I entered the seminary with the exciting sense of having discovered what my life is all about. All of 19 years old, I had finished two years at the state college and maritime academy of Massachusetts but was ready to change horses, and train for a different career, the one I had been vaguely pondering for years, the one that would really make me happy.
I’m not here to tell you all that you’ll only really be happy as a priest, or as a missionary, like me. Some of you might be, but all of us have a way of living that lies proposed ahead of us, a way that will be thrilling and challenging, and that will require sacrifice and a willingness to learn. Maybe our options will be fewer than if we had a lot of money and could choose from a wide variety of colleges, but God’s hand is in the life of each person here, preparing us for a particular way of life that fits into God’s plan for the human family.
Today it is getting ever more fashionable and popular to throw away religion, and become either an agnostic or an atheist—that is, someone who has no time for the spiritual dimension of life, for the religious traditions of our peoples and ethnic backgrounds. Not many schools offer a course on theology, or on reflecting on how to believe in God and accept the theory of evolution at the same time, or on how the appearance of the human race in our planet’s bio-community represented a step forward in the universe, understood as God’s Creation.
As we head to college or to work, we will feel the pressure of denying that God or faith has anything to do with life, and we might try to live life without any consideration for what God might want of us. It’s as if life is just about making money and getting promoted in the system, stepping on who you have to in order to succeed economically, and buying a house and a car and raising a family of children who will get an education and enter into the same system, …fearful of other ideas, distant from the vision that our hearts offer of serving the poor, opposing injustice, learning from the weak and from those considered the “losers” of our society, and bringing all peoples together at the table of life.
Where do these ideas come from? Where does the deep dissatisfaction with just earning money, or finding a stable, lifelong job come from? Why are people never profoundly happy with just buying more things, eating more things, consuming more things, and looking out for Number One?
They come from God, speaking in our conscience, urging us to do the right thing, bothering us when we do something wrong or harmful, enlightening us when we see something really beautiful, or moving, or when something unexpectedly helpful and hopeful happens to us. Gloria Steinem, one of the great spokeswomen for women’s rights, once wrote honestly of something that happened to her when her daughter became ill. She had to hospitalize her daughter, and of course had that kind of worry and anxiety that only a mother can experience, but then her daughter recovered. Ms. Steinem wrote later, she was relieved, … and grateful. But she didn’t know who to thank. It was an honest acknowledgement, I think, of how the human heart is hardwired to acknowledge a God when something good happens, when a huge relief is experienced.
My brother Paul attended college and became buddies with a group of other young men, and they were riding around in the car one afternoon, about five or six of them packed in and ready to do something fun together. Out of the corner of his eye, Paul noticed a sudden movement on the porch of a house they were passing, and looking over, saw an elderly woman falling down the four or five steps to the walk in front of her house. “Stop the car! I just saw a lady fall down!”, he shouted. The driver stopped and they all got out, and helped the woman stand up and carried her back into the house. She was not seriously hurt, and very grateful, and a newspaper reporter wrote an article about the incident in the local paper, celebrating the heroics of my brother and his friends.
What moved my brother and his friends to act as one, and help the woman without any questions asked? Even he seemed amazed by his own action, and sudden fame.
We’ve all experienced this at one time or another, I’m sure, the spontaneous act of kindness or compassion. But do we always notice how joyful this kind of action leaves us? How at peace with ourselves and others? What would it be like to live every day with this kind of life, actively seeking out the lonely or the injured, giving our full attention to those falling down the stairs of society, losing their dignity, with no one to help them up, or to speak up for them, or to bring them to a place where their fundamental needs for security, health and respect are met?
This is how God calls us, to live our lives generously in service towards others, no matter what profession or occupation we eventually take on. We follow Christ in his approach to the most vulnerable and discarded people in society when we answer the tugging invitation in our hearts to run to the side of people in tough situations, and feel supported in that approach, able to live a little more deeply our humanity and, at the same time, feel closer to God himself in such a path.
Don’t sell yourselves short—you have every right to find a deeply fulfilling and joyful life for yourselves, without discounting the possibility of a call to radical service as a priest, sister, brother or lay missioner. There’s a path for each of you, full of hardship and sacrifice, but also peace and surprise and a happiness that knows how to weep, without desperation, and how to suffer without despair. God knows what you really want to do in life, deep down. And God’s on your side, making it happen.