Ministering in the Darkness

As ordained Catholic priests, we are called to share the light of Christ with those whom we serve in the special ways that have been granted to us. As men who are empowered to make Jesus present to our brothers and sisters at the spiritually and emotionally darkest moments of their lives, we are channels of the light that only Christ can bring in situations of tragedy, failure, sin, death and other evils.

And yet, we ourselves know better than anyone else that we, too, are vulnerable to the same forms of darkness as the people to whom we minister. Like the apostles, whose faults, failings and foolishness are so well documented in the Gospels, we do not have the time, wisdom and strength to allow the Lord to banish the specific forms of darkness in each of our lives before we can turn our attention to the darkness in the lives of others. We, like them, find ourselves striving to share his light with others through our priestly ministry while muddling through the darkness that confronts each of us.

Physical Darkness

As a priest of the Diocese of Juneau, Alaska, I am very familiar with the physical darkness that envelops our huge state every year during the fall and winter months. For those of us in southeast Alaska, this takes the form of drastically reduced periods of daylight, with the sun so low in the southern sky that it peeks out from behind our coastal mountains. Farther north, in Anchorage and Fairbanks, the day is far advanced before the subdued daylight makes a fleeting appearance, and then withdraws below the horizon. And, for our fellow Alaskans living above the Arctic Circle, the sun completely disappears for several weeks of cold and darkness.

Even for those who are well adjusted to Alaska’s annual cycle of extreme daylight and darkness, the long nights of our winter months offer an ever-present challenge. Just getting up and out the door in what seems like the middle of the night sometimes feels like a heroic feat, even for those of us who live and work in the same place.

I marvel at the fortitude of our parish secretary, who must begin her morning commute in the dark to the Church driving a small boat from the island on which she lives — and often in the fog, wind, rain and snow as well — just as her daughter did to get to high school. And, when one arrives home at the end of the day when it already has been dark for several hours, the temptation to collapse immediately on the bed or couch can be nearly irresistible. But for many of us, these challenges are relatively mild, part of the wondrous experience of living in Alaska. And we all know that starting after Dec. 21 we can console ourselves by counting the increasing minutes of light each day.

Manifestations of Darkness

For many others of our brothers and sisters, however, the darkness of Alaska’s cold months becomes overwhelming and leads to prolonged sadness and depression. This can be especially true of our smallest and most isolated communities, where loneliness and inactivity so often persist throughout the year. Unfortunately, all these factors often lead to destructive behavior like the abuse of alcohol and drugs, domestic violence and the physical and sexual abuse of the most vulnerable. Indeed, Alaska has some of the highest rates in our nation.

It is precisely here that we Alaskan priests have some of our greatest opportunities to share the light of Jesus, to be the means by which he illuminates the darkness in the lives of others and heals the ravages that it leaves in its wake. In fact, the physical environment of darkness in which so much of our ministry takes place can highlight for ourselves and those we serve the enlightenment and healing of which we are called to be ministers. In that respect, it can enhance the sense of joy and fulfillment we experience as we live out the special vocation that is ours.

And yet, even as we experience those peak moments of our priestly ministry, we are aware that we, too, often feel lost, disoriented and fearful in the darkness that inhabits our own lives. This reality sometimes strikes us precisely when it becomes apparent that those whom we have helped believe that the enlightenment and healing they have received are the products of our own wisdom, strength and sanctity; and that, perhaps, we have fallen into the trap of thinking so ourselves. At such times, the contrast between the idealized image that we enjoy among so many of our people and the reality of our own darkness and brokenness can be difficult to accept and even more difficult to address. But if we do accept and address this reality, it can be the source of great blessing and growth in our love and service of the Lord, even if it is very painful and distressing to our weak and sinful selves.

Darkness for Priests

The darkness that we experience, and that can jeopardize our priestly life and ministry, takes many forms. One of these derives from the fact that we, like the people we serve, are sinners, wounded by original sin and subject to temptation. Priests throughout the ages have known that our evil enemy skillfully adjusts the temptations and occasions of sin that we encounter to account for and frustrate the real or imagined progress we have made in surmounting them. And it is often at the very moments of our greatest confidence in the progress of our conversion that the darkness of our sinfulness, weakness and foolishness makes itself known with renewed, disheartening power. The disorientation and self-doubt that result from the darkness of our sin can lead to a downward spiral of discouragement and despair that may cause us both to fall into deeper sin and to weaken our resolve to carry out our responsibilities. I think it is safe to say that the tragedy of priestly misconduct with which the Church has been afflicted in our time has had one of its main roots in this dark process of unremedied disillusion and despair.

But his own sinfulness is not the only source of a priest’s personal darkness, which often results from the responses and reactions of others to his ministry. Every priest has experienced the disheartening failure of a pastoral effort into which he has poured his heart. Even when such an initiative succeeds, it can result in opposition, rejection and condemnation by the very people it was intended to benefit. In some especially serious instances, it can lead to the loss of friendships and to personal attacks on the priest’s character and motives. When any of these things happen, the darkness of anger, frustration, self-doubt, loneliness and even fear can envelop a priest as he tries to discern how to respond to the distressing situation. His very ability to reach out pastorally to many of those whom he is called to serve can be severely jeopardized.

Other forms of darkness can result from the usual conditions under which a priest lives and ministers. In the great majority of cases he is celibate, with all the challenges that entails. More and more, he finds himself living alone in a rectory, perhaps even though he is a member of a religious institute founded on community life. In Alaska, as in many other places, a priest must travel frequently. In our diocese, for example, none of our parishes are connected with others by road, making extended air and sea travel necessary even for attendance at routine diocesan meetings and for ministry at neighboring parishes and missions.

This can make it very difficult to establish a rhythm of ministry and prayer. A priest has little control over where and for how long he will live and minister, no matter how much he might love or loathe his current assignment. And, especially as he gets older, the physical challenges of maintaining a high tempo of ministry and, for many priests, uncertainty about the funding and conditions of retirement — or if true retirement will ever be possible — become ever greater concerns.

Christ Is Our Light

Most priests are aware of practical, worldly means of dealing with these sources of darkness in our lives, and it is only prudent to make use of these to the extent we can. Ultimately, however, the darkness of priestly life and ministry is not something we can control through our own supposed strength and wisdom. For us, as for our people, Christ alone — the Son of God who took upon himself the punishment for our sins so that we could be forgiven; who shared with us the human experiences of failure and rejection; who laid aside his mighty power to participate in our weakness and uncertainty — is the light who illuminates our darkness and heals its effects. It is only by opening ourselves to his love and grace that we can be gradually delivered from this darkness and its consequences, which, in turn, empowers us to offer that same love and grace to others in their darkness.

The Holy Spirit, through the Church, offers us the means of opening ourselves to the healing grace that only Christ can grant us. These include the sacraments, especially reconciliation and the Eucharist; reflection on the Scriptures; prayer and meditation; spiritual reading; and spiritual direction. For a priest engaged in a busy ministry, it is all too easy to minimize or even omit these critical disciplines. In succumbing to this, he effectively accepts the illusion that his ministry is the product of his own wisdom and strength, and prepares the way for an ever-deeper darkness to take over his life and ministry. Almost all of us have done this from time to time, and suffered the devastating consequences for ourselves and for our people.

As the darkness of winter gives way to the renewed daylight of Lent and Easter, let us recommit ourselves to the spiritual practices by which we discerned our vocation, so as to live out that vocation more and more fully in the light of Christ.

FATHER PATRICK J. TRAVERS is pastor of Holy Name Catholic Church in Ketchikan, Alaska, and vicar general of the Diocese of Juneau.

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