April 21, 2010 // Local

From law to theology to a late vocation

Brother Robert Sylvester with the Scottish Highlands in the background.

By Brother Robert Sylvester, CSC

NOTRE DAME — For the majority of my adult life I was an attorney in Washington, D.C. As a lawyer I had three incarnations: a counsel on foreign policy in the U.S. Congress, a lawyer in a mid-sized private firm and a solo practitioner representing the poor, including abused and neglected children, in family, health and personal matters. I spent most of my professional life in the latter area.

Like most lawyers I had good work — work serving others. The problems people presented were interesting and posed engaging intellectual challenges. I had the privilege, as lawyers do, of being invited into the private lives of other people. I was reasonably well rewarded for my work. Having come from poverty and public housing, my work allowed me to live in a comfortable home in an affluent area. I had no significant debt, good friends and colleagues. I enjoyed professional success and favorable notoriety with a profile in the New York Times, positive stories of my work in local newspapers and books, and television appearances. However after 20-plus years, I left this work and comfort to study theology at the University of Notre Dame. Why?

The answer is simple: The problems I saw in my practice, among my neighbors and colleagues, in the professions and the culture at-large were fundamentally spiritual. I was particularly taken by this: The affluent and prosperous were often unhappy and their lives showed it in a multitude of aberrant behaviors. When not chained to work or indulged in self-distracting activities, they looked for meaning and purpose and suffered its absence.

It was hard to deny the cause of the discontent: Our culture had separated itself from faith, pushed God to the periphery, but a quaint superstition. As a Christian and a Catholic I felt obliged to try to do something about this — so goodbye law, hello theology.

Puzzled by this phenomenon, my theological studies focused on the separation of faith from culture in contemporary secular society and the problems this separation imposes on highly-educated Catholics and others, including those in the professions.

My studies made clear that we had become ensnared by secular culture. We were captured by the external, neglected our interior life and ignored our emotional well being. We were fearful and self-absorbed. We sought to control all outcomes, and eliminate all risk inherent in life. We were foolishly self-reliant. In a service economy, we failed to experience the joy of servanthood. We were unable to locate the Divine much less place God at the center of our life.

Unexpectedly in the course of my studies, I began to be asked if I had thought of becoming a priest. The repeated inquiry made me think. It became clear that I was being called to offer my skills and experience to God in religious life, and I entered my training in my late 50s.

I am often asked why I am not a priest. I always take that as a compliment and my response is always the same: Some are called to be sacramental ministers and others are called to a ministry of social transformation working on problems in the world, where those who hunger and thirst reside.

As Providence would have it, I am presently working on a problem not adequately addressed.

I am the director of the Initiative on Spirituality in the Professions at the Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame.

This is a new and innovative ministry that grew out of my transition from law to theology. In it we offer spiritual care presence to the Washington legal community. One can envision this as a chaplaincy to lawyers. It is an ecumenical ministry designed to offer spiritual companionship and direction, education and palliative care, aid to managers of legal enterprises and access to the local religious and pastoral counseling community for those who seek it.

In beginning a new ministry, I am much like a missionary in a new land. My work is part care, part education and part evangelization. Like the Christ and the disciples, I am building anew, while benefiting from those who have come before me. Your prayers and support are welcome.

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