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Ruined for Life?

In 1989, the military in El Salvador murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in their home in San Salvador. The priests were internationally recognized scholars who wrote and spoke extensively about the need for peace and the root causes of the war in El Salvador. Their deaths awakened the world to the atrocities being committed by the Salvadoran government.

In one sense, the murdered people were irreplaceable, but their Jesuit community wanted their work to continue, so one of their number, Fr. Dean Brackley, who was on the faculty of Fordham University in New York, volunteered to fill in “for four or five years.” But he became passionate about the struggles of the people of El Salvador and died there in 2011 at age 65. 

One of the jobs he took on was meeting with delegations of people from the U.S. and elsewhere who came there to help, and that’s where I met him. On a visit from people from my parish who supported a scholarship program, and who were to stay a week or so to visit families of scholarship recipients in rural areas, he told us: “It will ruin you for life!”

Never See the World As Before

By that he meant that you would never see the world as before; that after visiting people in poverty-stricken rural areas there and seeing how much hope people have in the face of apparent hopelessness, you would never take for granted all the gifts you have received. You would never be the same. And that became true of the people with whom I have travelled there.

I believe religious faith is like that. Once you comprehend what life is really about – which, in my view, is loving God and others despite the difficulties – you’re “ruined for life.” I think that’s what Jesus was talking about when he said that you must “die” to live, as in, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” 

Forgo Selfishness

That is, to love God and others as Jesus taught, you have to forgo selfishness, arrogance, self-pity and the temptation to put yourself first. And learning to do that can take a lifetime. 

An article in a recent issue of America Magazine entitled, “Where Have All the Volunteers Gone?” isn’t optimistic about the prospect of young people “ruining their lives,” at least in volunteering to help others.

The phrase, “Ruined for Life,” is used in the article to describe how volunteers’ lives were forever changed by dedicating themselves for a year of service in what is called the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, or JVC, among the oldest of Catholic volunteer organizations. Volunteers are hard to come by these days.

And the JVC is not alone. The article quotes two researchers at the University of Maryland who say that in 2021, the latest year they have for such data, the volunteer rate – “the percentage of adults who do unpaid work through or for an organization – experienced its largest decline since the U.S. government began collecting data on volunteering in 2001.

Generosity Crisis?

“The United States is facing a generosity crisis,” writes Dr. Nathan Dietz, one of the researchers.

The pandemic may be a factor, the article says, and for religious organizations, the antipathy and distrust for religion that is evident among young people may be in play.

Volunteering is, in my view, a great way to fulfill the obligation believers have – at least in the Christian tradition – to serve others. But, of course, it’s not the only way. Millions of people fulfill that obligation day by day by quietly helping people in their families, their neighbors, and perfect strangers, in any way the can.

People searching for God, striving to be God-like, can’t avoid being “ruined for life.”

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