This is a copy of the homily that the Provincial of the Wisconsin Province gave at our first vows Mass. I wanted to share it with you all, as it deeply moved me, even to the point of shedding tears during it. It spoke to me of how much bigger this is than any of us, of the incredible goodness of God, and of hope for the future despite fears.
Homily – First Vows – August 13, 2011 – St Paul, MN – Fr. Tom Lawler, SJ
In the old Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons, there was a character named Sherman who liked to travel back in time with his friend Peabody. They had a time machine. Let’s dial back the clock 477 years, and go to France.
I. The First Vows of the Pilgrim and his friends: Paris, 1534.
Seven men had become friends at the University of Paris. They were from Spain, Portugal and France – men in the their early-twenties, with the exception of their leader, Ignatius Loyola. He walked with a slight limp from a battle wound. He was a short, balding, a 43 year old Basque man with dreams and wild ideas about a radical “new way of life,” following Jesus as friends, companions, in poverty and chastity – as pilgrims and priests – but not monks - of journeying to Jerusalem to minister there, and if that didn’t work, placing themselves at the service of God and the Church.
On the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother, these first Jesuits – including Francis Xavier and the one priest in the group, Peter Fabre - climbed up the hill of Montmartre in Paris to the chapel to pray, celebrate the Eurcharist and make their total self-offering to God in companionship.
Those men shared a union of minds and hearts – with strong desires to serve God and the Church. As one historian described it:
“At the [time] of communion, each pronounced his vows. Fabre gave the Eucharist to his six companions. As they left the chapel, pure joy inundated the hearts of these men: the joy of having given a purpose to their lives for all time; the joy of belonging unreservedly to Christ; the joy of participating henceforth in the great work of redemption, without limits, without boundaries, without reserve; the joy of a fraternal community of faith, hope and charity.” (A. Ravier, p. 72).
What would possibly motivate these men 450 years ago to make this kind of complete and total self-offering to God? Could it be the same grace of God that motivates these vow-men to make a similar offering today?
What follows is a reflection from today’s scripture readings and the writings of Ignatius on the grace behind such motivation. Then, based on the readings, I’d like to offer some practical advice to the vow men us as they prepare to make such an offering.
II. The Pilgrim’s two-fold journey:
The seed of any vocation is sown in the human heart through an encounter with God’s grace. For some, that seed appears suddenly and dramatically. For Moses, God used a burning bush. For Ignatius, God used a cannon ball to get his attention. For St Paul, it was a vision of the Risen Christ.
For others (most of us), the seed is planted almost without notice and grows slowly. For Elijah the prophet, it was a gentle breeze; for St Joseph, a dream. For Mary, the voice of an angel. For others, a gradual revealing of desire and attraction in the heart, a burning desire to do great things for God.
As St. Ignatius recovered from his battle injuries, he pondered and studied “how the Creator deals directly with the creature.” Ignatius noticed and mapped out carefully the human response to God’s grace in a little book called the Spiritual Exercises.
Ignatius liked to refer to himself as “the pilgrim” – a man on a journey. His idea of the pilgrimage became the model and pattern of all future followers. Every serious follower of the Ignatius who experiences the Spiritual Exercises is invited to listen to God’s call and to respond.
At its core, the encounter with God involves a profound inward journey of awareness, following by an outward journey of love and service.
The first part is a going inside to encounter myself and my God, discovering my own creature-hood, vulnerable humanity, my brokenness, yet also God’s acceptance, forgiveness, love and healing.
This inward journey of awareness and discovery leads to a movement of the heart in gratitude and new-found joy, some call “conversion.” The heart wells up with loving desires to respond in “return,” wishing to make a self-offering to God. This is the outward journey - an aching to love and to serve God and God’s people, to love and to serve, especially the poor, in imitation of Jesus.
Ignatius’s type of self- offering goes like this:
“Take, Lord, and receive…all that I have and all that I am. You have given all to me; now I wish to return it. All is yours! Make us of it wholly according to your will.”
Later in this liturgy, the vow men will make their offering in similar words and with similar devotion.
III. Practical advice from Jeremiah, St Paul, and Mary
Before they do so, here is some advice for these Ignatian pilgrims based on the encounters of God with Jeremiah, St. Paul and Mary.
1. (From Gospel Luke) The angel said: “Do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid of facing a troubled world. Your vocation will be lived out in the context of a world that is “marked by profound changes, acute conflicts,and new possibilities.” (GC 34) Let the words of the angel Gabriel reassure you: “Do not be afraid. You have found favor with God.”
Do not be afraid of what others think of you or your commitment. They may not understand, but hopefully they will see the great love you have for God and for the poor. Do not be ashamed of the Gospel you believe in, and the Church you now represent.
Do not be afraid of losing your freedom, of losing out on the joys of life, and giving up opportunities because of your vows. A few years ago, Pope Benedict reassured young people by explaining:
“if we follow Christ, are we “deprived of our freedom? No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return...”
Advice 2. (From St Paul) “Be patient under trials”
When you follow Jesus closely, you will find challenges along the journey – some interior, some external. You will likely have questions, perhaps at times, even doubts. “How can this be? I am too young! I don’t know what to say!” Remember God’s reassurance to Jeremiah: “I am with you to deliver you. I will give you words to speak…”
When you face challenges, “persevere in prayer… be fervent in Spirit.”
The Lord who created you and formed you in the womb will never abandon or forget you. “What can separate us from the love of Christ? trials, persecution? anguish? dangers?” No. Trust that God’s grace and love will be enough for you, and the rest will be given.
Adivce 3. (from Prophet Jeremiah) “You are not alone.”
Your call to service in this least Society of Jesus is a call of companionship. You do not go alone. Christ walks with you as companion. He will be found in your prayer as a guide and inspiration; he is received in the Eucharist as your daily bread for the journey. He is there in family, fellow students, friends, colleagues and brother Jesuits.
You may face loneliness at times. Do not be afraid of it, do not run from it. Every vocation includes some moments of loneliness.
The Truth is, you are never alone.
Living these vows in companionship in the Society of Jesus, in fidelity and with joy, is only possible by the grace of God.
IV. Conclusion: Joyful Witnesses of God’s Grace
We do not have to travel 477 years back in a time machine or go to Paris to witness the remarkable unfolding of God’s grace in human life, that interior and exterior journey of faith. We rejoice with these vow men at the unfolding of their Jesuit vocation as they follow in the footsteps of the first Jesuits in Paris in 1534.
May your vows today, be like theirs, a witness to
“the joy of participating... in the great work of redemption, without limits, without boundaries, without reserve; the joy of a fraternal community of faith, hope and charity.”