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Raymond Brown on

The Priestly Service of Prayer

and The Service of Suffering

The Service of Prayer

There is an aspect of the Pauline ministry that reflects an even more exalted notion of service than that to which we are accustomed. With all the references today to serving others, how many stop to think that prayer is a service? The passage in II Cor. 9:11-12 shows the breadth of Paul's understanding of service. He encourages the Corinthians to be generous in contributing to the collection for Jerusalem, "for the rendering of this service [leiougia] not only supplies the needs of God's people but also overflows in a flood of thanksgiving to God." Thus, service is related to the praise of God (a truly liturgical approach, since the liturgy is ecclesiastical service). If the prayer of praise comes within the range of service, so does the prayer of petition for others.

We find Paul, the servant of Jesus Christ, constantly praying for his communities. Indeed, the first of his preserved words are: "We give thanks always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers: (I Thess 1:2.). and the theme recurs at the beginning of many of his letters (Philip 1:4; Rom. 1:9; Philemon 4:Col 1:3; Eph 1:16).

The Church has tried to remain faithful to the concept that the sacred ministry should render a service of prayer by commanding that those in major orders pray the Divine Office every day and that the pastor offer a certain number of Masses for his people. The formal character of such mandatory prayer is not overly appreciated today, but an activist priesthood that does not frequently render to the people the service of prayer would been even less biblical than a priesthood that has to be commanded to pray.

The Service of Suffering

Recently in a discussion about apostolicity between the Faith and Order Commission of the World Councils of Churches and the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity the participants were trying to isolate the essential characteristics of the Pauline apostle. A Protestant confrere rather startled all of us by suggesting that suffering was one of the most distinctive features of Paul as an apostle.

The truth of his observation did not strike home until the next time I taught the Pauline Epistles in Class; then I noticed how often Paul resorts to his suffering as a sign of the truth of the apostolic service that he renders to his communities. If as an apostle Paul is to present Jesus to men, he can do this effectively because he bears Jesus' death pangs in his own body (II Cor 4: 10). He is a man who finds no rest but is "afflicted at every turn, from struggles without and anxieties within" (II Cor 7:5). A priesthood that is patterned on the Pauline apostolate cannot hope to escape being a life full of pressures! Paul's external struggles consist of his sickness and of the persecutions he has suffered, as we hear in the catalogue of ills advanced by Paul as a proof that he is a real apostle (II Cor 11:23ff).

But it is Paul's inner anguish that may be of more import to us today. We live in a time when priestly loneliness and the feeling of not being appreciated are mentioned most frequently as causes for leaving the ministry. What then are we to make of the most effective of the apostles who sees himself as a man "set apart for the Gospel of God (Rom. 1:1). Yes, "set apart," with all the isolation that phrase implies: "For it seems to me that God has made us apostles the most abject of mankind . . . A spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for the sake of Christ, while you are sensible Christians. We are weak, while you are strong. We are in disgrace, while you are honored: (1 Cor 4:9-10). There is bitter irony in these words, but irony that reflects personal anguish — the anguish of a man who feels himself both unappreciated and humanly inadequate.

Yet, with that magnificent sense of the inversion of values that comes from knowing God's will, Paul is not defeated by his weaknesses. Rather he comes to understand that weakness makes him all the more valuable a servant of Jesus Christ, for what is accomplished through him is clearly by God's grace and not by human strength. "The Lord said to me ‘My grace is all you need, for my power is perfected in weakness.' Hence I boast of my weakness, and then the power of Christ will rest upon me" (II Cor 12:9). Paul gradually realizes that his conformity to the death and resurrection of Jesus is not simply a matter of baptism (Rom 6: 3-5); it is a matter of day-by-day suffering: "While we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh" (II Cor 4:11). Through such an apostolate of suffering the Gospel is advanced (Philip 1:12).