By Sandra Lucas, MDiv, BCC
Dominican Father Donald J. Goergen, the first plenary speaker at the 2013 NACC National Conference in Pittsburgh, PA, pointed out that one of the dangers of our profession is that we often focus on our active ministries, our degrees and accomplishments.
“It’s not what you do that matters but who you are. It’s not a question of doing more but of being more,” said the priest, author of many articles and 10 books in the areas of Christology and Christian spirituality, including “Fire of Love, Encountering the Holy Spirit” (2006). His presentation was titled “The Healing Power of Christ.”
Father Goergen shared his own experience of being a breast cancer survivor, several years earlier, when he had a mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The experience made him realize two things that are essential in the lives of people: the power of forgiveness and the power of hope.
He defined hope as “leaning on God.” “As chaplains, we are instruments of hope,” he said. “Hope is that odd thing. It doesn’t have just one face. It keeps changing but it’s always there. It sustains us.”
The theme of the April 13-16 conference was “Three Rivers Converging: A Call to Faith, Identity and Action.” Father Goergen made his comments in a plenary talk Saturday, April 13.
Dominican Sister Rosemary Abramovich, plenary speaker chair, introduced Father Goergen as “a joy-filled Dominican friar, a friend of God, and a prophet,” noting that he has traveled many parts of the world and incorporated his learning into all of his works. She shared with the audience that Father Goergen, after first founding an ashram in Kenosha, WI, then moved to Adrian, MI, where he spent six years with her religious community. “To have the ashram and Don and his companions share faith and life on our motherhouse campus was a holy and life-giving gift,” she said. “His reverence for life, his search for truth, and his striving for peace is his special gift.”
Father Goergen began his presentation by sharing that he had enjoyed dinner the evening before in a restaurant overlooking the three rivers that meet in Pittsburgh. “I could see the rivers converging,” he said. He observed the movement, fluidity, and flexibility of the rivers, noting how we hope for a similar convergence in our own lives, those times when divergent things come together.
He quoted the famous phrase by Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher of Ephesus, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” “Likewise among us,” he said, “in many ways we don’t step into the same church twice. We don’t step into the same hospital twice. There’s that constant movement and flow that is also sacred.”
Father Goergen posed his first question, a question for our reflection on the theme of faith, identity, and action. “Who do you say that Jesus is?”
He read from the Gospel of Mark a Scripture passage that became the core of his presentation.
“And in the morning a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place and there he prayed.” (Mk 1:36)
He then put the passage into context, pointing out that the whole town had gathered the evening before, and Jesus had healed many who were sick and had cast out demons. The next morning, hours before dawn, Jesus had slipped away only to be searched for by a frantic Simon who exclaimed, “Everyone is looking for you!”
“I don’t know about you,” Father Goergen said, “But if it had been I, I would have said, ‘Fine, fine. Give me five more minutes and I’ll be there. I need this time.’ But instead Jesus gets up immediately and says, ‘Let us go on to the next town that I might preach there also for that is why I have come.’ Jesus recognizes his need for time apart, and his readiness to respond to the needs that are there.”
Who did Jesus say that he was? Father Goergen said that Jesus saw himself as “a preacher, a healer, and an exorcist,” noting that the word “exorcism” does not carry much resonance in modern usage. He presented contemporary ways of understanding it. “What are the demons in my own life? Who and what are the demons in our world? What demons attack us in the life of the church? What demons do you struggle with in the lives of people when you come to minister?”
This three-fold ministry of Jesus – preaching, healing, exorcism – these three rivers converging, were integrated into the whole person. He said: “When Jesus preached, he healed. When he touched someone, he healed. When he drove out demons, he healed. When he forgave sins, he healed. Everything he did, every word he said, had that power to heal.”
Father Goergen posed another question for reflection: “Where does that power come from?”
Presenting a closer lens, he asked: “From where do you find that power to be a healing presence in someone’s life, especially in this busy and hyperactive world? What is the power that undergirds the capacity for Jesus to be a healer?”
Again, he quoted Mark 1:36. “And in the morning a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place and there he prayed.”
“Jesus didn’t go off to a lonely place to pray because he wanted to model prayer,” he said. “He went off by himself because he knew he needed to stay connected to that inner source, to his heavenly Father. He knew himself well enough, and he knew who he was, and he knew in order to sustain that connection with God, he needed that time apart.”
He challenged us: how do we nurture an interior life and develop a contemplative dimension? “The power needs to be within before it can be manifest without,” he said. “Jesus got up early in the morning to pray. He knew he needed to do it. We know we need to do it. We need to be grounded in our faith with an identity that is the source of all we do.”
Faith, Identity, Action. Three rivers converging in our own lives.
Father Goergen posed his final question: “How can I be who God has created me to be so when I am in the presence of those in need of me, what I most bring is who I am?”
His answer: “And in the morning a great while before day, Jesus rose and went out to a lonely place and there he prayed.”
Sandra Lucas is regional director of spiritual care for Humility of Mary Health Partners in Youngstown, OH, and a member of the NACC’s Editorial Advisory Panel.