It was on September 27, 1970 — fifty years ago this Sunday — that I took my first vows as a Jesuit, pronouncing, along with one fellow novice, Daniel G. O’Hare, SJ (currently a professor of medical ethics in NYC who also consults widely on health care issues), this formula:
"Almighty and eternal God, I, Francis Xavier Clooney, understand how unworthy I am in your divine sight. Yet I am strengthened by your infinite compassion and mercy, and I am moved by the desire to serve you. I vow to your divine Majesty, before the most holy Virgin Mary and the entire heavenly court, perpetual chastity, poverty, and obedience in the Society of Jesus. I promise that I will enter this same Society to spend my life in it forever. I understand all these things according to the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. Therefore, by your boundless goodness and mercy, and through the blood of Jesus Christ, I humbly ask that you judge this total commitment of myself acceptable. And as you have freely given me the desire to make this offering, so also may you give me the abundant grace to fulfill it. In New York, Thomas More Chapel, Fordham University, on the 27th day of September, in the year 1970."
The very idea of pronouncing such words in public at age twenty (after two years as a novice) still takes my breath away: the simple idea that so long ago I did something so bold and even reckless, when I was so young. I took a leap of faith when I did not know enough about life yet, and of course could not know how the years would unfold. And in the crazy year of 1970! (You may enjoy this St. Louis Jesuits setting of the related prayer, "Take and Receive," from the Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.)
Fifty years later, I am amazed and grateful that it has worked out; I am still here, still at it, trying to make it work out. But all these years, the vows have been a risk, and still are. As the great Jesuit scholar John Courtney Murray wrote in 1967, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are dangerous. They call for radical commitment over a lifetime, but if we live them in too careful a way, they can be infantilizing, the prospect of settled religious who play it safe but never really grow up. Indeed, in all these years I’ve never been asked to anything really really hard. Poverty: though I have no savings or house of my own even now, just turned seventy, I am not poor in obvious ways: I have money for all the things I need for my work, a roof over my head, food on the table. Chastity: though I have suffered the “long loneliness” of the celibate life, without the blessings of spouse and children, I have lived that life as a life of love, in Christ, among my Jesuit brothers and many friends. Obedience: though I have always been ready to do what the Society has asked of me, the message almost always has been: ‘Stick with it, keep doing what you are doing’ (as priest, as teacher, as scholar). Make bold choices, keep them alive as life goes on.
But you know all about this: choices made in youth that claim you for a lifetime, vows that are not so very dramatic, but rather quieter, played out in the long run: not a sprint, but a marathon. You know about making promises meant to last a lifetime, then struggling day by day to keep alive love's original flame. It is one thing to die for a cause; it is quite something else to stay true to one’s original love for half a century.
I think of all this as I write this homily for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, not merely to reminisce at your expense, but because this week we read further in St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. This week the imprisoned Paul speaks to the community about making difficult, even radical choices that are to be lived out in heroic or everyday faith. Paul writes during or just after an existential crisis: what has my ministry added up to? should I continue and hope for release from prison, or would it be better to die and be with Christ? Having given his own testimony, this week he pushes his community. At the end of Philippians 1, he makes his appeal:
"Just let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, how you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.
Don't let opposition daunt you, since God and God’s good news are on your side:
"Do not be in any way terrified by your adversaries. That gospel is to them a proof of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that from God." (Philippians 1.27-28)
He doubles down on the ideal of a selfless community that lives in joy, by love:
"If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others." (2.1-4)
And a few paragraphs later he writes:
"It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you— and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me." (2.16-18)
Paul put his life on the line, recklessly living out his unexpected vocation. If you do the same, he says to the Philippians, my gamble will not have been in vain.
But there is more. Mindful of his own suffering and the price he has paid for his ministry, Paul tells them honestly that living the Christian life may cost them dearly:
"For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, having the same conflict which you saw in me and now hear in me." (1.29-30)
Paul did not know that he would end up in prison. He did not know at the point of this writing that, as ancient tradition tells us, he would eventually be stoned to death outside the walls of Rome. But in prison and by experience Paul knows that the commitment to Christ is a leap in the dark. To bring home the fact that this commitment is open-ended and of necessity unsure, a choice for a life that can have few securities or guarantees, Paul then quotes, in the most famous part of Philippians, an early Christian hymn that speaks to the far-fetched and reckless love played out by the God the Son:
"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness,
and being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death —
even death on a cross." (2.5-8)
We take for granted this passage, we hear it on Palm Sunday every year: Jesus Christ is the Son of God, incarnate; he carried out his ministry and died on the cross — and three days later rose again.
Yes, but let us not rush to happy conclusions. From Paul’s perspective, this is all about the Son’s daring leap in the dark, his reckless discard for power and position, the gamble in faith that ended up on the cross, a shameful, total failure. Paul is daring his readers to do the same: build community, become one in mind and heart, even if you do not see how it will end, even if it keeps seeming to end more in loss than in gain.
Only later, after burial in a sealed tomb, does vindication come:
"Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (2.9-11)
The real drama — of Christ, of Paul, of you and me — is not merely a nice two-step death-and-resurrection, as if there’ll be a bit of difficulty on the way to glory. Paul's message is about faith's choice on a long and shadowed path, fueled by an imprudent, holy desire that there will be Act Two, restoration and the fullness of life. Jesus was dead; then God raised him up. We promise to live lives of love, we walk our path step by step, and we see where faith leads us: dramas of great faith or quiet stories of remaining true to our promises. "Only this" does Paul ask of his readers.
Taking vows fifty years ago this Sunday is not nothing — if I say so myself! — but as I look back, the modest drama of my life — the excitement of the priest professor at home in 02138! — does not in the least measure up to the drama of the cross of Jesus, or the trauma of Paul’s own fiery zeal and imprisonment and violent death, or the amazing sacrifices of innumerable faithful people — Christian, but also Jewish, and of many other faiths as well — who have risked everything because they believed and loved recklessly, to the extreme.
But most of us do not get to live lives of high drama, clear-cut harrowing adventures, the ups and downs of shocking losses and amazing triumphs. But we can still gamble everything on truths and values we mean to stick with as long as we live, enacted in small everyday choices: we become Jesuits or we marry or we have partners or we find our way on our own. We make mistakes, we recover; we choose this career and not that career, we stick with a plan or switch jobs in the middle of things. We claim to be companions of Jesus. We gamble that even if our chosen path is long and lonely, God is there at the start, in the middle, and at the end, walking with us, waiting for us in depths and heights, but also on the every day paths of ordinary life.
Photos: My parents Irene and James and myself; Fabritius' Stoning of Saints Paul and Barnabas; Holbein's Christ in the Tomb; at the crossroads.