Fr Billy Swan
On 13th October 2018, Pope Francis canonized John Henry Newman a saint of the Church. Like so many others, I have long admired the depth and breadth of Newman’s thought and insight. Yet my first introduction to Newman was not one of his lengthy books or classic works. It was a short but inspiring meditation he wrote on ‘The Mission of my Life’ that I came across by chance at a time when I was discerning my vocation. Here I try to unpack a genuine spiritual classic that deserves to be widely shared to all who are trying to discern their calling or perhaps have forgotten ‘The Mission of my Life’.
‘God has created me to do Him some definite service’. God created you and I intentionally and has blessed us with a unique set of gifts and talents that he wants us to use for some service or good. So never think that you are just a product of evolution, less talented than others or devoid of any gifts. You are wanted, willed and have a combination of gifts that the world needs. This intentional creating of us is closely linked to love. God has created us in love and because of love he calls us to do him some definitive service. This is how it was with St Peter. First came love, then came call and mission: ‘Yes, Lord you know that I love you’. Jesus said to him ‘feed my lambs, feed my sheep’ (John 21:15 ff). The Lord loves us first and calls us second.
‘He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission’. No two vocations are the same. That’s why it’s so important for you and I to respond to his call because the good work that only we can do is left undone if we don’t do it. I have my mission, you have your mission. So say ‘Yes’ to that call from God. He does not lose patience by taking our mission from us and giving it to another even if we are slow to respond. And when we do respond, everyone benefits from the good we do including ourselves who come alive with the joy of giving.
‘I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next’. Some of us struggle to understand that we have a vocation at all. There are so many who don’t have a sense of the presence and love of God in their lives. Many struggle with questions like: ‘What am I meant to be doing in this life?’; ‘Who am I meant to be with?’; ‘Who can help me find meaning to my existence?’ Discerning our vocation takes time, patience and prayer. If we are not sure of what our purpose is in life then we need to pray for that clarity. Pray that your calling becomes clear and ask the Lord to reveal his will for you. I remember making this prayer when I was discerning whether or not to enter seminary. It was a risky prayer because you are holding yourself open to what God might want for us but what we might not want for ourselves. But I only had peace when I realized that what God wanted of my life was the life I would be at my best and most fulfilled. So don’t be afraid. Surrender to him and let his plan for your life that He holds in eternity begin to unfold today.
‘I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons’. We are part of a family in the Church, a great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1). By being missionary disciples of Jesus Christ we are united in a powerful spiritual bond to all those who have also been missionaries since Christ himself – the Apostles, St Paul, St Patrick, St Francis Xavier, St Therese of Lisieux and so many more. This is the chain to which we are linked and united. The mission of the Church began with the Apostles and continues with us, empowered by the same Spirit who brings the saving work of Christ to fulfilment. Whether we know it or not, we are helping to write the latest chapter of a great story that continues in our day.
‘He has not created me for nothing. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments’. Each of us matter and have been created for a unique purpose. Our mission is to do good, to do the Lord’s work in his name. We are called to be channels of peace, conformed to God’s truth and lovers of His commandments that he gave us out of love to protect us from the slavery of sin. We do this, as St John Henry insists, in our own time, place and circumstance. We might not see the full fruit of our witness now but we will in eternity. Neither did Newman or the others saints for that matter. Only in time and beyond our own death will we see the way God is using us for his plans and providence. The totality of our lives is greater than the sum of its parts.
‘Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away’. Trust, trust and trust again. This is the essence of faith. Trust in his promise – ‘I will be with you always until the end of time’ (Matt. 28:20). Don’t let anyone dismiss you or reduce your dignity, even if you have to suffer for being faithful.
‘If I am in sickness, may my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, may my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him’. No matter how we are, young or old, healthy or sick, rich or poor – let us offer it all to the Lord and serve him in the way only we can. Newman’s words here are reminiscent of St Ignatius of Loyola’s ‘holy indifference’ which brings us to a radiant interior freedom: ‘We need to train ourselves to be indifferent in our attitude to all created things…so that on our part, we do not set our hearts on good health rather than bad, riches rather than poverty, honour rather than dishonour, a long life rather than a short one, and so in all the rest’ (Spiritual Exercises, 23d). So however we are, give the Lord what we have and as we are. Like he did with the five barley loaves and two fish, there is no limit to what he can do with limited resources. All he asks of us is to give everything in love.
‘He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.’ Again, an invitation to trust, just like St John Henry Newman learned to trust in his lifetime amid many difficult times. When he spoke about the loss of friends, this is what he suffered after his conversion to Catholicism. When he went to Rome, he was thrown among strangers. At the lowest times in his life, his spirit did sink and his future was indeed hidden from him. But little did he know what God has prepared for him and his place in the Church that he could never have imagined. Therefore, St John Henry is ideally placed to speak back to us in encouragement and never to lose sight of God’s providence that is at work at all times and through everything. Yes, he knows what he is about. God is in charge. In this is our peace.
St John Henry Newman, pray for us!