During the recent Vow Day Mass, the ‘Vow Men’ (Voventes), as well as those present in the congregation, were addressed by Fr Johan Verschueren SJ, Provincial of the Netherlands and Flanders Provinces. Below is his homily which is an excellent discussion of the meaning of taking First Vows in the Society of Jesus:
Dear ‘voventes’, family, friends, companions,
Vowday. After two years of probation we are here together at this important encounter with the Lord. The ‘voventes’ are making us witnesses of their intimate secret which they bear in their hearts: the knowledge that the Lord touched each of them in a very special way and that He has been transforming them ever since.
Their selection of three texts from Holy Scripture today is a testimony of their private and intimate relationship with the Lord:
The calling of little Samuel as a remote echo of what each of them experienced in his own unique way: “speak Lord, thy servant hears thee”. And what they heard over the last years brought them here today as ‘voventes’.
The Christocentric exaltation of St. Paul at the apogee of his apostolic life, written down in his letter to the Philippians. Here it functions as the breathtaking horizon for the voventes’s desired future lives: “I count everything as sheer loss, for the sake of gaining Christ and finding myself incorporate in him, with no righteousness of my own.”
And finally the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John as the secret formula that will help them to get there: “Love one another as I have loved you, this is my commandment”.
Quite a long time ago, the day I entered the novitiate with the firm intention to follow Christ in the way of the Jesuits, mass was celebrated by the provincial himself in the small house-chapel. I still remember his homily when he invited the assembly to pray so that the new novices might become good Jesuits. Good Jesuits. The adjective “good” struck my attention and kept me puzzled for a long time. For my intention was to become a Jesuit. But a good Jesuit? Did he mean inevitably that bad Jesuits or other types of Jesuits did exist? And what did he mean by “good”? Is a Jesuit good if he pleases his superior, or his provincial? It would be most pleasant if Jesuits would do efforts to please provincials. But unfortunately, -and don’t tell it the others-, pleasing superiors or provincials is not exactly what would make you a “good” Jesuit. There is only one to please, that is Jesus Christ. A good Jesuit is a Jesuit who is really companion of Jesus. He is somebody called by Him, who desires to follow Him and who really tries to do this in everything he does, as a loving answer to the generous call and the overwhelming love that you experience when you realize that God knows you and loves you.
But this is not enough in order to become a good Jesuit or a good companion of Jesus. We Jesuits, ordinarily are persons gifted by many talents thanks to the good education of our parents and teachers, and sure enough you brought already with you a great sense for the spiritual dimension in life and a great heart for people. Together with the very solid formation that young Jesuits receive, it transforms them in strong personalities capable in facing many challenges. But does it make them “good” Jesuits? No; the more we are capable to understand, to do, to act, the more risks we run. Especially the risk to forget that everything we are, everything we have, everything we can, everything we realize is a gift received; or to say it with the words of St-Ignatius in the spiritual exercises (322): “we are not to build our nest where we do not belong, becoming elated in mind to the point of pride and vainglory, and putting down to our account devotion or other forms of spiritual consolation”.
A “good” Jesuit is a Jesuit who doesn’t build nests, and certainly not where they do not belong. On the contrary “good” Jesuits only trust gratefully in God. They don’t forget that everything they are and do comes from God and is worked out together with Him. A “good” Jesuit is a Jesuit who constantly listens, and looks for the Lord in action, contemplativus in actione. Do we find an echo of this simple truth in the formula of the vows that we are about to hear?
If you only would focus on the core of the formula of the vows, as many do: “I vow to your divine Majesty perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience”, you would stress very much on your person and on what you are promising, and not on Whom and what made you pronounce them. A “good” Jesuit understands that the words that surround the three vows and make of them an inclusion are crucial and essential, for they make these bizarre meaningless vow-words meaningful.
“Almighty and eternal God, I, ….. though altogether most unworthy in Your divine sight, yet relying on Your infinite goodness and mercy”…
“and that just as You gave me the grace to desire and offer this, so You will also bestow abundant grace to fulfill it”.
It is the experience of divine grace that go with these words, make these vows possible. I dare even to say that these words of inclusion are more important than the vows themselves for they focus on what God does, and on the relationship between the ‘vovente’ and his God creator.
So they make the vows meaningful. And what is their meaning?
Vows express faith because it would be ridiculous to choose such a life without an inviting and caring God on your side. Hence vows are a permanent and disturbing critic against secularism and militant atheism, and a testimony to anyone honestly looking for the meaning of his existence.
Vows express hope. The hope that what humanly is impossible, becomes possible when creature and Creator enter in an intimate relationship. It expresses the hope that we are “capax Dei” despite our sinfulness, that we are created in God’s own image and may find our destination in Him.
Vows express love, for they are our magnanimous answer to the love of God who set our life on fire. Vows are oversized promises without love. Only love makes them tangible.
Dear ‘voventes’ let me thank you that you are about to give testimony to all of us here present of faith, hope and love. You make visible the work of God in this world. For lived well and fulfilled, vows bring Christ in this world. He is the hidden image behind these words.
So dear ‘voventes’ I pray that with the help of the Almighty you may succeed and become “good” Jesuits, and as such may touch profoundly the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.