lives as a hermit in Provence. Like Thomas Merton, Bourguet’s a hermit who writes, preaches retreats, receives people.
As far as I know, his works have not been translated into English. They should be. There is a rare purity, simplicity, and depth in what he writes, which somehow remind me of Péguy at his best. Like Péguy, Bourguet is not afraid of “anthropormorphizing” God. We are, after all, created in God’s image and likeness and our sentiments towards Him mirror His sentiments toward us. (One of the best sermons I’ve ever heard began with a rhetorical question: “Why should we pray to God?” The preacher’s answer was perfectly simple: “God likes us to pray to Him.” And that was that. Why complicate things further?)
One of Bourguet’s recent books is titled Le Pudeur de Dieu. “Pudeur” is a word almost impossible to translate into English. It hints at discretion, timidity, delicateness. And there is delicateness, as well as depth, in Bourguet’s way of reading Scripture. What he finds in familiar episodes of the gospels is often disconcertingly beautiful.
On Saturday mornings, Charles Journet, (more commonly known simply as Abbé Journet) would take the train from Fribourg to Geneva to teach a course on church history. He would usually stay overnight in Geneva and celebrate the 11 a.m. Mass at Sacred Heart Church—until the local bishop put a stop to that. Although some people came from far away to listen to Journet’s hour-long sermons, the locals of the parish found that his Masses were much too long and complained about it.
A few years ago I visited a wonderful little museum of Russian icons in Clinton, Massachusetts. One detail that caught my eye and intrigued me was a depiction of Pontius Pilate with a halo! This came back to me recently when I ran across a reference to Pilate as an accidental prophet. With his “Ecce Homo,” he presented a mocked king, crowned with thorns, covered with welts and spittle, to a crowd clamoring for his crucifixion.
Thomas Merton’s epilogue to The Sign of Jonas is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and profound texts he has ever written:
The voice of God is heard in Paradise: “What was vile has become precious. What is now precious was never vile. I have always known the vile as precious: for what is vile I know not at all. What was cruel has become merciful. What is now merciful was never cruel. I have always overshadowed Jonas with my mercy and cruelty I know not at all. Have you had sight of Me, Jonas, My child? Mercy within mercy within mercy. I have forgiven the universe without end, because I have never known sin. What was poor has become infinite. What is infinite was never poor. I have always known poverty as infinite: riches I love not at all. Prisons within prisons within prisons. Do not lay up for yourselves ecstasies upon earth, where time and space corrupt, where the minutes break in and steal. No more lay hold on time, Jonas, My son, lest the rivers bear you away. What was fragile has become powerful. I loved what was most frail. I looked upon what was nothing. I touched what was without substance and within what was not I AM."
Jonas, the reluctant prophet with whom Merton identifies himself, is an image of death and resurrection. The text eloquently describes the radical intensity of both terms. What is dead is truly dead; what is alive is truly alive.
In Fellini’s 1972 film Roma, the pope appears as a kind of giant head bathed in splendor, emitting rays of glory intimidating some, inspiring hope and adoration in others. His mere presence overwhelms everything; he speaks not a word. Satire? Perhaps, but not too far off the mark. At the height of the ultramontanist fervor in the nineteenth century, the Roman Jesuit review Civilita Cattolica calmly affirmed that “when the pope meditates, God is thinking in him.” Certain bishops and theologians seemed to view the “Vicar of Christ” as a prolongation of the Incarnation. A popular devotional booklet, attributed to Don Bosco and bearing an imprimatur, tells us that “the Pope is God on earth. Jesus placed the Pope above the prophets, above the Precursor, above the angels. Jesus put the Pope on the same level with God.” Practically speaking, the adage “no salvation outside of the church” became “no salvation outside of submission to the Vicar of Christ.” Closer to the present, a friend of mine who served in the papal household of Paul VI told me that when the pope was passing by he was preceded by a bell-ringer warning those present to lower their eyes and not dare gaze on the Sovereign Pontiff.
Vestiges of this mentality still exist in certain circles. This is why the resignation of Benedict XVI and the rapid election of Pope Francis came as a shock to many. There were, however, previous signs of a change of perspective in the church’s self-image. The most striking was, in my opinion, the very underappreciated penitential ceremony celebrated by John Paul II at St. Peters on the first Sunday of Lent 2000. The official missalette of the papal Mass and penitential act had, on its first page, a reproduction of one of the panels of the Holy Doors of St. Peters: “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” The look of Jesus in this image is stern and sad; a tear falls from one of his eyes. It is a look of disappointment, of reproach, of one determined to go it alone even if abandoned. Peter is shattered, ashamed, humiliated, disgusted with himself. He can’t believe what he has done. Nor can the maidservant in the background, who perhaps represents humanity and who simply cannot make sense of it all. She appears puzzled and sad. In the ceremony itself, it is no longer question of acknowledging the “faults of certain sons and daughters of the church” but a recognition that, if the church is a communion of saints, it is also a community of sinners: “a solidarity in sin also exists among all the members of the people of God—the bearers of the Petrine ministry, bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful.” The first-named among sinners are the “bearers of the Petrine ministry.” This, in itself, represents a total reversal of perspective.
It is also much more attuned to the Gospel narratives. On the shores of Lake Tiberias, Jesus offers to Simon, son of Jonas, the possibility of reaffirming his love and his desire to follow his Master. He is not addressed as Peter, solid as a rock, nor is he rehabilitated as such. It is only by his tears and repentance that Peter found mercy. The risen Christ does not confer upon him a power of authority but rather the vocation of a shepherd called to guide his flock on the way of truth.
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