Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Active Participation

Since I can remember I have been going to church with my parents. My mom is the most religious person I know, one who attends every week and novena masses on Wednesday nights. For her, it is a quiet, personal relationship with God that is never imposed upon others or even, for that matter, really vocalized at all. Her faith never waivers and, in times of difficulty and heartache, she leans closer and relies more heavily upon her Roman Catholic upbringing. The most religious propaganda she’ll suggest to me when I call home for advice on something that I can’t handle alone is something to the effect of “Why don’t you just go sit in the chapel for a few minutes to clear your head. It really is beautiful down there on your campus.” This quiet appeal towards a dependence on God is what I believe Kolvenbach to be making for the Jesuit order. He writes that their aim was “not to impose our religion on others, but rather to propose Jesus and his message of God’s Kingdom in a spirit of love to everyone” (26).

I have had periods of doubt with my own beliefs about God but I always rationalized that it was a natural process to question the things that carry the most meaning and value in one’s life. At Saint Peter’s Prep, a Jesuit preparatory school in New Jersey, a particular priest always told us in theology class that some of the most important religious figures had difficulties and struggles with their own religious convictions. At Prep, the Jesuit mission of “Men for and with others” was strewn everywhere about the school, from test papers to the maroon and silver throughout the cafeteria. In a way this statement took us away from one religion and brought all of them together. It was irrelevant if you were a Catholic or a Muslim because we were unified in this idea of "being men for others." He says that this phrase garners “men who will live not for themselves but for God and his Christ” (29). It became as second-nature to most students as their morning commute. Looking back at my time within those walls, we were just expected to do service for no other reason than because it was the right thing to do. We were taught to genuinely want to be the changes we felt were needed. Granted, this is a somewhat idealistic reminiscence of my high school experience and I’m fully aware of that, but I do feel as though service for others emanated from Prep because of its Jesuit foundation and not merely because of a graduation requirement.

Kolvenbach argues for this type of service exceptionally well when he states, “Fostering the virtue of justice in people was not enough” (27). He believes that justice cannot be merely fostered or pondered over but rather that it must be physically acted upon. Justice cannot be substantiated through thought alone but rather through acts against injustice. One’s faith or one’s convictions in right from wrong should, he seems to believe, coexist with actions to correct it. He furthers this sentiment when he continues, “Only a substantive justice can bring about the kinds of structural and attitudinal changes that are needed to uproot those sinful oppressive injustices that are scandal against humanity” (27).

The one service opportunity I had that applies to Kolvenbach’s argument stems from my time in Glenmary farm in Kentucky. It is a retreat center, created by Father William Howard Bishop in 1939, that provides numerous assistance programs for less-fortunate children and elderly people throughout the region. The week a few of my friends and I spent at Glenmary opened my eyes to the injustices that I had been sheltered from for a good part of my life. Kolvenbach writes that one in six children resides in poverty. The kids of Glenmary were no different than I was at their age. Shy at first, they couldn’t stop telling us stories by the end of the day. They were just happy to be having a day away from their broken families and homes. The dirt on their hands and faces after a toss with the football was just a visible token of their enthusiasm to dive onto the ground to impress the older kids.

Each night when the kids would leave, we would sit around a campfire behind the retreat house and talk about different things that had gone on throughout the day. This one particular night after spending much of the day with the children, nearly every person harped on how genuinely good the kids were and how big their smiles could be. They should be limitless and bound by nothing yet we all knew they were unless changes could be enacted quickly. I remember one of the girls from a Chicago high school saying that she wished she could take one of the little girls home with her with hopes of giving her opportunities in the city away from rural Kentucky. This “moral reflection” as he calls it is necessary for societal irregularities and faulty structures to be tested and reworked. It is this sacrifice of the self, this notion of putting absolute faith into the works you do for others, that subtlety dominates Kolvenbach’s argument. Perfectly worded and filled with meaning, he writes, “When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change” (34). Kolvenbach maintains a belief that people are decent while placing hope in their ability to witness wrongdoings, analyze the roots of these injustices and ultimately take some sort of active position to balance, or at least tilt back towards even, the scale upon which people live.

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