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Homily at First Vows in the Society of Jesus

Preparing for today’s ceremony over the past four weeks has brought back memories of making my own first vows. It evoked memories of the six months before vows, of the ceremony itself and of my life after the ceremony, studying and in working various places.

In the months leading up to vows:

I wondered “was this way of life really for me?” Was I up to it? Did I have the strength and inner resources? I often questioned whether I had. The novice director suggested that I bring this to prayer, that I talk to the Lord about it. He recommended that I use the evening half hour meditation time to ponder this in the Lord’s company with the help of a document from a Jesuit General Congregation. The document was on ‘Jesuits Today’ and here’s the section that I read.

“If we commit ourselves until death to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, it is that we may be totally united to Christ and share his own freedom to be at the service of all need us.”

Praying over those lines helped me to take the focus off myself and to put it on Jesus Christ, on his work in me, on what he wanted. Living the vows was about a close personal relationship with Jesus Christ, about sharing in his mission at his invitation, empowered by his help and grace. I found myself looking at the Jesus of the gospels as the one who was deeply free always wanting to do what the Father would want, always wanting to respond to the needs of those around him especially those who felt left out ( tax collectors, sinners, window of Naim, the Canaanite woman, the woman who had been ill for many years.)

As I prayed, the desire to share in Jesus freedom, in his way of living that put service at the centre, came to the surface. That desire was accompanied by a peace, an awareness that this was not all up to me. This was God’s work. God would give whatever was needed to keep me walking the path in a way that was faithful and creative.

It was a bit like what happened for Joseph in today’s gospel when he was told not to be afraid. What was said through the angel to Joseph is said to each one who has the call and wants to respond by making vows. It is said to Christian, Mark, Geoff, Janis:

“Do not be afraid.”
Trust in the power of the Holy Spirit at work here.

Yes it is challenging and demanding. It is not an easy way.

The first reading encourages us to

“Be fearless then, be confident, go where you will, the Lord your God is with you.”

And that is what makes all the difference. The Lord is with you. The Lord is with us. In making their first vows Christian, Mark, Geoff, Janis, become companions of Jesus, sharing intimately in his life. It is his companionship with them, his accompanying them that gives them the hope, the confidence to make this public commitment today.

Concerning memories of the ceremony itself

It was a ceremony like the one we are having today. It was in the evening, it was in Dublin, It was in a retreat house chapel. There are some differences of time and place.

The main thing is that it was in the context of the Eucharist. The Eucharist centres round our celebration of Jesus offering himself to the Father out of a desire to serve all his sisters and brothers in the human family. It is from this offering that we draw strength and inspiration. The risen Lord draws close to us in the Eucharist and invites us to offer ourselves along with him for the sake of the Kingdom.

By ourselves it would be too difficult. With the help of his grace and the power of the Holy Spirit all things are possible.

The presence of a large number of brother Jesuits is a great encouragement to those taking vows. The experience of being welcomed into the brotherhood of the Society of Jesus is a joyous moment. To see four of our brothers making this public commitment is a great sign of hope for us Jesuits. We like coming to an event like this. It assures us that we have a future. It inspires us to pray that the Lord will continue to call men to his service and that they will respond.

Vow days are an encouraging moment for the Novice Director, the Socius, the community, staff and friends of the novitiate. For those taking vows, you are aware of the help you received from Paul and Gregory over the past two years. They rejoice to see all the Lord has done in your hearts and lives over that time.

A big part of the novitiate is the time spent enlisted in various experiments. Today you think of those placements you remember the highs and the lows and the people you met during them. Those are the people who maybe challenged you to delve more deeply into the mystery of your calling. They are the ones who in their own way confirmed you in your calling.

There is always the danger on vow day that the ceremony might seem to be implying that this is the only way of serving the Lord. Clearly that is not the case. There are other vocations in the church; we think of marriage and the single state. We think of other form of religious life and of lay service. They are also instances of God’s grace powerfully at work.

The presence here of family and friends is important. On my vow day, I felt a deep gratitude to my family for all they had given me. We thank the Lord for the gifts of our families. We thank the Lord for our friends who have helped to shape us over the years.

Our presence here – family, friends, noviceship staff and supporters, Jesuits, as well as you who are making your vows – is not about the past or even about this moment itself. It is oriented to the future. By our presence here today, each of us, all of us, say to Christian, Mark, Geoff, Janis:
“We want to be there with you and for you in the years to come, on days when the sun shines clearly and on the days when maybe it is hidden behind clouds.”

And finally living out the Vows

A Jesuit friend of mine often tells of how he went from the high of a lovely vows ceremony with nice music and a great sense of celebration to the following morning when he was sitting in a class on logic given by a teacher who was a good man but not terribly inspiring and surrounded by students who did not seem especially enthused.

The vows are made publically today. They are lived out in the humdrum of everyday life. I recall struggling to write an essay on the history of philosophy in the middle ages about six months after I took my first vows. It seemed a real chore. I wondered if I’d ever finish it: I did in the end.

A line from the second reading from the letter to the Romans addresses well our living out of our discipleship in the ordinary daily routine and the ups and downs of life.

“We know that by turning everything to their good, God co-operates with all those who love him, with all those whom he has called according to his purpose.”

That will be true for you Christian, Mark, Janis and Geoff over the coming years.

In the years after my own vows, memories stand out. For example:

  1. A history class in Belvedere College which I really enjoyed teaching
  2. A religion class in Belvedere when I just never connected with the students, they seemed to talk to each other more than they listened to my carefully prepared lesson
  3. Being homesick in Toronto in my second year of theology wondering if I’d every finish the programme of study.
  4. Ministering with patients in a cancer hospital, a task I found to be found both difficult and yet I was happy to do

In ten or fifteen years time each of you will have different instances of how God has been with you in your own lives in times of study and of service.

One of the great supports for me in living the vows has been Jesuit community. Whether it was John Sullivan House, Monkstown, Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Toronto, Peter Faber House Belfast, in each of these places the brothers have carried me in the difficult moments and helped me to look beyond the joyful moments and see God’s grace at work.

In recent years we speak of community as mission in the society. We did not have quite the same understanding back when I took vows. How we live as Jesuit companions together makes a statement to the world about who we are. Community is not just a base camp from which we go out to study, teach and preach.

It is there that we help each other to be companions of Jesus, to live out the vows you will shortly make. My prayer for you is that what you contribute to community and what you receive from community will enable a sharing in a deep way in the life of Jesus Christ and in his freedom to be at the service of all.

May the Lord bring to completion the good work he has begun in you to the glory of his name and in the service of the Kingdom of God.

May you be strengthened in faith, confirmed in hope and enlightened in love.