“Today’s obsession with immediate results makes it hard for pastoral workers to tolerate anything that smacks of disagreement, possible failure, criticism, the cross. Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil.” — Pope Francis
A priest I have known for a number of years, who is in his 80’s, shared with me his “theology of failure.”
He served in Latin America for many years among the poor and has endured some exceedingly difficult hardships throughout his life. Yet, he remains a joyful, self-giving man of tireless service who said he will retire only when he is unable to function. A few weeks ago, he taught one of my classes as a guest lecturer. Later, I caught him in the hallway to express my appreciation for sharing his wisdom born of so many cycles of success and failure. Combining the insights he shared with me in the hallway, and in the class, I wrote a Neal-esque journal reflection — in his voice — that night.
Tom, what you begin to see when you have a long view of life, and are honest about things, is that most of what we do in life falls short, falls apart, falls away, is forgotten, goes unappreciated, isn’t what we expected or wanted. That could make you pessimistic and cynical, very easily.
Lots of very good people I worked with over the years, who had wonderful ideals and plans to help people, burned out because things didn’t turn out the way they wanted. And they became hard and bitter. But thank God I had a priest who helped me to see things differently when I was in Latin America. And the poor I served, who have more faith than I ever will, helped me see things differently.
It’s this. To those of us who stumble along through life doing what we can, Jesus on the cross gives hope by making failure the privileged entry point of the Kingdom of God into this world. See, when you realize you’re really nothing of yourself, that everything is in God’s hands, then you’re free to do everything with a total confidence, without being paralyzed by fear of failure, by regret or by obsession over results. And you’re not consumed by angry judgment over yours or others’ failures.
Pope Francis talks about a “revolution of tenderness,” and this is what he means. When you see this is how God works from the cross, you are gentle with yourself and others. Jesus’ response to everything falling apart around Him was forgiveness of us and total trust in the Father’s power to raise out of the rubble, a Kingdom.
With this faith, you can see that the farther something is from your control, the more important it becomes in God’s victory over evil. “Power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Failure wrapped in surrender to God’s mercy is the victory won, the Kingdom come. That will be the long view from heaven. But when you have faith, that can be your view right now.
It’s not easy, but what’s the alternative?
And let me tell you, you sleep a lot better [he laughs].