The Society of Jesus, the religious order known as the Jesuits, was founded in the 16th century by St. Ignatius of Loyola. After St. Ignatius himself, probably the best-known Jesuit was St. Francis Xavier, one of the greatest missionaries of all time; he personally baptized thousands of people in India, Malaysia, and Japan. Francis had been born in Spain; then he became a popular and successful young professor at the University of Paris, where the older Ignatius was studying in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. Ignatius tried to interest Francis in joining his small group of followers who were seeking to serve Christ, but the young man was more interested in his promising academic career—until Ignatius reminded him of the words of Jesus: “What profit does a man show if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” Francis was convinced, and changed the direction of his life; he himself studied for the priesthood, and after being ordained, offered to go as a missionary to the unevangelized lands of the Far East.
Francis Xavier and several companions travelled through Spain in order to reach Portugal, where they hoped to arrange passage on a ship to India, and in doing so they passed close by the castle where Francis’ noble family lived. One of his friends said, “Father Francis, we must stop in order to give you time to pay a visit to your mother and your family.” The saint responded, “With your permission, noble sir, we will pursue our journey. My dwelling is now wherever our Lord is pleased to send me; I have given up my earthly home for Him and have no intention of revisiting it” (Burgess, Encyclopedia of Sermon Illustrations, #160). This sort of total commitment may seem very hard and unrealistic to us, and in a certain sense it is; following Christ doesn’t have to mean neglecting or abandoning our loved ones. The story does illustrate, however, the importance of proper priorities. If Jesus is truly first in our lives, His will becomes more important to us than our own or anyone else’s. Following Jesus isn’t easy; that’s why the only way to be truly happy as a disciple is to be single-hearted in our commitment to Him.
Christianity often involves some very deep and powerful feelings, but it’s not primarily meant to be an emotional religion; it requires careful thought, honest discernment, and prudent choices. Jesus wants us to reflect on our need for Him, and He wants us to know what we’re getting ourselves into if we choose to follow Him. Rather than mindlessly going through life, with no other guiding principle than seeking out pleasure and avoiding pain, we’re supposed to think about our relationship with God, and strive to discover His will for us. The Book of Wisdom asks, “Who can conceive what the Lord intends?,” but then gives the answer: the one who relies on divine wisdom and follows the guidance of the Holy Spirit. “Thus,” says the reading, “were the paths of those on earth made straight.” God has a plan for each of us, and discovering and following this straight and narrow path will lead to eternal life. Jesus warns us, however, that this requires a wholehearted commitment. He doesn’t literally require us to hate our family members; following Him should actually help us love them all the more. Our Lord is deliberately exaggerating to make His point: namely, He must come first in all things. Any other arrangement simply won’t work, and would be as foolish as starting to build a tower or undertaking a war without carefully calculating the likely results. Taking up our cross each day is serious business; it affects our values, our outlook on life, and our relations with others. Paul was making this point to one of his converts named Philemon, who had a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus ran away and also became a Christian, and then stayed with Paul for a time and assisted him. Paul sent him back to his master, along with a letter to Philemon urging him to treat him no longer as a slave, but as a brother in Christ—for this would be a chance for Philemon to prove his commitment to Christ was genuine.
When the great 19th century explorer Dr. David Livingstone was working deep in the African interior, caring for the natives and teaching them about Christianity, some of his friends wrote him, “We would like to send other men to you. Have you found a good road into your area yet?” Livingstone wrote back, “If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all” (May, The Story File, p. 54).
Jesus says the same thing to us: “If you only want to follow Me when the way is easy and convenient, don’t waste My time. I want you to be My disciple at every moment of your lives, no matter how difficult the path, no matter how high the cost.”
What does this mean in practical terms? Among other things, it means we can’t become complacent, telling ourselves “I already know enough about my faith,” or “I don’t really need to become any holier,” or “spiritual growth is for other people.” It’s not enough to be better than someone else we know. God doesn’t grade on a curve; He expects each of us to strive for perfection. Following Jesus means we try to spend at least a few minutes in prayer every day, and attend Mass each weekend—especially when we don’t feel like it or it’s inconvenient. It means becoming more concerned about disappointing God than we are about disappointing other people or ourselves, and making all our decisions on the basis of what we think God wants of us. It means reminding ourselves again and again that every person we encounter is a child of God deserving of our love and respect—especially those we find unattractive or annoying. It means paying more attention to the teachings of the Church than the values of our American culture and the lies or half-truths promoted by the mass media. It means baptizing our wallets and bank accounts through regular financial support, and sometimes even sacrificial giving, to help spread the Gospel and assist in works of charity here and abroad. Above all, it means trusting that Jesus is with us every step of the way, especially when our cross seems heavier or more painful than usual, and constantly asking His mercy and His help for ourselves and others.
There is a genuine peace that comes from knowing God is pleased with us, that we’ve heard His call and truly are answering as best we can. If our response is halfhearted, we’re just wasting our time, because sooner or later some problem or temptation will overwhelm us and cause us to give up. A wholehearted response, however, unleashes the power of God’s grace and makes a lasting difference in our lives. This is the sort of commitment Jesus seeks—and to those who honestly try to make it, He promises His strength and His peace in this life, and His everlasting joy in the next.