In my third year as a simply professed Augustinian friar, I exchanged the theology classrooms of my seminary for the meeting rooms of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. My workdays had me walking the halls past anxious ambassadors murmuring the language of joint resolution and their diplomatic staffs frantically exchanging emails. I attended consultations on international treaties and assemblies on disarmament. This was a sudden transition from life as a student!
In this environment, it can be difficult to see, or even imagine, the direct result of one’s ministry. I was to learn, however, that the most direct impact I could make here would be in providing a small, humble example of mealtime prayer.
In the Augustinian formation process, each friar follows his initial two years of study at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago with what is called the “pastoral year,” which provides the opportunity to apply his pastoral training in one of the Order’s active ministries The Order also approved studies for a Master of Public Policy and Administration at Northwestern University. This preparation has been invaluable as I was exposed to complex policy problems with global impact.
I was assigned to the Bronx, New York where I worked at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish and Augustinians International. One half of the assignment was traditional – I ministered in our Augustinian parish and participated in regular sacramental ministry such as Baptisms, funerals, and Sunday Masses. The other component of my pastoral experience included ministry at the Order of St. Augustine’s non-governmental organization (NGO) to the United Nations. Augustinians International represents the Augustinian General Curia to the United Nations.
The day I received my badge to UN headquarters, I was thrilled. Representatives from Augustinians International are granted incredible access to important conferences, multilateral summits, and the influential Security Council. Our presence there matters: The decisions made here will have both political and personal impact around the globe, for countries and individuals I may never see. For this reason it is critical that faith-based NGOs such as Augustinians International consult with civil leaders, advocate for their convictions, and ensure that governing agencies are accountable and representative.
Every day at Augustinians International introduced different topics. International politics often follows events on the news, so it’s impossible to know where diplomatic attention will focus. The UN is a dynamic environment where I had to learn about issues ranging from peacekeeping deployment to human rights and disarmament. Sometimes, I attended routine budget briefings. Other times, member states displayed rare moments of tension; such as during an informal consultation on the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty. I also had the honor to represent the Order of St. Augustine to multilateral consultations such as the Peacebuilding Commission.
I was far from being alone as a religious working at the U.N., and I took advantage of this opportunity to interact with them and learn about their ministries. I invited a religious sister to join me for lunch in a UN cafeteria. She holds a doctorate in political science and is very knowledgeable about political systems. The lunchroom was rather exclusive because high-level officials and delegates eat lunch there. We prayed a blessing over our meal. Some of our neighbors noticed, and we shared an interesting discussion on faith and duty. This year exposed me to good people – government representatives whose consciences are enlightened by faith and whose public duties require the search for common good. Religious presence recalls that humans are to love one another in this life and to prepare for eternal life.
During my pastoral year, I truly felt like an Ambassador for Christ (2 Cor 5:20). As I learned about the problems of the world, I began to understand Augustine’s response to the decline of the Roman Empire. He wrote the City of God to address the lack of moral values and the absence of public order. Amidst so much uncertainty, it is a great privilege for Augustinians to witness Christian values such as justice and harmony.
Why was I so excited about this pastoral assignment? It brought together two fields that I am passionate about: my faith and the public good. Thomas Jefferson wrote about the ‘wall of separation’ between Church and State. To many, his ‘wall’ divorces government from any reference to God. As an Augustinian seminarian, I minister to people’s needs and reveal Christ wherever he is needed. Most would agree: politics is often where people need God’s presence more than anywhere else. I thank God for the unique pastoral assignment where I learned how to witness the Augustinian spirituality of friendship and communion to policymakers and diplomatic leaders.