As part of the Spiritual Formation Programme at St John Vianney Seminary a bi-monthly Spiritual Conference is presented to Staff and Students in the SJV Chapel. On 10 April 2014, one of the Priests on the Formation Staff, Fr Nhlanhla Mchunu presented a Conference, titled, “Commitment to Christ”. Read below the text of the talk as presented by him:
Commitment to Christ
Reading: Luke 9:57-62
Let me begin by giving us a working definition of commitment: The Oxford dictionary defines commitment as “the state of being dedicated to a cause or an activity”. Therefore, commitment is some form of a free pledge that one makes in the pursuit of a certain activity.
Our topic this evening is: “commitment to Jesus Christ”. The focus of this spiritual conference is on the commitment of a seminarian to Christ. But, we need to reflect first on the question: What/who is a seminarian? A seminarian is “a man who is discerning the Lord’s call” towards becoming a priest in the Roman Catholic Church (www.dcpriest.or/am-i-called/becoming-a-priest. Accessed 30 March 2014). A seminarian therefore, is primarily a man who listens to the voice of the Lord that is calling. Like Abraham our father in faith, a seminarian hears God calling him because fides ex auditu. Therefore, a seminarian needs to be committed to the voice that is calling him and he ought to respond to this call unconditionally.
This commitment to Christ, is not something that should start sometime in the future when you are ordained as priests, God willing. Rather, it should start now during your formation. At this stage, I want to briefly relate to you something of Pope Francis’ style of leadership. The Times Magazine last year declared the Supreme Pontiff as the person of the year. Shortly after his election as Supreme Pastor of the Universal Church, he said in an interview and I quote, “authentic power is service”. American author Chris Lowney in his book “Pope Francis: Why he leads the way he leads”, states that “leaders act on beliefs and convictions formed before they reached the executive suite or papal apartments…” Hence, the current leadership style of Pope Francis was not born out last year when he was elected Pope, but it comes from his long journey of commitment to Christ. Chris relates in the book how Father Bergoglio (Pope Francis) as a formator in the seminary worked in the pigsty and did his own laundry. Later, when he was appointed parish priest, he worked among the poor. Therefore, my brothers, your time in the seminary should help you to cultivate a spirit of true commitment to Christ. Do not swim along, but become an active participant in your own formation.
In the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Africae Munus, Pope Benedict XVI writing about seminarians says,
They [seminarians] must become ever more deeply rooted in the Gospel values so as to strengthen their commitment in faithfulness and devotion to Christ. The fruitfulness of their future mission will greatly depend on their profound union with Christ, on their quality of their life of prayer…spiritual and moral values assimilated during their time of formation (No. 121).
Therefore, unreserved commitment to Jesus Christ ought to begin now, here at St. John Vianney Seminary. If you still hold certain areas of your life back from Christ, those areas might just hold you back in the future from becoming a committed priest. Henceforth, you will only become involved in the ministry of the Church. Let me illustrate this by the following story:
A certain man wanted to sell his house in Sandton for 2.5 million rands and another man wanted badly to purchase that house. The problem was that the man who wanted to purchase the house could not come up with enough money to buy the house. After a great deal of negotiating, the owner of the house agreed to sell the house for half the original amount under one condition. He would still own one nail that hung behind the front door of the house. The agreement was made and the sale of the house was completed.
After a few years, the original owner of the house wanted to buy the house back but the new owner refused to sell it. So, the first owner went out and found the carcass of a dead dog and hung it on the nail he still owned in the house. Before long the house became so unliveable that the family was forced to sell the house to the owner of the nail.
My brothers, that one un-committed area of that house caused that family big problems. The sad reality is that the same is true for those who leave just one area of their life uncommitted to Christ. That one small un-owned nail in your life and in my life might be the cause of our spiritual downfall.
The reading that we have read this evening challenges us all to surrender all our aspects of life to Christ, who is our brother and friend. The gospel passage related to us three offers that Jesus made to people to follow him. All these people came up with different excuses, because of some attachment. Let us briefly examine these three characters and see their one small un-owned nails.
The first ones makes a powerful promise to Jesus and says, “I will follow you wherever you go”. I want to believe that this man was sincere and he wanted to follow Jesus. He was willing to be part of the ministry of Jesus, he was willing to make a difference in the lives of other people by preaching the good news that Christ had brought. But his desire to serve was not motivated by right reason. Brothers, it is clear that Jesus is not looking for mere involvement, but he is looking for total and unconditional commitment. Being involved means that one can do something when they feel like and there is a tendency here to look for honour, prestige and praise. When we are involved in the work of Christ, there is a tendency also of making ourselves the centre of attraction and to rely too much on own strength. When challenges come our way, we abandon the ministry because we are serving for wrong reasons: we are merely involved and not committed. We abandon the flock because we are like the hired shepherd (John 10:12).
But Jesus Christ says, “I am the Good Shepherd, I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:11). There are many priests today who are involved in pastoral ministry, but lack commitment. We are not committed if there are still areas of our lives which cheat God. We are not committed if we do not offer our best and thus we cheat the people of God. Therefore, following Christ does not mean being involved.
With the second man (vv. 59-60) there is a problem of wrong priorities. When he is called to follow Jesus he asks to go first and bury his father. Jesus’ answer to him sounds cruel and lacking the virtue of Ubuntu. There are two things that Jesus wants to convey to us: First, Jesus wants to take priority in our lives; Second, Jesus wants us to understand the urgency of his mission.
With the third man (vv. 61-62) there is a problem of misdirected focus. Notice that the man makes a humanly reasonable request, “But first let me go back and say goodbye to my family”. Yet again, Jesus makes a harsh statement. But, there is something deeper here than a request. This man was focussed on something other than his commitment to Jesus. How many of us are guilty of allowing something to draw us away from being fully committed to Christ? What is that one nail in my life, in your life that is not owned by Jesus?
Vision plays a significant role in our response to follow Christ. That initial vision you had about the priesthood is very important for the rest of your life. When the Risen Lord appeared on Easter Sunday to Mary Magdalene, he told her, “Tell my disciples that they will meet me in Galilee” (Mk. 16:7). Why should they meet in Galilee? Because, it was in Galilee where they received their first vision and where they lived their vocations. It was in Galilee where they saw who the Lord was. Their vision was shamefully shattered on Good Friday. By telling them to go back to Galilee, Jesus is inviting them to re-kindle their first vision, he is asking them to go back where it all began.
My brothers in formation, when you are no longer sure whether you are merely involved or committed to Christ, when you are no longer sure whether your priorities are right or not and when you feel you have lost a sense of focus, go back to your own Galilee experience, to that initial love you felt about becoming a priest. If you let that vision to die, you will be frustrated and give it all up. If you do not have a Galilee experience to go back to, that personal encounter with the Lord, I am afraid to tell you this evening that you will have no foundation to stand on when challenges come your way. Do not allow either your philosophical or theological studies to extinguish your Galilee experience. Rather, let these sacred sciences deepen your initial vision.
A young man went to an old and holy monk and asked him:
Father, how is it that so many today leave the monastery?” The old man answered him, ‘In religious life, things are like the story of a dog. When a dog sees a rabbit, it will immediately run after it, howling and barking with excitement all the time. This will of course, attract other dogs and they will in turn run and bark and howl like the one that saw the rabbit, although they had actually not seen it themselves. After a while, the ones who did not really see the rabbit, but relied only on the barking and howling of the first dog, will get tired and give up the chase because they are no longer interested. They drift off. But, only the one who really saw the rabbit will go on running and get it eventually. The old monk concluded (Fuellenbach 1988:47).
Brothers, only the one who saw and personally encountered Christ can truly commit himself. Do not follow the enthusiasm of others, you will get tired on the way because you do not know what awoke their enthusiasm. Jesus is only looking for our unconditional and total commitment. I am sure that what I am about to say will put a smile on Fr. Thabiso’s face and hopefully he will make me ordinary professor in his department. Nietzsche once said: “He who has a why to live will always find the how”. And my question to you is: What is your WHY for being here? THANK YOU.
Benedict XVI. 2009. Post-synodal apostolic exhortation Africae Munus. Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa
Bible. 1999. The African Bible. Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa.
Fuellenbach, J. 1988. Proclaiming his kingdom: Meditations for personal reflection. Philippines: Divine Word Publications.
Suarez, F. 1996. About being a priest. Princeton: Scepter Publishers.
Spiritual Conference at St. John Vianney Seminary: By, Fr. Nhlanhla T. Mchunu.