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Issue Date:  February 22, 2008


The patience of God

In June 2007, Jesuit Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan, a frequent contributor to NCR, was asked by his former classmates to give the homily at a Mass celebrating their 50 years as Jesuits. The following is the text of that homily, reflecting on the jubilarians’ journey in religious life.


When yesterday we entered the Society of Jesus, my fellow jubilarians tell me, we were setting forth on a journey for which there were indeed words -- the love of God, the service of our fellow human beings, a vowed life in the church -- but only a fairly shallow grasp of what they might mean. Yesterday we were young, vigorous, some had great dreams, others cherished a blessed sense of duty, all sensed that somehow the life they gave to the esteemed Society of Jesus would also be found, truly, in that least society.

And now, suddenly, we are jubilarians. (Some are even septuagenarians and so glad to have this other, far more festive name to sport!) When we entered the novitiate during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, under the papacy of Pius XII, and with John Baptist Janssens as general superior of the Society of Jesus, order was a relative constant in our experience. Soon the constant became change. In our formative years our nation was shaken, for good and for ill, by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate. The Second Vatican Council, with roots, we learned, in the liturgical, patristic, theological and ethical scholarship of many Jesuits among others, convened in a miraculous rush of time between 1962 and 1965. New hope dawned for the church in the world, most of us thought, just when the world seemed most to need such a beacon. Within a decade, the journey on which we had embarked seemed to have mysteriously changed -- to have become, in fact, far more an adventure. We were invited to change, too, if we were really to live in the time we were being given.

The God of time

Through it all there was this constant: the patience and fidelity of God. We wanted liturgical participation, social renewal, a newly intimate community life. Indeed, as the Society began remarkably to appropriate the aggiornamento of the council in its general congregations from the 31st onward, under the new and (I deeply believe) sainted leadership of Pedro Arrupe, we were called officially and authoritatively to recognize that a community of loved sinners can only be faithful if it seeks the unloved, stands with those who have been shunned, lives but also learns in solidarity with the poor.

How clumsily, how unrealistically, with what a rush we often sought our new goals -- and discovered that God, the Holy Mystery who is our absolute future, was patient with our straining time, was even taking it into God’s own life. (Some of us became aware of what can only be called God’s sense of humor before the human spectacle.) The love of neighbor which had seemed like the love of God, a moral imperative and recommended pattern of behavior, proved to be far more: the discovery of and entry into God’s own life. God was not just pleased if we could be healing, or encouraging, or messengers of justice. God was there, in the care and hope and justice, taking our time into God’s own.

For if God is eternal but also offers divine life and grace to a freely created world, then that world’s time and history, our time and history, becomes God’s time and history truly, too.

We had set off on a journey to a goal -- and discovered that we were already living in it. Through the patience of the Great Tutor we were learning that incarnation was specific to a certain time and place but also calls all time and space to union with it.

The God of suffering

Incarnation, however, means becoming fully human, and sooner or later, one learns the cost of the endeavor. There were ghastly events in political society such as the Balkans war or the Rwanda genocide. There were what many of us considered retreats from the “aggressive fidelity” of the council. Our own nation’s struggles with racism, sexism and poverty seemed to fail as often as they succeeded.

There were more personal losses as well. We lost parents and friends. We struggled with alcoholism and other addictions. Cherished projects all too often failed. The social legislation we favored did not pass. The promotion we hoped for went to someone else. Anxiety became a nearer neighbor. Many fellow Jesuits, a provincial and not a few best friends among them, left our company. The symphony’s scherzo proved to be a threnody.

But God was patient, was indeed perhaps most patient with our suffering. The cross of Christ before which we had been encouraged to ask, “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What shall I do for Christ?” became something not imagined but rather our immediate experience. His suffering was ours, and ours his, because he had given himself for and to us, and had claimed us to and for him.

And so, even more miraculous than life itself, there he is -- in the illiterate village, the anguished schizophrenic, the solitary death row, all the battlegrounds of the world -- the whole Christ to whom all belong, the crucified and risen one who is never a stranger but the patient one who waits for us always -- and from whose love nothing, nothing, nothing can separate us.

The God of beauty

If the cross of Christ seals our time and shares our suffering, revealing the patience of God, it awakens us also, in ways we scarcely could have imagined 50 years ago, to the beauty of God. Darwin wrote toward the end of his life and without apparent regret that his scientific studies had led him no longer to be able to enjoy Shakespeare. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, let Prince Myshkin speak his hope: Beauty will save the world.

For many young people, “the beautiful” is a preoccupation for an elite few. But the men whose gratitude to God you are helping to express today have learned how wonderfully various and compelling God’s world is. We include a poet, a historian, a literary critic, a high school administrator, a journalist and prolific author, theologians and philosophers, spiritual directors and retreat masters, an ethicist. We have served in North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. And if beauty is what arrests and compels human attention, whether in the splendor of a sunset or the sorrow of a scar, a Frederick Edwin church landscape or a character such as August Wilson’s King Hedley II, we have seen too much marvelous variety not to have become more alert to the beauty of the artisan of it all.

It was easy enough to appreciate the harmonious, the splendid, the musical moments of our experience. Harder to recognize what distortion, darkness, dissonance revealed. But the same Spirit that establishes order can comfort tears; the Spirit that illumines can guide through the night; the Spirit that teaches song can interpret discord. The beauty of God, we learned, can come in the mode of fulfillment, in achieved form and luminous color and delicate balance, but also in the mode of hope, in protest against violence, in fury at injustice, in conscientious objection.

To say that the Spirit of God teaches us to see again and to hope to see wholly is not to claim completion. We are jubilarians, but journeying still. Beauty is always fresh, new, surprising. And if a patient God has made our time God’s own, and our suffering God’s own, then how can we not hope that in today’s liturgy and one day finally and forever, God’s Spirit will teach each of us the most beautiful words of all:

Take me. I am yours.

Jesuit Fr. Leo O’Donovan is president emeritus of Georgetown University in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2008

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