Freedom for Service

It is good to consider our own freedom: the definitive choices we have made in life to follow Christ.

This month we celebrate the Fourth of July: Independence Day in the United States of America. It is appropriate to reflect on freedom not only as a political reality, but in its fundamental religious significance as well. As priests and deacons, we are called in freedom by God and through the Church to exercise a ministry of service on behalf of others, a service which frees and liberates people from oppression and the effects of sin so that they in turn may be free for service to others: not merely a “freedom from” but a “freedom for.” Often in our celebrations of freedom on Independence Day, people can tend to focus on the “freedom from” aspects of independence and forget the commensurate obligation to be “free for” others.

One Jesuit, speaking of Pope Francis, observed, “If his Jesuit formation, his first days in office and his history in Argentina are any guide, the conclave elected a man who believes profoundly in the power of the Gospel to change lives and to make possible a new kind of freedom, a freedom for an encounter with Christ. It’s this freedom that he’s lived out in Argentina: free from the bishop’s opulent residence, free to take the bus to work alongside the people he served, free to cook a simple meal for himself at the end of the day. Free to kneel down and kiss the feet of the poor” (Sam Sawyer, S.J., in The Jesuit Post, March 17, 2013).

Independence Day, even though it is a secular holiday, offers a good opportunity for reflection on our spiritual freedom. We clergy might well ask ourselves how successful we are at this point in our ministries in exercising this kind of freedom. In ministry we often find ourselves so constrained by calendars, by the incessant demands on time, by that one more meeting at the diocesan offices, by the requirements of law and policy, that it is hard to consider ourselves “free” to do much of anything! “If someone could “free” us from the burdens of administration, maybe we could be free for the actual work of the ministry.

In early May, Pope Francis offered a meditation following the recitation of the rosary at St. Mary Major in Rome. It is remarkable on many levels, but his reflection on freedom is particularly striking for us clergy.

“But what is freedom? It is certainly not doing whatever you want, letting yourself be dominated by your passions, passing from one experience to the next without discernment, following the fashions of the time; freedom does not mean, so to speak, throwing everything you do not like out the window. No, that is not freedom! Freedom is given to us so that we know how to make good choices in life!”

He goes on to observe, “Mary, like a good mother, teaches us to be, like her, capable of making definitive decisions, definitive decisions in this moment in which there reigns, so to say, the philosophy of the provisional. It is so difficult to commit oneself definitively in life. . . . Dear brothers and sisters, how hard it is in our time to make definitive decisions. The provisional seduces us. We are the victims of a tendency that drives us toward the temporary. Let us not be afraid of definitive commitments. . . . In this way, life will be fruitful! And this is freedom: to have the courage to make these decisions with greatness.”

This description of freedom as a way of making good choices in life, choices that are not “seduced” by the temporary but are definitive commitments, is a wonderful challenge and opportunity for priests and deacons. On this day when we celebrate freedom, it is good to consider our own freedom: the definitive choices we have made in life to follow Christ. Recommitting ourselves freely and definitively to our own discipleship in Christ, and then, as ministers committed to building up the Body of Christ, we may more fully offer that same challenge — and freedom — to others. TP  

Deacon Ditewig, Ph.D., former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB, now teaches and ministers in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif.  He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.