Our parish correspondent this year will be Fr. Vince Kuna, C.S.C., who is parochial vicar at the Tri-Community Parish of Sacred Heart, Holy Rosary, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Colorado Springs, CO. In this first installment of his monthly diary from the mountains of Colorado, Fr. Vince shares with his usual wit an experience in youth ministry that lead him to reflect on the meaning (and meaninglessness) of work – a fitting reflection given our celebration of Labor Day last week.
This past summer I heard confessions at a diocesan-wide youth ministry service project. Prior to offering Christ’s mercy through the sacrament of confession, I joined the youth for dinner. After partaking of the delicious baked potato that served as the meal, we listened to the experiences of the youth who spent the day ministering at various places in need around Colorado Springs.
Some served food to the homeless at the Marian Soup kitchen. Others shoveled many tons of sand to surface a new playground. One group worked the week at One Nation, a ministry to the state’s Native American population. The consensus across the various youth groups was that the day brought relief to the people they served, but also reward to the youth, who realized the value of a day’s labor, of affecting corporal works and of getting one’s hands dirty.
I noticed one exception to St. Benedict’s rule: “To work is to pray.” One group’s ministry placement turned them away as the work had already been completed by the placement’s employees. This left the youth scrambling for a last minute work site. The youth minister contacted his pastor, who apparently not appreciating the interruption to his day, hastily delegated the task of pulling weeds and cleaning the garage of his rectory. This collection of youth spoke unenthusiastically and could not find the meaning of the work they did for no one would see the fruits of their labors save the parish priest.
My sarcastic side almost got the better of me as was about to say that I would have loved the diocesan youth to come by my parish and categorize my personal library of books by title, author and literary genre. I and any future dinner guests would be more than appreciative. Fortunately, my prayerful side actually did get the better of me and I reflected back upon my time at the novitiate. During my year as a novice, we labored as many as four work periods a week completing essential work such as “fireproofing” our work barn with sheet rock while also completing non-essential work such as digging a hole and refilling it as well as moving plants from one end of the solarium to another. The latter task to my estimation, seemed pointless as the sun’s rays cascaded evenly across the plants lining the solarium. When I asked the religious brother in charge of tasking work periods what the point was of my current work in the solarium, he replied bluntly: “There is no point.” Really? I said to myself. I was certainly hoping for a Ralph Macchio Karate Kid moment, thinking I could at least get a kung fu lesson out of the deal.
Holding uncharitable words under my breath, my prayerful side reared its beautiful head again. I thought maybe the point of this novitiate lesson was that there, indeed, was no point. Manual labor often brings clarity to one’s purpose in ministry, but not always. It’s a good reminder that when the wider world seems to carry no point or meaning Christ’s graces still remain. When no one is around to see the value of one’s labors, at least the eyes of Christ see the work any of us have done, regardless of how meaningless we ourselves may take it at face value.