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April 15th, 2006

17/04/2006: General House

While visiting one of our Marist schools several years ago, I met a young man by the name of Tim. He was a good student, a fine athlete, a person who made friends easily. Tim’s request that I help him with his senior project was the initial reason for causing us to stay in touch over time; his topic: the Church and ecology. I agreed to do what I could and once back in Rome I found some references and sent them along. Shortly thereafter Tim graduated, went on to university, and by all reports was doing well.

During his first year I received word that Tim had mistakenly dived into shallow water while swimming during a student trip. He had broken his neck and was paralyzed. I phoned and wrote to him during the weeks that followed as he moved from hospital to rehab center. To this day, I can recall a comment that he made during a phone conversation shortly after sustaining his injury. “I spent 19 years preparing for one kind of life,” he told me, “and in but a few seconds had to face the fact that the life I would be living was to be totally different indeed.”

Today we mark the feast of Easter. Annually we celebrate its rituals, listen to its readings, and perhaps now and then pledge ourselves to take seriously its meaning. But rarely are we forced, as was Tim, to consider the cost of doing so. For the fact that we may celebrate Easter year after year as individuals and as an Institute but show little appreciable change in ourselves suggests that its message still has not penetrated our thinking, made a difference in our actions, transformed our hearts for the better.

So, this evening we must ask: what does Easter 2006 require of our Institute, all associated with it, and of you and me? For example, we talk these days about reclaiming the spirit of the Hermitage. But will the challenge that rests at the heart of that commitment remain forever a poetic notion or are we willing personally and as a group to pay the price that we must to make our own the spirit of that place and house that Marcellin built? And to do so in a world marked increasingly by violence and religious intolerance, and when so many of us individually and all of us collectively appear at times to lack the necessary courage, spirit of sacrifice, and simple faith in God to do what must be done to witness to the risen Lord?

The feast of Easter is all about conversion. It is a summons from God to stop talking about a change of heart and to start taking the steps necessary to make it happen. And that fact frightens most of us; we sense its implications. For true conversion is much more than window dressing, rather it entails a conscious and fundamental choice, at times a complete about face from all that has been familiar in your life and mine.

So, how do we change our hearts? Through the process of religious conversion, what Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan describes it as a falling in love with God, a complete and total surrender to God. The feast of Easter reminds us of the price that each of us and our Institute will pay if we are serious about making this process of conversion our own. Like Jesus, it will be nothing less than our lives. For God’s reign can never be equated with business as usual. Taken seriously, it offers us that troubling vision of a community of discipleship that is radically countercultural. But isn’t genuine love always troubling, always paradoxical, always ironic? How can it be otherwise since it too calls for a conversion of heart?

This feast of Easter, giving witness to the fact that the risen Lord is as present with us today as he was in the community of early disciples, takes us back to this truth: nothing is more consequential than falling in love with God in a quite absolute, final way. For to do so seizes our imagination, changes our hearts and lives, decides everything. And it is only with a heart so changed that you and I will be able to truly practice justice.

You may wonder what happened to Tim. Though a number of people were pessimistic about the possibility of him ever again having movement below the neck, a combination of this young man’s determination, aggressive therapy, and the passage of time led to his initially regaining some feeling, and then muscle activity, understandably at great price. When last I saw him, he had aged but he was walking, with difficulty yes, but walking none-the-less. May this feast of Easter and the courage and determination of this young man be the grace we need to move us to change our hearts and that of our Institute in a quite absolute way. And may the day and its meaning also be a source of consolation and hope in the life of young people like Tim. And by the way, his paper on the Church and ecology was really quite fine.

A blessed and happy Easter.

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