Our Own Calcutta

Author: James Foley ’74, ’77J.D.

I still remember the quizzical looks I got in 1974 when I took my newly minted bachelor’s degree in theology and marched naively into law school. The most common reaction was: “So, were you planning on becoming a priest?” (Having gotten married just before law school, the answer was obviously, “No!”) Some would blurt out that a theology-law combination was odd; the kinder ones would just note that it was unusual.

But I thought it odd or unusual that people assumed only a seminarian would be curious about matters theological. It seemed quite natural to me that one considering a legal career would also be interested in exploring our relationship with God and how it might influence the ways we act as individuals and as societies.

These memories came flooding back as I prepared to be a Notre Dame student again at age 55. Catholic Charities USA and Notre Dame sponsor a continuing education program for diocesan Catholic Charities organizations throughout the country. For eight days I would once again be sitting in a Notre Dame classroom. Preparing for and participating in that CCUSA-ND program as a board member of Columbus Catholic Social Services has given me occasion to reflect on what I am doing and why.

A few days before I set off for Notre Dame, I was in the heart of Dixie, Birmingham, Alabama. I had spent the day strategizing the defense of a large corporation tied up in federal court litigation. After a long day of lawyering, I enjoyed the reward of southern cooking, a fine bottle of California pinot, and the excellent company of my co-counsel, an Indian lawyer of Hindu descent.

The untouchables

As the bottle neared the bottom, he told me of one of the formative experiences in his life. As a college student attending a Methodist University, he volunteered to spend five weeks in his native India with the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. This lawyer, who had had minimal contact with Catholics in his then-young life, was drawn by the mission of Mother Teresa. He spent his days living in a Southern Baptist-sponsored house in the middle of a Muslim ghetto. He left that house every day for five weeks to care for people whose physical needs were so challenging precisely because their physical conditions made them untouchable to all but the brave. I listened to him and wondered if I would have had the necessary measure of courage.

My friend spoke of the respect he gained for Catholicism by his work with the followers of this woman he called a saint. When he left India, he was told: “There is nothing unique here; wherever you go, find your own Calcutta.” And so, through this Hindu-Southern Baptist-Methodist-Muslim connection, I was reminded of the depth of the Catholic tradition of service to those most in need, and how that tradition resonates across religious, ethnic and national lines.

Arriving at Notre Dame a day early, I had time and space to anticipate the program. Why am I here? What do I hope to get out of this? What am I as a board member (clearly not the boots-on-the-ground in our organization) able to offer or contribute? And overriding all these questions: How is all we do guided by a sermon on a hillside 2,000 odd years ago?

In all this I confess I know little, I doubt often, and I pray for certainty that never comes. But this I believe; this simple insight I cannot run away from. I am part of every person I meet and even those I never meet. My grade school nuns might say we are all part of the Body of Christ. I can do nothing greater — and nothing less — than help others have hope in their time of despair, to feel wanted when they have been abandoned, and to know a small measure of comfort when their world has fallen apart.

We who have been blessed with supportive families, excellent education and good careers in the for-profit world have a role in all of this that we should never deny or let be denied. Wealth and professional success are pleasant treats, but they do not nourish. None of us may be even a shadow of the saint that Mother Teresa was, but we must do what we can as best we can.

Hungry for more

Wherever we ended up in our legal careers, we sell ourselves short if we do not recognize that the Sermon on the Mount is not just for the legal-aid folks. Each of us is called to find ways to care for the least among us. We all have a mission to serve the poor and vulnerable. All of us are chosen to search for our own Calcutta. The wealth of knowledge and talent I see among the lawyers I know is impressive. And the sense I have that some of them feel unfulfilled is palpable. Sometimes I think we lawyers are our own Calcutta, hungry for something beyond our usual rewards.

I still remember the words of Professor Stanley Hauerwas when I told him I was going to go to law school instead of pursuing a doctorate in theology: “Just don’t be another chicken sh*t lawyer.” Stanley had the mouth of a rapper before there was rap. But he had a point in his challenge. We lawyers have to find a way, whatever we do, to make a difference. We don’t need any more chickens or any more . . . well, you get the idea.

So I returned to the school that ingrained in me the obligation — indeed the need — to serve. At our opening Mass, our celebrant quoted Saint Teresa of Avila as saying that God’s first impulse is compassion. At the literal and most superficial level, the statement makes no sense. God is not some teenage deity with hormonal mood swings. God does not blow hot and cold or sway east and west. He doesn’t do impulses.

But at some deeper poetic level, Saint Teresa’s observation was dead-on. God is love. And while it is not identical, God is compassion, too. I cannot accept Jonathan Edward’s vivid image of sinners in the hand of an angry God. The Irish in me knows that the blessing ending with “may God hold you in the palm of His Hand” conveys protection, not danger. Jesus spoke of a compassionate and loving Father, and that is the God I pray to.

So if God’s first impulse is compassion, how can ours be any different? If God holds us in the palm of His hand, how can we not hold out our hands to those in need?

Spending a packed eight days with the folks who run Catholic Charities organizations at the local and national level is not my typical day at the office. You cannot be around this group long without realizing that these are highly dedicated and competent people who daily deal with hopeless situations without losing hope. These organizations and many other charities are constantly looking for volunteers to marry up to projects that provide help and create hope. They are looking for people willing to be, as Mother Teresa put it, small pencils in the hand of God.

I have generally found lawyers to also be a highly dedicated and competent group of professionals who thrive on challenges. The program at Notre Dame confirmed my own experience that lawyers bring an analytical approach to problem-solving that complements the methods of social service professionals. This may be a match made in heaven.

For the sake of those in need, are we lawyers willing to find our own Calcutta? And for our own sake, can we afford not to?

Jim Foley practices law in Columbus, Ohio, and teaches part time at Capital Law School. He can be reached at fjfoley@vorys.com.