This week's snippet comes from one of the most profound essays on the priesthood I have ever read, found here. It should really be read, savoured, prayed over and saved for rereading later. Here, Father John Cihak gives an excellent template for the relationship between women and priests.
"When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said..." (Jn. 19:26). It begins with a gaze from our Lord seeing His Mother and His priest...She hears, "Woman, behold your son" (Jn. 19:26). He calls her "Woman", not "Mom". Feel the distancing. These words must have been especially painful for her. As mother all she wants is to be close to Him and even to die with Him so that she can be close to Him. "Woman" isolates her from Him. He pushes her away, not in cruelty, but so that she can become the New Eve, the mother of all those who would live eternally. Her agony is the labor pains giving birth to the Church. Here the distinction between Our Lady and the Church, which should never be a separation, is perhaps a little more pronounced. Here she is giving birth to the Church, acting as Mother of the Church, through her interior agony.
St. John is at her side. It is no coincidence that a priest of the new covenant stands at the Cross with Jesus. St. John also is undergoing his own interior crucifixion, being conformed as priest to the Cross of the eternal High Priest. Perhaps we can sense St. John's helplessness. There is no worse feeling for a man than that of helplessness. What words could he utter seeing her in such agony? The sword piercing her Immaculate Heart is going through his priestly heart as well. This is not some heroic charge to victory. It is blackness, loneliness, a dark night; it is the whole messed-up incongruity of the collision between love and sin. It feels like and is death.
"Then Jesus says to the disciple, 'Behold your mother!'" (Jn. 19:27). At this moment, Jesus asks the Apostle in the depth of his own pain to attune himself to her. As priest, he must decide to put her first, attune himself to her heart. He must put her suffering ahead of his own. I imagine St. John turning toward Our Lady, and looking at her with such tenderness and reverence. Jesus sends His command deep into the heart of his priest, "Look at her...receive her...take care of her." As a man, he must feel helpless and inadequate, but now he has been given a manly task. St. John is commanded to care for her, to comfort her, to hold her, to protect her because she is so alone and vulnerable at that moment. Such a command would resonate deeply in the heart of such a man: he must look beyond his pain and accommodate himself to her, and have all that is best about being a man rise up within him in a great act of celibate agape. The choice to be attentive to her pain brings him to the threshold of entering into his spousal love and paternity as a celibate, as the Church is coming to birth.
I like to meditate on that scene, pondering the eyes of Our Lady and St. John as they meet in their mutual agony. Neither of them seems to have Jesus anymore. At that moment she needs St. John; she also allows him to help her. She is so alone at that moment. She who is sinless allows her great poverty of spirit to need this man and priest beside her. Her feminine complementarity draws out the best in St. John's masculine heart. The need for his support and protection must have connected to something deep within him as a man. How does he help her? St. John says that he then took her "into his own" (in Greek, eis ta idia). What does this mean? "His house," as many translations read? "His things"? What about "everything that he is"? Perhaps it indicates that he takes her into his life as a priest.
She also is supporting him. He is depending on her in that moment for he too is so alone. I wonder if he felt abandoned by the other apostles. She leads the way in sacrificing herself, for her feminine heart is more receptive and more attuned to Jesus'. She is not only present but leads the way for him, helping the priest to have his own heart pierced as well. There is much here to ponder as she engages his masculine love. He gives himself over to her, to cherish her and console her. At this moment she needs him and needs him to be strong, even if she is the one really supporting him.
The Blessed Virgin Mary's role is to call out of the priest this celibate agape to help him become a husband to the Church and a spiritual father—a strong father, even in his weakness. She does this at the Cross by drawing the priest out of his own pain to offer pure masculine love in the midst of her own pure feminine love. This scene becomes an icon of the relationship between the priest and the Church. The priest hands himself over to the Church in her suffering and need – to have his life shaped by hers. At the foot of the Cross the Church agonizes in labor to give birth to the members of the mystical body. I am struck by the next verse in this passage from the Gospel of St. John: "After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said... 'I thirst'" (Jn. 19:28). It was after this exchange of love at the foot of the Cross that "all was now finished".