The Miracle of Priesthood




As it turns out, today (April 17,2016) is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.

Over at Deacon Greg Kandra made vocations the focus of his homily.  He leads off with a quote from a letter that he received from a friend in Philadelphia:

“This morning we received devastating news at Mass. Our beloved Augustinian pastor has been diagnosed with liver cancer that has spread to his lungs. The priest who told us said that he was visiting him yesterday when a cousin came into the hospital room and told him that they are all praying for a miracle. His response was, ‘I have already received a miracle. I am a priest.’”

This is probably the best – and most honest – answer to those who have an objection to a man entering the priesthood.  Ordination is an extraordinary event and being allowed to share in the priesthood of Christ in a special way is, indeed, a miracle.

Deacon Greg speaks with great reverence and love about his own call and ordination as a permanent deacon and talks of it as an on-going source of grace and blessing in his life:

Surveys tell us again and again that clergy and religious report among the greatest job satisfaction in the world.

That’s because it’s not a job. It’s a vocation.

As that priest in Philadelphia knew: it is, in fact, a miracle.

Finally, he suggests ways of introducing young men to the idea of the priesthood.  The best advice he gives is that you should ask God if you (or someone you know) is called.  He points to Pope Francis who advises young people to “Ask Jesus what he wants and be brave!

In an address to seminarians in Rome this week, Pope Francis outlined the appropriate way to respond to God’s call — to be all in and not “half-way” priests.

“We respond to this vocation in the same way as the Virgin Mary does to the angel: “How is this possible?” Becoming “good shepherds” in the image of Jesus “is something very great and we are so small.”

“Yes, it is true, it is too great; but it is not our work! It is the work of the Holy Spirit, with our collaboration,” Francis said in his address to the College, adding spontaneous comments here and there to his prepared speech.

“It is about humbly giving oneself, like clay that is to be moulded, letting God the potter work the clay with fire and water, with the Word and the Holy Spirit.”

It is true that “at the beginning intentions are not completely righteous, and it is hard for them to be so. All of us have had moments when our intentions were not completely righteous but in time this changes with everyday conversion. Think of the apostles! Think of James and John. One of them wanted to be prime minister and the other a minister of the economy because it was a more important role. The apostles’ mind was elsewhere but the Lord patiently corrected their intention and in the end the intention of their preaching and martyrdom was incredibly righteous.”

So, on this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, take a moment to ask God to call those whom he chooses to the priesthood and offer to be the bearer of that message if you can.

Pope Francis on Formation

At a conference sponsored by the Congregation for the Clergy, Pope Francis shared a few thoughts on the formation and role of priests.

One thing that he said struck me as particularly important:

“A good priest is first of all a man with his own humanity, who knows his own history – with its treasures and wounds – and has learned to make peace with it, gaining a profound serenity, characteristic of a disciple of the Lord,” he said. “Human formation is therefore needed for priests, so they may learn not to be dominated by their limits, but rather to put their talents to use.”

The idea of that priests are in need of human formation is important and I think that many people don’t see priests as human.  Each priest is a man who has his own particular set of limitations and talents.  Some are great homilists.  Others are gentle and thorough confessors.  Others have the gift of communicating the Gospel to a wider audience.  Still others toil quietly in administrative jobs behind the scenes.

Whatever their gifts, these men need to take the time to understand themselves and find their place as servants in God’s kingdom.  Pope Francis’ words on human formation emphasize that formation goes well beyond theological training and the practicalities of being a priest and pastor.  The process of formation — in a way that doesn’t seem to exist in secular training — addresses the totality of the person being formed.

Are You Listening?

HomerListenSo, Pope Francis talked about the internet this week in the context of World Communications Day.  Much of the coverage focused on the Pope’s assertion that the internet is a ‘Gift from God‘.  I’m not going to argue that point; I have a hard time imagining a life without an always-on connection.

What really caught my attention, though, was this little nugget near the end of the Message for World Communications Day 2014.

Effective Christian witness is not about bombarding people with religious messages, but about our willingness to be available to others “by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence” (BENEDICT XVI, Message for the 47th World Communications Day, 2013). We need but recall the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus. We have to be able to dialogue with the men and women of today, to understand their expectations, doubts and hopes, and to bring them the Gospel, Jesus Christ himself, God incarnate, who died and rose to free us from sin and death. We are challenged to be people of depth, attentive to what is happening around us and spiritually alert. To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.

DiplomaThis caught me because I’ve trained as a mediator and have a Master’s degree in Negotiation and Conflict Management.  True story.  Also, fun fact: I earned the degree from Cal State Dominguez Hills which means it was signed by the President of the Board of Trustees who is also the Governor of California.  Thus, my degree in Negotiation and Conflict Management was signed by the Terminator.

One of the lessons that they pound into you over and over and over in conflict work is that the key to resolving conflict lies in getting people to listen to one another.  I mean, really listen.  Most of us think that we are good listeners and we’re all pretty much wrong on that point.  Let me give you a little listening test.  Check out these two quotes from Pope Francis.  What do you think he meant?

The ability to compromise is not a diplomatic politeness toward a partner but rather taking into account and respecting your partner’s legitimate interests.

No references to the need to fight terror can be an argument for restricting human rights.

Boy that Pope Francis is pretty direct, isn’t he?  And always consistently on message.  You have to respect that.

Except I lied to you.

Those quotes weren’t from the Pope.  They came from former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. Go ahead and read the quotes again.  I’ll wait.

The ability to compromise is not a diplomatic politeness toward a partner but rather taking into account and respecting your partner’s legitimate interests.

No references to the need to fight terror can be an argument for restricting human rights.

Kinda puts a different spin on them, doesn’t it?  It also raises questions about your skills as a listener.  When you thought the quotes came from Pope Francis, you probably felt warm and fuzzy.  When you learned they came from Putin, you probably wondered what he really meant.

I use this exercise when I lecture on conflict resolution.  It helps to illustrate the truth that most of us are poor listeners.  We aren’t really listening, we’re filtering what someone else says through our preconceptions and expectations.  We’re picking apart what they say with the intent of proving our point by disproving theirs.  Listening means sitting back, being open, and really hearing what the other party is saying.

In western culture we tend to confuse the phrase “I hear what you are saying” with “I’m in complete agreement with you.”  Hearing and understanding a point of view does not mean that you are persuaded by it.  It does mean that you can begin the search for meaningful common ground for dialogue.  Until dialogue beings, we are just shouting at one another over the chasm of misunderstanding.

Pope Francis summed it up better than I can when he said:

To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective.

Now, what does all of this have to with the Paulists?  (After all, this blog should occasionally connect back to the Paulist mission, right?)  One of the key Paulist charisms is the development of interfaith dialogue.  On the Paulist Ecumenism page it’s expressed this way:

The goal of interfaith dialogue is not unity in faith and worship, but mutual understanding and respect, and mutual enrichment enabling us all to respond more fully to God’s call. It includes collaboration wherever possible in response to the societal problems we commonly face. For this reason, the purpose of theological dialogue will not be to prove that one side is right and the other is wrong, but rather to explore respective positions in order to understand them better. When this is done, many prejudices, built on half-truths, will fall by the wayside.

Like all of the faithful, I long for the day when we are not divided.  More to the point, I’m responsible to help bring that about.  From my studies in conflict, the best way forward is to begin by listening to find the places where we can meet and begin our journey together.

With Great Power Comes Great Humility?

180px-ScholasticNarniaA little over a week ago, my friend Mette posted a link on her Facebook page to an article entitled “Finding a Feminist Theology in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia.”  I was sufficiently intrigued — since C.S. Lewis didn’t seem to be an especially feminist writer — to click through.

The article starts out recounting Lewis’s many critics who call him out for fearing and disliking women, disliking sexuality, and equating “ultimate good” with “ultimate masculinity”.  Then it moves on to talk about a new view of Lewis’s work which is presented in Monika Hilder’s book The Feminine Ethos is C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.  So far this all sounds like an academic cat fight, right?  A clutch of post-modern professors and lit crit snobs mixing up it for the sake of entertainment.

Except that (echoing Hilder’s text) the authors suggest that the modern idea of feminism misses the point.

In an age that worships the cult of personality and aggrandizes the “virtues” of the energetic, the magnetic, the stunning, and the forceful – because these traits lead to more materialistic wealth and power – what room left is there for the fruit of the Spirit? Qualities such as self-control, meekness, patience, and peace sound quite out of vogue; “Let’s see how far the meek, patient, and peace-loving female can succeed,” I can hear the cynic ask. Hilder, though, suggests that our struggle for independence, power, and autonomy echo Satan’s thirst for domination more than Christ’s model of humble servanthood.

Take a moment to consider that last line.  When was the last time you heard someone — anyone — praised for being a good and humble servant?  That’s crazy talk, right?

If we are uncomfortable with some of the female characterizations throughout Lewis’s series, perhaps we should reconsider where this discomfort stems from. While we as women are right to strive for gender equality, we are wrong to measure it according to mere chauvinistic ideas of accomplishment. As Hilder states, “to the extent we have not examined our own chauvinism, we demean the ‘feminine’ qualities and extol the ‘masculine’—not noticing that Lewis does the opposite.” And indeed, it is in doing exactly that opposite that Hilder suggests Lewis’s radical theological feminism can be found.

More importantly, Lewis seems to be saying that the servant-minded approach cuts both ways.  Men, as well as women, should strive to live up to that lofty standard.

Lewis’s idea of true spiritual strength— for both men and women— rests in openness to our Father, community, submission, compassion, truth, grace, and humility. So, when Lewis has Lucy run towards Eustace-the-dragon and bestow upon him grace only expressible in a child’s unrestrained kisses, or Lucy and Susan weep with Aslan while he is on the stone table, or, even Mrs. Beaver demonstrate foresight and responsibility for those in her care (or one could even dare say, community mindedness) in bringing along her domestically stigmatized sewing machine, Lewis wasn’t belittling these characters. I can learn that true spiritual strength, or spiritual heroism as Hilder terms it, “establishes the kingdom of heaven through humility,” not independence.

The article goes on to talk about how much of what we perceive to be sexism reflects our own biases more than the objective truth.  That wasn’t what stayed with me after reading the article, though.  I kept coming back to the idea of servanthood being the mark of a successful adult.

I encountered that idea again a few days later when we attended a Mass for the Admission to the Candidacy for the new Deaconate class in Utah.  (A friend from our parish is one of the candidates.)  The second reading was from Matthew.

But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.  Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Oh.  Right.  Jesus mentioned this idea a couple of millennia back.  At the time it was clearly a challenging idea; unusual and non-intuitive enough that he felt a need to address it with his disciples.  You would think that in the past 2,000 years this idea would have caught on.  I’ve read a goodly number of books about leadership and management and I’ve attended lectures and seminars and institutes, but all of them focused on ways to consolidate exploit power.  Sure, there’s been talk of “servant leadership“, but it’s always in the context of “getting the job done”.  The implication is that there is some goal to be achieved or target to be hit and it’s the leader’s responsibility to make sure that happens.  If servant leadership can get you there, great.  If not, find some other tool and keep pressing forward.

In other words, the modern ideal of leadership is the accumulation and application of power.  Whether you’re a man or a woman, your goal should be to reach the top.

Except there’s this one guy who keeps telling a different story.  In case you’ve missed the theme of humility in the homilies, interviews, and public talks Pope Francis has given in the past several months, he kindly included it in Evangelii Gaudium — his first Apostolic Exhortation.

I’m a long way from having read all 244 pages, but I’ve skimmed a bit of it and read some reliable commentaries from trusted sources, and the thing which sticks out is how deeply counter-cultural it is.  In a world which judges us largely on how well we “succeed”, Pope Francis is calling for us to step out of the game.  He’s not telling us to lose the game.  He’s telling us to get out and spend our energy on something better.  He even goes so far as to point out that we are guilty of this kind of thinking within the bounds of our religious practices.

(93) Spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church, consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being. It is what the Lord reprimanded the Pharisees for: “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44).

(94) …those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying.

(271)  It is true that in our dealings with the world, we are told to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns. We are told quite clearly: “do so with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15) and “if possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Rom 12:18). We are also told to overcome “evil with good” (Rom 12:21) and to “work for the good of all” (Gal 6:10). Far from trying to appear better than others, we should “in humility count others better” than ourselves (Phil 2:3). The Lord’s apostles themselves enjoyed “favour with all the people” (Acts 2:47; 4:21, 33; 5:13). Clearly Jesus does not want us to be grandees who look down upon others, but men and women of the people. This is not an idea of the Pope, or one pastoral option among others; they are injunctions contained in the word of God which are so clear, direct and convincing that they need no interpretations which might diminish their power to challenge us. Let us live them sine glossa, without commentaries. By so doing we will know the missionary joy of sharing life with God’s faithful people as we strive to light a fire in the heart of the world.

When he was first elected, we knew there was something different about Pope Francis.  His humility was refreshing and his simplicity endearing.  Now he is asking the same as us; he is inviting us to follow him in humility.  For those of us who grew up in western nations where “success” as a human being is defined by power and wealth, this is tremendously challenging idea.  I wonder how many of us will be willing to follow through?

— Dad

Following Francis’ Lead

Papa_Francisco_na_JMJ_-_24072013 (This photograph was produced by Agência Brasil, a public Brazilian news agency. Used with attribution under a Creative Commons 3.0 License.)A while back, I noted that Cathy and I had been invited to take part in a catechist training course offered by our diocese.   We’re following the Echoes of Faith (Plus) curriculum and each week we prepare by watching a couple of videos and complete homework out of the workbook.  The real meat of the course, though, comes in the discussions we have when we meet with the other students — some from our parish and some from other parishes in the area.

The mix of people in the class is fascinating.  Some ar very young, others have been around the block a few times.  Some are cradle Catholics and others are converts.  There are representatives of various cultures and occupations and world views.  The first couple of meetings felt a bit like Junior High dances — everybody sat on the edges and didn’t seem to want to get too involved.  The last few weeks, though, the conversation has gotten much more energetic.

A couple of weeks back, the topic of discussion turned to our involvement in our various parishes and someone asked Cathy how much Evan’s process of discernment influenced our own involvement in the church.

I’ve thought a lot about that question since then.

First of all, if you’re being honest with yourself, you can’t have a child working through discernment without calling into question your own commitment to the Faith.  The same would be true if you had a good friend discerning a vocation or contemplating marriage or thinking about moving across the country to take up a new career or applying to grad school or whatever.  We live in relationship with others and, while comparing ourselves to others isn’t necessarily a healthy thing, it is useful to learn from their experiences.  So, yes, Evan’s discernment has given us pause to reflect.

There’s another influence, though.  Pope Francis is an inspiring leader.  His humility, patience and authentic Christian love are both comforting and challenging.  Most of all, his admission that he is a sinner as much as any of us, is a provocative statement that requires us to make a self-assessment of our own response to God’s call to personal holiness.

Pope Francis shows disarming honesty when he talks about how he was formed into the leader he has become.  In an article covering the incident with the child who approached him during Mass on October 26th, the author cites an incident from Francis’ past:

This kind of patience is something the pope has said he learned over time, according to his biographers Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti. As the auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio once had a train to catch to a retreat at a convent on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. After finishing his work in the diocese, he had given himself just enough time to walk to the cathedral to pray for a few minutes before getting to the train station. As he left, a young man who appeared to have mental health problems approached him and asked for a confession.

He says he felt annoyed, but tried to hide it. Bishop Bergoglio told him to find a father to confess to because he had to go – even though he knew a father wouldn’t be in right away (admitting to his biographers that because the man appeared to be medicated he probably wouldn’t notice). The auxiliary bishop walked away, but then after a few steps turned around with a “tremendous sense of shame.” He recalled later that he was “playing Tarzan,” trying to do too many things, that he had “an attitude of superiority.”

Today he uses it as a lesson to “travel through patience,” he told the two Argentine journalists. “Traveling with patience is allowing time to rule and shape our lives.”

Most of us would likely forget such a moment — perhaps intentionally. Few of us would take it as an opportunity to learn.  To his credit, Pope Francis is trying to spare us the pain of learning such lessons through unpleasant experience.  One of the constant themes in his homilies is the need for inclusion, for ensuring that everyone has a seat at the table of the Lord.

The Church is not the Church only for good people. Do we want to describe who belongs to the Church, to this feast? The sinners. All of us sinners are invited. At this point there is a community that has diverse gifts: one has the gift of prophecy, another of ministry, who teaching. . . We all have qualities and strengths. But each of us brings to the feast a common gift. Each of us is called to participate fully in the feast. Christian existence cannot be understood without this participation. ‘I go to the feast, but I don’t go beyond the antechamber, because I want to be only with the three or four people that I familiar with. . .’ You can’t do this in the Church! You either participate fully or you remain outside. You can’t pick and choose: the Church is for everyone, beginning with those I’ve already mentioned, the most marginalized. It is everyone’s Church!

And there it is.  Right in the middle of the paragraph.  Each of us is called to participate fully in the feast.

In case any of us missed it, the Pope goes on to say:

To enter into the Church is to become part of a community, the community of the Church. To enter into the Church is to participate in all the virtues, the qualities that the Lord has given us in our service of one for the other. To enter into the Church means to be responsible for those things that the Lord asks of us.

Like I said, challenging.  The natural human reaction when called to serve is, “Gee, I’d like to help, but I don’t have the time.”  If that’s your go-to move for getting out of service, Pope Francis has your number.

Open up your heart and listen to what God is saying to you. Allow your life to “written” by God”. Just as the Good Samaritan did when he stopped to help the stranger, we must all listen to God’s voice and sometimes put our own projects on hold to do his will.

Another common objection is, “I’m not really good at that sort of thing.  You don’t want me to mess it up.”  Um…hate to be the one to tell you, but Pope Francis anticipated that little dodge, too.

“The future of a people is right here…in the elderly and in the children,” he said. “A people who does not take care of the elderly and children has no future because it will have no memory and it will have no promise! The elderly and children are the future of a people!”

Pope Francis warned that it is all too easy to shoo a child away or make them calm down with a candy or a game – or to tune out the elderly and ignore their advice with the excuse that “they’re old, poor people.”

“The disciples wanted efficacy; they wanted the Church to go forward without problems and this can become a temptation for the Church: the Church of functionalism! The well-organized Church! Everything in its place, but without memory and without promise! This Church, in this way, cannot move ahead. It will be the Church of the fight for power; it will be the Church of jealousies between the baptized and many other things that occur when there is no memory and no promise.”

So…God doesn’t want our perfection, he wants our service.

And, by the way, am I the only one who thinks it’s kind of cool that the Pope talked about it being “too easy to shoo a child away” in a homily about a month before he was faced with that very situation during a Mass in St. Peter’s square?  Not that it was prophetic, but that he laid out exactly how he thought it should be handled and then handled it exactly as he had laid it out?  There, again, is the authenticity which makes him so inspiring as a leader and such an example of the lives we are to lead.

So, in our own way, following the lead of Pope Francis and acknowledging the call of our pastor, Cathy and I try to find ways to be open and accepting and to put ourselves in service of others.

— Dad

Love and Joy

This past week, about 6,000 novices and seminarians visited Rome as part of a Vocations Pilgrimage arranged by the Pontifical Council on the New Evangelization.  I’ve enjoyed reading what the Pope has to say to these young people.

In his homily for July 7, he pulled three strands out of the readings and wove them into a compelling picture of ordained religious life.  The whole homily is worth reading, but for the moment I’d like to concentrate on his first point — the need for joy in the Christian life.

From the first reading (Isaiah 66:10-14) Pope Francis talks about the joy of the consolation of the Lord.

Every Christian, especially you and I, is called to be a bearer of this message of hope that gives serenity and joy: God’s consolation, his tenderness towards all. But if we first experience the joy of being consoled by him, of being loved by him, then we can bring that joy to others. This is important if our mission is to be fruitful: to feel God’s consolation and to pass it on to others!

I think this joy is something that is too often lacking in the lives of Christians.  We shuffle across the Earth with long faces and sour expressions and its little wonder that no one wants to join us.  Somewhere along the line we’ve forgotten the essential nature of God.

God is love.

Stop and re-read that sentence.  It’s become a sort of Christian meme that we toss around carelessly without really contemplating what it means.  If you really consider it, the implications become awesome and a little frightening.

In his review of the film of the musical Les Miserables, Fr. Robert Barron says:

[Speaking of the Bishop’s gift of silver candlesticks.] In this simple and deeply affecting episode, one of the most fundamental principles of the spiritual life is displayed. God is love. God is nothing but gracious self-gift. And what God wants, first and last, is that his human creatures participate in the love that he is, thereby becoming conduits of the divine grace to the world. What Jean Valjean received through the bishop was precisely this divine life and the mission that accompanies and flows from it. If the bishop’s gesture had been, in any sense, self-interested, it would not have conveyed God’s manner of being. But in its utter gratuity, it became a sacrament and instrument of uncreated grace.

Earlier this year, our parish hosted a weekly class built around Fr. Barron’s Seven Deadly Sins/Seven Lively Virtues study course.  That hardly sounds like the sort of topic that would lend itself to a discussion of God’s love.  Dialogue about sin inevitably conjures visions of punishment.  Yet, Fr. Barron constantly drew out the fact that we owe our very existence to God’s love.  He used the phrase “continually loved into being” over-and-over.

If we believed that — really believed that — it would change the way we act; it would change who we are.

I think Pope Francis believes that as well, in an earlier address to the seminarians in Rome, he said that there is “no holiness in sadness“.

Pope Francis took seminarians and novices to task for being “too serious, too sad”. “Something’s not right here,” Francis told them pointing out that `’There is no sadness in holiness,” and adding that such clergy lack “the joy of the Lord.”

“To become a priest or a religious is not primarily our choice; it is our answer to a calling, a calling of love”.

“If you find a seminarian, priest, nun, with a long, sad face, if it seems as if in their life someone threw a wet blanket over them,” then one should conclude “it’s a psychiatric problem, they can leave – `buenos dias’”.

He’s right.  How can we not have joy and confidence when we know God loves us?


That’s Funny Right There!

I’m a big fan of humor.  Big fan.  Sure I love a good drama, but I’ll go out of my way for a mediocre comedy.  When it comes to Shakespeare, give me Much Ado About Nothing over Henry V any day.  (Which in no way implies that Much Ado is mediocre…just making the point that my preferences run to the funny.)

Which is why I was struck by a comment Pope Francis made in his homily on July 1.

He was preaching about the need for tenacity in prayer; the need to bring our petitions to God over and over; the need to negotiate with God.  He cited the example of Abraham asking God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

When we speak of courage we always think of apostolic courage – going out to preach the Gospel, these sort of things…But there’s also (the kind of) courage (demonstrated) before the Lord. That sense of paralysis before the Lord: going courageous before the Lord to request things. It makes you laugh a bit; this is funny because Abraham speaks with the Lord in a special way, with this courage, and one doesn’t know: is this a man who prays or is this a‘phoenician deal’ because he’s bartering the price, down, down…And he’s tenacious: from fifty he’s succeeded in lowering the price down to ten. He knew that it wasn’t possible. Only that it was right…. But with that courage, with that tenacity, he went ahead.

There.  Do you see it?  Right in the middle of the paragraph Pope Francis acknowledges the humor of the situation.

It makes you laugh a bit.

As a lector, I love being able to proclaim the reading from Genesis 18:16-33.  Abraham’s character is so vivid and outright funny.  God tells him that Sodom is toast.  Most of us would probably nod and say, “Well, they deserve it.”

Abraham doesn’t.  He starts to negotiate with God.  He starts the bargaining by asking if God really intends to sweep away the righteous with the wicked.  Then he asks

Suppose there were fifty righteous people in the city; would you really sweep away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it?

God agrees to Abraham’s terms and Abraham — good negotiator that he is — presses further.  With a hilariously formal humility —

See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am only dust and ashes!

— he drives the bargain to 45 and then 40 and then 30 and then 20 and finally 10.  The whole story has a sort of haggling-in-the-marketplace vibe that makes me chuckle every time.

Yet, as Pope Francis points out, negotiating with God is a perfectly acceptable form of prayer.

Sometimes, the Pope said, one goes to the Lord “to ask something for someone;” one asks for a favor and then goes away. “But that,” he warned, “is not prayer,” because if “you want the Lord to bestow a grace, you have to go with courage and do what Abraham did, with that sort of tenacity.” The Pope recalled that Jesus himself tells us that we must pray as the widow with the judge, like the man who goes in the middle of the night to knock on his friend’s door. With tenacity.

In fact, he observed, Jesus himself praised the woman who tenaciously begged for the healing of her daughter. Tenacity, said the Pope, even though it’s tiring, is really “tiresome.” But this, he added, “is the attitude of prayer.” Saint Teresa, he recalled, “speaks of prayer as negotiating with the Lord” and this “is possible only when there’s familiarity with the Lord.” It is tiring, it’s true, he repeated, but “this is prayer, this is receiving a grace from God.” The Pope stressed here the same sort of reasoning that Abraham uses in his prayer: “take up the arguments, the motivations of Jesus’ own heart.”

Like all good humor, the story of Abraham’s negotiation is funny because it is true.  And it tells us something about ourselves and our world.