October 2018: The Mission of the Religious

by Fr Chris Chatteris SJ

Pope’s Prayer Intention, October 2018

That consecrated religious men and women may bestir themselves, and be present among the poor, the marginalised, and those who have no voice.

Challenging stuff from the Pope to his fellow religious. We must ‘bestir ourselves’, in other words wake up and get moving. And we cannot but be impressed by Francis’ own powerful example. Even though he is the head of a vast and complicated institution which often seems designed to cocoon its leaders from the harsh realities of life, he cuts through it all with an easy directness and is himself able to connect with and be present to ‘the poor, the marginalized and those who have no voice’.

I’m sure Francis would be the first to acknowledge that great work being done among the poor by religious, especially religious women, but unfortunately for us he’s a disciple of Ignatius who was always asking what more he could do. I interpret this intention as written in the spirit of the magis of St Ignatius, that gift of divine dissatisfaction which never allows the followers of Christ to rest on their laurels in this life.

While looking at Ignatius’s magis we can also recall his insistence on the examen or examination of self in the presence of God. There are at least two ways, it seems to me, that we religious can dodge our obligation to serve the poor. One is by doing what Francis does not do, namely allowing our institutions to protect us. For example, I live in an institution called a seminary. Those of us who work here have to ask ourselves whether we can serve the poor and homeless who happen to abound in our part of Cape Town and serve our students.

The fact is that if we were constantly responding to calls on our charity at the gate, we would never be able to get on with our work of formation. So, we focus on the formation and commit ourselves to our students and their needs. There is a poverty to be discovered here of course, though it’s not as dire as hunger and homelessness. It often consists of poor education and painful family backgrounds. But one still often has that nagging feeling about Lazarus at the gate.

Another way in which we can avoid a direct contact with the poor is by talking and writing about social issues without any actual hands-on experience. It may be very comforting to attend international conferences on poverty and its alleviation and to deliver learned papers at these gatherings, and who knows, perhaps all this talk and print does some good, but sometimes I wonder. I often wonder whether these meetings are a subconscious way of avoiding the reality of what we talk about among the ‘chattering classes’. This is undoubtedly the age of meetings and conferences, but do we ask ourselves what they achieve? My sense is that they normally achieve the creation of further meetings, but I have a notoriously jaundiced view of these things!

It was perhaps for the above problem that St Ignatius of Loyola insisted that his very learned Jesuit congregation should have a special commitment to the formation of poor and unlettered children. He saw such formation as a real need in itself, but I suspect he also wanted to keep his high-flyers’ feet on the ground. Hence, when he sent his top theologians to the Council of Trent, he instructed them to spend some of their time off catechising poor children.

This is good advice for those of us who work in institutions, especially academic ones. We should at least have some form of outreach to the poor beyond the walls of the school, even if our school also educates poor students. Academics who make their knowledge available for the upliftment of the poor and who have actual face to face involvement with poor students are a good model for us. There are many of them out there and they aren’t necessarily all Catholics or indeed Christians. For example, those reports we see from time to time of medical eye specialists from university hospitals, and their students, doing placements in the rural areas conducting cataract surgery for elderly people who are losing their vision, are always impressive and moving.

Even if we are doing a great deal, Ignatius will ask us what more we could do.

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