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Posts Tagged ‘obedience’

As part of the vocation leaflet project, I was asked to write about the meaning of the Catholic priesthood in 1100 words. When you have so little space, it really forces you to think, and work out what seems most important!

This is what I came up with:

The Catholic priesthood is an extraordinary vocation. Every Christian is called to bring the love of Christ to others. The ministerial priest, through the sacrament of ordination, is called to show that love in a special way.

His vocation is to preach the Gospel and teach the Catholic faith; to lead God’s people in love, as a shepherd, as a spiritual father; and to celebrate the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, ‘for the glory of God and the sanctification of Christ’s people’ (Rite of Ordination). His whole being is transformed, so that he can be an icon of Christ for others, filled with the Holy Spirit, and a minister of grace.

Catholic priests are ordinary men who never lose their humanity. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They have different backgrounds and personalities, different strengths and weaknesses. Yet they have all been called like the first disciples: ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men’ (Mt 4).

This is not just an ‘external’ call to do something for Jesus, but an invitation to draw closer to him and share his life more intimately; just as the Apostles, before they were sent out to preach and heal, spent time with the Lord in friendship.

Many priests belong to religious congregations. As monks, friars or missionaries they take the three evangelical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Their ministry is defined by the particular work of the congregation.

The diocesan priest, however, commits his life to serving the Church in his local diocese. It’s a ‘geographical’ commitment to work with his bishop and serve the people of this local area, usually where he has grown up or come to work or study. He is a ‘secular’ priest, which means he lives ‘in the world’ rather than in a monastery, sharing closely in the lives and experiences of others.

Some of the great priests of recent centuries have been diocesan priests: for example, St Francis de Sales, St John Vianney, Blessed John Paul II.

In practice, most diocesan priests live and work in parishes. This is their ‘default’ ministry, where their heart lies. They work in collaboration with their brother priests, with laypeople, and consecrated men and women; caring for the parish together, supporting each other.

Parish ministry is incredibly varied. In a single day a priest might visit children in the school, bring Holy Communion to the sick, support a bereaved family, help a couple prepare for their wedding, hear someone’s confession, prepare sandwiches for the homeless, and lead a sacramental programme in the evening. And so much of priesthood is simply being with others – sitting, listening, talking, praying.

The heart of each day is the celebration of Mass, when all these concerns are offered to the Father in the Holy Sacrifice, and the priest leads his people in worship, repentance, thanksgiving and intercession.

Some diocesan priests work full-time in more specialised ministries, for example, as chaplains in prisons, hospitals, universities or the armed forces. Some even work abroad as missionaries – a reminder that every priest is called to evangelise.

All diocesan priests make three promises. They promise obedience to their bishop, to take up whatever ministry he asks. This helps them to be open to the pastoral needs within the diocese, and it stops them getting attached to their personal preferences. It keeps them humble, open and generous-hearted in the service of the Lord.

They promise consecrated celibacy – to remain unmarried for the rest of their lives. This allows a priest to give himself to Christ with an undivided heart, and to love others with an inner freedom and an extra generosity. Even though many Eastern Catholic Churches have a different practice, for Catholics in the Latin (Western) Church celibacy is central to the vision of priesthood as a life of total self-giving.

Finally, they promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours faithfully each day. By praying this ‘Prayer of the Church’ at the appointed times, they sanctify every moment of each day. They centre their lives on prayer, praying for the Church and for the whole world.

With these three promises the diocesan priest is rooted in Christ. He is free to follow the Lord, wherever he is sent; free to give his life in love and service. His priestly heart, like the heart of the Good Shepherd, is completely dedicated to God’s people.

The priesthood brings incredible joys, especially in seeing God’s grace transform people’s lives, and in the special bonds that are formed with laypeople and brother priests.

There are also real difficulties and challenges. These can be in the spiritual life, in ministry, or in the ordinary human struggles that afflict everyone at different moments: tiredness, loneliness, stress, failure, sin. Like every Christian, the priest tries to live through his difficulties with faith and hope, staying close to the Lord, trusting in him.

How do you know if God is calling you to be a diocesan priest? First, the basics: only baptised men can become Catholic priests. This is not a form of prejudice or sexism, it is the Church being faithful to Christ and to the Christian Tradition, where only men are appointed to stand ‘in the person of Christ the Head’ as Catholic priests. Women with a genuine call to ministry and service in the Church will find that fulfilled in other ways instead.

Second, you need to have an open heart as you discern your vocation. Any Catholic man who is single and unsure about his future should be able to say, ‘Lord, what is your will for my life? What are you calling me to do?’ What matters is to be open to God’s will, and to pray for his help and guidance.

Third, there are some common signs of a priestly vocation. These include: a simple desire to be a priest or to do the things that priests do (celebrate Mass, preach, pray with people, serve others, etc.); an admiration for priests you know; a sense of being pulled or pushed into the priesthood; suggestions from other people that you might make a good priest; and a desire to pray more and to take your faith more seriously. A feeling of unworthiness can be a sign of humility before such an awe-inspiring vocation; and even a desire to marry, sometimes, can point to a fatherly heart that may be fulfilled in the celibate priesthood – if these other signs are there too.

Finally, you need to talk to someone. There is only so much thinking and praying you can do on your own. This might be a trusted friend or relation, or a priest you know, and ultimately the Vocations Director in your Diocese. Don’t be afraid. The Lord will guide you.

[You can buy bulk copies of this leaflet here at the CTS website.]

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I was at Blackfriars in Cambridge for Mass last week, which is the novice house for the Dominican Friars of England and Scotland. It was a joy to meet the four new novices over coffee afterwards, just a couple of weeks after they had arrived and exchanged their everyday clothes for the Dominican habit.

And a few days before I happened to be visiting the Carmelite sisters in the monastery at Notting Hill, London. Three women have begun their postulancy here over the last few months, with another due to join them this autumn.

So that’s eight new religious vocations this year in just two random houses! Something is certainly stirring in vocational terms in this country at the moment.

Something is speaking to people: about the value of religious life, the beauty of the evangelical vows (of poverty, consecrated celibacy, and obedience), the importance of prayer and community, the urgency of mission (whether the mission of apostolic work or of monastic prayer), and the adventure of giving your life without reservation to Christ in these particular ways.

Religious life, of course, is not the only way of giving your life to Christ; but to those who are called it becomes a way of living their faith and embracing the radicalism of the Gospel that seems to make sense of everything they have believed and desired before.

If you want to learn a bit more about the Dominicans or Carmelites, I’ve copied a few paragraphs below.

First of all, take a look at this video from the English Dominicans:

This is from the Irish Dominican website:

Dominican friars are engaged in an incredible spiritual adventure: living from the passion for the salvation of souls which, eight centuries ago, set fire to the heart of St Dominic and to the hearts of his first companions. This haste to announce the Gospel in truth produces three characteristics in a Dominican friar.

Men of the Word

A primordial taste for the Word of God marks Dominican friars. The Word demands to be meditated ceaselessly and lived without compromise. Never satisfied, the brothers take every opportunity to promote and engage in the study of the Word of God.

Compassion

Concern for the poorest found in the compassion of St Dominic and of his brothers a never ending response. No element of human existence is foreign to Dominicans. Mercy is the path, the tone and the mystery of the friar preacher. When making his commitment to live as a Dominican friar, a brother’s reply to the question “What do you seek?” is “God’s mercy and yours”.

Proclamation of Christ’s Good News in poverty

The original preaching of St Dominic while in contact with Catharism impressed upon the friars that the proclamation of the Gospel could be done only through authentically evangelical means (see the Gospel according to Mark, chapter six, beginning at verse seven). Joining others and understanding them imposes a lifestyle like that of the apostle: a life that is lived in common and one that is itinerant.

In practice, such a lifestyle is lived as a “religious life” with its own essential characteristics: the four elements particular to the friars preachers.

Conventual Life

Animated by the rule of St Augustine, the friars live together the same call coming from the one person who calls: Christ. Living as brothers, they strive to love each other, to forgive each other and to live the Gospel in community before living it outside the community.

To pass on to others what we have contemplated

Preaching finds its vitality in a life of prayer which is both personal and in common. Preaching, when at its best, is a truly contemplative act. The brothers are called to be simultaneously contemplative and fundamentally missionary.

The vows

Poverty, obedience and chastity make us men who try to consecrate ourselves for the adventure of the Kingdom of God.

Study

All our personal, community, intellectual and spiritual energy makes us useful for the souls of others, whether they be near to us or far away: useful by our word and by our example

We are consecrated for the proclamation of the Word of God, proclamation which is done using all the means available to us: preaching, confession, teaching, publishing, spiritual accompaniment, humble presence… Preaching animates what we do or what we live, to the point that our communities (“priories” or “convents”) have been called the “holy preaching”.

And this is from the Notting Hill Carmel website:

The mission of the Carmelite is to enter, by the total gift of herself, into the saving mission of Christ, who gave himself for us that we might come to a fuller life in God, and who said: Love one another as I have loved you.

The Carmelite is one with all people, everywhere, those who believe, those who search and those who do not know that they are searching, and she identifies with all that is great and worthy of humanity’s endeavour. Yet she is called to a way of life that is in many ways counter-cultural: to live quietly, against the background noise of the city; to live simply and sparingly in an increasingly wasteful age; to live hidden and unnoticed in a competitive society; above all, to live lovingly and generously in an aggressive and violent world.

In her contemplative prayer, the Carmelite carries the needs and hopes of every person before God, lifting the face of humanity to the Father and opening her heart to be a channel of his outpouring love for all.

Carmelite spirituality is profoundly contemplative, born in the hermit tradition and nurtured by the two famous Spanish mystics, St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross. It is rooted in the word of God, having had its beginnings in the land of the bible. The earliest Rule instructs us: “In all you do, have the Lord’s word for accompaniment”. The biblical figures of Mary and Elijah are our first inspiration. The prophetic message of Elijah encourages us to proclaim in our own times: “He is alive! The Lord God in whose presence I stand”; and Mary teaches us how to make ourselves fully available to God.

The Church’s liturgy creates the framework of our lives. Seven times a day we come together to pray the psalms, hear the word of God and intercede for the manifold needs of the world, especially for those intentions that have been entrusted to our prayer.

Prayer is Carmel’s particular form of service to the church. We spend an hour each morning and each evening in silent prayer. These times of special openness to God nourish an entire life of prayer that tends towards God in everything.

The measure of silence and solitude necessary for a sustained life of prayer is balanced by the demands of building real community, so that this biblical, contemplative, ecclesial, Marian spirituality becomes also a spirituality of communion.

For the followers of the great Carmelite teachers, the essence of prayer is relationship. This means intimate, personal relationship with God, honest relationship with oneself, and an inclusive, all-embracing relationship with the whole community and the whole wide world.

These are just two examples of religious life in this country. Let’s hope that these houses, and many others, can continue to grow and flourish.

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Yesterday on Radio 4’s Something Understood Mark Tully looked into seminary life, past and present. John Cornwell reflects on his experience in ‘junior seminary’ many years ago, and I try to explain what things are like today at Allen Hall. You can listen here – the programme is available online until Sunday 17th June.

St Joseph’s College, Upholland, where John Cornwell went to ‘junior seminary’

Here is the blurb:

In Something Understood this week, Mark Tully is intrigued by life in a Roman Catholic seminary. How are young men trained for the priesthood?

At Allen Hall Seminary in the busy heart of London, Dean of Studies and Formation Advisor Father Stephen Wang explains the need for his students to train for their pastoral role within the Catholic community. Seminarians at Allen Hall spend much of their time in local parishes, schools and hospitals preparing for life as a Diocesan priest. And yet it’s also crucial that they have the quiet, contemplative space they need to develop spiritually. They must become men of God and men of communion.

Mark explores the history of the seminary system, with readings from Anthony Kenny and Denis Meadows, and hears music written by ancient monks in isolation. He speaks to writer and academic John Cornwell, whose own time at Upholland Seminary in the 1950s left a strong imprint on his spiritual life. The Junior Seminary system he experienced from the age of 12 no longer exists, but John believes that there are still serious flaws in the way the Catholic Church trains its priests. He argues that seminarians are too separated out from the world and from the people they are destined to serve once ordained.

Ultimately, becoming a priest requires huge dedication – what Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe described as a ‘falling in love’ with God. Perhaps what is also needed is a balance, between the prosaic and the spiritual, between being within the world and being apart from it.

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No, I’m not converting – I’m very happy as a Diocesan priest! But I had the joy of being present at the Final Vows of Fr Simon Bishop SJ on Saturday, at the Oratory of St Thomas More in the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy. Fr Simon and I met as undergraduates twenty-five years ago. We’ve been close friends ever since, and we’ve supported each other through the twists and turns of our respective vocational journeys over these years.

St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits

It’s a simple and very moving event. The Mass is celebrated as usual. But as the host is held up by the priest, just before the ‘Behold, the Lamb of God…’, the Jesuit kneels before the altar and addresses these promises to Almighty God himself, in these words:

I, [name] make my profession, and I promise to Almighty God, in the presence of the Virgin Mother, the whole heavenly court, and all those here present, and to you, Reverend Father [provincial's name], representing the Superior General of the Society of Jesus and his successors and holding the place of God, perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience; and, in conformity with it, special care for the instruction of children, according to the manner of living contained in the apostolic letters of the Society of Jesus and its Constitutions. I further promise a special obedience to the Sovereign Pontiff in regard to the missions according to the same apostolic letters and the Constitutions.

Notice the famous ‘Fourth Vow’ at the end – to obey the Pope in regard to the missions. That is, not to do anything the Pope requests (however wild or subversive or treasonable – cf. English mythology), but to follow the wishes of the Pope insofar as it is his role to discern the wider missionary needs of the universal Church.

In most religious orders, you have to take your final vows before you are ordained; you have to prove, as it were, your commitment to the order (and the order’s commitment to you) before the gift of priesthood is entrusted to you. With the Jesuits, the final vows come a few years after ordination. James Martin SJ has an enlightening post about the meaning of the Jesuit final vows here.

What you choose to put on the back of your final vow booklet is always significant. Fr Simon chose to print some words of St Ignatius from the Formula of the Institute of the Society of Jesus. It’s the original ‘vision statement’ of the Jesuits, approved by Pope Julius III in 1550. It’s powerful stuff. Here is the full version:

Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the Cross in our Society, which we desire to be designated by the Name of Jesus, and to serve the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on earth, should, after a solemn vow of perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience, keep what follows in mind.

He is a member of a Society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defence and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine, by means of public preaching, lectures and any other ministration whatsoever of the Word of God, and further by means of retreats, the education of children and unlettered persons in Christianity, and the spiritual consolation of Christ’s faithful through hearing confessions and administering the other sacraments.

Moreover, he should show himself ready to reconcile the estranged, compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons or hospitals, and indeed, to perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.

For the sake of greater devotion in obedience to the Apostolic See, of greater abnegation of our own wills and of surer direction from the Holy Spirit, we have nevertheless judged it to be supremely profitable that each of us and any others who will make the same profession in the future should, in addition to that ordinary bond of the three vows, be bound by this special vow to carry out whatever the present and future Roman Pontiffs may order which pertains to the progress of souls and the propagation of the faith; and to go at once, without subterfuge or excuse, as far as in us lies.

If you want to find out more about the Jesuits in Britain, see their website here.

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[I gave this homily on Saturday at the First Profession of Sister Mary Benedicta Chinwe Obiora, in the chapel of the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph, Lymington.]

Most of us here today are guests of the community. I just want to say to Sister Mary Benedicta and to all the community how happy we are to be here with you, and how grateful we are for the chance to witness this profound step you are taking.

We know what an incredible journey this has been for you – to arrive at this day of your First Profession. A geographical journey, from Nigeria to London, and from London to the New Forest, with one or two detours in between. A journey of faith, coming to know the Lord better, drawing closer to him. And above all it has been a journey of vocation, trying to listen to God’s call – his personal call to you, speaking to your heart, and speaking through so many people and events.

Abraham only had to travel a few hundred miles when he heard the call of the Lord, from Haran to the Holy Land. You have travelled many thousands of miles. But then he was travelling on a camel, not a 747; so we should give him some credit [Genesis 12].

A vocation to religious life is a mysterious thing. It’s full of paradoxes, of apparent contradictions. The Scripture readings of the Mass help us to understand them in the right way.

On the one hand, a religious vocation is always an unexpected call. It comes as a surprise. It startles and even shocks us. It’s not something we plan.

At the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary quite unexpectedly: ‘Hail, O highly favoured one. The Lord is with you’ [Luke 1:28]. That’s why she was so disturbed. She wasn’t sitting there on the edge of her seat, tapping her watch, thinking ‘When is he going to arrive then?’

This is why, in Mediaeval and Renaissance paintings, Mary is always doing something when the Angel comes: praying, reading, sewing, etc. One of my favourite modern images of the Annunciation depicts Mary hanging out the washing on a blustery afternoon, and the angel almost swoops down between the sheets – to her utter astonishment.

So a vocation is an unexpected call.

On the other hand, a religious vocation is a dream that lies hidden within the heart, because God always calls us to be the person that we long to be, the person we are made to be – even if we don’t quite realise or acknowledge it at the time. It’s his heart speaking to our heart.

This was the phrase of St Francis de Sales, which as we know became the motto of Blessed John Henry Newman: Heart speaks unto heart.

So you are listening to the call of God, and at the same time listening to its echo in your own heart: Who am I? What does God want of me? What do I really seek for myself? Ultimately, they will come together, if we keep listening and keep following.

Another paradox is to do with relationships. On the one hand, we seem to lose so much, to be going further and further away from those we love. This was part of Abraham’s experience, put so starkly in the command that God gave him: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’ [Genesis 12:1].

And this is part of Sister Benedicta’s experience. To leave one’s family, one’s home, one’s country; to leave one’s work, one’s parish, one’s set of friends and companions. It’s hard.

But in the Letter to the Romans today, St Paul explains something very important about the spiritual journey. That the closer we come to Christ, the closer we come to others – even if we are separated by a great distance. And the more faithfully we live our own personal vocation, the more connected we will be in Christ’s body, which is the Church.

‘For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness’ [Romans 12:4-8].

We have different gifts, different vocations; but we are all united in the one body. Of course, at the emotional level, we miss people; we wish we could be with them, talking, touching. But at the deepest level of faith, of charity, never forget how close you are to those you love. There is no separation in Christ; and in a mysterious way, your vocation brings you closer to your family and friends, because you are rooted more firmly in the love that binds you together.

A final paradox is about obedience. You are certainly making a lot of promises today! I’ve read the Profession. You promise obedience to God, to Blessed Mary, to Blessed Dominic, to the Prioress, to her successors, to the Master of the Order of Preachers, according to the Rule of Blessed Augustine and the Constitutions of your Congregation. Lots of obeying! Plenty of people to listen to! You seem to be losing so much freedom.

But this isn’t really true. First, you are making this profession freely, you are embracing this life freely; just as Mary said Yes to the angel with absolute freedom.

And secondly, you are making this profession in order to have a deeper experience of the freedom that comes through religious life, and specifically through the life of the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph. You believe that there is something important for you here: the prayer, the love and example of your sisters, the apostolate, the way of St Dominic and St Catherine. You have discovered an inner freedom here, and you want to enter into it more fully.

It’s not a lifelong commitment, but it is nevertheless, for this important period in your life, a wholehearted commitment; so that you can experience with your whole heart, without reservation, the life of this community and this vocation.

When he called Abraham, God promised to bless him and to bless others through him. He makes that same promise to you today.

[Click here if you want to find out more about the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph]

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How do you make sense of a radical commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience in the contemporary world? Is it possible for someone to say: “For love of Jesus Christ, and in answer to his call, I desire to give myself to him, freely and forever, and to devote my whole life to the extension of his Kingdom”?

It was good to be with Sister Cathy Mary of the Holy Spirit on Saturday, as she said these very words and made her final vows in the Congregation of the Religious of the Assumption in their beautifully restored chapel in Kensington. You can see their website here.

I’ve already posted about the renewal of religious life in this country, and one of the many encouraging signs on Saturday was the number of young religious sisters from other congregations who were there to support Sr Cathy.

Fr Matt Blake OCD gave a beautiful homily about the meaning of a lifelong commitment in religious vows. Three thoughts really struck me. First, reflecting on the journey of faith that brings someone to this point, and why the extended period of discernment and initiation is so important, he said:

It takes time for God’s deepest desire for you to become your own deepest desire for yourself.

That’s why, quite often, when we make a heartfelt prayer to God that he would reveal our true vocation, the answer doesn’t always come straight away. It’s not just that we aren’t ready to hear; sometimes we aren’t ready to want what God wants, or to want what he wants us to want.

Second, he spoke about a scene from the film Of Gods and Men, which I haven’t seen yet. One of the monks is agonising about whether he should stay in the Algerian monastery and risk giving his life as a martyr. In response his abbot says something like, ‘But you have already given your life without reservation to God in your monastic vows’. And the monk is overcome with a sense of clarity and peace about his desire to remain where he is – whatever the cost.

Fr Matt drew out from this a profound thought about the nature of commitment: that instead of acting as a restraint, which is what we often fear, it actually gives you a greater freedom. When you make an unconditional ‘yes’ (e.g., to Christ, or to a specific vocation, or to a husband or wife), it means you have already accepted all the future commitments that come along implicitly with this original commitment. Some, of course, will be difficult; some will be unexpected; some will even seem to stretch the meaning of that ‘yes’ in ways that seemed unimaginable at the beginning. But they will all be part of the same decision to give oneself completely.

This gives an enormous freedom and security. There will be incredibly difficult choices to make, but the fundamental one has already been made. And that takes away the existential anguish of constantly having to reconsider whether this purpose, this deepest commitment, is actually worthwhile or not.

The final thought was about the Gospel reading, which was the story of the Annunciation – when the Angel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary and announces that she will give birth to the Son of God. Fr Matt said “I’ve always thought that the most important line in the whole passage is…” – and we all started guessing whether it would be one of Gabriel’s profound words to Mary or Mary’s profound words to Gabriel. But he went on “…the most important line in the whole passage is the last one: And the angel left her.

That threw me. I must have heard this passage a hundred times, but not once have I thought about that last line. It doesn’t mean, said Fr Matt, that God ever abandons anyone, or that the gift of his Holy Spirit is ever taken away from those who are trying to be faithful to Christ in their vocation. But the glory that surrounds the event, even the clarity and inspiration that made the commitment possible – these can fade and sometimes disappear. What endures is the commitment itself. We don’t know if the Virgin Mary ever saw the angel again in her lifetime, but she treasured his memory and clung to the truth that he had revealed.

I don’t think Fr Matt was being pessimistic about Sr Cathy’s future by drawing attention to this line. He was just speaking from his experience of religious life, and in his own way he was offering encouragement: You’ve had a wonderful day professing your final vows, now you can get on with the business of living them.

PS: These thoughts came from silvana rscj in the comments:

Following on from your reflections on the angel… in PierPaolo Pasolini’s film the Gospel According to St Matthew, Mary does meet the angel again, 33 years later at the tomb of her son, now risen from the dead. There is a lovely look of recognition on her face, and, finally, understanding of everything the angel had told her all those years ago.

Maybe that’s how it will be for us too: many years and events later, we will eventually come to understand the promises God has made to us, and, like Mary, enter into a deeper, closer relationship with Jesus…

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Sometimes you hear this argument: Generosity, altruism, and self-giving are really just different forms of selfishness. Even if we are being truly generous, and making a real sacrifice in order to help someone else, the underlying motive will be one of the self-interest. Not because we are sly or manipulative, but simply because we are programmed to do what is ultimately in our best interests. This might include a degree of altruism, of caring for our family or friends, of going out of our way to help others. But deep down we are always thinking about what we will gain — even if that gain is the satisfaction of knowing that we are a noble person, or the pleasure of seeing other people given help.

There is some truth in this. It’s good to acknowledge that even when we do something for others, even when we are acting in a completely selfless manner, there is still an element of ‘myself’ involved. I am still choosing, freely, to do this deed. I am deciding, in some sense, that it is important to me, that I value what I’m doing. I can’t say ‘I don’t care about this’. The very fact that I want to give myself generously shows that I have an interest in giving myself — it matters to me. To this extent, there is no such thing as pure altruism. Put it another way: If I love someone, even by giving up everything for them, it is still because I love them. And if I choose to care for someone I do not love, it is still because I want to care for them.

But it’s not quite true to say that all self-giving is simply another form of selfishness — because it blurs some of the distinctions that we rightly make in ordinary life; distinctions that are crucial in moral thinking and in the choices we make about how to live. We come face to face with moments when we are called to be more generous than we have been, to put others first, to make a sacrifice that costs us some time or energy or personal satisfaction. Now and then we face a fork in the road, and we have to choose between selfishness or self-giving. We know they are not the same.

Yes, the self-giving needs to be a personal choice, it needs to be something I make a commitment to. In this sense it is still part of my own search for meaning and fulfilment. But it is nevertheless a kind of meaning and fulfilment radically different from the selfishness that seeks happiness locked up in one’s own introverted satisfactions. There is a selfishness which limits me and traps me; and there is another kind of self-concern that allows me to go beyond myself, that opens me up to others, and takes me beyond myself.

mother theresa kickin ass by messtiza.

I mention all this because yesterday evening I was in Kilburn with the Missionaries of Charity, the Sisters of Mother Theresa. During Mass in their convent chapel, three of the sisters renewed their religious vows. As well as taking the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Missionaries of Charity take an additional fourth vow. It goes something like this (I’m writing from memory): ‘I promise to give myself in wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor’.

What promise to make! A promise to make of one’s life a pure gift, to give oneself completely to those in most need, to those who will probably be unable to pay anything back. A promise to live for others in love. Of course, this has a religious meaning — it’s to do with knowing the love of Christ, and wanting to share that love with others. But even on a purely human or ‘philosophical’ level, it is a wonderful example of how self-giving is possible for the human person. Not a generosity that denies our own needs, but one which allows us to find a deeper kind of fulfilment in giving our lives joyfully for others. It’s a model not just for religious sisters, but for all of us.

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