“…weaknesses my special boast” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

There’s a struggle going on in me, the tiredness that comes with the end of the year, the tiredness I see in teachers and pupils as they come to the conclusion of their academic year. A tiredness and an excited anticipation of endings and freedom.

I’m a bit unsteady in myself when I enter the church for the first Sunday morning Mass. I have the pleasure of my sister’s company this weekend, but in normal times the first word I speak in the day is spoken when I come for Mass which is preceded by three hours of silence. Silent breakfast, silent prayer, silent preparation. I love that silence and I love the first word that is spoken in the day. The connection with the people of the parish.

This particular Sunday morning a young Mum places her new-born baby in my arms. The effect on me is instant. Holding this child close to my chest, all unsteadiness is steadied, all turbulence calmed by a peace that takes me out of myself. This tiny little life has that effect. It is the strength of the weak, the resolution of struggle.

We struggle with something serious, pray and beg for it to be taken away. But it remains. Year in and year out, for years and years. A thorn in the flesh, as St. Paul calls it.

The thorn can be the sin that clings tenaciously in spite of our best efforts to get rid of it. It is the illness that refuses to be cured. An addiction. The diminishment of the ageing body, the deteriorating mind. Any kind of weakness that cries out for strength.

And the answer that comes from God to Paul, to you and me is, “My grace  is enough: my power is at its best in weakness.”

I love this reading and I dislike it intensely, dislike being weak, sometimes shamefully weak as I am and have been my whole life long. But weakness has been a teacher and when I have reached the awful, frightful  depths of myself, I have many times discovered the strength of God, the grace of God breaking through.

The Ego clings to itself, to its own strength and does not want to yield to another. It is the centre of its own attention,  its vanity and its pride. Ego is my current  struggle, my ego-centricity. A formidable foe whose apparent strength is actually terribly weak.

What is offered to us by God in Christ is the wisdom of allowing God to be the centre of our attention,  His strength to be the centre of our weakness.

As St. Vincent Pallotti might say, “not the Ego but God; not the self but God; not weakness but God; not strength but God; God always and in everything.”

One of the strongest people to have walked the earth in my lifetime is Pope St. John Paul II and he has had a significant effect on me. Not his teaching so much as the man himself. The man of God.

I met him close up three times. Shook his hand. The first time he was still fairly strong, formidable. His eyes challenging and seeming to say that I was not what I should be and needed to be a better priest, which was true then and remains true now. He was tough on priests. Demanding the highest of standards.

The second time I was part of a small group concelebrating Mass in his private chapel. He was physically more frail, using a walking stick. Two things struck me about him that morning. First, when he held up the Body of Christ and said in Italian, “Behold the Lamb of God…”, there was utter conviction in his eyes, an intimate connection between him and the broken risen body of Christ.

The second thing that morning was the air of happiness about him. There was a glint in his eyes as he walked along the line of visitors to greet each one of us. When I told him we were Pallottines from Ireland, he immediately referred to St. Vincent Pallotti and, on his way back he paused across from us, smiled and said, “the Irish!”

The last time came just about six months before he died when about 100 of us from the Pallottine General Assembly had an audience with him. This time he was in a wheelchair.

We were told that he would say a few words to the group and give us a general blessing. Here he was exposed in all his human frailty, unable even to wipe away the saliva that came from the side of his mouth. The cardinal at his side wiped it for him.

But at the end of his talk, he decided that he would bless each of us individually. This was an incredible moment. To walk up to him, take his hand, kneel and be blessed by him! And to feel in him, emanating from him, a strength beyond human; the strength and grace of God shining through him. A strength far greater than that which he displayed in his younger days.

He became the embodiment of what St. Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 12. It’s as if Pope St. John Paul grew from strength into weakness and in weakness became strong with the strength of God.

“So I shall be very happy to make my weaknesses my special boast so that the power of Christ may stay over me. For it is when I am weak that I am strong.”

Hard for us to be content with weakness of any kind, to see that when we are weak God becomes strong within us and we become strong in God.

It’s easier for me to look at the broken lives of others and recognize in them the presence of God, the unpretentious, raw beauty that emanates from them. Not as easy to recognize the same truth in myself in a way that does not become egotistical. But recognize it I must if I am to be faithful to the Gospel of Christ who entered this world in the weakness of a vulnerable baby, whose mortal end came in the shameful frailty of death. Christ in whom all shame is made radiant, the craving of every addiction fulfilled and all things are turned to good with those who love Him.  

I sought the Lord and he answered me; from all my terrors he set me free. 

Look towards him and be radiant; let your faces not be abashed. (Psalm 34)


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