Father William Byron, S.J.

Father William Byron, S.J.

Lent is a time to think about sacrifice and service.

The generation of Americans who were kids during the Great Depression and in uniform during World War II tended to equate service with time in the military. As returning veterans, many went to college under the GI Bill of Rights and moved into positions of influence and responsibility in civilian life.

They built the great economic machine that produced the affluence of the postwar years. They became the “movers and shakers” in American life in the second half of the 20th century. Not all they produced, however, was unqualifiedly good.

Early in the 21st century, an editorial in America magazine (March 2, 2009), declared that “consumerism, greed and self-centeredness have surely contributed to the economic morass in which we find ourselves.”

The magazine called for a new emergence of civilian service that could become so marked as to justify naming the then teens and 20-somethings “Generation S,” successor to Generations X and Y. Regrettably, that did not happen.

The editorial quoted the late Albert Schweitzer, Nobel Prize winner, Scripture scholar and a physician who served the poor in Gabon, as offering this advice many years ago to a group of college students in the United States: “I do not know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know; the only ones among you who will really be happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

That advice bears repeating now: The only young people who will find happiness in life are those who first find a way to serve.

One of my Jesuit friends, Father Tim Brown, remarked to me back around the time of that America editorial that there was a virus spreading in our contemporary culture that “discourages commitment in general while inspiring an impossible quest for a life free of suffering and sacrifice.” That virus is still with us. Lent is a good time to think about controlling it.

Instead of encouraging the young to “dream the impossible dream” (as the song in “The Man of La Mancha” phrased it) on their way toward lifetime achievement, our contemporary culture is unwittingly encouraging the young to experience frustration by setting out on an “impossible quest” for a life free of sacrifice.

The opportunity to serve is all around us and will always be there. Service always involves some sacrifice. It also offers an assurance of happiness to those willing to take that route.

The easy life is not the happy life; the life of service is. The eyes of the young have to be opened to the possibility of happiness through service and sacrifice.

The 2016 presidential primaries are not generating any creative thinking about civilian national service. It would be a welcome contribution from the church if, as part of our Lenten observance this year, we who take Lent seriously could show that service and sacrifice are a sure path to the good life for all Americans.


Jesuit Father William J. Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: wbyron@sju.edu.