I loved my work as a priest. Whether in parishes or in schools or in community involvement, I enjoyed working not only with my own people but with people and clergy of other religions. I thoroughly enjoyed the spirit of camaraderie generated among us. We worked well together. Some clergy, sadly, kept themselves aloof and chose not to associate with people of other religions, feeling their religion was the true religion and that it would be sinful to give the appearance of endorsing another religion. I suppose that was where we as Catholics were at not very long ago, and where some of us still are. But for those of us who did break out of that crusty shell, we learned to appreciate one another and see how each of us was loved by God and expressed a facet of Jesus the others had overlooked. We were all concerned about our work, about our people, about the exciting and discouraging happenings in our communities.
It took a long time, however, for me to realize that there was something missing in our approach to religion, and this made me feel uneasy. We were sensitive to the customs and traditions of each of our churches. We were aware and concerned about community problems. We, as clergy, were conscientious about protecting our people's faith and their allegiance to their church and synagogue, which we should be. But there was something that did not ring true. One day it struck me that while we were all church- or synagogue-oriented, we did not seem to be sensitive to what might be God's concerns. After all, God is our religion. Churches and synagogues are merely the vehicles of God's message. Their teaching of widely divergent messages impressed me as fragmenting the unity of God's mind, and not reflecting an intelligent, caring God to a world reaching out for comfort and healing. I began to realize it didn't make sense that we were wandering in so many different
directions when God's mind is one. Catholics were in love with Church and obsessed with Church laws and customs, and insensitive to those who could not maintain the Church's ideals. Protestants were obsessed with the Bible and their conflicting interpretations of Scripture as well as their own customs and taboos, and were equally insensitive to sinners. Jews were obsessed with keeping their people loyal to their bloodlines, and careful not to let them become too close to Christians. Belief in God often seemed secondary, and sensitivity to God's concerns to be almost nowhere in focus. A synagogue member could be an agnostic or an atheist. That was acceptable, but to become a Christian was
unthinkable and meant excommunication, and not very long ago, hanging a crepe on the front door of the person's home was not a rarity. It struck me that God could not be happy with that kind of mentality. These obsessions kept us all, while being ceremoniously friendly, at a safe distance from one another, carefully preserving the invisible walls that divided us, and paying only token homage to any real gesture toward unity. I could not help but feel that what God wished was of little concern. Occasionally, something genuine and beautiful would happen, like what occurred between the local Lutheran parish and our own. The pastor and I became good friends. We did services together. We prayed together. We gathered our congregations together for joint liturgies. We even talked our two bishops into agreeing to co-confirm the children in both our parishes. We were fast approaching real unity. And something similar happened with a local synagogue, Orthodox, no less. We were discussing allowing members of our communities to be members of each other's congregations. Another situation occurred between a local Methodist parish and our own, where we used to speak at each other's service on a regular basis and I would cover for the pastor when he was away.
These situations, however, were the exception. For the most part, we never really took formal steps toward unity. This bothered me deeply because I always felt a need for us all to draw closer to one another. That's what God would want, I thought. We did talk about unity and ecumenism, but rarely were we bold enough to take that giant step toward becoming really one. Unity is a frightening experience when clergy's personal lifestyle and support system is tied to the institution. The hierarchy feel that before unity can become a reality, theologians must agree on a formula, then people would be allowed to become one. It doesn't make sense, because it assumes that just because theologians
agree on a formula, the people, like unthinking sheep, will automatically alter their beliefs of a lifetime and accept theologians' formulas. If unity is ever to become a reality, people will have to gather together by charity first, then, as love breaks down the cobweb walls, they will
gradually grow to understand Jesus better, and in understanding Him, adopt His vision and understanding, which should be the theological basis for unity.
This realization deepened when it dawned on me one day that although we were involved in our churches, Jesus' interests were, to a great extent, not an element in our decision-making. For Christian leaders, His interests should be foremost, but Church and theology and the demands of canon law had become the primary focus of so many and had practically replaced a sense of Jesus in making decisions. The Bible, on the other hand, had become the religion of the Protestants, as they rejected the teaching authority that originally gave the New Testament
Scriptures authenticity. For many Jewish leaders cultural and racial identity had become their religion. God's interests seemed not to be of prime importance, indeed, sometimes they seemed to stand in the way. How else could one explain the horrible religious wars in the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland, and South Africa, or the savage meanness in the Holy Land. When I began touring the country, talking about Jesus' life and teaching, I was shocked at the response of people who kept telling me they never heard talks about Jesus' life before. One very holy priest, whom I had known and admired all my life, expressed surprise that I could talk about Jesus for an hour and a half. When I asked him why he was so shocked, he reminded me that we had never been taught about Jesus in the seminary. We were taught theology and scripture and canon law and so many other courses, but no one ever taught any courses about Jesus Himself as a person, and the way He thought and His vision of life.
I got the same response from Protestants. One seminarian for the priesthood told me she had applied to five prestigious seminaries in her denomination before making her decision. She asked the admissions officers at each one if their seminary taught courses about Jesus. She was shocked when the answer each time was "No, but we teach courses on Christology as electives. They are, however, not required.'' Another Protestant seminarian asked if I would come to his seminary and talk about Jesus. I told him I would be glad to if he arranged with his faculty for an invitation. He told me he would try. I suggested in the meantime that he ask one of the theology professors on staff if he would talk to the seminarians about Jesus. He said he and other students had asked their favorite theology professor. His reply was that he was hired to teach theology, not talk about Jesus.
A few years ago, Dr. John Killinger, a deeply spiritual Southern Baptist theologian, invited me to speak at the Baptist university where he was teaching. It was a beautiful occasion. After the talk, a number of theology professors and ministers thanked me for speaking to them about Jesus. They said they experienced such healing while I was describing a Jesus who was so new to them. They told me that analyzing texts does not necessarily foster a deeper understanding of Jesus. Too late did they realize that knowing scripture was not the same as knowing Jesus. I was touched by their humility.
That explained why there has been such overwhelming response to the Joshua books and the follow-up talks about Jesus. People have a hunger for Jesus and for a genuine understanding of what His Good News really is, whether they are Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, or even those who cannot identify with any faith. Jesus' Good News responds to the deepest needs of the human soul, no matter what the person's beliefs or lack of belief, and is intimately tied up with our understanding of who Jesus really is and how He thinks and feels. We can never have a proper understanding of His Good News until we know Him as a person, and have watched the subtle psychological effects He had on people to whom He spoke in the villages and on the hillsides of Palestine. When you see Jesus walking so casually among His very human companions, especially people known to be sinners, and notice how comfortable they are in His presence, you realize for the first time that Jesus did not project an image of self-righteousness or as having a critical spirit. So, sinners had the comforting feeling He accepted them as they were and was patient with them as they slowly refocused their sights on more lofty ideals and began to better their lives. That little piece of information alone is a precious part of the Good News because it shows vividly the attitude Jesus reflected toward people who were looked upon as sinners and outcasts. He did not just tolerate them. He accepted their humanness and allowed them to feel relaxed in His presence. Though they had no sense of His divinity, His attitude toward them was different from that of the officials of the religion, who treated them as sinners and breakers of the law. Jesus did not evaluate them in terms of the law. He accepted them as His Father created them- imperfect, defective, limited in understanding, and frightened. He knew their feelings from his own experience, and could appreciate their fears and feelings asfragile human beings. His warmth and friendlinesstouched them deeply and inspired them to follow His ways. His humble attitude meant a lot to these simple people. They were so used to being looked down upon by those who deemed themselves righteous and religiously correct. They could see Jesus was a holy man and the fact that He liked them drew warm response. He was [cfi]genuinely[cfn] holy and not at all like the scribes and Pharisees who kept the law but who people sensed were not really godlike, as Jesus was. The
people knew Jesus really loved God, and they felt proud that He liked them, too.
We have the same phenomenon in religion today, in all the religions. People so often see religion as people in Jesus' day saw religion, as weighed down with legalities and punishments for violations of religious laws. Religious leaders so often project the image that they are the
enforcers of the law, which makes people shy away from them and from religion itself. People crave an encounter with the Good Shepherd, whose interest in them transcended their imperfect observance of religious laws and reached out to them in their weakness and sinfulness. ""I am the Good Shepherd. I go out in search for the lost, the bruised, the troubled, and the hurting sheep. When I find them, I pick them up, place them on my shoulders, and carry them back home, because I love the sheep.'' People need to meet this gentle God today, but so often search in vain for a human reflection of Him. Religious leaders, like the leaders in Jesus' day, are often more concerned about the business of
religion, and enforcing laws, and theological correctness than being themselves witnesses to the gentle Shepherd who always taught the highest of ideals, but showed remarkable compassion when people fell far short of those ideals. It is His children who are God's concern, not
religion. Only too often it is religion that is clergy's concern, and not the pain and hurt their legalism inflicts on people, which caused Jesus such anguish. When you see some of the unhealthy personalities coming out of the seminaries today, so obsessed with self-importance and
rigid legalism, and ecclesiastical correctness, and meticulous attention to dress and personal image, you get the sick feeling that the scribes and Pharisees have come back from the dead. I feel sorry for the healthy ones who will spend so much of their own ministry healing the wounds caused by the others.
Yet, at the same time, we live in an exciting moment of history. We are in the process of reevaluating all our previously accepted values, the very pillars of our civilization. Religion itself, as one of those pillars, is under intense scrutiny, and if we are to evaluate Christianity wisely, we must not just analyze its teachings and moral code, but go to the heart of Christianity, Jesus Himself, and make a humble and prayerful effort to understand Him as a Person, because He is
our religion, andunderstand how He thinks because that is
our theology, and how He lived because that is
our morality as Christians. Christianity, scripture included, is merely the medium of His message, the vehicle of His Presence in history, as we attempt to know Him.
The following pages represent my own simple portrait of Jesus. Admittedly it is woefully incomplete, but it is an attempt to whet people's appetite to search the mind and heart of Jesus so they can draw close to Him and, in that intimacy, grow to know Him in a way they never thought possible. Then, from the warmth and intensity of that relationship, deepened by a faithful prayer life, they can channel their own inspired knowledge and understanding of Him to a world that is desperately hungry for Him and the Good News He came to share with us.
Excerpted from A Portrait of Jesus by Joseph Girzone. . Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.