Emmanuel Katongole




May 20, 2023.

Dear Class of 2023 in CSNY signature Masters of Arts Degree Program of Ministry in the Global City, I congratulate you all.

Congratulations on your hard work and perseverance during these last three years. It was in the midst of the Covid 19 Pandemic when you started in the program. A great part of your time in the program has been defined and shaped by the Covid 19 Pandemic. The Covid time was indeed a time of great disruption and unravelling. But Covid 19 also revealed something about the fragile skeleton of the world we are living in: a world marked by inadequate health care systems, structural inequalities, environmental degradation and the climate crisis. That is why Covid has been and continues to be a watershed moment – a Kairos moment – a unique opportunity to dream and prepare a new future – a future that is different from the past; a future that more reflects God’s plans and promises for creation and for God’s people, especially the poor and those at the margins. What a great time therefore to embark on pastoral ministry. Pastoral ministry is always a ministry of planting seeds; that vocation, that call to plant seeds of God’s of tenderness could not be more urgent and exciting than this post Covid time we live in.

Speaking of planting seeds, I bring you greetings from Uganda; more specifically from Bethany Land Institute where I have spent the last 5 months working with the staff and caretaker students at BLI; working on the land; that is, working on and with the soil and planting many seedlings and trees.  For as part of our ecological education program, BLI is committed to plant a million trees by the year 2050. So far, only in our 4th year, we have planted over 125,000 trees (more than 23,000 this year alone).

Thank you City Seminary of New York for your partnership in this program. I look forward to welcoming you at BLI, to see the work we are doing, but also to join us in the actual exercise of planting – and thus touching the soil.

I am learning a lot from this program and work at Bethany Land Institute. First of all, that God loves the soil and that God is always working with the soil. As we read in Genesis 2, God not only forms humans (adam) out of the soil (adamah); he plants a garden. In the Psalms, Israel is compared to a small vine that God takes out of Egypt and plants on the soil of the promised land. He (God) clears the ground, plants the seedling; waters it, protects from the elements and wild animals – so that it can bear fruit (Psalm 80:8)

You are that little vine. God took you from wherever He took you, and planted you right here in NYC. A Very strange place. However, even here in this very unlikely “soil” of New York City, God has prepared the ground, manured it, watered it and planted you. So you little seedling, bloom! It may be that some have been ready to give up on you. And perhaps even you were beginning to give up on yourself. But God, like that that patient gardener in Luke (13:8-9) said, no I will take him to CSNY, and give you one – nay 3 more years – I will dig around him, and apply manure, and I know she will bear fruit. If not, then perhaps I will chop him down.  So you see, God has provided you with what you need, not simply to survive, but to thrive, to bloom in NYC

Secondly, I am learning that God invites us to be in the soil business – in the business of planting and tending a garden. In the Gospels, Jesus compares God to a farmer who sends workers into his vineyard (MT 20:1-6). That is what He does already in Genesis after he plants a garden, he takes Adam and places him in the garden with the charge: till (abad) and care (shamar) for the garden (Genesis 2:15). The words used are “abad” and “shamar”. As I have learned from my Duke colleague, Ellen Davis, the words  are ambiguous and often have double meaning: abad: could mean work it or work for it (serve); and  shamar: to preserve or observe. Thus, Adam is charged to work and serve the land, to preserve and observe it; to “keep” the garden and at the same time to “observe” it, i.e. to learn from and respect the limits that pertains to it.” This is man’s vocation.

But this is also what pastoral ministry is all about. For the only other place in the Bible where we find those two words (abad and shamar) used together is in the Book of Numbers where they are used to describe the work of the Levites in the Temple (See Numbers 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6). “Abad and shamar describe priestly roles.

So my dear class of 2023, you have been formed and equipped through this master’s program of Ministry in the Global City, be ready to abad and shamar God’s creation; to serve and observe; to gently work with and observe God’s creation; to tend and attend to the cry of God’s creation. Do not therefore be afraid to touch the soil – the ground – those who are broken, those at the margins, those on the ground: the poor, the sick, the lonely, and the homeless. For as the Biblical tradition reminds us: the poor, widow, the orphan and the stranger are the way to God’s heart.

Do not be afraid through your ministry to plant seeds of hope; seeds of care and service. Do not wait until you have figured out everything. You will never. Do not let the fact that you yourself still have a lot that is broken and therefore that needs mending  stop you. You will always remain broken and with issues that need to be sorted out.  And in fact, it is only through your humble efforts of healing and touching others that your own broken lives will be mended. Here is another lesson I am learning from working on the soil planting. As Wendell Berry rightly notes, in tending a garden as in planting a seed, it is as much about what is planted out there as what is planted within one in the very process of tending a garden: the qualities of tenderness, care, patience and gratitude.

Yunus is a young Muslim boy who has been a caretaker trainee at BLI for 3 years. He had a difficult background. His mother died in childbirth; He grew up with his paternal grandmother; dropped out of school when he was 14, and joined the village gangs. This is where our coordinator found him and invited him to BLI. He joined the BLI caretaker-training program. He especially loves working in the forest and in the tree nursery. He dreams of starting his own farm and nursery – ‘Uthman Integrated Farm. When he looks back at his previous life, he notes: “I was lost! I was totally lost, but coming to BLI saved me.” Now, even when I go back to the village, my former friends say I am different. I do not have time for them. I spend most of my free time in the forest and the nursery. I love planting trees.” Recently, at a BLI family day, Yunus’ stepmother visited, and Yunus took her around the campus and explained the programs. At the end of the visit, she wanted to meet the director. “I do not know what you have done, she told the director, but I am so grateful, for my son has now become a person.” Touching the soil, planting trees had returned Yunus to himself.

You may not have a forest to plant in New York City, but touching the soil, the ground – that is, those who are broken, those at the margins, those on the ground: the poor, the sick, the lonely, and the homeless will return you to yourself. For in the process of caring for the suffering world, our own suffering gets to be healed; in the process of binding the wounds of others, our own wounds become healed. We become who God intended us to be human – humus, soil – Adam!

Maggy Barankitse survived Genocide in her native Burundi. She emerged from this horrifying experience with a deep feeling of God’s love and a mission to help others – especially those who are most vulnerable: orphans, child soldiers, widows – to experience the same love of God. She therefore started gathering children, building them homes, schools, a cinema, a hospital, businesses. Even where she is now in exile, she continues to work with fellow exiles teaching them practical skills and allowing them to experience the dignity of being God’s children. Love, she says, “has made me an inventor.”

That is what pastoral ministry is about: learning to be inventors; planting; sowing seeds of God’s love; initiating historical processes that reflect God’s tender love.

Class of 2023, go forth therefore and bloom where God has planted you;  Serve and Observe God’s people; “Abad” and “shamar” God’s vineyard. Touch the soil; the ground. Plant. Dare to invent God’s love in your neighborhood. This is how you seek the good of the City. More importantly, this is how God shapes a revolution  of love and tenderness in the world. What a blessing and honor that we are part of that revolution.

That is why, I find no better way to conclude my remarks, but by inviting you Class of 2023 to stand to recite together the famous prayer that is attributed to Oscar Romero. The prayer not only reminds us what our pastoral ministry is about, it places our calling within the bigger picture of God’s work in the world.

Oscar Romero Prayer

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.


*This prayer was composed by Fr. Ken Untener of Saginaw, drafted for a homily by Cardinal John Dearden in November 1979 for a celebration of departed priests. Fr. Untener was named bishop of Saginaw, Michigan the following year. As a reflection on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, Bishop Untener included in a reflection book a passage titled “The mystery of the Romero Prayer.” The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to the martyr Blessed Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him.


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