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What is Augustinian ministry at the United Nations?

by Jack Tierney, O.S.A.

Ministry with Augustinians International offered a steep learning curve. I had to learn about the UN system, understand how member states engage in diplomatic dialogue, and how civil society takes an active role in influencing events. It took a few months before I could speak the language and understand our purpose and activities.

While I entered Augustinian religious life with some prior Government work experience, I quickly discovered that work at the United Nations requires technical knowledge of diplomacy, negotiation, and policymaking. I realized that the challenge was not to form policy positions and cleverly work the system for their enactment. My year with Augustinians International would be spent integrating spirituality into the UN’s global vision of humanity. 

I found that the best strategy was to ask questions of my religious UN colleagues. I struggled with issues such as who we were really “representing”, how close our policy issues must align with the Holy See, and how to inject morality into policy discussions. While each of these deserves its own theological reflection, below I will discuss why the world and the UN needs the ministry of the Augustinians. 

The UN seeks to ‘leave no one behind’ in it’s 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals. Many of these goals seek to improve quality of life as measured through poverty, hunger, clean water, etc. It is a rights-based and person-centered agenda. However, there are no targets or indicators for self-actualization or spiritual awareness.

Augustinians can address this gap through our interiority. We offer the witness of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We offer an example of a spirituality of communion. Augustine’s thought and spiritual insights are solutions to a world whose future is globalized, complex, and (increasingly) nonreligious. 

This year, I benefitted from a great cultural awareness. Emotionally, I feel I awakened to the passion for our Augustinian mission. Our presence at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish is often justified as the Province’s preferential option for the poor. This experience was a realignment of my identification from a privileged religious to solidarity with the people in the Bronx. It was difficult to cast away emotions and beliefs that were previously thought indispensable to my identity, but they have been replaced with a greater love of the Church and the people of God. I am more sensitive to the requirements of this ministry to the poor and emotionally sympathize with the reality of poverty. 

I have also become convinced of the need for Augustinian presence to the United Nations. The 2030 Agenda is morally courageous: Leave no one behind and include the quality of life for all people. And yet, it leaves out the spiritual dimension of self-actualization and any acknowledgment of the divine. While the agenda is overtly centered on fulfilling human rights, there is no reflection on the source of human rights or human dignity. The global vision of humanity is admirable yet incomplete. Augustinian presence fills that picture. As Christians concerned for the common good, we must support the conditions which allow all people to enjoy the benefits of temporal life and to attain salvation and eternal life.[1]

I took great pride in my ministry at the parish and the UN. I loved my pastoral activities and they lead me to deeper discernment of religious life. This year was also a battle with my ego. It can be thrilling and addicting to be the priest with the answers; to be the expert with whom diplomats consult. It’s tempting to be needed and expected for important moments. However, ministry cannot survive on the fumes of personal ambition. Service requires constant contact with God’s people and an openness to the movements of the Spirit. This experience helped me realize that I need both prayer and action; both the Church and the World. As a minister, I need to be aware of the edge between a personal ambition and a humble service of God’s kingdom. 

[1] Immortale Dei, Leo XIII

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Joe Mostardi
2 years ago

Jack, great summary of our role at the UN. I recall our volunteers working there in the early years of their tenure in the Bronx. Their desire to be part of our NGO was my opportunity to experience what we do at the United Nations and why. You captured that vision quite well and even expanded that vision to include a far deeper challenge to incorporate spirituality. I hope that there might be some others who follow in your footsteps and take on the challenge of the UN during their pastoral year.

2 years ago

As the permanent representative of the Order at the UN, I agree with Jack’s assessment of the contribution Augustinians can make in the area of interiority. It is a privileged time to be at the UN during the current political climate. Working with nations and varied faith traditions is challenging. One must bite one’s lip and listen more intensely and give greater importance to conversation/dialogue, a process that is long and demanding. Critical thinking is a dimension of interiority in which the Augustinian tradition of inquiry has much to contribute. The Augustinian notion of “communion,” which is larger than “community,” is challenging to Augustinian friars to think beyond their ministerial horizon and to see the larger world with its pressing issues within that orbit. The charism of community includes the cries of planet Earth – climate change – as well as the cries of the poor. My experience at the UN has also helped me to reinterpret the vow of poverty in terms of sustainability (the SDGs in Jack’s reflection) and living simply so that “others may simply live.”

Those who want to know more about the engagement of local communities with the Order’s office at the UN should read paragraph #185 of the Order’s Constitutions. See also its website at LINK and on FaceBook.