First Vows Homily by Provincial Michael F. Weiler, S.J.
August 13, 2011 — Sacred Heart Chapel, LMU Campus
This morning I want to tell you about the Cumbia and the Flatheads.
One year ago, many of the novices were in Colombia studying Spanish. Along with the language classes, they attended workshops on culture that included dance instruction. The whole group learned a traditional Afro-Colombian dance called the Cumbia. It's really a courtship dance in which the men and women show off their strength and grace as the partners dance around in a circle. It could be a Midwest square dance, except for this: all the dancers take tiny steps, none more than 18 inches, because that was the length of chain that bound their feet, because this dance was created by enslaved Africans brought to the new world to cut sugar cane.
The humanity and courage of those slaves was not extinguished by the denial of their humanity. Rather, they triumphed over their oppression, creating with their 18 inches of freedom a dance and an art that California Jesuit novices could appreciate 350 years later. This is a lesson that, especially in places of despair, places where Christ is still crucified, the grace of God triumphs.
When the Africans arrived in Cartagena, the major slave port in the Americas, some of them were met by Peter Claver — a Spanish Jesuit who was daily going down to the harbor and doing his best to attend to the basic needs of the slaves, still onboard ships, who had just survived the Middle Passage.
From the beginning, Jesuits have sought to serve in places and situations where despair threatens to extinguish people's humanity: in houses for the dying; in prisons; accompanying slaves. They went to those places and accompanied those peoples because they believed it was God's work, that in attending to people in hopeless situations, they were standing at the foot of Jesus' cross and whispering hope in His resurrection. And they were grateful to be a part of it.
To be doing my own work is too small; Jesus invites us to join him in the great project of God to redeem the world from slavery and bring creation to its fulfillment.
This past summer, in their 5,200-mile trek across the Northwest and the Rockies, the novices visited Missoula, Montana. There they found the preserved chapel and residence of the first Jesuits to arrive in that region.
In the 1840s the Flatheads, an American Indian tribe that summered in Eastern Montana, sent delegations to St. Louis, a journey of 1,500 miles across territory controlled by rival tribes, to request that some "blackrobes" come back with them to teach their people the ways of heaven. After the third such delegation, a Belgian Jesuit, Pierre-Jean DeSmet, did accompany them back and the result years later was the present California and Oregon Provinces of the Jesuits.
The Flatheads first contact with any European Americans could only have come a few years earlier when the Luis and Clark Expedition passed through their territory. How was it possible then that they should even have known of Jesuits let alone risked so much to find one to bring back to their community?
Two hundred years earlier, about the time Peter Claver was ministering to enslaved Africans, French Jesuits had entered the Great Lakes region to preach the Gospel to the Huron people. Those eight Jesuits are known today as the North American Martyrs because they were killed between 1642 and 1649. Despite their heroism, that mission was considered a failure as not only were all the missionaries killed, but the Huron people were nearly wiped out by their more famous rivals, the Iroquois.
The few Huron survivors were enlisted by the great fur trading companies of the time, the Hudson's Bay Company and the American Fur Company, to facilitate their future commerce with American Indian peoples far to the west. Those companies recruited native men to go ahead of the fur traders to meet and intermarry with Indian peoples in the Rockies and beyond so that when the traders arrived they would receive a warm welcome and find peoples eager for trade. It was beyond their imagination that they were also seeding Christianity and a faith so strong that two hundred years later the Flatheads were compelled to reach out across hundreds of miles of dangerous territory for more "Blackrobes." The apparent failure of the North American Mission thrives today in five universities, 12 high schools, numerous parishes and missions, and many, many more works in the California and Oregon provinces.
From the beginning, Jesuits were missionaries who engaged peoples, cultures, and languages far different from their European roots. They took on these challenges in India, China, the Americas, the Sudan, Japan, etc., not because they were great adventures (Jesuits superiors sent twice the number of missionaries needed because they knew only about half would survive the voyage), but because they believed it was God's work, and they were grateful to be invited to be a part of it.
The Kingdom is God is beyond our imagining…and the fruitfulness or success of our labor lies in the hands of God, often beyond our vision.
To be doing my own work is too small; Jesus invites us to join him in the great project of God to redeem the world from ignorance and bring creation to its fulfillment.
We cannot understand what these seven men do today in pronouncing their vows, unless we see that they have been caught up in something bigger. They have heard an invitation to forget themselves and become a part of the work of Christ.
Ignatius describes the invitation of Christ in this way:
It is my will to bring to fulfillment the whole of creation, to conquer all enemies of human nature, and so to enter into the glory of God. Whoever wishes to join me in this enterprise must be willing to labor with me, that by following me in suffering, they may follow me in glory.
A Jesuit's whole life is about being sent, not because he has no ideas or desires of his own, not because his superior is always wiser (I now have particular insight in that reality), but because, in imitation of Christ, or, even better, in companionship with Christ, his greatest desire is to be caught up in the great plan of God, the great fulfillment of the love that first brought forth creation, then entered into creation to save it, and now labors to bring to fulfillment the promise and potential inherent in us from the start-to walk again as friends of God in the garden.
Let our imagination, linked to our prayer, take us all beyond the limitations of our own particular projects and plans to glimpse the Great Project of God, and allow it, allow Christ, to make claims on our talents, our energy, our imagination to the Greater Glory of God.
Read periodic letters from Father Provincial Michael F. Weiler, S.J.
Letter from the Provincial, July 31, 2011 — Feast of St. Ignatius
Dear Brother Jesuits and Friends of the Society,
I give sincere thanks to you all, especially those who sent promises of prayer on the occasion of my installation as Provincial. Enormous gratitude and a growing sense of the privilege of serving in this ministry have accompanied me these days. Many expressions of support have come to me as one Jesuit or friend after another has said, "Let me know how I can help. Whatever I can do, I will."
Initially, the work of the Provincial seemed daunting: caring for and missioning more than 350 Jesuits within the Province to their ministry assignments after a manifestation of conscience (a heart-to-heart conversation) with each one; representing the California Province as the partner in ministry to three universities, nine middle and high schools, parishes, centers of spirituality, social projects that stretch from Nogales, Arizona (where the Kino Border Initiative ministers to migrants) to Homeboy Industries and Proyecto Pastoral in Los Angeles, which minister to imprisoned and at-risk youth and offer education, leadership, and service to the poor, respectively, to the PICO National Network in Oakland that provides community organizing support; and the many volunteer groups, not to mention the sister-province relationship with the Jesuit Province of Argentina-Uruguay, and more. It sounds like a lot of different works, and they are, but from a Jesuit perspective, all these different works or ministries are simply one mission, the mission Christ calls us to: "…whoever wishes to come with me must labor with me, so that through following me in struggle, they may follow me also into the glory of my Father." Truly, this enterprise is not the work of one person, but the fruit of a companionship in the Lord shared among many different partners and brother Jesuits alike.
These days have given me moments of realizing more profoundly how dependent all of us are on the Lord who calls, leads, and sustains us all. Fr. Ernie Martinez, S.J., reminded me of this, writing from Rome, "…celebrating Mass with Fr. General Nicholás at the Gesù…I will be praying for you that you correspond to God's grace totally." And, a Cistercian friend gave me these words: "It is not the job of the leader to know the way but to stay in contact with God, who does know the way."
Already I have been privileged to see with increased clarity the tremendous generosity of so many people. And generosity calls forth from us more generosity, just as love calls forth more love.
Grace abounds, and challenges, too. May we encourage and support each other as we follow the Lord on our pathways to the Kingdom.
Michael F.Weiler, S.J.