Evangelization

“Please Make Me Be”

This article was posted on: July 8, 2024

An interview with Father Eric Berns.

An interview with Father Eric Berns

Catholic Life: Good morning, Father Berns. What has been on your heart and mind as this discussion approached?

Father Berns: I recently came across a report by CARA (the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) or Pew Research years ago showing that priests generally experienced the highest level of contentment in middle age. That is the case for me. I find myself becoming more grateful for the priesthood, feeling more love toward my people and experiencing more satisfaction and contentment in my 50s rather than earlier in life.

I feel like I’ve changed a lot. I’m calmer now, and I try to be more careful in my decisions and actions. I’ve mellowed out a bit, but being a pastor always comes with its share of stressors. I believe that these challenges are part of the Lord’s plan for me, and I need to trust Him completely to overcome worry and stress.

We have a dozen different words for what amounts to fear. As I give the Lord my heart in morning prayer, I ask Him to guard it against anything that would remove me from or impede the flow of His love into me.

And this is what prayer is meant to be for us: the inflowing of divine love. Movements in my heart along Ignatian spirituality can impede that love if they are from the enemy of our human nature, as Ignatius of Loyola called him, and not from God. And those things commonly, and in my case, can be fear. We’ll call it worry, whatever. I’m not so worried about the state of the Church but more about how the world is encroaching on the Church.

The confrontation that has to happen between the Church and the world gives occasion for me to renew my complete trust in the Lord daily. So, I ask the Lord to make me smaller so that I do not take myself too seriously, realize I’m not that important and don’t occupy the center of the stage. That place belongs to Jesus. The image that comes to my mind, and in the words of my prayer every morning, is that He makes me small enough that He can carry me in His arms, and He does the acting. If it pleases the Father that He uses me in whatever way He sees fit, so be it. But I’m not the one doing the acting; He is. I’m finding it more imperative that I make that daily surrender in trust to Jesus.

SEEING THROUGH THE GENTLE EYES OF THE LORD

Catholic Life: You wrote an article for Catholic Life in 2020 and shared that the greatest obstacle in your priestly life has always been fear of not being enough for the important work the Lord entrusted in you. You reflected that Jesus wants to remove every form of fear from your heart.

Can you tell us about your journey, specifically in the four years since you wrote about that fear and where you’ve seen growth in confronting that fear and where you have growth left to do?

Father Berns: I have experienced personal growth by asking Jesus to fill my heart with His movements, sentiments and thoughts. This has resulted in a greater love for God’s people. Over the past four years, I have grown to love my parishioners more than I did before. As I get older, it becomes easier for me to see the areas where God’s people need growth and guidance.

I see them through the gentle eyes of the Lord, viewing them as beautiful children with simple, deep and beautiful faith. In short, I now love the people of the church more than I did even just a few years ago.

Catholic Life: Would you consider that the answer to the prayers that you offered?

Father Berns: Yes, definitely.

Catholic Life: Seeing through the gentle eyes of the Lord is such a beautiful thought. When you reflect and pray, where do you see more opportunity for further growth?

Father Berns: To not resist or object to the fullness of God’s love. I need to have more faith in the fullness of His love for me. I do feel it, but I want to experience it even more so I can fully receive it. I need to let myself be loved by God and, in return, by His people.

This is a common struggle among priests, including myself. Where does love come from? In the most challenging times of my priesthood, I remembered how we were trained in the seminary to receive love primarily from the Lord and secondly from the fraternity of priests. I didn’t always appreciate that training, especially during the hardest times of my priesthood, because it didn’t include guidance on how to receive the Lord’s love.

Frankly, my training did not include how to pray, not just praying all the time, but how to pray in a way that allows me to receive the Lord’s love. I found myself trying to prove myself worthy of His love and attention, presenting myself as someone deserving of His attention. Several spiritual books that have influenced my preaching have guided me in this type of spirituality. My nothingness before God is the means by which He loves me if I allow Him.

FILLING THE EMPTY PLACES IN OUR HEARTS

Catholic Life: You mention loving yourself. How do you love yourself?

Father Berns: That’s not it—it’s not about loving myself. It’s letting myself be loved by God primarily and then by His people because, frankly, the priesthood, by nature, includes the majority of meals alone. It includes an empty rectory that’s very quiet. The quiet has to be filled with something that is of God.

If it’s not, then people, including priests, as we know, try to fill that with something that is not consistent with, or even contrary to, the love that God wants to pour into us. He wants me to bring Him the hardest parts of my priesthood, which, I don’t want to use the word loneliness, but perhaps the human desire for fraternity. It takes great faith for a priest to believe in and live in the truth that prayer is an encounter leading to
intimacy with God by letting His love into my heart and soul to get beyond the loneliness and the solitude.

It’s such a contrast that we are always with people in person, in the church, with a congregation, on the phone, with staff all through the day with people—and then there is an abrupt switch that’s thrown at the end of the day where there’s nobody around. The Lord is asking me to enter that most challenging part of life with Him and trust that He wants to do something beautiful with it. He wants to fill in my heart the empty space that can otherwise be felt only as loneliness.

This is a universal part of the human condition. Celibate priest, married person, whatever. We know that some of the loneliest people are surrounded by family.

Catholic Life: What heartfelt advice would you give to a new priest to help them prepare?

Father Berns: Oh, my goodness, I’m glad you asked that. I love the priests ordained in our diocese in recent years; they are such good men and they give me such hope. They inspire me, and at the same time, I want to be a gentle presence for them, reassuring them because I needed that when I was a young priest. I’m not faulting anyone to say that I didn’t really experience it. I can’t imagine a priest setting a higher standard for himself than I had in the first years of my priesthood.

If I were to offer advice to the young guys, I have no question of their performance as priests. It’s important for them to be gentle with themselves and to allow the gentleness of the Lord in the areas where they feel inadequacy as priests. I want them to be gentler with themselves, and I think they can easily feel what I felt—frustration and inadequacy—all the while putting on the face of the good priest.

Catholic Life: You mentioned that initially, those moments of solitude were surprising and jarring, but now you see that this is where you find the Lord and where He wants to find you. Knowing what you do now, what would you have told young Eric Burns about those moments of solitude that were at first so difficult to adjust to?

Father Berns: I would have told him to become smaller because you’re not that important. The subtlest and most common form of pride for priests is a dangerous spiritual disposition by which they act as if everything is up to them.

The image in my prayer and my preaching of late is that the dangerous place is to imagine that I’m at the center of the stage with all of this responsibility heaped on me, and I’ve got to take care of so much. The “I” being in italics, right? I have to take care of so much and that so much is up to me. I have so many decisions and actions to make. I, I, I. And in His love, Jesus says, you’re not that important. I want you to experience my love in the place of your inadequacy.

A turning point happened during my time in Sparta when a conversation with a seasoned priest unsettled me for almost an entire day. He didn’t do anything wrong; he simply pointed out a weakness of mine as an administrator. I held him in high regard as an exemplary administrative pastor. I was disturbed that night and the next day feeling inadequate until I gave that to the Lord explicitly in prayer and gave him my incompetence. I made a gift of my incompetence and inadequacy to Him and asked Him to love me there. I know that He does but inviting Jesus to love me in the places where I feel most deficient.

I felt peace immediately. That doesn’t happen often in prayer, but since then, a good part of my prayer has been giving to Jesus all that I am not and all that I wish that I were.

I could ask Jesus to make me more—a better administrator, a man of better judgment and action and to change me. But that’s just asking Him to change me into what I think I need to be and is a subtle form of pride. Instead, I think Jesus delights in me giving Him everything I don’t have, everything that I am not, and I easily wish that I were.

“HOW LITTLE WORTHY OF LOVE THOU ART!”

Catholic Life: You mentioned “please make me be,” and that can apply in marriages. For example, when there are fractures and failings, a husband or wife may pray, “Please make me be,” the person I need to be for my spouse and for my children. Similarly, someone struggling at work may pray, “Please make me be…”

How can I overcome the fear of presenting my authentic self to the Lord and others, knowing it may not be enough? How do I stop asking, “Please make me be?”

Father Berns: (Leans back in his chair) That is such a good question —how do I get rid of “Please make me be?” Francis Thompson writes in the poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” “How little worthy of any love thou art!”

My nothingness before God is a space He yearns to fill so that my desire is solely for Him, and not for what I want to be. As my desire becomes more completely for Him and to receive His love, He changes me by grace, transforming me to make me what He wants, even in a way imperceptible to myself.

The task of the Christian, and the priest in particular, is to let their soul be overpowered and transformed by the life of grace, the indwelling love of God. This transformation occurs in a way that is imperceptible to me. True prayer does not occur on a conscious level. So, how can I overcome the obstacle of wanting to be what I want to be and instead ask the Lord to make me more?

He will remove the nagging desire to change me without me asking. He wants me to desire Him and then He will free me from this self-preoccupation. One of my daily prayers is asking the Lord, as I give Him my heart, to guard me against things that would impede His love, like self-absorption, pride and self-pity. I pray that I think of myself less and less and think of the Lord more and more.

Catholic Life: You paint a beautiful picture of the journey and the destination. But today, if I could only do one thing because I’m small and flawed, what would it be? What specific action can one take?

Father Berns: The best concrete action people can take is to recommit themselves to sacramental confession, to remain in that state of grace, and to let that life of grace deepen within us. It’s so simple. I’ve been telling people for years the two places where we most powerfully encounter God’s love are the Eucharist and sacramental confession. Encountering God’s love and confession is for rookies like you and me. Avail themselves of the all-beatifying love of God in adoration and confession.

Catholic Life: In closing, what do you tell the reader who is afraid to encounter Christ in the Eucharist or confession because they fear they are not worthy of love?

Father Berns: Jesus tells them that you have no idea how lovable you are precisely because you feel inept, inadequate or unworthy! Jesus tells us that we are loved completely. My primary confessor, and the priest who has done perhaps more for me than any priest I’ve known, has been a gentle, reassuring presence, insisting on the completeness of God’s love for me, even to the point of delighting in me.

I cannot tell you how much I objected to that when he first told me. My thoughts had been, “Let me grow spiritually. Let me make progress. Let me become the priest that I always thought I should be. And then maybe I’ll consider the remote possibility that God delights in me.” His love for souls, imperfect and unworthy as they are, is tantamount to His delight in me.

Catholic Life: Thank you for sharing your time with us today. 

Father Berns: You’re welcome. God bless.

Published in the July/August 2024 issue of Catholic Life Magazine

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