On being a servant

When being ordained a priest, I was asked: “Which passage from the Gospels most inspires your life? I immediately replied: ‘Cast your nets out into the deep’. This is what motivated the first years of my priesthood: reaching out to others, meeting others. And the poorer they were, the more I wanted to share my life with theirs.

But I realised that this didn’t really require me to be a servant in the full sense of the word, that is someone who is exclusively at their master’s command. So, just by being out amongst the poor, suffering from the cold like them and being short of food like them, didn’t mean that I was in every respect a servant of the poverty-stricken people with whom I lived. I had my own defences, I also had my own personal strengths. I had what I had learned in the seminary, and moreover I had a whole Church behind me. I might run out of bread in a slum, but I knew that the day I needed it, the Church, my ultimate strength, would always be there.

Being a servant is not as easy as you might think, because you always have reserves, something put away for times of scarcity. In reality, in my life as a priest living amongst people, amongst those in poverty, I discovered that I couldn’t really be a servant to any of them if I wasn’t first and foremost at the service of those who joined me, who had decided to leave everything behind to become volunteers with the ATD Fourth World Movement, and who had become my companions. The day I understood this, you can’t imagine how liberating this had been.

When I was personally immersed with people living in the depths of poverty, I thought, without daring to say it: “I’m a great man, I’m a good person, and I’m doing so much!” I discovered that those who could teach me to truly serve were not the people living in poverty, but those who had to prepare themselves, gain in maturity and develop the skills to live at the heart of poverty. That day, this was an extraordinary liberation. From that moment on, I believed that not only everyone could be liberated but they could themselves liberate others.

It was amazing, a real revolution within myself. I realised I could have profound trust in others. I have known them engaged in service, as in the washing of feet. I have known them with spiritual, emotional, physical, health or other problems, and at times of great enthusiasm but also of deep despondency. I have known them full of courage and when courage failed them. I can say that I have welcomed them into my life and held them in my heart, as if they were the only human beings who mattered to me. This is why, for the last fifteen years or so, I have devoted myself entirely to accompanying them – I wouldn’t say training them – these volunteers living in places of deep human misery in the world.

I tell myself that I’m a liberated man because I believe in them, because I am sure that everyone is called to be a liberator, that we all are, provided that we learn to first serve those who are close to us, to serve them in a real way, not just in words but in actions, in such a way that our whole lives are changed, turned upside down.

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