Vocation and Fidelity – a living example

Western culture is not one that any longer values age. In the east the elders are valued as repositories of wisdom and history, and significant respect is shown them. In the west you might still find a person willing, say, to give up a seat for an elder on a bus, but otherwise the elderly are seen more as a nuisance or a burden than anything else. Most businesses will not want a worker to stay beyond retirement age, and the older you get the harder it is to find a new job. Let’s not be fooled  by the current trend to raise the retirement age; that is for purely economic reasons, as the state wants to reduce its pensions burden. No longer is it common for widowed parents or grandparents to live with the families of their children; homes are the preferred option. To be sure, sometimes this is a mercy for all involved. As people live longer so the complications of ageing become far more prevalent, and coping with someone suffering acute Alzheimer’s or significant loss of physical function can be beyond the capabilities of most people. Nevertheless, our culture clearly values youth above age.

So it is refreshing to see this trend being opposed in the Church. A fine example, as it happens, can be found at my old school, St Aloysius’ College, Milson’s Point in Sydney. Last weekend Tom Nicol (himself an old boy, and a young one at that) at Sky News Australia profiled a Jesuit priest on the staff there, Fr Geoffrey Schneider SJ (no doubt to his partial discomfiture – he is not one to seek the limelight). Fr Schneider is about 5 months short of his 100th birthday, and he is still at work. He is teacher and chaplain in the College’s Junior School, and I suspect he must be a contender for the oldest teacher still at work in the world, and maybe even oldest priest as well. He is not some sort of neurotic workaholic. Rather he is a man who has responded wholeheartedly to the Lord’s call, and remains faithful to it even as age wearies his body. He is a fine Jesuit, a fine priest and and a fine Christian. He has influenced generations of young men at my old school, and other schools as well (relatively briefly in contrast to the decades he has been at St Aloysius’). Even at 99.5 years of age, he brings to a new generation of boys the faith, the sacraments and an example of selfless service, embodying the touchstone goal of the Australian Jesuit schools – to produce men for others.

When the Day of the Lord comes may God reward Fr Schneider one hundredfold and more. Until then, ad multos annos!

If the video does not appear below just click the link at right-  Fr Geoffrey Schneider SJ on Sky News Australia

Urinals and vocation

Two resources for vocation discernment have come into my ken the last few days, and both are well worth sharing.

"Choosing the Right Urinal" Micro BookKyle Heimann is a young married American musician, graphic designer and father, among other things, who has an almost Australian cheekiness. He is just released a micro-book, Choosing the Right Urinal, as a help to discerning a vocation. He finds, as you might have guessed, that a “restroom” can provide more than one metaphor for vocational discernment and indeed for the spiritual side of life in general. It takes no time to read, bears re-reading and reflection, asks some very good questions, makes some very sound recommendations, and it’s free online!

One word of warning: it is a very blokey book. It is written by a man very much from a man’s point of view and experience – the very title gives that away. Nevertheless, women should not feel that they cannot read it with profit. Its principles are universal. But there is no allowance made for feminine delicacy. No blushing please.

The second resource derives from a document given to me by Fr Christopher Jamison OSB of the UK National Vocations Office. It is short essay entitled Vocation Discernment: Three Approaches. The author, Joseph Bolin, examines the insights of St Thomas Aquinas, St Ignatius Loyola and Pope John Paul II and uses them to refocus vocational discernment from “What do I want to do?” to “What am I meant to do?”. The unifying thread is the love of God, both our love for God and God’s love for us. Lest it appear to be rather too theological, I can assure you it is quite readable and accessible. Indeed Bolin gives some excellent practical insights into the marks and signs of a vocation which are eminently sensible and sound.

Some online searching has led me to the website of the author, Joseph Bolin. He is a theologian and now also a seminarian in Vienna. So you can read the article I was given here, though it is actually a summary of a larger work of his, Paths of Love, on vocational discernment which you can read here. His website is excellent and full of resources for those still considering a vocation to religious or priestly life, though the principles apply to the discernment of any vocation. Look through it at your leisure.

And not to forget – HAPPY AUSTRALIA DAY!



UPDATE  2 July 2012 – Joseph Bolin, currently with us for a conference on vocation, is a seminarian no longer. He was ordained by the cardinal in Vienna last week. Auguri, Padre! as the Italians would say. And of course, ad multos annos.

The Pope speaks to consecrated religious

On Friday Pope Benedict addressed the assembly in Rome of the superiors of religious orders and congregations. The full address at the moment is only available on the Vatican website in Italian – the English version normally takes a few days to be released.

The Holy Father reminded the assembled superiors that all renewal in religious life must be based on the Word of God, which is central to the religious life. The living out of the Gospel “every day is what makes the consecrated life intriguing and beautiful”. To provide a true and reliable option for Christians in modern society, consecrated men and women must meet the primary expectation that both world and Church have of them: “to be a living Gospel”.

One aspect of this living out of the Gospel the Pope highlights is fraternity. It is the communal life and its spirit of fraternity that attract young people, and it is the living of community life in a fraternal spirit that is “an important prophetic element you offer to a highly fragmented society”. In a world increasingly individualistic and even selfish, the consecrated religious is called to live a life in community that embodies the Gospel values of mutual service and self-sacrifice. In so doing the religious community, be it apostolic and active, or contemplative and monastic, becomes an icon of the universal Church living in obedience to Christ’s great commandments to love God and our neighbour. By implication, a community that lacks this fraternal and communal spirit, this fidelity to the Gospel in daily life, is one that will not meet the needs of either the contemporary Church or the world.

To avoid this, the Pope reminded the superiors of the need “for serious and constant discernment in order to listen to what the Spirit is telling the community, in order to recognise what comes from the Lord and what is contrary to Him”. It is very easy for a community or a congregation to be so fixated on its own agenda and its own self-chosen set of priorities that it fails to meet the most pressing needs of the Church and world, which are primarily spiritual and moral needs. When a community thus serves itself rather than the Lord who speaks and acts through the Church in the contemporary world then it will not attract others to its life. Therefore, “without discernment, accompanied by prayer and reflection, consecrated life risks basing itself on the criteria of this world: individualism, consumerism, materialism; criteria that undermine fraternity and cause consecrated life to lose its allure”.

Which brought the Holy Father to the concept of mission. Mission is essential to the consecrated life and always involves a mandate “to bring the Gospel to everyone, without borders”. Such an openness to encountering the world will only be fruitful if it is “supported by a strong experience of God, solid formation and fraternal life in the community”. Without these elements, the products of prayer, study and fraternity, the religious community risks being shaped by the world rather than itself shaping the world. A religious community that ruins to a worldly agenda is a failed community. Perhaps here lies part of the reason for the decline in religious life in Europe and the West.

For all its decline, religious life is a constant in the life of the Church: “the difficulties must not make us forget that consecrated life has its origins in the Lord; chosen by Him for the edification and sanctity of His Church. Thus consecrated life ‘will never be lacking’ in the Church”. While particular communities and congregations may pass away, either because they no longer serve a pressing need in the Church in the world or because they have strayed from the essentials of their vocation, the consecrated life will remain a God-given factor in the life of the Church. The consecrated life, be it active or contemplative, always links the spiritual welfare of its members to the service of the Church. Where that service is lacking or mis-directed, the consecrated life becomes sterile and doomed to die.

The Pope has effectively given the religious superiors a particular and pressing task: to discern afresh the role of religious communities in serving the Church. What are the needs that religious are called to meet? Pope Benedict has given us many clues over the last few years:

  • to restore worship as the central activity of the Church, worship offered not only for the Church but also on behalf of all the world;
  • to counteract the increasing materialism, rationalism, atheism and individualism of the modern world by preaching, in word and in action, the reality of God and the primacy in healthy human existence of God’s universal call to self-sacrificial love;
  • to bear witness to the centrality of the Church, not only in the life of Christians but also in that of the world; and
  • to promote the dignity of all human life, from conception to the grave, and beyond.

For those who are considering religious or monastic life, you will probably need to ask yourselves two questions: (1) does this describe the sort of life to which you are attracted and to which you may therefore be called; and, (2) in which community or monastery, given your personal gifts and strengths, will you best fulfill God’s call to you?

The Pope’s message to the young people of Britain

During his state visit to Britain a few weeks back, the Pope addressed young people of Mass at Westminster Cathedral. The full text of that speech can be found here.

The Holy Father began by reminding young people that we were all made by God to receive love. Pope Benedict is very much the Pope of love: from his first encyclical Deus caritas est (“God is love”), he has consistently looked at matters through the lens of love. It is not romantic love that he is referring to, nor any sentimental niceness or indulgence towards others. Rather he speaks of receiving the love that is God the Trinity, which is itself a community of love so perfect that it makes one God of three Persons. The love that is God is a love that bears fruit in unity among people, and also within an individual, as body and soul live in increasing harmony in living out God’s will.

This means our reception of God’s love must have an impact on our lives, must bear fruit in our conduct. If we are truly to live by God’s will then we must live by his commandments, and Christ himself taught us the greatest commandments, which are a summary of all the others:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

[Matt 22:36-40]

In other words, having received love we are called by God to share that love with those around us. This is not always easy, and indeed it often requires great sacrifice and commitment, as well as the help of God’s grace which we receive abundantly if we ask for it. The Pope told the young people that,

Every day we have to choose to love and this requires help. The help that comes from Christ, from the wisdom found in his Word. And from the grace which he bestows us in the sacraments of his Church. This is the message I want to share with you today. I ask you to look into your hearts, each day, to find the source of all true love. Jesus is always there, quietly waiting for us to be still with him and to hear his voice. Deep within your heart, he is calling you to spend time with him in prayer, but this kind of prayer, real prayer, requires discipline.

Thus prayer is the nourishment of our ability to share God’s love, and so the nourishment of our obedience to God’s will. By means of prayer, especially as empowered by the sacraments, we find the strength to do what we could not hope to do of our own power, and we God’s word addressed to us personally:

It requires time for moments of silence every day. Often it means waiting for the Lord to speak.

Even amidst the business and stress of our daily lives we need to make space for silence, because it is in silence that we find God. And in silence that we discover our true self.

Through the discipline of prayer, itself a true commitment to loving God, God our Creator, who made us for his own particular purpose, not only reveals himself to us, but also reveals to us our true identity as persons made in his image and likeness. In discovering who we truly are, we discover also what God is calling us to do with our lives. Here we find the Holy Father’s fundamental point:

And in discovering our true self we discover the particular vocation which God has given us for the building up of his Church and the redemption of our world. Heart speaks unto heart. With these words from my heart, dear young friends, I assure you of my prayers for you.

So if you are discerning what God is calling you to do with your lives, the Pope is calling you first to pray, to develop a living and active relationship with the Lord. Intimate and personal knowledge of God is the key to knowledge of yourself and your particular mission in this life. In quoting Blessed John Henry Newman’s motto, heart speaks unto heart (Cor ad cor loquitur), perhaps Pope Benedict is subtly inviting you to place your vocational discernment under the special patronage of the holy cardinal, who wrote so eloquently of each individual’s worth to the world and before God.

Blessed John Henry Newman – pray for us!

P.S. Today is the feast of St Therèse of the Child Jesus.  Perhaps she also is a good patron for those, especially the young, discerning a vocation. She died aged, yet in her short life she managed to develop, through prayer fed by the sacraments,  a profound knowledge of God and fidelity to him in the smallest details of life. Though a nun cloistered in silence, her heart went out in love and concern to the mission lands and to all those who had yet to hear of God and his love for them. It was for this missionary task that she devoted so much of her prayer. As Pope Benedict reminded young people that at the heart of any vocation, central to the basic Christian vocation, is the call to share the knowledge and reality of God’s love for humanity, you might also ask the intercession of St Therèse if you are discerning a vocation, that in the cloister of your heart you might hear the call of God.

St Therèse of the Child Jesus – pray for us!

Newman and Vocation

We will be hearing even more about the Venerable Cardinal Newman Blessed John Henry Newman in the next few months. Already he is familiar to many through his writings, if only through the more famous ones. Some passages are so famous as to approach cliché, and some lose their power when they are quoted out of their full context. One such is Bl John Henry’s meditation on vocation, or personal mission. It is indeed a beautiful passage but read in its fuller context it has an even greater resonance.

So before you read it take note that it is part of a meditation on God as our Creator and thus the object of our hope. Since God has created us, he knows us through and through, knows what is best for us and knows our individual purpose, for it was he who gave it to us and fitted us for it, and so made us a part of his plan for the universe. On the second day of his meditation on this subject, 7 March 1848, he wrote:

God was all-complete, all-blessed in Himself; but it was His will to create a world for His glory. He is Almighty, and might have done all things Himself, but it has been His will to bring about His purposes by the beings He has created. We are all created to His glory—we are created to do His will. I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by my name.

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.

Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still He knows what He is about.

O Adonai, O Ruler of Israel, Thou that guidest Joseph like a flock, O Emmanuel, O Sapientia, I give myself to Thee. I trust Thee wholly. Thou art wiser than I—more loving to me than I myself. Deign to fulfil Thy high purposes in me whatever they be—work in and through me. I am born to serve Thee, to be Thine, to be Thy instrument. Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see—I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.

Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us!

Boycott of Mass in Ireland fails

You may have heard on the news that an Irish woman, the octogenarian Jennifer Sleeman, had urged Catholics in Ireland (and beyond) to boycott Mass today in protest over the Church’s “refusal” to ordain women.

The cause was a dubious one from the outset, as Pope John Paul II made it quite clear that ordaining women is not something the Church has the power to do, even if its leaders should ever want to do so. The campaign for women’s ordination often implicitly views priesthood in secular terms, as yet another job to which women should have access as a matter of socio-political right. It is of course a vocation, an order of sacramental service in and for the Church that finds its meaning and its rationale only within the context of faith. It is not another emblem of social equality and power. No one has a right to ordination.

Thankfully, despite encouragement from other women’s ordination advocates, the boycott has failed totally. Not only was there no noticeable drop in numbers attending Mass in Ireland, in some places there was an increase in numbers. It seems that the ordinary Irish Catholic, whether he or she agrees with the cause or not, realises that refusing to do one’s Christian duty in honouring the Lord’s Day by worshipping with the rest of the Church in one’s local parish is self-defeating. It damages the fabric of Church life which one would have hoped the women’s ordination lobby would be seeking to build up. Moreover, maybe ordinary Catholics realise that no purpose is served by denying oneself the grace of the Eucharist, and that indeed only spiritual harm could come of it. Maybe they also resent the politicisation of the Church’s most sacred act. Here we might legitimately detect the voice of the faithful, the sensus fidelium.

Let us pray that we might all be able to accept the teachings of the Church, especially those we find most difficult, if not for the sake of the Church alone, then for the sake of Christ who guarantees the Church’s teaching.

Madonna and the child Jesus
Our Lady, Mother of the Church, pray for us.

The Rule of St Benedict

As you can see, things are at an early stage here. In case you know little about St Benedict and his Rule you can find here a couple of links that will get you oriented. You can read an online version of the Rule of St Benedict so you can see for yourself what he teaches, but remember he wrote about 1500 years ago. A former Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Order, Jerome Theisen, has written a useful basic introduction to the Rule here. Abbot Jerome also has written a brief introduction to St Benedict himself. This should get you started …

St Benedict - pray for us!