One day, a migrant worker was traveling through a town when a Rabbi spotted him and started a conversation. “Who do you work for,” the Rabbi asked. The man replied, “I do not work for anyone. I just travel from town to town and try to make a living. What about you? Who do you work for?” Surprised, the Rabbi thought to himself, I’m clearly a Rabbi. I am in charge of the Temple, the law, and all of my people. How does he not know this? As he thought, he realized that none of these were sufficient answers to the question: Who do I work for? He realized at that point that he had been working for himself the whole time, and that he should have been working for God. He said to the man, “How would you like to work for me? All you have to do if follow me around when I’m in the Temple, enforcing the law, and leading my people, and remind me for whom I work in case I forget again.”
In the first session of our workshop entitled “The Future of Religious Life,” Seán Salmon, FMS, posed this story to us with a surprising message: as women and men religious, we must always play the role of the migrant worker, not the Rabbi. Through our radical expressions of poverty, chastity, and obedience, we must always remind the Church for whom it works, unafraid to upset the status quo of the hierarchy. He reminded us of the many reforms in the Church, and how it is often religious orders that bring the Church back down to earth; bring sinners back to an uninviting institution; and push the Church ahead when it is stuck in stagnation. The day that we become unable or unwilling to remind the Church of this detail, trading counter-culture for comfort, the Gospel for an institution, the spirit of the law for the letter of the law, is the day that the Church begins to forget.
For an introduction to a workshop, I can’t think of too many more motivating messages than that! The whole time I was thinking about Francis’ message to the very corrupt Church at the time, and the example he lived each day as a reminder. He didn’t call for a violent upheaval of the Church leaders or choose to leave it to start his own: he lived what he believed to be the truest expression of the Gospel, not caring whether or not it matched the lives of the holy men and women around him. This act of “Preaching the Gospel at all times, using words when necessary” (a quote that he did not actually say), inspired thousands of people, both clergy and lay, to give up their previous lives and live a life of great reform in the Church. It is this sort of life that each and every one of us hopes to exemplify, sending a friendly reminder to those who lead that the Church does not work for itself: it works for God. Let us never allow it forget that.