Effie Caldarola

My teenage daughter was sitting on the floor in front of me, probing her future. More precisely, she was pondering what to choose as a college major field of study.

It’s a big question for any soon-to-be high school graduate, even though lots of people change their college major at some point.

“Maybe I should be a high school counselor?” she wondered. “Or social work?” She ran the gamut of liberal arts majors before suddenly exclaiming, “I just want to help people.”

Bingo: a comment to warm a Catholic mother’s heart. I awarded our parenting a tiny merit badge. I hope my kids will see the Gospel as their lives’ imperative, so I filed the remark under my mental “maybe I’m doing something right” file.

It’s easy, of course, for any of us to say we want to help others. But life throws a lot of distractions into the mix, as I’m sure my daughter has already. So I was inspired last night to read about the conversion experience of another young person.

Writing in the newsletter of Nebraskans Against the Death Penalty last summer, outgoing statewide coordinator Jill Francke told about a moment in a cafe in Kenya when, as a 20-year-old, she “vowed that I would dedicate myself to improving the lives of others.”

What prompted such an altruistic decision in such a young person?

A Midwesterner from a middle-class background, Francke had grown up with the American perspective that if she worked hard enough, and wanted something bad enough, she could achieve anything.

Her travels through Africa opened her eyes to the fact that many people, just as smart and competent and driven as she, would be held back from achieving their true potential. Justice became her cause and her source of conversion.

A few years later, Francke still seems to be traveling that narrow road, the one that seeks justice.

The circles I frequent are full of people such as Francke, although I admit many in my circles aren’t that young. I count as friends many religious sisters who are passionately involved in helping others, and many of my best friends are advocates for social justice.

So, it never fails to amaze me when I encounter people whose primary concern for their children is that they make a lot of money in life. They’ll always say they want their children to be “happy,” but their idea of happiness always relies on a tremendous amount of material success and worldly recognition.

Of course I want my children to be able to be independent, support themselves and find a certain level of security. But we can do that, most of us, and still be faithful to Gospel values, unless we’re among those called to the most radical kind of poverty.

Matthew 16:26 puts our choice in stark relief: “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?”

Not everyone will be converted like Paul on the road to Damascus or Francke sitting in a cafe in Kenya. For many of us, the Gospel impels us to change, little by little, to want more of Christ and less of “stuff.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

St. Ignatius of Loyola also told his followers: “Go forth and set the world on fire.” May all of us move toward justice.