By Pres. Kerry Pappas
Two recent and significant events in my life have taught me through experience something I have increasingly grown to understand intellectually over the last several years. The events are: Holy Week and hip replacement surgery. In my work on marriage, I use the icon of Christ the Bridegroom as the image of “the perfect spouse.” My husband has often said of this icon, “It is Christ’s wedding picture.” In marriage retreats, I ask participants to ponder this icon for several minutes and then share the characteristics of a “perfect spouse,” depicted in it. Words such as unconditional love, sacrifice, suffering, and humility are common responses. Less common but just as significant in this icon is — vulnerability.
As clergy wives and couples, we are sometimes discouraged from showing our own vulnerability to parishioners. I often hear clergy wives advising other clergy wives to: “Fake it till you make it”; “Always have a smile on your face no matter how you are feeling inside”; “Don’t expose your weaknesses to parishioners”; “Don’t get close to anyone in the parish.” At one point in ministry, when my husband made a mistake for which he made a public apology to the parish, a fellow member of the clergy advised him, “Priests never ask forgiveness of their parishioners.”
Jesus, “The Model” for everything we do in life, was totally exposed on the Cross, totally vulnerable—by His own choice. Given our “Model,” how can we justify our lack of vulnerability and not open ourselves up to the risks and blessings that come through allowing ourselves to be “appropriately” vulnerable within our parish family?
Throughout Holy Week this year, I was keenly aware of Jesus’ vulnerability in the events leading to and including the Cross. From His abundant and unconditional love and mercy, He exercised His free will to be vulnerable for our sake. As I ponder the vulnerability of our Lord in the events of Holy Week and recuperate from surgery, I am finally learning to receive unapologetically and graciously, giving others the opportunity to extend God’s love to me. I no longer see myself as the one who is giving, but rather as one who both gives and receives in a loving community of faith.
As clergy families, we may lament and even complain about how much we give and sacrifice for the sake of the parish. Yet, do we allow members of our parish family to give to us, outside of honorariums for sacraments, gifts for Christmas, testimonials for milestones in ministry, elevation in rank of the priesthood? These are exceptional, extraordinary and formal means of receiving; they allow us to maintain the walls we build around ourselves and our families. However, how about the everyday giving and receiving that characterizes a loving community of faith, as we allow others to know that we, too, are human, and we need the love, help, prayers, and support of our brothers and sisters?
In being honest with parishioners about the pain I was experiencing and my upcoming surgery, I unknowingly gave them the opportunity to “love their neighbor” and to offer my husband and me hospitality in a time of need. Several women brought us home-cooked meals, while others offered flowers and gifts. Additionally, our youth ministry leaders collected funds for restaurant gift cards from the families in our church, knowing I would be unable to cook for several weeks. The response was overwhelmingly generous. What a gift it is to be on the receiving end of compassion and love. Especially for those of us in care-giving vocations, we become accustomed to giving and sometimes have difficulty receiving, as I have for many years.
Throughout His public ministry, Jesus exhibited vulnerability, ultimately through the buffetings and Crucifixion but also:
- In His grief at the passing of His friend, Lazarus;
- His exhaustion when He fell asleep in the boat with the disciples;
- His pain when revealing to Peter that he would deny Him;
- His sorrow in the Garden when the disciples did not heed His request to stay awake while he went off to pray alone;
- His holy and righteous anger toward the money changers at the temple and the religious leaders of His day;
- His gracious acceptance of the woman anointing Him with costly oil. . .
Since Christ willingly endured death in the ultimate act of vulnerability, we have been given the gift of the Resurrection, eternal life in Him. Similarly, when we allow ourselves to be appropriately vulnerable and transparent in our parish family, we may suffer, but we will also be exceedingly blessed. And, God will bless those who lovingly reach out to us.
So, what does “appropriate” vulnerability look like? How nice it would be if we could plug in a formula and receive an answer, but no such answer exists. However, as we mature and hopefully become more secure in who we are in Christ (through much trial and error!), practice prayerful discernment, and honor a level of privacy we mutually agree on as husband and wife, we will move toward living an appropriately transparent, vulnerable and more authentic life in Him, allowing others to see our humanity and to extend God’s love to us as we do for them.