Showing posts with label University of Queensland. Show all posts
Showing posts with label University of Queensland. Show all posts

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Part III: Vocation

When I started reading the works of John Henry Newman, on the road to becoming Catholic, I accidentally stumbled across the University of Queensland's Newman Society, the Catholic society on campus at UQ. I walked into their first meeting, and when the ice-breaker introduction came, I said quite clearly: I am not Catholic, I do not want to be Catholic, but I do need to find out more to know if I should be Catholic. Most of the people were fairly quiet at this, they just tried to continue on to the next person, since I was an atypical person to be in that meeting and in that sense I could make people uncomfortable. There were two exceptions: the president at the time, now a close friend of mine, seemed to be quietly excited about the idea of someone looking into being Catholic, even if it was true that I did not want to. The other person was UQ's chaplain at the time, the priest who would eventually receive me into the Church, and importantly, Fr Morgan Batt was (and continues to be) the Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

Hence, the idea of vocation has been in my head since before I was Catholic, and it has not left since then. At the beginning, influenced as I was by the office that Fr Batt had, vocation for me was related to what one might call the sacraments of state, that is, Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony. A little later, and influenced now by the Second Vatican Council's clear teaching on the universal call (vocation) to holiness by virtue of baptism, I realised that baptism was a sacrament of state (of sorts). This remains the common usage of the term "vocation": priest, married, religious...? That is an important question to ask oneself, because it is indeed the subject matter of vocation. However, two other people have influenced me and made vocation into a central element of my theology.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book The Cost of Discipleship is one of the most important books I have read this year, particularly the initial chapters, leading up to his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. In it, he attacks cheap grace, replacing it with costly grace, the grace of the cross. Bonhoeffer presents costly grace as grace that demands something of us, namely ourselves, not to repay a debt, but because the debt cannot be repaid.

In reflecting upon this, I realised that the grace of God always implies a calling, a vocation. For instance, the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus is simultaneously the self-revelation of God acting in Christ, which is an action of grace, the imparting of that grace of conversion and the gift of faith, but at the very same time, and inextricably linked, it is the calling of Saul to be Paul the Apostle. For everyone, in fact, the hearing and believing of the Gospel is at once an act of grace on the part of God and the calling of God to the proclamation of the same Gospel.

Therefore, one's vocation, one's calling, is not just a gift of grace but a necessary element of any gift of grace. First and foremost, every Christian is called to holiness. Secondly, there may be a vocation to married life, to priestly life, to religious life, to consecrated single life... In terms of sacraments, the grace of Baptism is a call to holiness. Then follows the specific path to be taken, for which (if one is to be ordained or married) one receives that grace of office. It is not in vain that the sacrament of ordination is called Holy Orders, because the grace of the sacrament implies by its very nature the orders, the vocation, for the sake of which it is administered. In short, grace and vocation are inseparable.

Bonhoeffer, being a Protestant and not having the same sacramental theology of priesthood or matrimony, also challenges Catholics such as myself to think of vocation in broader terms, though this is not something he had introduced to Christianity. It is at the very least as old as the other influential figure that solidified the centrality of vocation in my thought, the spiritual master and one of the founders of the Society of Jesus, St Ignatius Loyola.

St Ignatius is most remembered for his Spiritual Exercises and as a master of discernment. Discernment is, in one sense, a Catholic version of decision making, but the theology that underpins it sets it aside from its secular analogue. Discernment is not so much about weighing up pros and cons of choices, rather, it is about figuring out (discerning) the will of God. The will of God and his calling are one and the same.

Yet discernment of the calling of God for St Ignatius does not stop when one figures out the state of life one is called to, it is a constant process. I must discern the will of God for me at all moments during my day, during my week, during my life. Discernment is not a matter for big decisions, it is a matter for all decisions. Yet if discernment is for all decisions, then that means that there is a calling of God in all decisions, which means that vocation is a term that encompasses the totality of our lives.

This has influenced me to make the bold claim that Christian ethics can be divided into two categories: general and particular. The general is aptly summarised in the words of Jesus when asked what the greatest commandment was:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

The strength of this formulation is evidently its generality, but it hence is overly ambiguous in terms of choosing how to live out the commandment. Scripture abundantly testifies that not all are called to do all good works, that God wills that some dedicate themselves to one form of ministry, others to another. There is hence another way of formulating Christian ethics, in a way that makes note of the particularity and the uniqueness of the vocation given to each person. One could write it in an expanded form as:

The right thing to do is to employ one's charisms in lovingly living out own's vocation for the common good and the glory of God.

It is rough, somewhat academic, and most likely imprecise. It is not quite my intention to give an absolute statement that I would petition the Pope to define as dogma. Rather, I use this as a sketch-statement to show how vocation forms the basis for Christian ethics, and can be more specifically tailored to each person than a general statement about love.

All this implies that what seems good can be bad. St Ignatius talks about feelings of desolation arising because one has followed inclinations that seemed holy, but actually come from the false angel of light. What seems like a good action can be the wrong action if God calls us to do otherwise - indeed, what would be a good action in another circumstance could be the wrong action in this circumstance, because we are not called to do that action then. I wrote a little about how the converse can be true, what seems like a bad idea turns out to be the right action, when I discussed my own vocation here.

Applying the language of vocation to our decision making is important in making decisions about what we will do with our time. This is specially the case because of how many opportunities there are to do good: should we give our time and energy to homeless people, the elderly, the socially marginalised, the mentally ill? Sometimes these categories overlap, but not always, and we need to make decisions about who we are going to minister to. Should I commit to this ministry, or that other one? I know God calls me to do what is required of me in service of him, so how do I divide my time between my work duties, my study duties, and my ministry duties? How much time should I rest? How much time should I dedicate to fellowship with Catholic friends compared to non-Catholic friends?

All these questions are ultimately questions we must discern the answer to, because God has a calling for us that will answer these questions. As you can see, the language of ethics, of should and ought is the language of vocation and calling.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

We Live in Full-Time Ministry

I have been under an immense amount of pressure lately from several angles, a pressure under which I often thrive, but certain family conflicts have meant that I simply do not have the time, the energy or the disposition to do all the things I have to. I have made reference before to how I have something of a reputation for doing a lot, including a notable six university courses, which is twice the minimum for a full time load. These family troubles though, whose nature I would rather not disclose for privacy's sake, have caused several mishaps academically recently, and I am at the point where I think I will drop two of those courses (leaving me at still a full-time load, amusingly enough). This means I will not be able to cram my four year degree into three years, it will take me three years and a half (since I already crammed half a year into my degree thus far). This bothers me more than it should.

To see why, let me do some rough calculations, and disclose my life plan of sorts. I warn that this plan is, of course, exceedingly contingent on all manner of things, but I will sketch regardless. If I drop those two courses, then I will finish my degree in three and a half years, which when added to an Honours degree year, makes 4.5. That would finish halfway through 2017. There's some uncertainty at this point over what  I will do next. Tentatively, my plan is to apply to the top universities to pursue doctoral studies, and if I cannot get into a good university for that, then I will hope to directly enter into the novitiate of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). If I do get to complete a PhD, it will probably last about 4-5 years, so that would take me to the beginning of 2022. Here I am even more uncertain, though I imagine I would enter the Society here, and if whoever is in charge permits, do post-doctoral work afterwards. It would be up to whoever is my Provincial Superior (at least, I think that's roughly how it works). If that's how it works, then assuming about 15 years until ordination, I would be ordained probably sometime at the end of 2037. That means I would be ordained at age 43.

For a 19-year-old like myself, being 43 sounds rather old. Now, that's about 24 years of life away, so of course I would be considerably older then, but I think it sounds more than just old, it sounds too old. Why? Because I think I harbour the perception that, since my vocation is to that life, I will not actually have gotten there until my life is half done. Note that this is not saying that the only form of service is as a priest - what I am saying is that, if my service is meant to be as a Jesuit priest, then it stands to reason that I should get to being a Jesuit priest as fast as possible.

This is absolutely wrong. When one does calculations like the one above, where years are added until one gets to a certain stage or event in life, one is going about the issue of life in a misguided way. I do not start my ministry when I get ordained, I start it the moment I get baptised. All Christians, whether ordained or not, whether working explicitly in Christian things or not, are in full time ministry, because our lives are our ministry.

In the Church's calendar, we are now in the Easter season, which stretches from Easter Sunday through to the day of Pentecost, for fifty days. It is a very interesting time liturgically: at the Easter Vigil, we baptise the new converts, and celebrate the Resurrection. This celebration lasts for fifty days until Pentecost, which has sometimes been described as the birthday of the Church, because it is when the Church received her commissioning. This period is hence the transitional period between baptism and mission, the time of preparation for our task to begin.

Everyone who passed through the waters of baptism, the womb of Mother Church, is now preparing for their lives of ministry. It is their whole life they have given, they can no longer live for themselves, as the reading from that same Easter Vigil reminds us:

"Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." (Romans 6)

In other words, Christians' lives are, because of their calling by Jesus and their baptism into his death, now dedicated solely to God, and that means that the life of a Christian, whatever their job, marital status, etc., is full time ministry. It is full time because our newness of life is full time. Unless, of course, you are a part-time Christian - in that case, no sweat, you are also only a part time minister.

This has profound implications for how I view that long time until ordination, even removing the five years of doctoral studies. I cannot count it as a "this and that, then I start ministry." Ministry starts now. Right now my ministry is going to involve such exciting things as reading what Brian Barry has to say and calculating Hermitians of quantum mechanics operators, whilst I serve the Newman Society here at UQ in whatever role it is (I am currently the Secretary). If I just refer to what I do as an official capacity, if my answer to "what do you do?" is "I study Science and Arts at UQ" then I have lost from the start. If I was being accurate, I would have to say "I live out my vocation as a Christian in the context of studying Science and Arts at UQ."

One of the reasons that the impoverished answer I usually give is on the completely wrong track, even though I know that is what the asker wants to hear, is that it ignores one of the core components of Christian ministry: people, and our relationships with them. As I once remarked to someone: "You know what's wrong with to-do lists and timetables? It's hard to put people on to-do lists and timetables." Because I did not once mention people or relationships in the planner I gave above, that discomfort at "getting there" when I am middle-aged has been produced. If instead of thinking "2015 is my third year of university, I will be doing Statistical Mechanics, third year Quantum Mechanics and third year Fields, as well as Complex Analysis, Advanced Topics in Metaphysics..." I thought "I will be doing my third year of university in 2015, where I'll be studying a bunch of exciting things, as well as making sure I always have time to build caring relationships with my close family, who I will be moving away from in the upcoming years, making sure to be kind to strangers, being loving towards my friends, and always going out of my ways to serve the poor", then I would be on the ball!

It is in my nature to make lists, timetables, schedules and the like. Even though I am undisciplined, I am quite organised, in that sense. However, it is the intangibles, the things that cannot be easily placed on my schedule, that are really the meaningful things that I should think of as occupying those two-dozen years between now and my projected ordination date. They cannot be placed on any to-do list because they should be on every such list. For the same reason, full-time ministry cannot be placed on a schedule, because it fills the whole thing. When I really internalise the fact that the important things, the people, the relationships, cannot be timetabled, then I will stop thinking of half my life having disappeared by the time that most exciting Veni Creator Spiritus is sung.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

University of Queensland J.H. Newman Catholic Society: a vision statement and manifesto

The Newman Catholic Society has been at the University of Queensland for longer than any other club or society. Like all societies, it has had highs and lows in terms of membership, and like most interesting groups on campus, it has not always existed without friction. The Newman Society is not alone, being one of Newman Centres and Clubs around the world in secular universities – although each one is autonomous.

The UQ Newman Society (here on simply “Newman”) is first and foremost a Catholic society, and indeed the only Catholic group at UQ. As we end the academic year and having elected the executive group for next year, it is a pertinent question to ask: what is Newman about, anyway?

I do not know what the answer from a historical perspective might be, so instead I propose to give my own vision. To be a Catholic group means to be a collective of individuals who have been transformed and are being transformed with an encounter with Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, the incarnation of the Gospel of God. These individuals, through their incorporation into Christ in baptism, form part of the People of God and so become part of a much larger group: the Catholic Church. The term comes from the Greek katholike ekklesia, which literally means “universal assembly,” or “universal church”. This point about what it means to be Catholic also tells of what it means to have a Catholic society at UQ: Newman will not be alone, but part of something greater, that is, the universal Church. Nonetheless, part of the organizational brilliance of the Church is that she has a diversity within herself, and so Newman is not merely a sort of university congregation, but an organically distinct arm of the broader Church.

In practical terms, this means that Newman exists within the context of the Archdiocese of Brisbane, and so my vision for Newman is that she be in close communion with the person who oversees the archdiocese (that is, the [arch]bishop, from the Greek episkopos or “overseer” – Archbishop Mark Coleridge at present), and connected also with Catholic communities (in particular: parishes and their youth ministries, as well as Catholic groups at Queensland University of Technology, Griffith University and Australian Catholic University).

The role of the Newman Society is distinct from that of a mere university congregation, in that she is a bridge between the sheltered environment of schools, often Catholic schools, and the secular university environment of the University of Queensland. Its modus operandi, therefore, is shaped by its place in the mission of the Church.

Back to the encounter with Jesus Christ, crucified and risen – what does that mean, how does it relate to who we are, and what actions flow from this encounter? These are not only good questions, but it is important that every Catholic know the answer. To this end, part of the core of Newman is its catechetical drive, or in other words, its teaching role. Noting that the move to university means a shift from the more sheltered life at school, we seek to learn together and deepen in knowledge of our Christian faith in a context which can at times be very hostile to the unsuspecting Catholic at a secular university.

Equipped with the message of the Gospel, and part of the broader universal Church, we seek to carry out in our capacity the essence of the Church and live her primary mission, which is the commission given by the risen Christ to his followers: to proclaim Christ to the world and hence make disciples of all, baptizing them and teaching them how to be followers of Jesus (cf. Matthew 28). This proclamation of the incarnate Gospel is called evangelism and is motivated by love of God and neighbour. We aim to bring our joy in Christ risen to others, whilst at the same time being witnesses to the redemptive grace of Christ crucified.

Yet we know that missionary activity in the modern world takes on character different to earlier forms of evangelism. Our apostolic nature means something different to what it once was in the early days, where the apostles would arrive in a new city and announce the good news at a synagogue or place of gathering. Furthermore, we understand that not all are called to be witnesses to the Gospel in the same way: some may be excellent orators, and others may witness more quietly throughout their daily lives. In whatever way Jesus calls us, we say with St Paul: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.” (1 Cor. 9:16)

By the light of our faith we begin to see Jesus in in all people in need. Our dual commandments to love God and love our neighbour compel us to go out of our way to become the neighbours that others may need. This produces our profound concern with charity (simply an anglicised form of the Latin for love), which is a core component of what it means to be Catholic. For this reason, Newman aims to have active participation in various ministries to alleviate the evils of dehumanizing poverty in the archdiocese, as well as helping women seeking safe haven from domestic abuse and caring for people who carry the burden of mental health problems.

In summary, the UQ Newman Catholic Society sets as its aims:

-         To form a community of Catholics at the University of Queensland, and to situate this community within the broader context of the archdiocese of Brisbane and the universal Church.
-          From within this community, to deepen our knowledge of our faith by coming together to learn from the Scriptures or the teachings of the Church in a safe environment.
-          To partake of the apostolic nature of the Church in witnessing to the Gospel as our hope and joy at the University of Queensland, each in the manner in which they are called.
-          To serve any person who is in need of any kind, in particular taking as our own the Church’s preferential option for those in need, ministering to any material, spiritual, emotional or relational needs, all of which are important to the full flourishing of the human person.