The latest in the series of reflections on Consecrated Life by Fr. Pat Griffin, CM
Some months ago, there was an addition to the Griffin Family. My nephew and his wife had a baby which was the first edition of this latest generation to the family. We were overjoyed and waited eagerly for the invitation to visit, which arrived promptly. I understood the anticipation of those travelers who made their way to a different child in Bethlehem. And I wondered: when the magi and shepherds arrived at the manger, did they need to cradle the infant, or at least graze his cheek? When I saw my new nephew, I could feel the urge in my arms to hold him; my hands yearned to touch him. Why is that? Seeing and hearing are not enough, I/we need to touch. Is it because the feel makes the reality even greater? The tiny package is not an image on a TV or a sound from the radio, but a living and breathing presence. Nothing makes that clearer than feeling the slight weight and gentle movement of the child. I do not think that I am romanticizing. All of us know this to be true.
I have been reflecting on the incarnation. (Laudato Si’ continues to prompt this kind of contemplation in me.) I have thought: as wonderful as it was for people to see and hear Jesus, what did it feel like to be touched by him and to hold him? The illustrations of this experience are many. To select some, we might point to the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law:
Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told [Jesus] about her. He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them. (Mk 1:30-31)
Or the way in which he touched the blind, the lame, and the possessed. We might especially note the way in which Jesus dealt with children:
And people were bringing children to him that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them. (Mk 10:13-16)
Jesus did not fear to become “unclean” through touch and he did not insist upon the ritual purification associated with this connection.
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash [their] hands when they eat a meal.” (Mt 15:1-2)
I am not unaware that the word “touched” has been associated with some bad happenings in the current experience of the Church and particularly among its ordained members. Yet I am reluctant to eliminate the word or its physical expression from my vocabulary or action. What is more human than holding the hand of a person who has lost the ability to communicate in any other way, or more supportive than grasping the shoulder of someone who mourns, or more unitive than hugging someone who celebrates. We cannot eliminate the importance of reaching out to embrace someone because of the inappropriate and sinful behavior of a few.
Really, to return to the incarnation, the most important thing about this intervention is that Jesus could not only speak and visit but touch, and be touched. Can you see Mary after the birth repeatedly reaching out to touch the infant as if she cannot believe his presence? With the resurrected Jesus, we find that Mary Magdalene wants to cling to him and Thomas wants to put his fingers and his hand into the glorified body. They want to grasp the Lord to assure themselves that he really was with them.
Our ministry as Vincentians and consecrated persons cannot be carried out from afar. We must get near enough to our people to share their experiences and for them to know our care. Our words and actions need to focus upon them directly and be felt in that way. I love these words which Vincent writes to a priest of the mission suggesting the closeness and simplicity which he hoped would ultimately characterize his ministry:
“Indeed, Monsieur, I cannot restrain myself and must tell you quite simply that this gives me renewed, greater desires to be able, in the midst of my petty infirmities, to go and finish my life near a bush, working in some village. I think I would be very happy to do so, if God were pleased to grant me this grace.” (VdP, CCD 5:1786, p. 204)
In our service, a Vincentian must be close enough to touch and be touched. It gives weight, substance, and intimacy to our ministry.