'Orat pro Soc'
“when you grow old
you will stretch out your hands,
and somebody else will put a belt round you
and take you where you would rather not go.”
I think we’ve all had experiences of being taken where we would rather not go…
Until about five years before his death, Father – I’ll call him Father John - was not the best loved man in the British Province of the Society of Jesus - not by a long chalk. He was respected certainly, admired even, for his zeal, commitment, sheer hard work in every mission to which he was sent, but he was sometimes disliked - even a little feared - for his irritability and short temper.
Then he had a stroke.
It paralysed the whole of his right side -arm and leg. He lost the power of speech. After two weeks in the hospital, he recovered most of his speech and some of the power in his right arm and leg.
After three months, it was clear that he was going to be permanently disabled. He was barely able to talk, to walk and to look after himself. He would certainly never be able to work again.
He met with the Provincial, the Superior of all of the Jesuits in the country. It was not a happy meeting. He cried for the first time in fifty years. Despite the Provincial’s best efforts, he left the meeting in despair. Having given his life and his life’s work to God and the Society of Jesus, he felt that he had just been dropped, let go, made redundant, made surplus to requirements, returned to sender. And of all he had ever hoped for, he had nothing left. With hindsight, he was prepared to admit that he gave way to bitterness and I can personally testify that he was not an easy man to live with.
But his lowest moment came when he received the annual Province catalogue - the list published every year of all the Jesuits in the country and their jobs. Against his own name were written the words “Orat pro Soc”. It is a Latin abbreviation which translates: “He prays for the Church and the Society”. That is something every Jesuit is supposed to do every day, but they only write it against your name when it is the only thing you can do. For the first time in his life Fr John wished he was dead.
The next morning, it occurred to him that, never actually having prayed much for the Church and the Society, he wasn’t too sure how to go about it. So he tottered slowly and painfully down to the Chapel, committed his heart to the Lord and thought about the Church and the Society.
Nothing much seemed to happen - which, to be honest, didn’t greatly surprise him. Towards the end of his hour, he found himself being distracted by the thought of how fortunate the community had been in its superior – a man who, he felt, had really spent himself in trying to bring the community together as genuinely a union of hearts and minds in the service of God. And it occurred to him that, through the various busynesses of life, he had never found the time to tell him so. But now, he had nothing but time. So, as soon as his hour of prayer was finished, he set himself to walk down to the superior’s office to set right that tiny wrong.
The next day, his prayer went no better. And he found himself increasingly distracted by thoughts of all the people who had done good things for him and had never been thanked. They seemed to be legion; many of them were no longer alive. So, after his hour’s prayer, he said a special Mass for all of them. And then he went back to his room, lifted his telephone and started making some calls to those who were still able to answer the phone.
In subsequent days, he found himself increasingly distracted by thoughts of the younger men in the Society who, he felt, were doing good work in difficult circumstances – in a Province of declining numbers, in a nation of aggressive secularism. He wondered if anyone ever told them they were doing a good job. He thought, probably not. So he decided that was something he could do.
Anyone who has ever lived in a religious community can finish this story for themselves. Even those blessed with the calm unruffled tranquillity of family life (at least that’s what they tell me) just might be able to guess at it. It was not long before Fr John became the living, beating, vibrant heart of our community. We became a place where no good deed went unappreciated; no man went unaffirmed; nobody at all could feel that there was no port in a storm. Speaking personally, I invite you to imagine how it makes you feel as a priest, that a crippled old man feels the need to climb four flights of stairs to tell you that he thought you said a good Mass today.
So it is true that Fr John’s worst fears were realized. He never fully recovered from his stroke. He never was able to work again. He never was able to contribute meaningfully to the material support of his community. What saddened him the most was that he was never able to say a public mass. But, believe me, we miss him now he’s gone. And in his memory, I would like to suggest that the next time any of us feels absolutely useless, valueless, a waste of space, a useless eater, and that the world might be a better place without us - and remember that most have us have such moments – think of Father John. Make your way to the Chapel and pray for the Church and the Society. And notice how that changes your heart and your life. There are worse jobs that ‘Orat pro Soc’. And that is the fundamental call of every Christian.
Let us profess our Faith in God who inspires us to be His People in the World.
Paul O'Reilly SJ