Vocations: The Power of the Powerless
Today is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, a day chosen because it is also Good Shepherd Sunday. In the first reading, Peter mentions “a good deed done to a cripple.” This good deed caused problems. People had begun to question “by what means he was saved.” For Peter, this is an opportunity to evangelize: “it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”
Recently, I attended a conference at Boston College entitled, “Of Equal Worth and Personhood: A Theology of Disability.” The keynote speaker was a favorite writer of mine, Christopher de Vinck, whose book The Power of the Powerless was central to the presentation. In that book, Christopher tells the story of his brother, Oliver, who was born severely disabled. (A short and powerful version of the story ran in the Wall Street Journal on April 10, 1985.) Oliver was the most powerless person Christopher said he has ever known. He could not get himself out of bed, nor dress himself. He could not bathe himself, nor speak. He could not feed himself. And yet, Oliver was powerful, a beautiful human being created in the image and likeness of God who communicated—even without a voice—that our being itself is a gift, just as we are. We so often get it wrong. We think our worth is based on what we do or what we earn. We equate value with productivity. We imagine that some people are worth more than others. Oliver challenges every bit of that false ideology. His very presence in the world until his death, just shy of age 33—when his mother held him in her arms as he died of pneumonia and said, “Goodbye, my angel”—was a silent witness to God’s overthrowing of our erroneous conceptions of power and worth. Oliver reminds us of Christ, who was most powerful when he was powerless on the Cross, where God’s revolution against all the principalities and powers of this world took place.
It is revolutionary to embrace powerlessness as genuine strength. It is an act of absolute faith to trust that all power belongs to God. This faith challenges all of our earthly calculations and machinations, and confronts us with our finitude and our dependence on one another and on God’s grace. There is no room at all for the absurdity of rugged individualism here.
My favorite moment in the presentation came when all three panelists were on stage together. There was a professor of disability ethics, Chris de Vinck, and a young college graduate and political activist named Brian. The ethics professor was moderating, and asked a very long and complicated question full of academic jargon and distinctions. It was a very good question, but lengthy and complex. The question concerned prenatal diagnoses of potential disability and whether such information should be part of the ethical equation regarding bringing a baby into the world. She had directed the question to Brian who also has Down Syndrome. He listened carefully as she wound down: “Do you think that we, whoever the ‘we’ are, knowing the diagnosis for a potential disability, should welcome the baby into the world?” Brian didn’t hesitate. He didn’t ask for any clarification. He simply leaned forward into the microphone and said, “Yes.”
Jesus once said, “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37). Every once in a while you meet someone who speaks the truth without embellishment and with pure simplicity. It is powerful to witness.
In the Church, we need leaders who understand this view of power. When Jesus spoke of power, it was in terms of sacrifice: “I have power to lay [my life] down, and power to take it up again.” This is why he could say, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” He specifically told his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant… Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
We also need Church leaders who help to make the Church a welcoming place for all. There are no “disabled” people who are different from “normal” people. We are all differently abled. We all are strong and weak in various ways. We are all God’s beloved daughters and sons. The Church should be the most accommodating and welcoming place in the world. In his speech, Brian told us that he had to choose a Bible passage for a ceremony at his church. He chose Psalm 139, verses 13-14: “You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, because I am wonderfully made; wonderful are your works!”
Do you know someone who recognizes this beauty in all God’s people and in all God’s creation? Do you know someone who understands power in terms of service and sacrifice? Do you know someone who, like Peter, makes the Church a place of healing, and if challenged, uses the challenge to proclaim the name of Jesus Christ the Lord? If you do, tap them on the shoulder. They may be the lay leaders, sisters and brothers, monks and nuns, and deacons and priests God is calling to serve the Church today.