On becoming ‘people for others’

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So, the joke goes, a Jesuit priest and a Franciscan priest are chatting. A man interrupts.

“How many novenas do I have to say to get a Mercedes Benz?” he demands.

The Franciscan looks at him incredulously.

“What,” he asks, “is a Mercedes Benz?”

The Jesuit is also confused.

“What,” he inquires, “is a novena?”

This joke is only funny, of course, in our era of political correctness, if told by a Jesuit. And it was. It was part of our invitation to the nine nights which St. John’s, our Jesuit parish, dedicated to the Novena of Grace to St. Francis Xavier, March 4-12.

The point is that Jesuits aren’t known for being as committed to the popular devotions some Catholics enjoy. But the Novena of Grace, honored in Jesuit institutions worldwide, is a big deal to Jesuits. It can be said anytime, of course. You can find one online. But March 12 marked the canonization in 1622 of both Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and his chief sidekick and comrade, Francis Xavier.

Praying for nine days is terrific, but skepticism comes if people think a novena guarantees they’ll get what they want. This novena, although it included our specific intentions, was aimed at helping us understand what God wants.

The theme of the preached novena was “Breaking the bread that does justice.” Speakers included a theology professor from Creighton University, where our parish is located, a religious sister who works on an Indian reservation, the chair of the theology department, and a Dominican priest who preached the last four nights of the novena. Not sure where he’d fit in that joke, but he lived up to the reputation of great Dominican preaching.

St. John’s is a beautiful old gothic church. As student there decades ago, I remember sitting in an empty pew during a school day, the huge columns rising around me, and wishing that Jesus would walk out from behind one of those pillars and talk to me.

The mood in the church during the novena was similar. The church was darkened, and the small group of us who showed up on icy, cold Nebraska nights sat around the candle-lit altar.

A speaker reminded us that the words of institution of the Eucharist, at the Last Supper, are contained in the three Synoptic Gospels. But in the Gospel of John, the foot washing is the center point of that last meal. This underscores that the Eucharist is bread which feeds us, and which enables us to feed others and to become, as Jesus was when he took on the duty of a house servant — people for others.

Each night, we sang Bernadette Farrell’s hymn “Bread for the World,” whose final line haunts me this Lent: “Where we survive on others in our human greed, You walk among us begging for your every need.”

We read Chapter 16 of Exodus, which finds the Israelites doubting that God will take care of them in the desert. They hoard their manna, even though Moses warns them not to, and find the food smelly and maggot-filled the next day. I ponder those maggots over morning coffee as I survey the abundance of “stuff” I don’t need and ask what it says about my lack of trust.

Another speaker offered this memorable Lenten quote, from Jesuit Father Ignacio Ellacuria, martyred in El Salvador in 1989: “Always remember that there is no conversion to God if there is no conversion to the oppressed.”

May we bend to wash some feet this Lent.

The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.

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