The Fragility of Ministry

A Response to Michael C. McCarthy, S.J.

by Sarah Attwood ’07 |

Over the last five years I’ve grappled with the complexities and ambiguities of being a professional lay ecclesial minister in the Catholic Church. As I encountered the lecture by Mick McCarthy, S.J., on “The Fragility of Faith: How Can a Thinking Person Still Believe in God?” his suggestions for sustaining faith in today’s increasingly secular world resonated with me.

First, imagine bigger. Despite the bumper stickers and t-shirts that declare “Everything’s Bigger in Texas,” my transition from a high school student in Round Rock, Texas to a college freshman at Santa Clara University in the fall of 2003 catapulted me into bigger thinking. My unquestioned faith was radically challenged for the first time. But despite the fears that came along with all of the new questions, I fell in love with theology and wanted to know more and more. Second, befriend intelligent believers. That insatiable desire eventually led me into graduate studies in theology at Boston College. I immersed myself in a community of intelligent believers who grappled with similar questions, and I found solace, in particular, with women mentors in the church who taught me to boldly claim my calling. Third, take a risk. The risk-taking for me was inherent in that calling. As a public minister in the church I’m making an explicit statement: I’m staking a claim in a tradition and representing it for others. And yet to be a public minister is not simply to serve as an image. It’s not a two-dimensional role; I’m not a billboard for the Catholic Church. Nor is my education in any way completed—all questions answered, no more work to be done. I am far from retired in my intellectual search. In fact, as one of the theologians I most admire, Karl Rahner, reminds me: “Nothing is more familiar and obvious to the alerted spirit than the silent question which hovers over all that it has attained and mastered—the challenging question, humbly and lovingly accepted, which alone makes it wise. In his heart of hearts, there is nothing man (sicknows better than that his knowledge, ordinarily so-called, is only a tiny island in the immense ocean of the unexplored.”1

Imagine bigger. Befriend intelligent believers. Take a risk. Check, check, check. When I finished Mick McCarthy’s lecture, however, a haunting realization came to me—one that I essentially knew because of my current role as a campus minister, but one in which I hadn’t given sufficient thought: I now have the privilege and challenge to be an intelligent believer for others to befriend. Amidst my own struggles, I am a person of solace for others on their own faith journeys. I not only need to continually seek out intelligent believers myself, but I am and will be one whom others seek out. And that humbling reality catapults me into the cycle all over again but from a very different perspective. This time I have to go through the process in a much more public way. Gone are the days when I could wrestle with my faith behind the closed door of my professor’s office. Now I stand in a public role and acknowledge that even ministers struggle.

In his introduction to Foundations of Christian Faith, Rahner writes, “So I would like to formulate the thesis that in today’s situation all of us with all of our theological study are and remain unavoidably rudes in a certain sense, and that we ought to admit that to ourselves and also to the world frankly and courageously.”2 Despite being one of the Jesuit theological greats, Karl Rahner admits to his beginner status and encourages all of us to do the same—trained in theology or not. And by acknowledging that, we become capable of being conversation partners for others.

During my graduate studies I had the opportunity to serve as a hospital chaplain in Boston. It was a profoundly humbling experience to sit with patients in the last hours of their lives, to comfort family members through the grief process, and most especially to bear witness to the deeply existential longings and questions of the human heart in relation to God. It is our human tendency to want answers, but my supervisor told me one of the most comforting responses I could give to a patient asking: “Why me?” is the simple statement: “I don’t know.” Ministers don’t have all the answers. And this truth allows patients to know that they don’t have to limit themselves to an answer that alienates themselves from God—the falsehoods that they were sick because God was punishing them, God had abandoned them, or other harmful lies we tell ourselves and others. By acknowledging, “I don’t know” we can appropriately maintain the mystery, the bigness, of God.

Recognizing my own limitations has been an important learning experience over the last two years as a campus minister to undergraduate students. As I am confronted by their deeply personal, often painful, questions of faith I am always humbled. So often I walk across campus feeling like a fraud. I ask the same question patients asked about their illness: “Why me?” But my question centers on my identity as a minister. Why me? Why should people trust me? Certain pastoral situations over the last two years have thrown me out of my comfort zone entirely. At each step in my ministerial development I am challenged by a reality that goes beyond what I have learned previously. But when I fear the risk it takes to step out of my comfort zone, to step off of the tiny island of my knowledge and swim in the “immense ocean of the unexplored,” I am reminded of the simple truth that every spiritual director I’ve had has told me: “fear is not from God.” And so I jump, I take a risk, and I invite students to do the same, warning them that this is a lifelong journey. First, imagine bigger. Second, befriend intelligent believers. Third, take a risk. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Sarah Attwood graduated with a religious studies degree from Santa Clara University in 2007. She then served as a Jesuit Volunteer in Portland, Oregon, and graduated from Boston College with a Master’s of Divinity in 2012. She currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island and works as a campus minister at Providence College.

Endnotes


  1. Karl Rahner, “The Concept of Mystery in Catholic Theology” [orig. 1959], Theological Investigations, Vol. 4, 58.
  2. Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 9.
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