Vocation is making common cause – a reflection
(By Christian Carlassare) – Fr. Christian Carlassare is a Comboni missionary who has been working in South Sudan for a number of years and has just initiated a new ministry to promote Christian vocations in the Church. He is also a formator at the Pre-postulancy ‘Barnaba Deng House’ in Moroyok, Juba, a house established for the training of new missionaries.
Fr. Carlassare has addressed a group of nearly a hundred youth on the theme of Christian vocation. Drawing from St. Paul’s call and teaching, the vocation promoter talked to young South Sudanese about a call (vocation), “where God and the other person are the main protagonists together with the people with whom the called person is to make a common cause”.
Here is his full reflection:
VOCATION IS MAKING COMMON CAUSE (Acts 20:17-35)
In this reflection I will talk about vocation where God and the other person are the main protagonists together with the people (person’s neighbours) with whom the called person is to make common cause.
St. Paul invokes his own example: “I accommodated myself to people in all kinds of different situations, so that by all possible means I might bring some to salvation. All this I do for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share its benefits with others” (1Cor 9:22-23).
Let us open our eyes. What is happening around us? How can we see South Sudan and our world? There is the story of the two elephants and the grass: where are we in this story? But there is also the story of the confrontation of the elephant with the mice and the unexpected result. God saves by using unexpected means. And God saves for free, because of his merciful love.
Making experience of salvation is making experience that the grace of God is free; it is offered to us beyond any our merit. And this grace is offered to me and to all people without exemption. An African proverb says that the stomach is the calabash of God, because God provides; and he provides evenly for both good people and bad people. Everyone on earth is taken care of. Therefore we look at God with great gratitude. And so how do we look at people? Do we judge? Do we condemn? Do we use people for our purposes?
Daniel Comboni discovered his missionary vocation: how did he look at Africa? He realized that many people were looking at Africa to get something out of it and fulfil their interests and expectations. Comboni said that the missionary instead comes to Africa and relate with the local people in a very different way because he does not have any hidden agenda… but makes common cause with the people. Look at the many priests, religious brothers and sisters that in South Sudan are sharing the same sufferings with the people.
Therefore, this vocation to make common cause with the people twists the world mentality about being the first, the strong, the successful and leads us to live a new kind of life where there is room for self-giving and the same gratuitousness that is witnessed by Jesus. There is no point to boast about our qualities and achievements. Life is fulfilled when it is simply given/offered to others. When? Now! Today is the Kairos (suitable/right time) in which we can offer our life and experience salvation.
This experience of salvation is not that obvious. We must first renew ourselves or let the Spirit of God renew us in order to look at the reality and our life and make experience of God’s being present and leading the history to salvation. “We must be born from above”, Jesus said to Nicodemus. Let’s make memory of our baptism. Moreover, we must dwell in the light of faith in order to trust the Lord and have hope. Pope Francis said many times that Christians cannot be pessimist, sad and confused, rather optimist, joyful even in the midst of difficulties and with a clear vision.
The speech of St Paul to the elders of Ephesus
Let us look now at the experience of Paul and his speech to the elders of Ephesus who gathered in Miletus before his departure to Jerusalem (Acts 20:17-35). It is a farewell speech and Paul shares about his life and his vocation. His vocation appears most clearly now at the end of his life. In fact as long as we live we do not possess a vocation: we start a journey because we just trust, but only at the end it will appear the journey we have gone through. Vocation is therefore a journey in which we learn to make common cause, to be with the people and become partakers of the Gospel, especially when we are open to experience the saving grace of God.
These are the last words of Paul to the elders of Ephesus. He did not remind people of any specific doctrine, he spoke about his behaviour and way to relate to them. Salvation is not transmitted by ideas/concepts but by a person: your person and the way you enter into contact with people… if you are compassionate and make common cause with them, your relationship will bring forth good fruits.
Generosity is far from being heroic and extraordinary; it is actually ordinary, normal, but continuous, stable and consistent: “You know what my way of life has been ever since the first day I set foot among you”. His way of life was not about something heroic – great speeches, prophetic revelations or extraordinary signs. His heroism was based on his daily life which was consistent to the demands of the Gospel.
St. Paul believes that God made great things in his life and made his salvation to become visible. Paul considers his past, his present and his future all together. It is also important for us to look at our life as a whole. Sometimes people look back at their past and are blocked by their sense of guilt, or anger… some others instead live just the present moment without purpose with no plans for tomorrow. Other people instead live all forward toward the future expecting always more and never happy about what is there today.
Therefore, we can be able to make common cause with the people if we live reconciled with our past, we strain forward towards the future and we are fully rooted in our present and take up the daily challenges in peace of mind and trust in the Lord. St. Paul also wrote: “Forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit towards the goal…” (Phil 3:13). Our life goes beyond the fragmented moments and experiences of our life: there is a plan behind our life. God has in mind something beautiful for us and it will take shape little by little. We must look at our life as a whole.
The past witness of St Paul
So, St. Paul looks back at his life: “You know what my way of life has been … how I served the Lord”. Beautiful! Paul do not have a personal ambition, a special doctrine or a special group of friends to please: he was there just to serve the Lord. Card. Martini said that “This freedom of St. Paul is amazing: he owes nothing to anyone, except to Christ; and through him to all. He does not have to please anyone; he is answerable to no one but to Christ; and through him to all. And the community knows that he is not there to please or to meet the expectations of people, but it is there to serve Christ”.
It is amazing! Sometimes we might find ourselves to please people or to take the side of a friend against another. We should instead take the side of Christ. When we simply serve Christ we experience a deeper freedom and we are in a better position to help our brothers and sisters.
Therefore, St. Paul specifies his attitude of service: “I have served the Lord… in all humility”. St. Paul said it even better in Phil 2:3 “Nothing is to be done out of jealousy or vanity; instead, out of humility of mind everyone should give preference to others, everyone pursuing not selfish interests but those of others. Make your own the mind of Christ”. Or Col 3:12-13 “You are to be clothes in heartfelt compassion, in generosity and humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another and forgive each other”.
“I have served the Lord… with all the sorrows and trials”, at time even with tears. Also Jesus broke into tears at least twice: when his friend Lazarus died, and as he approached Jerusalem he shed tears and said: “If you too has only recognized on this day the way to peace!” (Lk 19:42). These tears express how much Jesus and Paul were committed to the Gospel so that people might open themselves to faith. “My children” Paul wrote, “I am going through the pain of giving birth to you all over again, until Christ is formed in you. I wish I could be there with you and find the right way of talking to you: I am quite at a loss with you” (Gal 4:19-20). St. Paul shows all his concern for the people/Christians of Galatia. It is his concern that draws Paul to make common cause with them with the wish to be with them and be available to each one of them answering to their material and spiritual needs.
Concern is not insignificant. Where there is no concern, there is no vocation. Concern for the people, the poor, the Church. Concern is actually a very serious attitude and calls for commitment. In certain cases it can be as painful as childbirth. It might demand a long time commitment: “Remember that for three years, night and day, I unceasingly admonished each one of you with tears” (Acts 20:31). Therefore, making common cause means accepting these tears; accepting the experience of serving without seeing a quick result, without even being easily welcomed. “He (the farmer) went forth weeping carrying the seed to be sown” (Ps 126:6). He was crying, yet sowing. Therefore, “Those who sow in tears will sing when they reap” (Ps 126:5). What about you: do you lose easily your heart or are you perseverant? Are you concerned for the good of others without forcing the other to be like you or to go on your way?
“I served the Lord in the midst of trials”, said St. Paul. Those trials “came to me through the plots of the Jews”.
Those plots of the Jews were without reasons and in contradiction with their faith. They were seriously undermining the work of St. Paul, and this opposition was coming from inside his group, from the people who should have been his friends. The hostility of the good people is worse than the opposition of the bad ones. Let us be aware that we can easily experience misunderstandings in our own environment/family/parish so much so that the atmosphere becomes also negative, or difficult to live in. It is not a reason to drop our commitment for Christ. It is a call asking perseverance.
Then, St. Paul explained better the way he served people: “I have not hesitated to do anything that would be helpful to you”. St. Paul teaches us that we must expose ourselves without fear. At times we may be asked to do little things, yet we are tempted to withdraw or hide. We want to spare ourselves. We prefer to mind our own business and we tell ourselves: “Why should I do it? Nothing will change anyway”. Instead your contribution is extremely important.
“I have preached to you and instructed you both in public and in your homes”. There is a consistency in his life witness. He was the same person inside and outside: in public and at home. He was always the same person in love for Jesus, the Gospel and the Church, nothing else. It is not always like that for us. We might be in one way with our parents and in another with our friends. We might be in one way when in the Church and in another when we are at school or at work or with our friends. We might change our talks and behaviour according to our own interest and the people we are with. And when we are alone by our own we might even forget the person we actually are. The love of Christ heals this dangerous split; it makes us able to be unified and concerned about things and offer our contribution, by making common cause with people.
St. Paul lived totally this experience: “You know that we have proclaimed to you the Gospel and worked night and day in order not to burden any of you” (1Thes 2:9). Daniel Comboni too said to the people that they will find him always ready to answer to their spiritual (and material) needs: “Today, at last I take back my heart by returning among you … I have returned among you never again to cease being yours … come day and night, come sun come rain, I shall always be equally ready to serve your spiritual needs … your good will be mine and your sorrows will also be mine. I make common cause with each one of you, and the happiest day in my life will be the one on which I will be able to give my life for you” (W3157-3159).
St. Paul’s present situation and future steps
After recalling his past, Paul mentions his present situation: “Now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem” or “I journey to Jerusalem in the Spirit”. He knows it will not be an easy journey and he will find persecution and probably the martyrdom. Faith in Christ gives Paul the freedom to overcome any fear and the temptation to avoid sufferings. Faith is crucial when we discern our vocation and what we are ready to do for the Lord. We normally choose what we like and what pleases us because we obviously flee suffering. By doing so we choose badly and we do wrong. What we like and suits us is not necessarily what makes us grow in love. For this reason, in order to choose well, we must be free from this human logic. Paul walks toward Jerusalem like Jesus did. He looks to the good of the Christian community and fulfil it through love and self-giving.
In conclusion, St. Paul looks into his future: “I consider my life of no importance to me”. Life is indeed precious and valuable, but St. Paul says that he did not hold it for himself: he did not dream a career or a personal gain. He surrendered his life to the Lord, and this surrendering gave him back freedom, peace and serenity. St. Paul has only in mind “to finish his course and complete the ministry he received from the Lord Jesus”. What is the feeling of a runner that stops his run just in the middle of the race? What is the feeling you have when you find that your friend did not do his duty or left the work half-done? Our life demands wholeness. When we have fulfilled all our tasks we find true joy. We must be courageous and fulfil our vocation.
It is not easy; we must commit ourselves all the days of our life. St. Paul warns us against some dangers: “Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock”. Stay awake and vigilant about yourself, and people and situation that might lead you astray. And then St. Paul reiterates his style of life: “I have never wanted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You know for yourselves that these hands of mine earned enough to meet my needs and those of my companions” and remember “There is more happiness in giving than in receiving”.
For your personal reflection
•Which signs of openness do you see present in your daily life?
•Which Word of the Scripture do you find particularly meaningful for your life?
•Can you identify a specific target or wish you want to do by the next months?
•Which decisions might help you to step ahead passing from your gratification to the freedom and joy of the Gospel?
•In which occasions did you experience that there is more happiness in giving than in receiving?
•Do you take enough time for prayer? Evaluate your spiritual journey.
– Christian Carlassare, mccj
Juba, South Sudan