One evening, while teaching a group of college students, I explored an idea set forth by the 18th-century Scottish philosopher, Adam Smith. In his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith noted that each of us have been given unique gifts that should be nurtured and “offered up” [my words] on behalf of the entire community. By promoting our self-interest (specializing) we, in turn, help promote the social interest.
Now, if you remember that when the Lord commissioned the Apostles (Mt 10), he reminded them that He was “…sending them like sheep into the midst of wolves; so, they should be shrewd as serpents and as simple as doves.” So, given this, I decided to slightly complicate this matter for my students. Regarding Smith’s ideas, I provided my own unique twist: “Isn’t it a wonderful thing that our Creator, our God, has gifted each one of us with unique skills and has asked us to nurture them and use them for the good of our fellow brothers and sisters?”
Also, rather than holding to Smith’s terminology of “self-interest” and “social interest,” I asked my students to define the terms “selfish” and “selfless.” In defining “selfish,” my students settled upon “what’s in it for me” as their definition. They also believed that the words selfishness and self-interest were interchangeable, which is an entirely different discussion. Regarding the word, selfishness, I remembered what St. Ignatius of Loyola had once spoken to his fellow Jesuits: “There is no room in the Society of Jesus for a man who desires only his own salvation.”
In defining selfless, we turned to an internet dictionary and settled upon this definition: “To be selfless is to be unselfish and have little concern for oneself.”
After setting these word parameters, a single student raised her hand and blurted out:
There is no such thing as a selfless act.
So, a dialogue ensued…
First, it was Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Me: “Were the actions of Saint Mother Teresa (in devoting herself to the service of the poorest-of-the-poor) an example of self-interest or selflessness?”
Her: “Self-interest; she did so out of adherence to a religious obligation.”
Next, it was a fireman
Me: “Are the actions of a fireman seeking to rescue someone from a burning building an example of self-interest or selflessness?”
Her: “Self-interest; he does so to fulfill an employment contract with his employer.”
Next, I turned to Danny Thomas
Me: “Were the actions of Danny Thomas, who walked into a Detroit Catholic church, knelt and prayed before a statue of St. Jude Thaddeus for life guidance and eventually granted the wisdom to found St. Jude Medical Center that, to this day, cares for some of the most ill children among us an example of self-interest or selflessness?”
Her: “Now I understand.”
On this 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, I begin with this story because contained within the readings given us from Isaiah, Hebrews, and Mark’s gospel, the word “servant” is both present and active in each.
In Isaiah (53:10-11), the prophet notes that “…through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.” This, of course, is a reference to Jesus.
In Hebrews (4:14-16), we are reminded that we have, in Jesus, a high priest who has been tested in every way, yet without sin.
In the Gospel of Mark (10:42-45), Our Lord provides us with a definition of what it means to be His servant. As a servant of Christ, we do not place ourselves first; rather, a servant of Christ distinguishes oneself as a person who places others first.
Of course, according to the world, placing others first is hardly the norm. Finishing first and “getting ahead” are paramount. But Jesus tells His early followers that “it shall not be so among you.” He continues to tell you and me, His current followers, the same.
Each day, if we look closely, we’ll find recognizable signs that distinguish followers of Christ.
Within our families, we witness the selfless acts of mothers and fathers on behalf of their children. Contrast this to certain politicians (some, who pronounce themselves as “devout Catholics”) who claim and promote that mother and fathers act properly when they condemn their children to death by abortion.
Within our parish communities, there are also so many selfless acts. Each day, parishioners assist in feeding and housing the homeless and bringing company to those without.
Lastly, within our communities and nation, we should also recognize the selfless acts of heroism by our soldiers, police officers, firefighters, and so many others who make our world a better place.
It has been the longstanding practice of the Catholic Church to regularly point out and raise such servants, such followers of Jesus, so that we all might see the ways they have followed our Lord and imitate their holiness.
In our time, one such man is a priest by the name of Fr. Vincent Capodanno. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI raised him to the title of Servant of God. Fr. Capodanno was born in Staten Island in 1929, one of nine children. In 1949, while attending Fordham University, he experienced a calling to the priesthood Maryknoll missionaries. In 1958, he was ordained to the priesthood. And, in 1965, he began to recognize that God was calling him to serve our soldiers in the Vietnam War.
His biographer wrote the following:
Soon Vincent became a favorite of the Marines. He was easy to talk to, and he had an uncanny ability to make everyone feel important. Hardened Marines would open their hearts to him and appreciated his warm smile and comforting words. As a confessor, he exuded compassion and mercy. He loved them, and they knew it.
His final day on earth would occur on September 4, 1967. On that day, he found himself (along with other Marines) engaged in heavy gunfire. Over and over, he was seen carrying wounded Marines to safety, administering the Last Rites and telling soldiers that “it would be alright.”
One Marine remembered him this way:
He gave his life. No one can do any more than that – – that’s what Christ did . . . The only way I can justify it, is that he did it because that is what he had to do, and if he is going to be a priest and a Christian there really can’t be any other way. I know that but it still kills me . . . Of all the deaths I saw and did, the greatest was his.
On this Sunday, may we remember that to be a follower of Jesus also means that we are His servant. Each of us has a great calling.
Servant of God, Fr. Vincent Capodanno, pray for us.