Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Tim Russert visits Gesu School and receives the Jesuit Magis Spirit Award. Pictured here greeting the school president, Christine Beck
See local news article about Tim's appearance to students:

Presentation of Magis Spirit Award

Every day I pass the desk of Father Berret, a Jesuit, an English professor at Saint Joseph’s University. On the desktop now are the books he is reading with his freshman class this fall. Among them is “Big Russ and Me,” an example of biography. The students are learning about history, family, celebrity, generosity and the integrity of life.

Father Berret told me what surprised him most about the book: the book is clearly the story of the Timothy Russert that we honor today with the Magis Spirit award. But, unlike most autobiographies, the whole first chapter is not about the author at all. Rather it is about his father; the book begins in the same way as Jesuit prayers always begin with the placing of oneself in context, with the exercise of giving thanks for all that has been. In paying homage to his father in that first chapter and throughout the book, Tim acknowledges that his own life began long before his birth, and that the millennial work of family and church and community creates a rich fabric. This is a great lesson for college students to learn in an age preoccupied with crises that pressure us always to respond to the now.

The stories of the author’s generous interchanges with nuns in his grade school, of his admiration for the Jesuit priests in his high school, and of his high school job as a receptionist in the Jesuit community house, rang true. Reading these stories, I almost forgot where the book was leading and I expected a chapter after high school or college about entry into the novitiate, the full formation program for a Jesuit.

If he had become a Jesuit, though, he would have missed out on so many of the wonderful formative experiences of his life: his son, for example. But I mention a simple, surprising one. As a young novice, I was frequently assigned to what we called the swill house, taking care of the garbage. But Tim’s whole summer job to help pay his way through college was as a garbage collector, the one who heaved the cans of refuse into the truck. Tim wrote about this job in homage to his father who worked in sanitation his whole life. In reading it I thought that maybe we are not doing the right thing at Saint Joseph’s finding intern jobs for our kids in the fancy offices of finance managers and lawyers. But perhaps Tim’s point is different: Big Russ taught him that there was something wonderful to be learned everywhere; and he himself found something wonderful in this work, another confirmation of a Jesuit phrase: “finding God in all things.”

Tim Russert’s life experience grounds him in this world and in the struggles that we all go through for faith, for justice, for integrity and for the love that is shown in deeds. We look to him as a man who has won victories on all these fronts. Now with our contemporary media, people everywhere in the world can come to know this man and these victories. A true contemporary blessing.

In addition to his highlighting the father-son relationship, let me name his generosity to a new generation of Catholic school kids and his genuine openheartedness towards us here at Gesu from the most seasoned supporter to the kids in the kindergarten. For all these traits and for more we Jesuits and our colleagues honor Tim Russert with the Magis Spirit Award.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

LUKE 17: 18
"Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?"
More than thirty years ago when I was first a priest, the husband of my mother’s cousin died. I had met him only rarely. But I knew his brother, a Jesuit priest like me, ordained about fifteen years ahead of me. I heard from my mother about Edward’s death but then was surprised to get a call from Edward's Jesuit priest brother asking me if I would celebrate the funeral Mass. I thought it odd but this Jesuit simply knew that he could not make it through his brother’s funeral without breaking emotionally.
I honestly felt the request to be an imposition. Even today I don't quite understand his unwillingness to undertake this pious task for a family member. But I must admit, too, that I still have my siblings. In any case I carried out his request as best I could. When the service was over, he and other family members expressed their gratitude to me.

Just two weeks ago today I met this priest in passing, now 85 years old and still healthy. (His hobby is taking care of hundreds of trees on the Jesuit property at Wernersville; some you see pictured above). I see him only occasionally and we had not referred to Edward for the last thirty years. But this time he said to me, “I am working on thanksgiving these days and I want to thank you again for saying Edward’s funeral Mass.” It was as if I had done him this favor some time in that past week.

We talk about love as the glue that holds social structures together and allows cultures and institutions to flourish. I submit that gratitude is an essential expression of the love that is such a glue. Back at the time of the funeral, I needed to hear the thanks that my Jesuit friend extended to me. I did not need to hear it recently.
Nevertheless there was something more genuine about the thanks thirty years later. It was a reminder that deeds create life-long relationships. It was a reminder that the stuff of life is the deeds that we do for one another whether we know why we must do them or not. Expressions of thanksgiving are the reminder that keeps the spirit of our good works enkindled and alert. They encourage us to good works even for those who won’t or can’t give thanks, the poor, the sick, the dying whom we do not know but for whom our deeds are matters of justice.
And we give thanks to our God in imitation of the prayers of Jesus.
He speaks words of thanksgiving to his Father. In giving thanks he reminds the Father of the relationship that they share, a relationship that generates the Spirit. In giving thanks he reminds the Father that their life is the deeds that they are doing and will do for one another and for this world.