Commitment and service are the hallmarks of every Christian generation

Father John A. Kiley

When my college class graduated from Our Lady of Providence Seminary, Warwick Neck, in 1962, the motto chosen as the theme for the yearbook was “Commitment is written in words of service.” Yes, leaving the Aldrich Mansion behind and venturing off to our assorted major seminaries in America and Europe was indeed a commitment. Over the next four years that commitment would indeed be written (sometimes literally) by the services rendered through academic studies certainly, by part-time assistance at parishes, by a committed religious and prayer life, and even by an earnest dedication to the camaraderie that was so integral to seminary life in those days – and no doubt still is.
The Scripture readings at Mass this coming Sunday speak in various tones of the commitment demanded from quite assorted Biblical figures. First the luckless prophet Jonah (yes, he of the “great fish”) is recalled as lacking in both commitment and service. St. Paul for his part next demands great commitment from his contemporaries whose service was to prepare courageously and even radically in light of the commonly held belief that Jesus Christ was about to return in majesty and power. “For the world in its present form is passing away.” St. Mark, whose Gospel account will be featured through this liturgical year, then solemnly introduces the apostles Simon and Andrew, then James and John. The sacred author leaves no doubt about their initial commitment. Simon and Andrew immediately “abandoned their nets and followed him.” James and John dramatically “left their father Zebedee in the boat” also to follow Jesus.
Although the passage from chapter three of the Book of Jonah allows the prophet some decency, he was actually rather fainthearted and perhaps even bigoted. Jonah’s challenge was to convert the great city of Nineveh, at that time the arch-enemy of the Jewish people. Jonah simply refused God’s command and fled Israel on ship. The crewmen perceived Jonah’s rift with God and threw him overboard, to be swallowed by the “great fish,” the whale of folklore. Jonah then makes a second attempt at converting the Ninevites, disgustedly retreating to the desert when these arch-enemies of the Jews respond to this preaching. Jonah literally sulks at his own success. He had no love for these foreigners. They deserved neither commitment nor service. Jonah failed on both counts.
St. Paul, for his part, urges totally commitment from his readers since the world as they knew it would be soon passing away. “I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out,” the Apostle advises the Church at Corinth. Yes, the return of Christ in glory was thought to be immanent and so the Christian community should go about the ordinary activities of daily life in a manner quite different from their neighbors who appreciated only the affairs of this world and were totally unaware of the transitory nature of earthly life. St. Paul’s readers were “those using the world but not using it fully.” A higher commitment had to be made and the service resulting would be quite different. It was indeed a unique commitment to rank Christ ahead of marital bliss, to allow Christ to ease sad times, to favor Christ over earthly joys, to be satisfied with Christ rather earthly goods. But such service is demanded since “…the world in its present form is passing away.”
Saints Simon and Andrew, along with James and John would, of course, become preeminent figures of commitment and service to every generation of Christian believers. In St. Luke’s Gospel account, the call of these apostles is preceded by a miraculous catch of fish which would make following Jesus an easy choice. St. Mark however has the four brothers respond immediately and fully to Jesus’ mere summons. Now perhaps the four apostles had been somewhat prepared for their evangelical commission by spending time with St. John the Baptist. But nonetheless, here Christ’s call is enough: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men!” They left their nets, and (switching from nautical to agricultural imagery) put their “hand to the plow” and never looked back.
Commitment and service have been the hallmarks of every Christian generation. The martyrs of the early Church, the missionaries evangelizing barbarian Europe, the monks educating medieval believers, the missionaries again off to America and Asia and Africa, the mentors in our own times who ponder the Gospel message through scholarship and study, their commitment has indeed rendered a service to us all.