John Converset with a family

Creation remains for me the original Word of God”


From my early childhood I loved to be outdoors, especially at first light in the morning. There was something very attractive and fascinating about being outdoors, whatever the weather or the time of year. Later on I realized that somehow God was present and speaking to me in a very personal way through nature, a way beyond thoughts and concepts. Creation remains for me the original Word of God spoken in love. When the psalmist rejoices that “One day in the House of the Lord is better than a thousand elsewhere” [Ps 84:11], my thoughts go spontaneously to the whole vast expanse of the universe.

The marvelous discoveries of modern astronomy that have enabled us to know the approximate age and enormous expansion of the universe and such wonders as the life cycle of stars, the power of black holes, dark matter, and mysterious forces that would have been beyond our imagination just a few decades ago give new perspective to the words of Isaiah 45:12 and 18: “It is I who made the earth and created humankind upon it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts … [I] founded it and did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be lived in … I am the LORD, and there is no other.”

The self-gift and presence of God in creation are presented even more clearly in Colossians 1:15-17: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created; … all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” The gift of Creation and the gift of God’s only-begotten Son are inseparable. God gives us His own Son [John 3:16], beginning with Creation itself, and everything else is given with the gift of the Firstborn of Creation who also becomes the “Firstborn from among the dead” [Col 1:18].

Throughout my life “I have come that they may have life and live fully” [John 10:10] has manifested to me God’s fundamental and primordial intention. This mission statement of Jesus binds Creation and the Incarnation together in God’s self-gift of life-giving love. Creation-in-Christ is already the gift of God’s Son whose life we share and is ordered to the Incarnation through which Christ can fully and in a more tangibly personal way share with us his own life with the Father [Jn 5:17-26; 6:37-40 & 17:24-26].

At the Comboni Missionary seminary in Cincinnati my teachers insisted that the goods of the earth are intended to support the life of everyone, and therefore are to be shared in an equitable way. The right to life is primary and the right to property is secondary, subordinate to the fundamental right to life. And so we were taught some basic principles of distributive justice. “God our Savior wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” [1 Tm 2:3-4] cannot be separated from the right of all peoples to share in all that is necessary to sustain a decent human life. Consequently there is a corresponding obligation to conserve and share the goods of the earth. “Why do you not give them something to eat yourselves?” [Lk 9:13]. “Those who believed shared all things in common; they would sell their property and goods, dividing everything on the basis of each one’s need” [Acts 2:44-45].

I had been ordained a priest for many years before I came to understand that the USA was claiming for itself a disproportionate share of the earth’s resources and its overconsumption was at the expense of the most basic needs of other peoples.

Much later still I saw that over-consumption was threatening the very existence of the ecosystem that sustains all life on earth, whether by poisoning the environment in various ways or by inducing global climate change. “The earth is the LORD’S, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters” [Ps 24:1-2]. At our peril we act as if we are the lords of the earth. Our greed for ever more energy derived from fossil fuels changes the currents of the ocean, the flow of the winds and the patterns of rainfall, and triggers more violent and destructive storms. “Avoid greed in all its forms. A man may be wealthy, but his possessions do not guarantee him life” [Lk 12:15].

My first assignment was to the Province of South Africa. I knew about the cruel reality of Apartheid before I went there, and I knew that some used a “religious” ideology to justify oppression. These people interpreted the Afrikaner victory at the Battle of Blood River as the seal of a Covenant between God and the Calvinist victors. They were God’s chosen people and others were “kaffirs” or pagans. In an extreme right-wing ideological interpretation – certainly not the stance of all Afrikaners – this covenant conferred on the “chosen people” the right to dispossess the pagan peoples. “This is how you will know that there is a living God in your midst, who at your approach will dispossess the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perrizites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites.” [Joshua 3:10]. Lest we smirk in pretended superiority, we may choose to recall that, with the encouragement of Alexander VI, the Spanish and the Portuguese divided between themselves what is now Latin America [Treaty of Tordesillas 1494], and the United States had an ideology of “Manifest Destiny” to justify conquest and exploitation.

However, I also learned that, many years before the Afrikaner Nationalist Party gained power in 1948, the British had put in place all the essential structures of Apartheid, including what later came to be known as the “homelands” in order to exploit the Africans economically. “Woe to you who join house to house and connect field with field, till no room remains and you are left to dwell alone in the midst of the land” [Isaiah 5:8]. “ They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed …” [Amos 2:6-7].

In South Africa for many decades the churches were divided, with most of the Reformed Calvinist churches either defending Apartheid policies or passively acquiescing. But the Catholic Church was also divided within itself. While Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban and a relatively small group of bishops and priests were outspoken in their opposition to Apartheid, the majority of the clergy preferred not to speak out openly for fear of being expelled from the country or of being declared “banned persons”. A large portion of the Catholic laity wished that the bishops would “keep out of politics.”

Following the revolt of black youth in 1976 and the government’s violently repressive reaction to it, the Christian churches gained more courage to speak out. Women religious symbolically opened their urban schools to “non-whites” forcing the bishops to support their actions. The authors of the Kairos document of 1985 recognized that more and more people were gaining the courage to speak out “We must obey God rather than man” [Acts 5:29]. They stated that “God who does what is right, is always on the side of the oppressed” [Psalm 103:6] and implicitly invited Christians to continue in the footsteps of Jesus “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favor” [Lk 4:18-19; cf. Mt 25:31-46]. Jesus was depicted as “weeping over Jerusalem because it had failed to recognize its opportunity” [Lk 13:34-35 and Mt 23:34-39].

Meanwhile I had returned to the United States in 1982 at a time when the Reagan administration was supporting covert CIA operations and the dreadful atrocities committed by the “Contras” in Nicaragua. As I set out to learn more about the long history of US military and covert interventions in Latin American countries, it became apparent that the United States government habitually acted as the “enforcer” for the ruthless exploitation by US-based and multinational corporations of resources, whether minerals or agricultural land, or transportation facilities such as the Panama Canal. There were even some similarities with the Apartheid system of supposedly autonomous “homelands” in that the poor of Latin America constituted a “labor pool” that could be exploited when needed and discarded when not needed.

This was a rather ominous discovery: the US used its overwhelming military, industrial-economic and political power, not to free and assist the peoples of neighboring countries as it claimed, but to shamelessly exploit them. The “Cold War” was used as an excuse to support ruthless dictators and those who sought justice for their people were indiscriminately labeled as “communist”. Worse most of the mass media did not speak honestly about this shameless behavior and most of the people seemed to not want to know about it. “…You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” [Jn 8:32] – but first it will make you miserable!

As I tried to speak about what I was learning, and when I opposed the first Persian Gulf War, I became a stranger to many of my own people. Although I was normally rather timid and reluctant to speak in public, my experience of “denouncing evil” was somewhat like that of Jeremiah: “I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name’, his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” [Jer 20:7-9].

During my first term as Provincial Superior the NAP created the Office of Justice and Peace with Fr. Anton Maier as its first director, and a few years later Cindy Browne became manager of the Justice and Peace Resource Center in Cincinnati. The members of the NAP had been engaged with JPIC efforts previously, especially through our media, but the Office enabled us to interact more formally and deeply with other faith-based JPIC organizations. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers [and sisters] live together in unity!” [Ps 133:1]. There is a sense of common purpose and shared values. I met many people whom I came to admire.

In 2000 I returned to South Africa, with some human optimism, in the post-Apartheid era when the ANC (Mandela’s Party) was dominant. Although the ANC had taken many positive steps to widen the delivery of safe water and electricity, had built many RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) houses and introduced much positive legislation, it soon became apparent that all was not well. Measures intended to bring about a wider distribution of wealth, such as Black Economic Empowerment, only served to enrich the few who were well-connected. Unemployment was around 40%; the gap between rich and poor had widened enormously and the very poor were worse off than ever before. Widespread corruption, crime and the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS added to the misery. Refugees from elsewhere in Africa were flooding in, only to be met by rampant xenophobia. “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first” [Lk 11:24-26].

The situation seemed far more complex than previously under Apartheid. Most church leaders were more reluctant to challenge a government led by an African political party that had a large majority. The churches often gave in to the temptation of falling back on alleviating the symptoms rather than addressing the root causes. “Our battle is not against human forces but against the … rulers of this world of darkness, the evil spirits…” [Eph 6:12]. It was a time to pray for the Wisdom of the Spirit.

Now I am back in the NAP, serving as the Institute’s representative with VIVAT International at the UN and with AFJN in Washington, DC. Washington is a political disaster. There is a new spirit of meanness and an attempt to undermine the social safety net in the name of fiscal responsibility. The United Nations is also a very politicized place, yet many nations seem to be open to the social teaching of the Church when it is presented in secular language, in terms of human rights and humanitarian law, and equity. Many Catholic religious institutes, as well as countless other faith-based organizations, collaborate in efforts to positively influence the many deliberations associated with the Economic and Social Council. There is an intentional community of faith, hope and love. Although everything moves very slowly, and there are no lack of difficulties, the UN is a place of hope for those who believe that the Spirit of God is at work in people and in history. The light of the Spirit is sometimes dim and rarely as bright as a sunbeam, but it is visibly present.

[The Lord] will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD” [Is 2:4-5].

Now we are in a new Kairos moment. For the first time in history we have a real capacity to overcome the most desperate levels of poverty that deprive people of human dignity. But, at the same time, if we do not act in a concerted way to cease to rein in the behaviors that contribute to global warming we could potentially bring upon ourselves the destruction of all human life on earth.

Comboni presents us with a path of committed faith: “Nothing could be more useful than to grow in the habit of being calm and orderly, of proceeding with serenity and dignity, because this means that the spirit is able to do good without confusion and rush, and it also means that the individual does not risk that tension and exhaustion which oppress his spirit and body.” [Rule of 1871, Chapter XII].

Ask and you will receive…” [Mt 7:7ff].

Fr. John Converset, mccj