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To serve is to reign

“To serve is to reign”. I learned these words of wisdom from a friend. It could sound like a pithy statement. On the lips of many, it could be hypocritical. That’s probably the way it sounds from my lips. But when Adrian said that “to serve is to reign,” it spoke to a life philosophy that he lived out every day. I could see how he devoted himself to serve. He was not worried about recognition or reward. He worried about others and his service won them over. This was his way of ruling. His service got others on the same page with him. His service conquered much more than sharp or witty arguments ever could. I wish I had followed his example more, but at least he got me thinking. He helped me to see how service should be at the center of my life.

So often, we think about our own happiness, which is tied up in love. We focus on our pleasure and enjoyment, but would do well to be concerned with our capacity and reality of loving. Our concept of love focuses all too often on possessing the perceived good. We want to feel passion. However, perhaps we forget love’s purpose.

Why we resist service

We imagine serving as placing ourselves in a subservient position and our nature rebels at this. We think that we are laying aside our dignity. We can trace this reaction to the Devil in his response to the primordial test. His response was reportedly “I will not serve”. Service, then becomes the absolute rejection of every temptation and the willing adherence to a life of grace and love.

St. Joseph reigned in the house at Nazareth through his silent service. His wisdom was lived out by daily dedication to his duty. Service is a key element for young men and women looking for their way in life because it is a key to discovering how to love. God’s calling for every person is always a call to love. Responding to God’s call always requires service.

Authentic service purifies love, finding the balance between possessiveness and passion, while restoring love’s true purpose.


A small child seems to have one way of showing love, and it is possession. He tries to possess his parents, notably his mother. A baby tries to control every moment and every ounce of attention of his mother’s life. This is both fascinating and frustrating for mothers. They love to feel needed but are torn when it feels controlling. It places them in a conundrum, ignorant of the proper balance of power and love.

Once we grow up, we may still fall into the trap of possessiveness. There is a certain element of possessiveness in love, but it is not an exclusive characteristic. And we cannot be ultimate possessors of the things we love. Much less can we try to possess other people.

When possessive love is opposed to oblative love, it is assumed that “ascending, possessive or covetous love —eros—would be typical of non-Christian, and particularly Greek culture” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 7). There is, however, a possessive element of love, for a person “cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 7).


Passion is part of love. The Greeks called this element eros. A Christian must realize that love “is a single reality, but with different dimensions; at different times, one or other dimension may emerge more clearly. Yet when the two dimensions are totally cut off from one another, the result is a caricature or at least an impoverished form of love” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 8).

Passion is an attractive element of love. There is a desire to possess. There is energy. There is joy. The very word passion seems primal to us. We know that it is something beautiful and dangerous simultaneously.

One of my favorite movies is Collateral Beauty. Will Smith’s character, Howard Inlet, is struck by deep personal tragedy through the loss of his daughter to cancer. He sinks into emotional paralysis and is unable to manage his personal and work life. The movie shows his journey to rediscover himself and rediscover love. In the end, it is a celebration of passion. Love wins out because love must always be part of our lives.


What is the purpose of love? We might as well ask the purpose of life, and maybe we arrive at the same answer. Or perhaps better said, love is the purpose of life. It is not until we have learned to love that we can say that we have learned to live. And it is in service that we live out our love. “Every true vocation is born of the gift of oneself, which is the fruit of mature sacrifice. The priesthood and consecrated life likewise require this kind of maturity” (Pope Francis, Patris Corde).

Sacrifice is mature when it is willing. Often, we are so attached to ourselves and our own likes that sacrifice seems counterintuitive to our wishes. We opt for ourselves and our “happiness” condemning ourselves to an endless cycle of seeking happiness hopelessly. For, “our gift of self will not come to fulfilment if it stops at sacrifice; were that the case, instead of becoming a sign of the beauty and joy of love, the gift of self would risk being an expression of unhappiness, sadness and frustration” (Pope Francis, Patris Corde).

St. Joseph, example of service

St. Joseph, foster father to Jesus, and the father in the home of the Holy Family at Nazareth, is a perfect example of this mature sacrifice.

For Saint Joseph, service – as a concrete expression of the gift of self – did not remain simply a high ideal, but became a rule for daily life. He strove to find and prepare a place where Jesus could be born; he did his utmost to protect him from Herod’s wrath by arranging a hasty journey into Egypt; he immediately returned to Jerusalem when Jesus was lost; he supported his family by his work, even in a foreign land. In short, he adapted to different circumstances with the attitude of those who do not grow discouraged when life does not turn out as they wished; he showed the willingness typical of those who live to serve. (Pope Francis, Message for World Day of Vocations, 2021)

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