Your Turn

My Vows, My Church, My Hope

By Rev. William Clark, S.J.

The assigned scripture readings were extremely stark on the weekend that I pronounced my solemn (“final”) religious vows last November. After 28 years as a Jesuit and 17 as a priest, I was reaffirming my commitment to personal poverty, chastity and obedience in the Society of Jesus. But I was also confirming my place within a comfortable community, at a prestigious college, as part of the proud Jesuit heritage. Meanwhile, the prophet Malachi raged against the arrogant, St. Paul ordered that those who do not work should not eat, and Jesus in the Gospel of Luke warned: “All that you see here, the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone.”

I could have chosen to use “happier” readings! Yet, that very week I had opportunity to reflect on the violence and destruction in Christian history; on Christian accommodation to Nazism during the Holocaust; on the ongoing scandal of clergy sexual abuse and its cover-up. Among my guests at the Vow Mass were many whose church communities, local traditions, and memories have been rocked by scandal, diminishment, and the recent wave of parish closures. Indeed, looking truthfully at our Church and world, we are reminded repeatedly: “There will not be left a stone upon another stone.”
So I could not avoid the question: How can I promise special obedience within this Church, with all its terrible blemishes visible, without accepting full responsibility for—and being tainted by—its sins? There is only one answer: I cannot. Yet, even as I had many reminders of failure and loss that week, I had many more reminders of the Spirit of Christ at work. Those scripture readings aim not at terror but at hope.

Where, then, is my hope? Not in the stones, or the walls pride builds. I had to pray long and hard about “obedience” when I thought it tethered me to those things. My years as a Jesuit have focused me on something else: the faces of the people represented by the congregation I addressed in that Mass.
They were a rather motley crew—as varied and unlikely as my life has been for 28 years. There were older Jesuits who have served all over the world. There were students who organize adoration and prayer, who work to aid the homeless, who ask questions and are willing to wrestle with uncomfortable ideas. There were visitors who have fought to preserve their parishes, and who work loyally to keep their faith communities functioning well. There were parents who converted their own dreams and possibilities into constant efforts for the welfare, wisdom and love of their children. Among all these friends and family were believers and non-believers, white people and people of color, Republicans and Democrats, gay and straight people, John XXIII Catholics and John Paul II Catholics.

Because they tie me to this community, my vows do not let me take the easy route, find a congenial place and “hang out” where I can stroke my ego and “feel good.” They force me to stay face to face with our disagreements, shortsightedness, infidelities and sinfulness, our abuses, crimes, rages and hatreds. I thank God that it’s not so easy to walk away from all that and blindly pretend that all the problems are “out there.” We carry around within us the origins of so much misery; yet, whenever I begin to dwell on that, I only need to turn my head slightly to catch the light: my hope, Messiah at large in the world and all of those who carry Him!
If “there will not be left a stone upon another stone,” the walls we build between us are doomed, too. The greatest gift I’ve received as a Jesuit is gradually learning that our motto “Finding God in All Things” means seeing the face of Christ in all these friends, and His Spirit at work in all the day-to-day encounters with truth and love and wisdom. That is the Church to which I have vowed obedience: the embodied love and grace of God about which we say, in St. Ignatius’ prayer Suscipe (Take, Lord, Receive), “That is enough for me.”

Fr. Clark, an associate professor of religious studies, has been a member of the faculty since 2001.