“You all want to give your life to Christ forever! You are now applauding, you are celebrating because it is the wedding time . . . But when the honeymoon is over, what happens?”
In a recent address to seminarians and novices, Pope Francis spoke movingly about the difference between giving one’s life to Christ “for a little while” and giving it to Christ “forever.” Reading this address was particularly poignant for me, as I am preparing to make my solemn profession as a Dominican friar on the feast of the martyr St. Lawrence, August 10.
Religious profession is a total self-offering to God, a death to self that consists of being conformed to Christ crucified. Solemn profession in the Order of Preachers is the moment in which we reaffirm the promise of obedience to God made after our novitiate, but with the clarification that rather than promising obedience for three and a half years or one year we now promise it usque ad mortem, until death—even to the point of death. (The Latin words come from the same scriptural passage that goes on to say mortem autem crucis—even death on a cross!)
But far from being a morbid or masochistic activity, solemn profession is ordered to the joy that comes from being radically free in Christ. As Pope Francis points out, true freedom must paradoxically come from commitment, rather than from the indifferent freedom to commit to things for as long as I might feel like it: “I would like you to think about this: how can I be free, how can I break free from this ‘culture of the temporary’?”
As I read the pope’s address, I was reflecting on what it means to offer one’s entire life to God, and not only some period of time or one’s youth—what it means to move past the period that Pope Francis describes as the “honeymoon” of religious life. In a sense, this is to begin to grow old, to begin to struggle with the temptations which Pope Francis describes as being typical difficulties for older religious and priests.
In this context, a line from the psalms sprang to mind: I have grown old surrounded by my foes. How much Christ must have aged on the cross! In human years, he was thirty-three years old but for how many years must he have suffered in those three hours of agony. In human hours, he was on the cross for three hours. Consider what he experienced, what he came to understand in a human mode during those three hours.
The three hours on the cross were the seed for Christ’s eternal embrace and forgiveness of all the sinners who were and who were to come—including me. I have been crucified with Christ—he has called me to join him on the cross, he has invited me to die with him in baptism and now in a new way in solemn religious profession. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is now no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. This is true of all the baptized, but now it will take on a further poignancy for me and for my brothers as we promise to be obedient to God until death.
I live by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me—and yet he loves not only me, but us, for while we were yet sinners Christ died for us, for us men and for our salvation. In religious profession, I am not alone on the cross, but am joined to a concrete, living community of Friars Preachers, to whom I am called to be obedient and with whom I am called to live a life of true brotherhood. Further, we are all oriented not towards each other but to God, to Blessed Mary, to Blessed Dominic. A religious vocation is not discerned or lived in isolation. As Pope Francis remarked in his talk to seminarians and religious, “I always think of this: the worst seminary is better than no seminary! Why? Because community life is essential.” By its very nature, my sense of a call must be recognized, formed, and affirmed by the Church, not in the abstract, but by the individuals who have been called to the Lord in the course of the dramas of their own lives that overlap with and flow into my own.
Solemn profession is undertaken as a response to God’s call and in the hope of fulfilling one’s own path towards salvation, but also in the hope of serving the Church, to the service of all of the other men and women for whose redemption Christ has died, whether those already in the bosom of the Church or yet to respond to the banquet invitation. As Pope Francis points out, “The joy of the encounter with [Christ] and with his call does not lead to shutting oneself in but to opening oneself; it leads to service in the Church. St. Thomas said: ‘bonum est diffusivum sui’—the Latin is not very difficult!—Good spreads.” As I prepare to make my solemn profession along with eight of my Dominican brothers, I ask you to pray for me and my brothers, that we may be faithful to the vows we will make and that the Good which we have received will flow forth from us to you.
Image: Pope Francis on Good Friday, 2013