Fr Trung Nguyen SJ was installed as Parish Priest of the Richmond Catholic Parish of St Ignatius and St James, on 27 February 2022 by Bishop Terence Curtin. Bishop Curtin’s homily drew on his own experience of the Spiritual Exercises, and the way a loving gaze upon the world offers a radical invitation to service.
Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9, 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1, Luke 14:25-33
We are gathered as the Richmond Catholic Parish of St Ignatius and St James, a holy People of God, whom God has called together through baptism in this time and this place. In a parish we don’t just come together for special moments, rather we learn to share our lives, to encourage each other in the good and the bad that life throws at us, creating community, and finding that since we are gathered and going forth in his name, Christ is at work in our midst. So what do we hear today?
At times in the Gospels we hear hard and radical sayings from Jesus, but this one goes further than others. Note the context: “large crowds” are following Jesus. He is immensely popular, a “celebrity” as we would say today. They are probably following him for a whole range of reasons, to be healed, to just see and hear him, or maybe genuinely touched by what they see and hear.
Then Jesus turns round, suddenly facing them. He confronts them and puts radical demands to them about being his disciples. He lists the most compelling attachments that disciples must surrender – father, mother, spouse, children, even one’s very self. Note the very deliberate build-up in intensity so the message will not be mistaken: only those prepared to give all can follow Jesus, to be prepared to renounce even one’s immediate family or one’s life if necessary. This is not the usual way we think about our commitment as Christians today. In other words, Jesus is saying, “Think about what being a follower of mine means. Don’t just follow me blindly. What is it going to cost you? Think of what you are committing yourself to.”
Ignatius knew this radical demand. He was a great saint and one of those rare saints whose spiritual experience and concrete existence we know quite well. Wounded at the siege of Pamplona he filled his time of healing and convalescence reading the lives of saints. Inspired by what he read of St Francis and St Dominic, this also led him towards a great devotion for Our Lord and Our Lady. In a very medieval, almost romantic way, he wished to enter their service and become their knight.
So, he leaves everything and sets out on the road, seeking to achieve this holiness that he had imagined from his reading. It brings him to Manresa, where he settles as if to do a novitiate. But it’s a terrible novitiate! He fasts, sleeps too little, does exaggerated penances, says endless prayers. None of this brings him peace or light on what he must do, but doubt, temptation, and even despair.
Then one fine day there came the great reversal. God gives him an immediate, direct, transforming experience of himself: God, present and unfathomable (beyond any idea, any image), encompassing everything but permeating everything, surpassing everything but animating everything. The ever-greater yet ever-near God, who comes to us humans, incarnate in Jesus, humble, poor, obedient to his mission as Revealer of God, as Saviour.
Ignatius finds himself as it were, inhabited by God, a reality more real than all that surrounds him. It delivers him suddenly and totally from his dreams of extraordinary holiness as well as from the temptation to despair. It makes him a companion of Jesus, of this Jesus whom he is going to follow in the Spirit.
It brings him to decide to devote his life to “helping souls”, that is to say, to direct them towards this founding experience of the living God, so great and yet so close. That they, we, might search for God and not search in vain. That they, we, might ask for his Spirit so that we can follow him in truth. That God might be the intimate Source of all that moves us.
So, thinking of our gospel’s challenge, where are we in all this? How does Jesus rate on our personal lists, not in general, but when the chips are down: Christ or money, Christ or power, Christ or career, Christ or pleasure? Do we accept that it will take the form of a cross whose purpose is love, which would transform suffering into sacrifice? One that would bring us to murmur in the midst of any distress, “For you, Lord”, putting every pain to profit, making it a saving grace for others, and linking our cross to his on Calvary?
And the saying about possessions, do we hear it asking us, “What rules your life?” That we might not clutch our gifts to ourselves, whatever they are, but sharing them, as Christ may ask it of us? Remember, it is possible to travel with Jesus but not follow him, to be a fellow-traveller but not a disciple.
Truth is, when one meets Christ, gives one’s heart to him, these other loves – father, mother, spouse, children, even one’s very self – do not disappear. Indeed, they are deepened and take on new meaning, for in them we come to know even more his love for us, the love that binds all other loves together and keeps them true.
In all this, the measure of our love is not ourselves, but Christ who places this love within us, and we entrust this love to him, to his own crucified love. We are sure that this love exists and all that remains for us is to decide what works this love asks us to do now. A thousand times we will have to return, to follow with our eyes directed towards the realities of faith rather than towards things more immediately accessible. It’s an expectant gaze, but one free from pre-conceptions, a welcoming gaze for what is and always will be beyond, for the mystery within the infinitely near, a loving gaze which chooses, which desires to love.
This is the blessing I now invoke upon the Richmond Parish of St Ignatius and St James. It rests on that experience of St Ignatius who “found God in everything and everything in God.” It comes to you in the charisms and ministry of the Society of Jesus, in your parish priest and the Jesuit community who serve you, in the fellowship of the baptised… which makes it all possible.