This is the very first Eucharist I am celebrating in South Korea, and I am very happy to be here with you, to thank the Lord for the gift of vocation, which gives us an opportunity to offer our service to His people. Today is made even more special because we will witness our brothers, Tong-uk, Paek-seop, Sang-eun, Dae-je, pronouncing their final vows in this least Society of Jesus.
The first reading comes from the first chapter of the Book of Exodus. It introduces us to the situation in which the people of Israel find themselves. A new king comes into power in Egypt, who is so afraid of how the Israelites are becoming stronger, that he oppresses them, enslaves them, subjects them to cruelty, and even begins to kill the boys that are born to them so that they would not multiply. It is from this situation of oppression and slavery that the whole Book of Exodus unravels as a story of liberation, of God seeing the suffering of Israel, and giving them back their dignity, their freedom.
I realize that this is the story not just of Israel; it is really the story of every human being, every Christian, every Jesuit. It is the story of how our freedom is gradually and very subtly lost because we allow our lives to be dominated by self-centered desires, and we become slaves. It is the story of how God wants to come in and set us free, and recover the true meaning of being human, formed in the image and likeness of a God whose nature is to give to the other, to offer service, to love without conditions.
Since Adam and Eve ate of the fruit in the garden of Eden, humankind has fallen time and again to sin, to evil, to pride, to selfish desires, to worldly attachments. And always, God intervenes - not by ever forcing us, but always by inviting us to choose to accept the freedom he offers and so reject the enslavements of this world.
This is what Dae-je, Paek-seop, Tong-uk, and Sang-eun will do today. They come to the altar, before the Blessed Sacrament, and in front of all of us, they will freely express that they accept the gifts that the Lord offers.
First, they will accept the gift of poverty. This does not mean living in extreme squalor or not eating or drinking anything at all. Rather it means continuing to live in this world, and using its goods, its wealth, its opportunities, so that they can better be an instrument of reconciliation and justice.
Second, they will accept the gift of obedience. In obeying their superiors, our brothers are proclaiming that they are not the boss. They are declaring that they are joining a mission which is not theirs alone. They are participants and collaborators of this mission, and because of this, they will work with many others to bring about a renewal of life.
Third, they will accept the gift of chastity. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to his apostles, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.” Jesus is not telling his apostles not to love their families. In fact, we must love our families, especially since it is there that we first experience the warmth and acceptance of a loving and caring God, especially through our parents. Rather, it is an invitation to put Christ at the center of our lives. It is to see that it is from Jesus, and from nothing or no one else, that we draw our inner strength.
This is why for a Jesuit, the Eucharist is at the heart of daily life. It is because of the Eucharist that we can be, for the world, true messengers of hope - because our power comes from following Jesus poor and humble, whose mission is born of the impotence and folly of the cross (1Cor 1, 17-30). This empowers us, so that we can be present to and accompany those who are marginalized, poor, rejected, alone in life, disliked by many, victims of violence and prejudice.
Jesus in the Eucharist also gives us the grace to live as brother Jesuits in community life. We know that we Jesuits can be hard on each other, and I hope never as cruel as Pharaoh for the Israelites. But the challenge of the witness of community life is always before us. GC 35 reminds us that community is not just for mission, but is in itself, mission. If we, ourselves, are not able to give witness to brotherly love and concern, understanding and forgiveness, then our preaching will be hollow and even meaningless. GC 36 reminds us: “If we forget that we are one body, bound together in and with Christ, we lose our identity as Jesuits and our ability to bear witness to the Gospel. It is our union with one another in Christ that testifies to the Good News more powerfully than our competences and our abilities.” (GC 36, Dec. 1, No.7)
Dear Sang-eun, Dae-je, Tong-uk, and Paek-seop, I thank you for your commitment and for freely expressing acceptance of these gifts, your final vows in the Society of Jesus. Your pronouncing of vows this day serves as a reminder to all of us that we are all merely responding to a God who loves first. We ask for the intercession of Our Lady, for the gift of fidelity to these vows all your lives, so that she who had Jesus at the center of her life, may inspire us to always beg humbly for this special grace. Amen.