Homily of Archbishop Michael Neary, Celebration of Consecrated Life, Tuam Cathedral, February 1st, 2015.
Introduction and Welcome
I extend a very warm welcome to you all and I am delighted to be present. The priests, people and I are privileged to join with you in this celebration of Consecrated Life. It is so indispensable for the Church and the world.
Religious – Beacons of Light and Hope
Pope Benedict on the world day for Consecrated Life in 2013 had told religious “do not join the ranks of the Prophets of Doom who proclaim the end or meaninglessness of Consecrated Life in our Church in our day; rather, clothe yourselves in Jesus Christ and put on the armour of light”. Nourished by the hope of the promise of God Consecrated Life is called to continue its journey. Hope is not built on the foundation of our strength or our members but on the gifts of the spirit: faith, communion, mission. “Hope” is central for the Christian and particularly for the religious. God’s mercy is the starting point for hope, and his faithful promise to fulfil our dreams makes hope the expectation of our future. This sense of hope is what ultimately separates a Christian from a non-believer.
Today, consecrated women and men, not unlike all followers of Christ are facing unprecedented social and cultural change. This is acknowledged by the letter to consecrated men and women from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life entitled “Keep Watch”. The challenge presented by the historical landscape at this time requires boldness and courageous inventiveness.
The Vocation of Religious
Consecrated Life is intrinsically called to serve as a witness, presenting a sign of the Church. That letter to which I have just referred focuses on the figure of Elijah who, like us, experienced mixed emotions of courage and fear as he endeavoured to remain faithful to his vocation in challenging times. In religious life you have experienced success and fulfilment – the evidence is there but not always acknowledged by some of those who have benefitted most from the sacrifices that Religious have made whether in education, nursing, pastoral care, prayer. On countless occasions you have encouraged and made it possible for the young people who have come under your influence to take responsibility as leaders in our society. You have taken pride in steering people through difficult phases of life. As Religious you have been responsible for the training and formation of young people to become parents in our society. In your vocation many of you have nursed patients back to health and enabled others to die with dignity as you provided pastoral care for them.
New Liberation to the situation of the day
Today I am sure that you find it challenging as you reflect on the way in which Consecrated Life was respected and even applauded by society in Ireland no longer seems to enjoy its former approval. Inevitably there are times when you ask yourself “what am I doing here”, “what is the point of it all”? Society can be very selective in its memory and frequently committed to a careless amnesia. Yet our Church stands on the shoulders of mothers and fathers who have come under your influence and have been obedient to the gospel in ways that matter. There is the danger that on an occasion like this we could become excessively nostalgic and romantic for what we regard as the good old days. During the exile in Babylon the people of God were hankering for former times. You are familiar with the way in which God, through the Prophet Deutero-Isaiah, addressed their concern “remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old”. Why? “Behold I am doing a new thing”. A new liberation, a new history, a new homecoming. The loss of the old scares us at times, because we feel threatened and displaced. Like the exiles in Babylon however we have to dig deep, welcome and embrace the newness which God is offering.
Renewal and Energy through the Call of Religious
Like Elijah you will have noticed what happens when people are drawn into the producer-consumer cycle where God is treated as part of disposable society. This seductive influence of false gods leaves people compromised, in many cases unknown to the people themselves. While Elijah had considerable success, this is followed by a time of despondency. A form of burn out, listlessness and defeatism take over. He retreats to a cave hoping to escape the demands of his vocation, only to hear the Lord addressing him, “what are you doing here, Elijah”? The Prophet is brought to recognise that this is not a time to languish in grief or resort to regret. Elijah now experiences God, not in the traditional symbols of God’s presence – in the wind, earthquake, fire but rather in a “still small voice”. Like the prophet, as Religious you have sown the seeds of hope, often times in a field of doubt but the harvest may not be forthcoming in the way you would wish. Elijah is reminded and challenged – his work is not yet finished. The question addressed to Elijah is addressed to all of us “what are you doing here”? That question is calculated to open our eyes and provide us with a re-commissioning grace. As you look back over the years you are very conscious of being service-providers in so many ways – education, nursing and pastoral care; without your gigantic and generous availabilities in those areas, opportunities would have been restricted to the privileged few who had the financial resources. Now in a more relaxed way you have the opportunity to reflect on, relax with and rejoice in the “still small voice”, of God.
The Gift of the Contemplative Experience
We are a shaken generation living in a confused and confusing world. The theologian Karl Rahner many years ago stated that the Christian of the future will be required to be something of a contemplative. In this as religious you are in a privileged position to interpret and re-evaluate what is un-critically accepted today. Society is crying out for a contemplative approach and while we experience the human frailty of fear nevertheless as the letter “Keep Watch” underlines, “we are living through a time of grace, a time when “consecrated men and women are watchful and ready for the signs of God”.
Religious alerting to “God Surprises”
Pope John Paul II said “in a world in which secularisation has become a selective blindness towards the supernatural and people have lost sight of the footsteps of God, we are called to rediscover and study the fundamental truths of the faith”. Pope Francis called on Consecrated people to welcome “God’s surprises”, to live a spirit of watchfulness and be ready for the signs of God. He urges religious to keep the longing for God alive in the world and reawaken it in the hearts of many people as well as a thirst for the infinite. He says that as religious we must cultivate “a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in the homes, the streets and squares where people are enabled to find encouragement and meaning in their lives”.
Religious – Bearers of Hope, Serenity, Joy
Religious are called to be bearers of this message of hope providing serenity and joy, God’s consolation, God’s tenderness towards all. Today people need religious to bear witness to the mercy and tenderness of the Lord which warms the heart, rekindles hope and attracts people towards the good. (Letter from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life entitled “Rejoice”). Among the questions on which an official of the Congregation invited women and male Religious in the USA to ponder during this year was this; “are we faithfully observing the spirit and aims of our founders and foundresses so as to observe their charism.”
In conclusion the letter of Pope Francis quoting St. John Paul II to all Consecrated people reminds religious that “you have not only a glorious history to remember and to recount, but also a great history still to be accomplished. Look to the future, where the spirit is sending you in order to do even greater things”. He encourages you to look to the past with gratitude, to look to the present with passion and to embrace the future with hope, a hope that is not based on statistics but rather on the One in whom we have put our trust, the One for whom “nothing is impossible” (Luke 1:37).