Sunday, September 20, 2009

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wis 2:12-20; James 3:16-4:3; Mk 9:30-37

There’s a line in the second reading from the Letter of James that caught my attention. "Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is discord and every foul practice." The reason it caught my eye is that I am currently working on summaries of some of the Vatican documents that are sources for the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Religious Women in the United States. As one reads through these documents, mostly from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, certain themes begin to be touched on again and again. One that frequently appears is this: "The prevalence of personal projects over community endeavors can deeply corrode the communion of brotherly and sisterly love." Or again: "There is the risk that subjective choices, individual projects and local customs will prevail over the rule, the style of community life, and the apostolic projects of the community." (Starting Afresh From Christ, ## 12, 18) The documents further note that those engaged in personal projects often develop rivalries, ambition and competition, which are very destructive of community life.

The Congregation documents suggest that this is an especially challenging issue because of the modern cultural ideal of self-development. People in Western cultures are raised today with the conviction that it’s absolutely necessary to find one’s "unique path" in life, and that your whole personal fulfillment and happiness can be found only in pursuing that unique path. It’s the new version of the old saying, "I gotta be me." The documents agree that there is a very valid sense of personal self-development which all people should pursue—that’s a part of the Christian vision of the human person. But the documents are also very concerned that in any Institute of Consecrated Life the community apostolates should take preference over personal projects. That’s a part of the vow of obedience.

I remember many years ago I had a discussion about obedience with Fr. Eric Lies of my community. We were out on the golf course. (You would be amazed what kinds of discussions happen on a golf course.) We were remembering the pre-Vatican II years when no one was ever consulted about whether they would be willing to do a particular job or not. Sometime in mid-August a sign would go up on the main Bulletin Board with all the job assignments for the coming year. Whether you liked the job or even whether you had any ability to do it—made no difference. There was no recourse. But Fr. Eric surprised me. He said: "I have never been assigned a job in the monastery that I would have chosen for myself. But I accepted them and tried to do my best. Everyone of them turned out to be exactly the right job for me." That’s quite a comment about the vow of obedience.

The Roman documents are also very much concerned with the fact that ambition and competition do not get out of hand in a community. They place a great deal of emphasis on developing a spirituality of communion. This is true for all religious communities. There are many aspects to the spirituality of communion—too many to go into right now. But I’ve decided that for the next several weeks I’m going to give a series of homilies on some of the main themes of these documents. The documents really are very good. They attempt to develop a spirituality and practice of consecrated life in the light of the vision of the Second Vatican Council. That’s something that’s worthwhile for all of us to know. We’ll be doing that in coming weeks.

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