Showing posts with label mission. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mission. Show all posts

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Good works, good works, everywhere! And all my time did shrink.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

~ The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge's famous poem has these memorable lines of the mariner surrounded by his abundance, yet stranded also because of it, for the water was useless if not drinkable. I have found that much the same can be said for ministry: opportunities abound, even more, they are in excess. And so we are stranded, with good works in every direction we look, but until we take a step, make a commitment, it remains mere potentiality. The mariner can distill the water, but he must take a portion of the sea, he cannot distill it all. So too can we Christians take a portion of ministry as our own, and by doing so do what is good and right, but we cannot do anything if we simply gaze at the plenitude of possibilities for ministry.

There is good to be done in almost any walk of life. Doctors and medics who heal, lawyers who can be advocates for the unjustly accused, priests who can administer the sacraments, social workers who provide all sorts of services, missionaries who provide the Gospel in a manner particular to their calling, politicians who work for the common good of society, natural fathers and mothers who care for their children, contemplative religious who take as their own the yoke of prayer, teachers who educate the young...the list is probably as long as there exists people. There is a lot of good to be done in the world. No one person, however, can do all these things.

If we try and take all of them upon ourselves, we will surely fail. Certainly, one might object, one can be more than one of these professions: one can, for instance, be married (with duties to one's spouse), with children (with parental duties) a doctor and missionary, all in one. I have met such people. Yet even these unsung heroes cannot do everything, they simply do more than most. What remains - and this is clearly evident to the man I know who does combine those professions and vocations, since studying medicine is hardly a weekend hobby - is to commit. A bucket full of water can be taken to be distilled, not the whole ocean.

I want to write about two things in brief: first, how do we pick? I give St Ignatius Loyola's answer. Second, what then do I pick?

What then shall we do?

For Christians, as I explained when I went discussed vocation briefly here, deciding what to do is about discernment, discerning the will of God who knows how best to include us in the unfolding of salvation history. The problem we come to when figuring out what ministry to engage in, however, is that we already have as a premise that the choices are good. We already know what is wrong, and not to be involved in such activities. We have to distinguish, somehow, between good-and-meant-for-me and good-but-not-meant-for-me.

St Ignatius has a profound answer, which would be hard to summarise here. The way I understand it, his answer is threefold: first, a holy person makes holy decisions, so our first step should be to strive in everything to be holy. Second, Following the will of God produces feelings of consolation, and opposing it produces feelings of desolation. These are terms are used in a very specific way in the spirituality of St Ignatius, they do not refer simply to feeling good (consolation) or feeling bad (desolation). For this reason, I will at most touch on them briefly, in connection to one of the central insights of St Ignatius, which is (thirdly) that our deepest and holiest desires accord with the will of God for us.

Before alarm bells go off, this is not a sort of "prosperity discernment," whereby I declare whatever I want to be God's will for me to get. "I want some chocolate? God must want me to have chocolate." - not exactly, sorry. I am going to extrapolate from Ignatius' insight into a new form of language which may be clearer (hopefully without being unfaithful to St Ignatius). Our common desires, for pleasure over pain, having a full belly, being well rested, indulging our whims, can be called first order desires. Our second order desires are our desires of what we want our first order desires to be. Third order desires are about what we want our second order desires to be, and so forth.

Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane exemplifies this division, which is far from being his human will pulling one way and his divine will pulling another. It is a deeply human problem. On the one hand, the natural inclination to avoid pain makes Jesus want to avoid the cross. On the other, his deeper desire is to want whatever the Father wants. His surrender of the will ("not my will be done, but yours") is an act of a high order desire. It is here where St Ignatius places that convergence of God's will and ours.

Let me give an example that is not explicitly moral: my conflicting desires between checking Facebook for the fifth time this hour or doing my coursework. My desire to procrastinate, I assure you, is strong, and Facebook provides an infinite venue for it. Still, I could hardly say that checking Facebook is a particularly deep desire, in fact, it pops up more regularly precisely because it is a superficial, surface level desire. Deeper down, hidden somewhere, I want to do well at university, and in fact, deeper down I thoroughly enjoy my university work.

If it is true that my deepest desires accord with God's will, noting that idea can certainly be misunderstood and perverted, then it follows quite clearly that holy people make the right choice the holier they are. Part of what the stain of original sin does to us is disorder our desires, so what is fundamentally good is perceived as peripherally good, and what is peripheral (at most) is fundamental. So part of undoing that stain and once more being sanctified, being holy, is to re-order our passions so that the true, the good and the beautiful are sought in their right hierarchy. It is not bad, for instance, to be concerned with oneself, it is healthy and good. Yet narcissism is a perverted form of self-concern which comes from placing oneself as the highest good. All sin results in some way from a disordering of these desires, these passions. This message, which could be expanded to fill a book, can be summarised as follows: holy people make holy decisions because their deepest, holiest desires are given centrality.

What then shall I do?

Now it is time for some introspection. What is it that I desire most deeply, what moves and motivates me more than anything else? I have sort of begun to answer that question with my series of blog posts, still unfinished, on what influences my theology. Vocation is an obvious one, but that is almost a given here, other than to note that most profoundly I want to do what God wants me to do. Grace for me implies, at least in part, that I have a deep desire for reconciliation, a point that will become clearer when I write about another crucial element of my theology, which is the focus on communion. This focus of mine on communion also implies that I have a deep desire for community, more than that, covenantal community, or in other words, a community that is based on a bond of sacred kinship. For the Christian, this bond is based on the reality of baptism.

Two other concepts, one I already wrote about and another yet to come, are central to my thought: incarnation and mission. Incarnational ministry, as I view it, is a form of ministry which makes the minister renounce what makes them above those ministered to (where by absolute I might mean, for instance, that a rich person renounces wealth to minister to the poor) in a way that imitates the God who became flesh in Jesus Christ "and dwelt among us." Last but far from least, mission is a central motivating concept for me. It is for every faithful Christian really, since Jesus came proclaiming the good news, St Paul pronounces woe on himself if he does not preach the good news and up to today the apostolic authority entrusted to the Church by Jesus has continued to say such things as "the Church exists to evangelise" (Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI).

That might sound overly intellectual, but it is really quite important, not least because to some extent my innermost is really quite intellectual anyway, perhaps to the point of being (overly) cerebral. Community, incarnational (sometimes called "intentional") community, witness and proclamation of the Gospel. These are all key. If I did not engage these, I would be being false to my vocation. I could name a few others (resurrection and truth are both exceedingly important), but I will skip them for brevity.

Changing modes for a moment, what about people's physical needs? The spiritual is important, and anyone who says otherwise is simply mistaken, but so is the corporal. Are corporal works of mercy something I am called to? Absolutely. Most people, if I may dare to generalise, probably are. Still, what variety? There are diseases to be cared for, homeless to be sheltered, hungry to be fed, the socially marginalised to be included, and so on. The list is long. So what am I meant to do?

I genuinely do not know. There are certain issues I perceive as injust, and yet I do not find myself called to work in those areas. For instance, as it stands at the moment, I do not think I am called to work in political activism for the sake of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' rights. I am far from claiming it is an unworthy cause, it is simply not my cause. Similarly, whilst I have been to all sorts of rallies, marches and vigils for the end to the murder of children in the womb, it is similarly not fundamentally my cause. Still, nobody who knows me can really say that I do not care about these things. On the other hand, there are some issues where I am compelled to do something: homelessness, hunger, de-humanising poverty, slavery both physical and otherwise (like substance addiction), social marginalisation because of such stigmas as related to race or mental health illness, among others.

To that effect, I have begin discerning committing to various apostolates that deal with these issues, and am involved already in several. To the extent that I can identify key issues, and since engaging with the corporal ones is clearly compatible with engaging in the spiritual ones (which, because they effect eternal consequences, I am compelled to give pre-eminence), it would seem that my problems are largely solved.

That would, I think, be to go too fast. Whilst there is a sense in which I will always have a certain autonomy of will, in a few years time I will be taking not one but two vows of obedience, where I consecrate my will to God via my superiors and the Pope. I find that a comforting thought. But whether comforting or not, I am not sure in the long term what sort of ministry I will be involved in. I can only discern the next two years.

This will involve, as far as my eye can see, continued involvement in soup kitchens and including whoever I meet who seems to lack community. It will involve continued service in the Newman Society at UQ, and Frassati Australia. It will hopefully involved, though I have just started doing so, being involved with outreach initiatives of the St Vincent de Paul Society. It will hopefully involve working with initiatives of the Waiter's Union, soon. All of this, whilst not neglecting that my primary state in life as it stands is that of student at university. These are my buckets of water.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

We Live in Full-Time Ministry

I have been under an immense amount of pressure lately from several angles, a pressure under which I often thrive, but certain family conflicts have meant that I simply do not have the time, the energy or the disposition to do all the things I have to. I have made reference before to how I have something of a reputation for doing a lot, including a notable six university courses, which is twice the minimum for a full time load. These family troubles though, whose nature I would rather not disclose for privacy's sake, have caused several mishaps academically recently, and I am at the point where I think I will drop two of those courses (leaving me at still a full-time load, amusingly enough). This means I will not be able to cram my four year degree into three years, it will take me three years and a half (since I already crammed half a year into my degree thus far). This bothers me more than it should.

To see why, let me do some rough calculations, and disclose my life plan of sorts. I warn that this plan is, of course, exceedingly contingent on all manner of things, but I will sketch regardless. If I drop those two courses, then I will finish my degree in three and a half years, which when added to an Honours degree year, makes 4.5. That would finish halfway through 2017. There's some uncertainty at this point over what  I will do next. Tentatively, my plan is to apply to the top universities to pursue doctoral studies, and if I cannot get into a good university for that, then I will hope to directly enter into the novitiate of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). If I do get to complete a PhD, it will probably last about 4-5 years, so that would take me to the beginning of 2022. Here I am even more uncertain, though I imagine I would enter the Society here, and if whoever is in charge permits, do post-doctoral work afterwards. It would be up to whoever is my Provincial Superior (at least, I think that's roughly how it works). If that's how it works, then assuming about 15 years until ordination, I would be ordained probably sometime at the end of 2037. That means I would be ordained at age 43.

For a 19-year-old like myself, being 43 sounds rather old. Now, that's about 24 years of life away, so of course I would be considerably older then, but I think it sounds more than just old, it sounds too old. Why? Because I think I harbour the perception that, since my vocation is to that life, I will not actually have gotten there until my life is half done. Note that this is not saying that the only form of service is as a priest - what I am saying is that, if my service is meant to be as a Jesuit priest, then it stands to reason that I should get to being a Jesuit priest as fast as possible.

This is absolutely wrong. When one does calculations like the one above, where years are added until one gets to a certain stage or event in life, one is going about the issue of life in a misguided way. I do not start my ministry when I get ordained, I start it the moment I get baptised. All Christians, whether ordained or not, whether working explicitly in Christian things or not, are in full time ministry, because our lives are our ministry.

In the Church's calendar, we are now in the Easter season, which stretches from Easter Sunday through to the day of Pentecost, for fifty days. It is a very interesting time liturgically: at the Easter Vigil, we baptise the new converts, and celebrate the Resurrection. This celebration lasts for fifty days until Pentecost, which has sometimes been described as the birthday of the Church, because it is when the Church received her commissioning. This period is hence the transitional period between baptism and mission, the time of preparation for our task to begin.

Everyone who passed through the waters of baptism, the womb of Mother Church, is now preparing for their lives of ministry. It is their whole life they have given, they can no longer live for themselves, as the reading from that same Easter Vigil reminds us:

"Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." (Romans 6)

In other words, Christians' lives are, because of their calling by Jesus and their baptism into his death, now dedicated solely to God, and that means that the life of a Christian, whatever their job, marital status, etc., is full time ministry. It is full time because our newness of life is full time. Unless, of course, you are a part-time Christian - in that case, no sweat, you are also only a part time minister.

This has profound implications for how I view that long time until ordination, even removing the five years of doctoral studies. I cannot count it as a "this and that, then I start ministry." Ministry starts now. Right now my ministry is going to involve such exciting things as reading what Brian Barry has to say and calculating Hermitians of quantum mechanics operators, whilst I serve the Newman Society here at UQ in whatever role it is (I am currently the Secretary). If I just refer to what I do as an official capacity, if my answer to "what do you do?" is "I study Science and Arts at UQ" then I have lost from the start. If I was being accurate, I would have to say "I live out my vocation as a Christian in the context of studying Science and Arts at UQ."

One of the reasons that the impoverished answer I usually give is on the completely wrong track, even though I know that is what the asker wants to hear, is that it ignores one of the core components of Christian ministry: people, and our relationships with them. As I once remarked to someone: "You know what's wrong with to-do lists and timetables? It's hard to put people on to-do lists and timetables." Because I did not once mention people or relationships in the planner I gave above, that discomfort at "getting there" when I am middle-aged has been produced. If instead of thinking "2015 is my third year of university, I will be doing Statistical Mechanics, third year Quantum Mechanics and third year Fields, as well as Complex Analysis, Advanced Topics in Metaphysics..." I thought "I will be doing my third year of university in 2015, where I'll be studying a bunch of exciting things, as well as making sure I always have time to build caring relationships with my close family, who I will be moving away from in the upcoming years, making sure to be kind to strangers, being loving towards my friends, and always going out of my ways to serve the poor", then I would be on the ball!

It is in my nature to make lists, timetables, schedules and the like. Even though I am undisciplined, I am quite organised, in that sense. However, it is the intangibles, the things that cannot be easily placed on my schedule, that are really the meaningful things that I should think of as occupying those two-dozen years between now and my projected ordination date. They cannot be placed on any to-do list because they should be on every such list. For the same reason, full-time ministry cannot be placed on a schedule, because it fills the whole thing. When I really internalise the fact that the important things, the people, the relationships, cannot be timetabled, then I will stop thinking of half my life having disappeared by the time that most exciting Veni Creator Spiritus is sung.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

University of Queensland J.H. Newman Catholic Society: a vision statement and manifesto

The Newman Catholic Society has been at the University of Queensland for longer than any other club or society. Like all societies, it has had highs and lows in terms of membership, and like most interesting groups on campus, it has not always existed without friction. The Newman Society is not alone, being one of Newman Centres and Clubs around the world in secular universities – although each one is autonomous.

The UQ Newman Society (here on simply “Newman”) is first and foremost a Catholic society, and indeed the only Catholic group at UQ. As we end the academic year and having elected the executive group for next year, it is a pertinent question to ask: what is Newman about, anyway?

I do not know what the answer from a historical perspective might be, so instead I propose to give my own vision. To be a Catholic group means to be a collective of individuals who have been transformed and are being transformed with an encounter with Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, the incarnation of the Gospel of God. These individuals, through their incorporation into Christ in baptism, form part of the People of God and so become part of a much larger group: the Catholic Church. The term comes from the Greek katholike ekklesia, which literally means “universal assembly,” or “universal church”. This point about what it means to be Catholic also tells of what it means to have a Catholic society at UQ: Newman will not be alone, but part of something greater, that is, the universal Church. Nonetheless, part of the organizational brilliance of the Church is that she has a diversity within herself, and so Newman is not merely a sort of university congregation, but an organically distinct arm of the broader Church.

In practical terms, this means that Newman exists within the context of the Archdiocese of Brisbane, and so my vision for Newman is that she be in close communion with the person who oversees the archdiocese (that is, the [arch]bishop, from the Greek episkopos or “overseer” – Archbishop Mark Coleridge at present), and connected also with Catholic communities (in particular: parishes and their youth ministries, as well as Catholic groups at Queensland University of Technology, Griffith University and Australian Catholic University).

The role of the Newman Society is distinct from that of a mere university congregation, in that she is a bridge between the sheltered environment of schools, often Catholic schools, and the secular university environment of the University of Queensland. Its modus operandi, therefore, is shaped by its place in the mission of the Church.

Back to the encounter with Jesus Christ, crucified and risen – what does that mean, how does it relate to who we are, and what actions flow from this encounter? These are not only good questions, but it is important that every Catholic know the answer. To this end, part of the core of Newman is its catechetical drive, or in other words, its teaching role. Noting that the move to university means a shift from the more sheltered life at school, we seek to learn together and deepen in knowledge of our Christian faith in a context which can at times be very hostile to the unsuspecting Catholic at a secular university.

Equipped with the message of the Gospel, and part of the broader universal Church, we seek to carry out in our capacity the essence of the Church and live her primary mission, which is the commission given by the risen Christ to his followers: to proclaim Christ to the world and hence make disciples of all, baptizing them and teaching them how to be followers of Jesus (cf. Matthew 28). This proclamation of the incarnate Gospel is called evangelism and is motivated by love of God and neighbour. We aim to bring our joy in Christ risen to others, whilst at the same time being witnesses to the redemptive grace of Christ crucified.

Yet we know that missionary activity in the modern world takes on character different to earlier forms of evangelism. Our apostolic nature means something different to what it once was in the early days, where the apostles would arrive in a new city and announce the good news at a synagogue or place of gathering. Furthermore, we understand that not all are called to be witnesses to the Gospel in the same way: some may be excellent orators, and others may witness more quietly throughout their daily lives. In whatever way Jesus calls us, we say with St Paul: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.” (1 Cor. 9:16)

By the light of our faith we begin to see Jesus in in all people in need. Our dual commandments to love God and love our neighbour compel us to go out of our way to become the neighbours that others may need. This produces our profound concern with charity (simply an anglicised form of the Latin for love), which is a core component of what it means to be Catholic. For this reason, Newman aims to have active participation in various ministries to alleviate the evils of dehumanizing poverty in the archdiocese, as well as helping women seeking safe haven from domestic abuse and caring for people who carry the burden of mental health problems.

In summary, the UQ Newman Catholic Society sets as its aims:

-         To form a community of Catholics at the University of Queensland, and to situate this community within the broader context of the archdiocese of Brisbane and the universal Church.
-          From within this community, to deepen our knowledge of our faith by coming together to learn from the Scriptures or the teachings of the Church in a safe environment.
-          To partake of the apostolic nature of the Church in witnessing to the Gospel as our hope and joy at the University of Queensland, each in the manner in which they are called.
-          To serve any person who is in need of any kind, in particular taking as our own the Church’s preferential option for those in need, ministering to any material, spiritual, emotional or relational needs, all of which are important to the full flourishing of the human person.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Mathean Infancy Narrative (Part 1)

The gospel according to St Matthew is one of the two gospels with an infancy narrative, and the Pope Emeritus published some (reportedly) excellent scholarship on it. Since I have not read it and I doubt I could top it, my reflections on this passage will be mostly things that stick out to me, and bits of background information I found illuminating.


"Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way."

It is common for very important people (kings and emperors, in particular) in the ancient world to have miraculous birth narratives told of them, and so St Matthew tells of a miraculous birth at the onset of his gospel. From a literary perspective, I think the goal is to elevate this figure Jesus, whom he has already called the Messiah/Christ thrice, to this status of leader, of King. Just because something is a literary device, however, does not mean Jesus was not born of a virgin - indeed, the reference in verse 23 seems to indicate that St Matthew believes this to be an actual event. I personally embrace wholeheartedly the idea that Jesus was born to Mary, the Mother of God - but this is something taken from a richer theological framework, from a broader theology of Scripture and revelation. Nonetheless, that is what the text says: that Jesus, the Messiah, was born of the Virgin Mary.

What about the role of St Joseph? He appears as a rather quiet figure. He is spoken to, but he does not say anything. Similarly, the Church has regarded St Joseph as the quiet father figure, giving him a certain nobility and humility of character. In support of this, the text refers to him as "a righteous man" (v. 19).

Other than his title, the Christ, and his genealogy (being the son of David), we do not know much of Jesus until verse 20. Here we learn that his origin, though Davidic, is also divine: "the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." We also learn in the same verse of his mission, or at least, one of his objectives: "he will save his people from their sins."

When we, as Christians, read this "mission statement" given to Jesus by the angel, we might suddenly envisage the cross, and if we reflect on that image in the context of the annunciation, we may be lead to thinking this is a sad passage; the angel announces Jesus' death even before he is born. This image, though accurate, is not the message I think was trying to be made. Instead, I believe we should try and see this section as the birth of the child of the covenant, the promised son of David who would bring to fulfilment God's plan of salvation that had been begun with Abraham. Here is the person who would set things straight in God's plan, dealing decisively with injustice and evil-doings - that is, putting an end to sin. Notice the wording of the text is not "pay the price for people's sins" or "he will be a propitiation for their sins", but a message of salvation. For the moment, St Matthew is feeding our excitement at how the child Jesus is affirming Messianic expectations - it shan't be long before they are subverted, but not quite yet.