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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Fr Florencio Sánchez, LC, on the Treasure in Clay
Part 15 in a series on life as a priest.

Fr Florencio Sánchez, LC
Fr Florencio Sánchez, LC

Part 15 in a series on priestly experiences and insights, published on Thursdays during the Year for Priests.

December 3, 2009. After many years of priesthood, it is possible that the essential lessons of life and of the priesthood itself become ever simpler. A person’s perspective becomes clearer with time, purified by each day’s insights received into a prayerful heart.

Fr Florencio Sánchez, LC, originally from Mexico, has spent his 26 years as a priest in Spain. And as time goes by, a particular truth seems to stand out ever more clearly.

Inseparable realities

“With every day that passes by, I see it confirmed that the treasure is in clay vessels,” he says.

“This means that the treasure, which is the love of Christ that reaches others through my priesthood, is ever more beautiful and necessary for every man and woman. It changes their life, making it more like what they want deep down in their heart.”

“But it also means that my limitations and my sins become more evident in comparison to that precious pearl. And they weigh more.”

“But,” he adds, “they are carried better in that Company.”

Yet, this is the way of life, a fundamental truth that not only priests but also every person of faith must eventually recognize.

For Fr Florencio, seeing this reality of human weakness and divine grace just makes him grateful. The treasure and the clay travel together, inseparable until the last breath. And this is a beautiful, meaningful thing, when seen with faith.

“I give thanks because the treasure cannot be separated from the clay. That is how He wanted it, because the treasure without the clay vessel is just an abstraction that doesn’t move anyone. That is to say, a Christ without flesh, without the Church, without priests would just be a religious idea—perhaps lovely and grand, but inoffensive.”

Whether we like it or not, our faith is incarnational and sacramental, and it will always have these mysterious frontiers where two realities come together: the visible and the invisible, the high and the low, the interior and the exterior.

But is that something to wish away so that we can have an airbrushed faith without the dung of Bethlehem’s stable? Or is it an opportunity for growth?

Stir up the question

Fr Florencio is currently serving as one of the chaplains at Francisco de Vitoria University in Madrid, Spain. His work brings him in touch with thinking people—faculty and university
De izquierda a derecha: Rabino Baruj Garzón, José Antonio Verdejo, secretario general de la Universidad Francisco de Vitoria, y el P. Florencio Sánchez, L.C.
Fr Florencio participating in a discussion panel at Francisco de Vitoria University on the topic of the Jewish and Catholic response to secularism, with Rabbi Baruj Garzón and José Antonio Verdejo, general secretary of the University.
students— not all of whom are necessarily convinced by Christianity. His mission requires him to find a way to make the Christian message relevant to people who perhaps look on the Catholic Church with a critical eye, or who dismiss it as irrelevant to their lives.

Meeting the secular challenge has given Fr Florencio an opportunity to explore another frontier: the Catholic faith in dialogue with the modern world.

His experience has given him a perspective on evangelization very much in line with Pope Benedict’s approach: we need to start by listening to the person in front of us, and help them find the deep, interior question to which Christ is the answer.

“When proclaiming Christ, we have to bear in mind that an answer to a question that was never asked will just provoke rejection. In the concrete, real world we live in, it means that if someone is not looking for something deep in his or her life—and we are all looking for it in one way or another—then they will have no interest in Christ, nor will they feel the need for His salvation,” says Fr Florencio.

Catholics (and Christians), he says, make a typical mistake: we talk without thinking about the reality of the person in front of us. We try to give water to someone who doesn’t even realize he is thirsty.

“The easy—and sterile—thing to do is to repeat what we have learned about Christ without thinking about who is in front of us. The difficult thing, the great challenge, is to stir up the question that everyone carries inside, and to present Christ as someone living who can be the answer to that quest.”

A different vision of the world

When asked what advice he would give to lay apostles based on his own experience as a priest, Fr Florencio mentions the importance of changing our perspective of a world that in some ways has grown distant from Christ.

“Look on the world with sympathy, from the heart of Christ, even though there are things that may be very distant from Him, because speaking to the world from a defensive position makes it difficult for us to reflect Christ,” he says.

There is a balance between apostolic boldness and an observant, tactful approach that listens before speaking and translates the message into terms that the other person will understand. Adapting to the other person is not watering down the message. It is charity; it is effective communication. People are not always ready to go from A to Z all in one day. So we begin where they are at.

Fr Florencio says, “I understood this when I saw the response of rejection to a speech that was too confident in its affirmations of faith, that did not connect much with the audience, and that had a very negative view of the reality of today’s world.”

“That is not evangelical,” he affirms.

“St Paul spoke to the Athenians in the areopagus about their gods before speaking about the risen Christ. This was not just a strategy of evangelization. It was simply a vision of the world won over by Christ.”

Getting out of the ghetto

In some countries, there is a tendency for faithful, orthodox Catholics to uphold orthodoxy as the highest value, and then use that standard to judge and exclude.

Battle lines get drawn. There are the orthodox conservatives… and then everyone else. In reality, the faith is not reducible to “conservative” or “liberal.” But labels, even inexact ones, are so convenient when we want to separate “us” from “them.”

Fr Florencio does not for a second doubt the value of orthodoxy as a non-negotiable good. Of course, we are not at liberty to change Christ’s teachings. But, he says, it is not enough. If we want to reach people, we cannot settle for just defending orthodoxy. We need to go further.

“Doctrinal orthodoxy is a non-negotiable good, without a doubt. But he who speaks or writes with orthodoxy as his main concern is speaking only for himself, and not for someone who is very far from those truths,” he observes.

So table-pounding and Bible-thumping are out. Respectful listening is in. And the model for this more nuanced and gracious approach to people is Pope Benedict XVI.

“He is a master at speaking about the faith to today’s world, thinking of modern man and not just of orthodoxy. It goes without saying that he is orthodox. But he is able to think without defensiveness,” he says.

Learning to change the way we see the world, he maintains, is the interior shift that will make the biggest difference. It will make us fundamentally more sympathetic to the people who are in front of us, more respectful of their own journey to Christ, and more able to offer them the answers they need—once we help them find the questions in their own heart.

A question may be a humble thing, but it can be the grain of sand around which a pearl is born. And that pearl of great price, the gift of faith and the promise of heaven, is no less valuable for having grown to maturity in a vessel of clay. Once it is harvested, then it will be set in gold and silver. But until that day, treasure and clay travel together, bearing witness that God is not afraid of our humanity.

Fr Florencio Sánchez, LC, was born in Mexico City. He entered the Legion of Christ in 1977 at the novitiate in Salamanca. Prior to entering the Legion, he studied Actuarial Mathematics at Anáhuac University. As a Legionary, he studied Philosophy at the Gregorian University and Theology at the University of St Thomas, both of which are in Rome. He was ordained to the priesthood in Rome on August 20, 1983. Since then he has been working in Madrid, mainly with young people. He is currently one of the chaplains at Francisco de Vitoria University and the superior of one of the Legionary communities in Madrid, Spain.

View a complete listing of previous articles in the series here.



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