"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

Perpetual First Vows: Homily from the Mass of First Vows, 2020

St. Ignatius and his first companions profess their vows
in Montmartre, Paris, August 1534
By William M. Abbott, SJ

After so many of my homilies at Arvisu Candidacy House (AH), I would have thought you’d be sick of listening to me by now. Yet I have to confess being very touched by your invitation, and surely share with you today gladly.

My first thought is that, unless Sacred Heart Novitiate (SHN) has really become decadent, you guys have already been living out pretty faithfully what the vows are all about. So today comes not in discontinuity with what has been very much part of your lives for a long time. And yet there is something quite meaningful and beautiful when a man kneels before the Lord and formally, publicly makes a promise to put himself fully into God’s hands—offering those essential qualities of being human: our capacity to possess, to love and to make decisions. We give our word forever when we pronounce our vows—pledging to be there through thick and thin, light and dark days . . . to dwell with what I have promised. I cite my guru, Fr. Howard Gray, who says it’s not about performance but about the intention, the deep desire to dwell where we’ve given our word . . . and that is very blessed before God. In our vows, we hold up our lives to God, committing our hearts to hold on to that great act of fidelity that our vows symbolize.

These, perhaps, are ideas that millennials like you may be uncomfortable with. Commitment, permanence, fidelity—how pin myself down to something or someone when there are so many possibilities open to me? Isn’t that a restriction? I always like to go back to Fr. Roque Ferriols, SJ, our venerable Filipino philosopher, and his insight into Greek philosophy. For the Greeks, he said, possibilities, potentials, always have something unreal about them. They are ‘out there,’ not ‘in here.’ It’s only when you define something that you make it real. A piece of marble, for example, can become anything. But when Michelangelo takes it and defines it as a Pieta or Moses or David, it loses its possibilities but becomes something unique and irreplaceable and beautiful—it now has a reality and meaning that no one can take from it. Today is one of those defining moments for you—like when you came to AH or entered SHN. You move ever more really from “I think I’d like to become a Jesuit” to “I am a Jesuit.” Never be afraid of defining moments; they make you who you are—and that is always going to be something quite wonderful... and valuable for the Lord’s Kingdom!

The moving words of Rom 8 affirm that nothing will separate Christ from us. Today you publicly affirm that despite all your limitations, and they are many, your deepest desire is that nothing will separate you from Christ. You also commit yourself to formation and growth, realizing that whatever that entails is always with your Lord, for your Lord; for he is the only reason you are here this afternoon.

And you profess all this in this community. We’re all in this together, concretely a community of brothers who form Christ’s compagnia, a company of men missioned to be reflections of God’s presence in the world. Our Lord and King and friend has blessed our human frailty with the capacity to be in our time what Christ was: a symbol of how much God so loved the world that he would send us, like his Son, into that world—not to condemn it, but to bring it life. Our humanness has to become the vehicle, here and now, of who God wishes to be for God’s people.

Today’s gospel complements the meaning of today, especially that vows are to be seen in the context of mission. The Kingdom for a Jesuit always involves Christ’s invitation to come with him, to do what he is doing in fulfillment of the Father’s deepest desires. We see how compassion and concern fill the Lord’s heart when he sees where people are—searching, confused, vulnerable. Ignatius’s meditation on the Incarnation has the same perspective, the Trinity looking at the whole world and the people in it; and the same response: “Let us work the redemption of the human race.”

Mark says that ‘moved with compassion,’ Jesus began to teach the crowds. Matthew says he began to cure them. Both have him feeding them. But there is an important twist: Jesus tells his disciples, “You give them some food yourselves.”

“But we have only five loaves and two fish.”

“Bring them to me . . .” And they are more than enough for the Lord to work his wonders.

Isn’t that a lot how mission works? The Lord uses the men he has, as they are, and does wonderful things with them if they will just stay with him. You pronounce vows and move on to further formation, to mission, not worrying about who I am or what I have. There’s lots of room to grow, of course. But the basic reality is that here is a man who wants to stay with the Lord and to be made available to do the Lord’s work. God so loved the world that he sent his Son; he so loves the world that he sends you and me to be extensions of his Son. So please continue to grow towards that—using the gift of formation to become a better instrument joined to God in a community and expressing the compassion and concern that God feels for the world to which we are sent.

In a few days, we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration, which will also be the day for ordaining our two deacons. Vow day is something like the Transfiguration, stepping out of the de more way of following Christ to be caught up in something quite beautiful, to experience God telling us to listen to the Lord who shines so brightly in our offering of self. Peter wants to stay there—build tents, never leave. But no, they will have to go down from that elevated experience to face the slow and painful journey to Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, the disciples forgot too quickly what they experienced on the mount that day. Not so you, my brothers. Carry the meaning of this day with you as you continue to open yourself to growth. People who marry wear a wedding ring, hopefully to remind them of what they have committed to each other. We don’t wear rings, but we do carry our vows with us. And they speak for the very deep and loving relationship that makes them possible and sustains them.

Fr. Gray has a moving story in one of his retreats, drawing from the South African writer, Alan Paton.
Paton had married a woman who was married before; her first husband had died. Throughout her marriage with Paton she continued to wear the wedding ring of the first marriage. This always bothered Paton because he felt there was a part of her life he did not possess, that she lived in a memory of that first marriage which intruded on the intimacy of his marriage to her. And so he fell into an affair with a student. His wife found out and told him, ‘You know you cannot live like this. You’ve gotta choose either her or me. You cannot live with a divided heart.’ And Paton said, ‘I’ll go and talk to Ruth.' 
Now, as Paton tells the story, his wife had died. So it’s all in memory. And he says, ‘Before I left, she said to me, “I will be here waiting for you, whether you come or not. This is your decision, but I am your wife." And when I went to Capetown to see Ruth, I realized how much I loved you, and how much I had used Ruth to assuage the kind of sorrow I felt that I did not possess you wholly.’ 
'I told Ruth that we could not go on this way and I was returning to be faithful to you. And then when I came back that evening you enfolded me in your arms and lifted your head to mine, and you said, “Somehow, some way, my dear, I will make this up to you.” And that night when we went to bed, I looked at your hand, and the ring was gone. And now you are gone. And that which was once so heavy on my heart, and such a symbol of my inability to possess you fully, that I would possess and wear around my neck to the day I die. And I searched for it and could not find it. But that heavy burden would be so light if I did find it. It would remind me that it is only in loving so much that we sometimes know the burden. And yet it is love itself that makes the burden light.
The vows may look like burdens to someone who does not love. It is my prayer, all our prayers, that they become for you ways of expressing the deep love that has brought you to this day and will carry you beyond it; that they become for you ‘rings,’ not of gold or silver, but sure stamps on your hearts saying that you truly desire to belong to a Lord who is forever loyal and friend, who will stand by you even should you stumble, and who will know how to transform the little loaves and fishes you have into something truly life-giving for his people.

Thank you, guys, for loving; thank you for giving yourselves. Thank you, Lord, for calling and staying with these men, today and always.
Preached on 2 August 2020 in the Sacred Heart Chapel of Sacred Heart Novitiate, Quezon City, Philippines.