This past week has been intense.
On Monday, I started my classes at Loyola University Maryland in their Pastoral Counseling Department. For the next couple of years, I will be working on my degree in Pastoral and Spiritual Care, focusing on Faith and Social Justice. I am hopeful that this program will augment my post-novitiate formation and that Loyola University will provide me with the tools necessary to grow so as to better and more genuinely live out my vocation as a Friar Minor, in a manner that is faithful to St. Francis’s original vision of peace and justice, while being relevant and responsive to the issues of the world today.
This semester, I am taking four courses: Theologies and Ethics of Social Justice, Spiritual and Theological Dimensions of Suffering, Class and Poverty, and Human Development.
I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of these classes at Loyola – not so much the academic rigor (although the required readings and reflection papers testify to that), but the emotional impact the in-class discussions have had on me in such a short amount of time. During the introductory session in one of my classes, we did an exercise from the USCCB that used decks of playing cards to illustrate the root causes of poverty and its effects on various individuals’ economic status and earning potential. The decks of cards, as they were handed out and traded in, represented how external socio-economic factors, as well as backgrounds and family of origin, can stack “the deck” against some of our brothers and sisters.
Afterwards, we were asked to reflect on the scenario that played out in front of us. I was holding back tears when I realized that none of the experiences of genuinely, economically poor people applied to me. Several of my classmates shared that the exercise was particularly relevant to them because their families live below the federal poverty line. One of them shared how he had to explain to his daughter why he can’t buy her the clothes that her classmates have, while another shared how cable TV is their entertainment “investment” because their family can’t afford to take their kids out on trips.
When it was my turn to reflect, the tears were welling up inside me because, despite those knots in my cord, I could not claim to even remotely share in any of their struggles. In my short time in religious life, I have not experienced any of the difficulties that one associates with destitution and economic poverty. I am also certain that this reality will be unlikely for me, since by its very nature, our vocation is a choosing and that choice is absent in real economic poverty.
When I revealed how shaken I was, my classmate, a Baptist who works in corrections, cited John 15:19 to rationalize that the poverty I live out in religious life is okay because my poverty was different: “You do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world.” Her consolation, that I was “following Jesus and leaving the world behind,” brought me even further to the brink of tears – my voice cracked and my eyes reddened. She was trying to justify me, even when I couldn’t justify myself.
The experience was holy and humbling and sacred.