Friday, September 19, 2008

"Run, jump, shout. But do not sin". - Saint John Bosco, Patron of the Youth

Our religion, our faith is one of joy, of liberation, of strength of courage, of the attitude that says “with God nothing is impossible” (Lk 1:37). It is a religion that seeks to make us happy in this life and hopeful for the next. Suffering, pain, oppression, weakness and disappointment have value only in so far as they can be transformed into instruments or pointers to the joy that comes after. Good Friday is valuable because a Christian knows that there is going to be an Easter. “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death where is your victory, o death where is your sting?” (I Cor 15:54-55) Death is not the final word. Life is. Suffering and pain are not the promised lot to those who believe. No, it is happiness and joy. As such, Paul is able to declare: “With Christ we are more than conquerors” (Rom 8:37).

Put in very simple terms, God wants you to be happy. He is not an isolated God, untouched and unmoved by our plight. Nor is he a vengeful God who seeks only that he be placated by our suffering and pain. We must—and here we have to somewhat agree with Nietzsche—disabuse ourselves of that “nonsense”. It is what keeps people weak, and it gives religion a bad name when it wrongly stresses that suffering is always good and life is misery and pain. No. Life is joy, and victory over sin. Our vocation is one of happiness and fulfillment in Christ. And seminary is not a miserable place to be in, where one must live in constant fear that he might be having too much fun and thus is possibly committing a sin.

“Run, jump, shout”, says St. John Bosco, the great modern apostle to the youth. And then adds, “but do not sin”. Seminary life should be a true celebration of vocation, an explosion of joy at being called by God, and humility at finding the heart to respond to that grace. Seminary formation should be a joyful and generous outpouring of oneself to the stirring of divine grace in the hearts of young men who have reached deep inside their souls, and found a calling to lead others to the joy they have experienced, and who cannot help but reach out to a God who has so lovingly called them to give themselves in trust to his invitation that they follow him to a land unknown, with nothing more than the promise that he shall be with them every step of the way.

The words of God addressed to the prophet Jeremiah are also addressed to the young men he has called and who have responded to his gracious invitation: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you” (Jer 1:5) These are not words of privilege or predilection, rather they are words that manifest the great tenderness and care that God has for those whom he has chosen to serve him. In seminary we are often told to have faith and trust in God because “the one who has called us will also see to it that we are provided with everything that we need”. What more can we ask for?

“Consider the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more important than they? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you?” (Matt 6:26-30)

It is trust in the love and providence of God that must lie at the foundation of your joy and happiness as seminarians. As priests, it should also be the source of our strength and consolation, not anything external to ourselves like our accomplishments, projects, degrees or titles. These are all ‘peripheral’ and ‘marginal’ to who and what we are as individuals called by God to a unique kind of relationship with him—a relationship so deep that he alone becomes the source of our happiness, our fulfillment, and personal worth.

As early as now therefore, strive to develop in yourself that sense of joy and happiness that should characterize the life of a faithful follower of Christ. This is the single greatest blessing you can share with those to whom you shall minister in the future. This is also what the “Good News” is all about. And we are meant to be its messengers. This does not mean that we shall never encounter difficulty, heartache, sorrow, or even tragedy in our lives. Those are “givens” of human existence. “All life is suffering”, is one of the most important teachings of Buddhism. But while there is much truth to it, and while it is important for us to realize the limitations of human life, it is also possible to take that idea to an unhealthy extreme.

Gipsy Smith, an American evangelist once said, “There are five gospels of Jesus Christ—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and you, the Christian. Many people will never read the first four”. For many people, the life that we as followers of Christ live, will be the greatest and perhaps the sole gospel or proclamation of Jesus’ message that they shall ever encounter. Would that what comes across to them is a message of joy, hope, and victory, and not one of defeat. This attitude, of course, is not necessarily something we’re born with, though some of us may have a sunnier disposition than others. Neither is it something that is learned overnight. Nor is it an attitude you pick up when the bishop lays his hands on you at ordination. Rather, it is something that we should imbibe, develop, and master while still in seminary. Call it “the art of being happy” or perhaps “the art of seeing the seminary as a place where one can be happy”.

John Bosco’s admonition to his youth, “Run, jump, shout, but do not sin”, should be the motto of every seminarian. Seminaries should not be places that form dour and sad-looking young men who walk around as if they were carrying the burden of life and existence on their shoulders. They’d end up dour and sad-looking priests later on. Parishioners don’t appreciate that. Seminaries should instead be places where young men live in an atmosphere of gratefulness to God for allowing them to be there, of profound joy and happiness at discerning and growing in God’s will, and of unshakeable trust and confidence that
“with God all things are possible”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)