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Bishop's Column

Bishop Barbarito Column

The Heart of Priesthood is the Heart of the Priest

Editor’s note: The following is the text of Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito’s homily from the March 26 chrism Mass.

A great deal of attention is being paid to the rapid development of the digital technology of artificial intelligence, referred to as A.I. While it has been around for quite some time, it has progressed to the extent that it can emulate the decision-making ability of a human person and continues to progress, thanks to massive data and new computing power. At the request of the user, depending on the data put into it, it can make scientific decisions, medical decisions, produce art, write letters, and compose composition and term papers. I understand that even homilies can be composed by artificial intelligence. This one was not! The field of A.I. is beginning to raise grave concerns regarding its use to replace jobs and occupations, to influence political life and decisions, to affect the economy and the living situation of people, and even increase the dichotomy between the rich and the poor, depending on the decisions it makes.

Pope Francis has spoken frequently on the use of artificial intelligence, noting the good it can bring about, but also emphasizing its destructive ability. His message for World Peace Day on Jan. 1 this year, was precisely entitled Artificial Intelligence and Peace. He pointed to the dangers of machines learning by themselves and their challenge to moral values with the resulting inequality that can occur. He stressed that, as human beings, we are limited, and we need to recognize this. He insightfully stated, “Human beings are, by definition, mortal; by proposing to overcome every limit through technology, in an obsessive desire to control everything, we risk losing control of ourselves; and in the quest for an absolute freedom, we risk falling into the spiral of a technological dictatorship.”

As we celebrate this Chrism Mass today and consecrate and bless the oils our priests will use in the sacraments, we offer a countersign to that dictatorship of technology, recognizing in faith that only God is limitless in His love and mercy. God’s power is not His ability to do everything and even to know everything, but His power to love, even the sinner, which is all of us. As St. Paul tells us, the wisdom of God is foolishness to this world and certainly one that would be rejected out of hand by artificial intelligence. God gave His only Son, who gave His life in order that we might have life. At a time when artificial intelligence may surpass the limits of human intelligence, it can never surpass the human heart, which rests in the heart of God and in which we encounter God and each other. As we prayed last week in the first Preface for Passiontide, “Through the saving Passion of your Son, the whole world has received a heart.” The heart always rises above the mind.

Unfortunately, we are living in an age when the heart no longer has the precedent that it should. We are living in a world of broken hearts. We may be advanced in technology but broken in heart. A priest is a man of the heart. The life of a priest is crucial because the priest acts in the Person of Jesus, speaks in the Person of Jesus and carries out his God-given role from his heart. The more the priest grows in his heart, the more he grows in his priesthood and his relationship to all of us. The priest reminds us of the centrality of the heart, not the mind over the heart!

The great St. Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, spoke often of the heart. He is well known for his insight that “The heart speaks to the heart.” St. John Cardinal Newman took this phrase for his episcopal motto, as he was so influenced by St. Francis de Sales. The world today needs the human heart more than it needs anything else. The heart speaks to the heart, and in this dialogue we encounter God. The priest is the one who speaks to the heart, listens to the heart and strives to be at peace in his own heart. St. Francis de Sales has much to say to all of us in regard to the heart speaking to the heart. As Pope Francis said in his Apostolic Letter on him last year, “St. Francis de Sales felt there was no better place to find God, and to help others find him, than in the hearts of the men and women of his time. He had learned this from his earliest years, developing a keen insight both into himself and into the human heart.”

The priest speaks from the heart because he speaks from the heart of God, and the heart of God speaks to him. On the day of our ordination as priests, we were asked if we were resolved to pray without ceasing and resolved to unite ourselves more closely to Christ, the High Priest, each day. So much of a priest’s life is taken up in praying alone and with his people in the sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours and the Eucharist. It is here, in prayer, that the priest’s heart speaks to God, not so much in words, but in receiving the love of God as it is spoken from God’s heart and to the hearts of the people the priest serves.

The priest’s prayer should rise from his heart. St. Francis de Sales says, “Those who pray from the heart do not think about the prayer they are saying but about the God to whom they pray.” So much is the priest’s prayer from the heart that it is most powerful in the Eucharist, when, joined to Christ, he utters, “This is my body, this is my blood poured out for you.” That is the heart praying from the heart and not the lips speaking to the ear. As St. Francis de Sales says, “In no other action can the Savior be considered more tender or more loving than in this, in which he annihilates himself, so to say, and reduces himself to food, in order to penetrate our souls, and to unite himself to the hearts of his faithful.”

The priest speaks heart to heart to people when he is present to them in the good times and especially in the difficult moments. An understanding heart transcends words and is needed more than any logical words of the mind. St. Francis counsels, “A heart memory is better than a head memory. Better to carry away a little of the love of Christ in our souls, than if we were able to repeat every word of every sermon we ever heard.” This is sound advice for our world today.

In a world filled with words, sometimes so empty and deceiving, we need the words which come from the heart, even more than from the mind. We are grateful for our priests speaking from their hearts to our hearts. This occurs in the Sacrament of Penance. Here, we speak our heart to the heart of the priest, whose heart is not his but that of Christ. The mercy and the forgiveness shown to us in the sacrament is that of the Lord Himself, and it is that mercy that speaks louder than words. Confession is most freeing when the heart speaks to the heart sincerely, even if few words are spoken. The story is told of a woman who went to confession saying, “Father, I’m here but I really have no sins. I put up with my husband — he’s loud, he’s rude, he’s always complaining and he thinks he has no faults.” Hearing her heart, and sensing those faults were the woman’s as well, rather than reminding the woman of her pride, the priest, from his heart, lovingly told her, “The Lord is always forgiving. For your penance, go home and tell your husband to say the rosary — but you say it with him.” That was heart to heart.

As we continue to celebrate this Chrism Mass, we give thanks to our priests for speaking to our hearts from the Heart of Christ. As they celebrate the sacraments with the oil we will consecrate and bless today, may their hearts continue to know the love of God, who makes His heart present in the sacraments. Jesus took our human heart to Himself, and His wounded Heart remains with Him in His glorified body in heaven for all eternity. As we priests now renew the promises which we made on the day of our ordination from our hearts, may our hearts speak to yours and may yours speak to ours, so that we all may know the loving heart of God.

Artificial intelligence may draft what the mind considers a good homily. The words may be well chosen, but they will be like the program that created them — heartless — sufficient but empty. A true homily is more about the heart of the priest and the lived prayer behind his words. The homily is not only in the speaking of the heart of the priest but also in the listening heart of the listener. Heart to heart — not one sided.

In a personal manner, I thank our wonderful priests of the Diocese of Palm Beach for being the Heart of Christ to me and to all of us in a concrete manner. While we live in a world that is confused and one that is more controlled by the mind than the heart, may the Heart of Christ continue to speak to us through our priests. Their role is eternally secure. Nothing, and especially technology, can take their place.