Pathway to communion: Fr Provincial's vow day homily


Damian Howard SJ preaches at the first vows September 2017
Damian Howard SJ preaches

This is a great day for the British and Irish Jesuits as we receive the vows of three young men who have decided that they are ready to commit themselves to sharing our life and our mission.

These days, a decision like that it is no trivial matter. Behind the simple words of commitment that they are soon to pronounce lies much seeking and questioning and even a little struggling as they have tried to make sense of the invitation they have heard deep in their hearts to take a chance on God.

So in this Mass, we need to pray for them, to give thanks for who they are and for this new chapter of life opening up for them. And, may I say, we would do well to pay attention to what they are showing us and ask if it has anything to say to our own lives.

A strange but beautiful time

The two-year Jesuit novitiate is a strange but beautiful time. Beautiful because of the people one meets, the places one goes not to mention the discoveries one makes about the reality of God and the blessings he showers upon us and His entire creation. It’s a time of palpable growth, including for those who discover that our life is not for them.

But there is no denying that the strangeness is real too. It’s a time for being tested. Not quite as badly as those Japanese TV shows which entertain an audience by torturing people with piranha fish or poisonous spiders. For one thing, there is no audience in the novitiate. And the torture is more psychological…

What we do is to build up a man’s dreams about a life of love and selflessness, cramming his imagination with stories of Jesuits who were brave martyrs, intrepid explorers, brilliant scientists, accomplished artists and all sorts of other things. And then we place a broom in his hands and tell him to sweep the leaves in the drive. And, to add insult to injury, we tell him to him to find God in it.

Of course, as those of you well advanced on your spiritual journey will know, the point is not to humiliate but to help a person acquire the gift of interior freedom. The freedom to give himself fully to a task that isn’t going to earn him any credit or kudos, free to discover the God who is interested in who he is and not just what he can do.

Well, those lessons have been learned and it’s time after the mundanity of leaf-sweeping and all manner of other tawdry activities to get back in touch with those dreams of what might be, to remember the vision which led Teodor, Christopher and Stephen to offer their lives to God as Jesuits.

“He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken, to proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to those in prison…” Those are rousing words from the prophet Isaiah. Christ Himself takes them as an eloquent summary of His own mission in life. And that’s why it’s a good way into understanding the Jesuit way of life which is all about following in the footsteps of Jesus.

The guiding intuition of our founder, St Ignatius of Loyola, is that men and women can only fulfil their purpose by freeing themselves of all the shackles that bind them, stopping then from serving God and from following Christ. Shackles like anxiety and fear, like concern for what others think of us, like the taste we all have for comfort and security.

When Jesuits free themselves from their shackles God is able to use them. There are plenty of famous cases which show us that that looks like in practice. There are dramatic examples like Saints Edmund Campion, John Ogilvie and Dominic Collins, martyrs respectively of England, Scotland and Ireland, who gave their lives in witness to their faith.

But there are plenty more whose holiness was quiet and hidden, men who pour out their lives in apparently unremarkable ways in the service of God and neighbour. Today, I think especially of a Dutch Jesuit, Franz van der Lugt who, spent a long life among ordinary villagers in Syria, serving people with learning difficulties, Christians and Muslims. We only know about him because he refused to abandon the people whose lives he had shared for so many years and so was killed three years ago in the garden of his community centre by members of the al-Nusra front.

I don’t know who Teo, Chris and Stephen look to for inspiration but I do know that it’s crucially important to begin this life dreaming of what God might do with us if we let Him, of how He might enable us to be and do something extraordinary, even letting others glimpse something of His glory shining through our lives.

But let me stress one thing. I am not talking about heroism. One of my favourite philosophers, Charles Taylor, says that there are two ways we can live our lives these days. Either we choose to be heroes or to be women and men of communion.

A pathway to communion

The hero is essentially a loner, defying the world, determined to overcome the limitations it puts on him. He endures suffering and pain but only in order to prevail. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, he says. There is a lonely, tragic streak to the hero’s personality.
A life of communion is the opposite. It’s a life of sharing, of empowering others and being empowered in turn by them. It’s about being turned radically outwards to others and, most importantly of all, to the God who makes communion possible.

You can see how degraded our Jesuit life and the vows we take would be if it were to become a front for mere heroism. Chastity becomes an ordeal of world-renunciation; I frown on my body, wanting only to ascend to a disincarnate Absolute I wrongly call God. My poverty becomes legendary frugality: “how does he survive on so little?” And my obedience? A magnificent display of omnipotence. “Send me anywhere! I can do anything”.

But the vows are really pathways to communion. I close my arms around no one person because I open to all. I live a simple life because I depend on the generosity of benefactors, because I’m accountable to my companions and want to be closer to the poor. And I’m obedient because sometimes others know me better than I know myself and see where I can do most good.

Teodor, Stephen and Christopher have all learned not to try to be heroes; you won’t catch them preening themselves, calculating their way to the next triumph, indifferent to the little ones who stand in their way. They know the real call is communion. They have become men who know how little they are and how little they can accomplish on their own. But they also know that together with God, gathered together by God, they can do anything.

Communion is our way because our God is communion. And He made the world for communion. The Czech theologian, Tomáš Halík says in his most recent book: … the word God does not refer to something beyond the world’s stage but to its forgotten depths.

What is to be found in those forgotten depths? Love, abundant goodness, tenderness, sweet joy, a lasting peace… The things Gerard Manley Hopkins calls “the dearest freshness deep down things”. Our celebration, these vows, this life which Teo, Chris and Stephen are entering into, they are all signs of, allusions to these forgotten depths.

Christians are just people who believe that those depths have made themselves known; that in this Mass, they rise right up to the surface for all to see. On this altar, hidden in plain sight, is the God of loving communion pouring out His very life into the world to sustain, bless it and fill it.

And when you see the broken body of Christ held up before you, given up that we may have life and have it to the full, it’s the most natural thing in the world to offer yourself freely and totally in return, as Ignatius did, as Jesuits always have done and as Stephen, Chris and Teo are about to do.


First Vows 2017