James Torrens, S.J.
Volume 29 Number four w inter 2008, PAGES 18-20
It is high time to speak of commitment, that is to say, of giving oneself to something or someone long-term, and then holding on. That takes determination, a sense of what is truly worthwhile, self-discipline, generosity. It takes good examples, to give us heart. I say it is high time because the ambience now is one of non-commitment. When it comes to making and holding to promises, the world fosters discouragement.
My own attention to this topic has grown. When I started college teaching in the Seventies, and living among the students, I could see them sign up with enthusiasm for some excursion or activity; but when the date arrived, half would fail to show up. Something better or more pressing had popped up on their screen. This was strange to me, on whom it had been inculcated, g rowing up, that if you give your word you keep it, cost what that may. In the tradition, not entirely mythical, of the West, you shake on something and that seals it. There may b e nothing down on paper, but there is no welching. How laughable this sounds now, which shows how far downhill we have gone.
I remember being shocked, at this same Catholic college, that graduates of the Business School would accept scholarships from some company for advanced study or would enter their training program, with every intention of jumping to something better as soon as it appeared. No commitment felt to the sponsor, in other words. That’s just the way it is done, I was told. Ethics seemed to play no role. One must add, in the interests of fairness, that the companies who renege on loyalty to their long-time servants have weakened their own cause.
The divorce rate is notorious among us. I have no idea how high it is among those whose wedding s, as a priest, I have solemnized, but I hope and pray it is below the nor m. What has come closer to me is the departure from religious life and priesthood of men and women I have liked and admired, some early on, some after advanced studies, some after many years in the life and service. I try to b e appreciative for the years and energy they have given to this call, but I have to acknowledge lingering regret.
A retreat master, Dean Brackley, S.J., put it to us Jesuits recently that we are in a time of temporary vocation; permanent commitment is little valued. He referred to a commitment phobia. We don’t want to close any door behind us. Then he said to us, “Guys, I want to count on you being there with me.”
The change of climate is captured for me in an episode of the late Sixties, when I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan. Celebrating its sesquicentennial, the school had a series of panels with distinguished speakers. Among them was John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit who had written about religious freedom and church-and-state relations so effectively but at the cost of criticism and strictures from his own church. At lunch with us Jesuit students, he wondered aloud at so many of our fellows who were giving up the ship, as it seemed, because of lesser disappointments and setbacks. He and his colleague, Father Gustave Weigel, he said, had puzzled over this phenomenon.
A host of complexities and considerations belong in this picture. In the case of religious women, for example, there must b e sensitivity to all the factors that depleted their numbers during the post-Vatican II era. We rely on historians from among them to do that. Each story has unique elements, but the pre-Vatican I I era b ears a large share of responsibility.
My concern with commitment in the new millennium found a concrete image recently. Stepping out of a department store in Fresno, California, I fell in behind a young woman whose tee-shirt announced, “I’m not the commitment type.” She and the young man with her were not sophisticates or hipsters, but young Latinos, part of the crowd, displaying a contemporary sentiment.
It is hard not to sympathize with a person who balks at commitment these days, who, for example, has fended off marriage for years. There is a lot at stake. I think about the old conversation between the hen and the pig. The hen is boasting about her daily contributions to men and women’s health, the many egg s she provides. The pig responds: “That’s well and good for you, all those contributions. Thing s are more serious
for me. I have to make a commitment.” The self of the pig will disappear in the process.
In a certain way, the disappearance of the self is bad, says Margaret Guenther, speaking of women and spiritual direction. “By over-zealousness in their obligations toward others, especially husbands and children, and a corresponding neglect of themselves, women manage to avoid inner growth” (Holy Listening. P.129). In a deeper sense, though, “careless abandon” is the goal of the spiritual journey, transformation in God. What a lot of discerning of spirits is called for!
Years ago, when I was still learning Spanish and taking part in an immersion program in Mexico City, I was stopped short by a poster in our conference room. It said: “El secreto de la vida es el compromiso.” “What?!,” I said to myself. “The secret of life is compromise?!” But I was far off target. “Compromiso” in Spanish means an agreement you intend to fulfill. It means you have said “Yes” to meeting someone somewhere at three o’clock, for instance, or more widely it refers to a spirit of dedication, for example the athlete with a rigorous schedule of practice. “The secret of life is commitment.” That is more like it. Much more has to be said-about maturity, a wise process of decision, widening and deepening of perspective and motives-but that is what it comes down to. “The secret of life is commitment.”
My thoughts these days keep coming back to a classmate of mine from theology school in Louvain, Belgium (1958-1962), Chrisologue Mahame. We were ordained together in 1961. Chrisologue, a Tutsi, was the very first Rwandan to enter the Jesuits. I cannot begin to appreciate what a big leap that must have been.
I knew Mahame in Belgium as very diligent at the books, very earnest and soft-spoken. In the following years, more and more, it seems, he became active for harmony among the two peoples of Rwanda, Tutsi and Hutu. It concerned him deeply. He promoted it, even at high government levels, from a retreat center in the capital, Kigali. But ever since colonial times resentments had been seething among the Hutus, ill feeling fed and finally whipped up by radio and other media. In the bloodbath of 1994, Chrisologue and his team were among the first targeted. They had known very well the risk they were running. No matter, the secret of life is commitement.