Pope Francis announced 2015 as a year dedicated to the promotion of consecrated life, and asked the church's religious sisters, brothers and priests to "wake up the world" with their testimony of faith, holiness and hope. The Year began on 30 November 2014, the First Sunday of Advent, and will conclude with the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on 2 February 2016.
As I entered the Cathedral what struck me was the vibrancy of colour on the women who gathered from our religious congregations. I hope some of you took the time to view the photos in last week’s Dio Update. These women - I don’t think there were any men present from Religious Orders - have given their lives in service, living the Gospel in faith, hope and love. Some of these women taught me in primary school (the Sisters of St Joseph) and in high school (the Sisters of Mercy), and I did have a Dominican flavour for the short time I spent at St Anne’s before our family moved to Sydney. They certainly helped to form me.
I am certainly grateful for the education they afforded me, but mostly I am grateful because I knew they loved and accepted me. For me, growing up in a very large family had its challenges and school provided me with a relief from the many chores that faced me at home.
I was able to be authentically me in the school environment, surrounded by these good women. They vowed their lives to God and to living the Gospel every day. The discipleship I witnessed inspired me to want to serve God.
In his Apostolic Letter to All Consecrated People for the Year of Consecrated Life, Pope Francis writes:
Consecrated life is a gift to the Church, it is born of the Church, it grows in the Church, and it is entirely directed to the Church.For this reason, precisely as a gift to the Church, it is not an isolated or marginal reality, but deeply a part of her. It is at the heart of the Church, a decisive element of her mission, inasmuch as it expresses the deepest nature of the Christian vocation and the yearning of the Church as the Bride for union with her sole Spouse. Thus, “it belongs… absolutely to the life and holiness” of the Church
Pope Francis outlined three aims for the Year of Consecrated Life.
The first is to look at the past with gratitude by revisiting the inspirations and high ideals, vision and values of those who began the particular religious institutes. Many of the charisms are still relevant and necessary to our present situations. In this section of the Letter Pope Francis says:
May this Year be an occasion for bearing vigorous and joyful witness before the world to the holiness and vitality present in so many of those called to follow Jesus in the consecrated life.
Holiness is not something we can get for ourselves, or obtain with our own talents and abilities. Holiness is a gift from Jesus, and we receive and rediscover holiness when we are in communion with God. Jesus desires that we come closer to him, so that he can make us holy. All of us -lay, religious and clergy - are called to be holy and to live this holiness daily. Religious provide a particular witness to this holiness, and certainly this was present at the Mass at the Cathedral.
In the words of Pope Francis from this Apostolic Letter:
As I said to the members of ecclesial movements on the Vigil of Pentecost last year: “Fundamentally, the strength of the Church is living by the Gospel and bearing witness to our faith. The Church is the salt of the earth; she is the light of the world. She is called to make present in society the leaven of the Kingdom of God and she does this primarily by her witness, her witness of brotherly love, of solidarity and of sharing with others” (18 May 2013).
The second aim is to live the present with passion. Pope Francis states that the Gospel is the absolute rule, the ideal is Christ. Religious vows are intended as a concrete expression of this passionate love. The question that flows from this, for all of us is – Is the Gospel truly the manual for our daily living and decisions we are called to make? We must put Jesus’ words into practice because we have the heart of Jesus. Many religious have creatively served in charity – teaching, preaching, catechesis, service to the poor and infirm….
As Pope John Paul II said, “the great challenge facing us in this new millennium is to make the Church the home and the school of communion.”
Once again from the Apostolic Letter:
Living the present with passion means becoming experts in communion, witnesses and architects of the plan for unity which is the crowning point of human history in God’s design. So be men and women of communion – live the mysticism of encounter, which entails the ability to hear, to listen to other people; the ability to seek together ways and means. Live in the light of the loving relationship of the three Divine Persons, the model of all interpersonal relationships.
The third aim was to embrace the future with hope. Pope Francis acknowledges that these are times of uncertainties, and in these times, the virtues of faith, hope and love will serve religious communities. He quotes from Jeremiah: “be not afraid… for I am with you.” (1:8)
None of you should be dour, discontented and dissatisfied, for a gloomy disciple is a disciple of gloom….. the apostolic effectiveness of consecrated life depends on the eloquence of lives ... which radiate the joy and beauty of living the Gospel and following Christ to the full…… You will find life by giving life, hope by giving hope, love by giving love.
Later in the letter he states:
I also expect from you what I have asked all the members of the Church: to come out of yourselves and go forth to the existential peripheries. “Go into all the world”; these were the last words which Jesus spoke to his followers and which he continues to address to us (cf. Mk 16:15). A whole world awaits us: men and women who have lost all hope, families in difficulty, abandoned children, young people without a future, the elderly, sick and abandoned, those who are rich in the world’s goods but impoverished within, men and women looking for a purpose in life, thirsting for the divine…
After this Mass, Allen and I went to Sydney for a few days. This was on Saturday, October 31, Halloween. We were confronted with many weird, ugly, horrible images of people who ‘dressed-up’ for the occasion. They freely walked around Circular Quay and through the City of Sydney. I find this day confronting at the best of times, but on this particular day, the contrast between the goodness of those who have given their lives to God and those who seemed to enjoy depicting evil was too great for me. Such a waste of time and energy.
The bookend of this week for me was spending Saturday with young people at the meeting of the Diocesan Council for Ministry with Young People (DCMYP) and then with those preparing to go to Adelaide to the Australian Catholic Youth Festival. In the main we have young adults mentoring young people to go to Adelaide for a faith festival. It was good to be in the room with them as they participated in some preparatory faith formation, and then to accompany them to Mass. The Gospel was most apt as it called on all of us to give all we have in serving God, as the widow did. I have no doubt that we are living in a time of transformation, a Kairos time, which is rich in God’s grace and mercy. Our young are being called to live the life of Jesus. Powerfully Fr Dom Carrigan ask this question at the DCMYP; “Are young people fascinated by Jesus?”
My experience is that some certainly are, and our support of them is most critical at this time, when it is not the norm. The Spirit still calls us, and our religious and clergy have historically given loyal witness to this voice and a particular response. We have journeyed in our diocese this year with a number of young people who have given their year with us in the Pastoral Placement Program. I have encountered the light shining in and through them.
Interestingly Pope Francis finishes his Apostolic Letter with the following, which speaks of the place of families:
I thank the Lord that the Year of Consecrated Life coincides with the Synod on the Family. Family life and consecrated life are both vocations which bring enrichment and blessings for all. They are spaces where human growth comes about through relationships, and they are also places of evangelization. Each can help the other.
I hope you take the time to thank the Religious who have vowed themselves to a particular service in this diocese and to the wider church. Let us pray that men and women will be attentive to the voice of the Spirit who calls them to a vocation of radical love and grant them to courage and generosity to respond to that call.