The Servant

February 6, 2023

The Servant, a film about Dermot Preston, a Jesuit priest serving the poor

Blog by Fr Dermot Preston SJ

The Lord says, ‘Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.”’ (Deuteronomy 15.11)

The Peter’s House team came filming in the St Vincent de Paul Centre in the summer of 2022. Since then, the Newcastle weather has changed, the last vestiges of lockdown have disappeared, and the World Cup has come-&-gone… But the needs of the poor in our land have remained fundamentally the same or got worse. One or two of the clients glimpsed by the cameras at SVP are now more ragged in body and fragile in spirit; some have disappeared.

Britain has become a yet-more fragmented place with strikes and industrial action, but the poor cannot strike or withdraw their labour to make their absence felt – they cling on, watching somewhat helplessly, as the powers of this world push them about like corks in a fast-flowing river.

Jesus said to his disciples, “The poor you will have with you always” and it can be dispiriting for those trying to help when things don’t seem to change for the better. The present age expects neat targets, efficient plans and clear & positive outcomes... and when it doesn’t happen some of the key ethical systems of the modern world encourage people to move on, especially if it isn’t ‘personally fulfilling’.

But that is not the Christian ethic of service. The design of the Kingdom of God is not so easily understood: the edifice being constructed through space and time, is huge and we can only really catch glimpses of some of the bricks in the wall immediately in front of our noses.

It is part of the nature of my Jesuit vocation that the narrative arc is so enormous that seeing positive and lasting change in my ministry is rare. I seldom have the satisfaction of experiencing the full story with a beginning, a middle and a positive end – more often I pick up where others have toiled previously, and I know I will have to step down when a task is still incomplete. My personal journey is only part of a mysterious collective whole, where I place my trust in the One Who Will Make All Things New.

On the 7th of March 1848, when his life-direction and ministry were shrouded in deep uncertainty, the future Cardinal and Saint, John Henry Newman wrote a meditation on Christian service in his journal – and, in times of uncertainty, I find it echoes reassuringly down the shadowed corridors of my own soul…

'God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission — I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow, I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his — if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
Therefore, I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me — still He knows what He is about.’

If you are thinking about your place in the world, interested in exploring your vocation or calling, or want to know more about the Society of Jesus, please visit the vocations page on our website here.

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