World Day for Consecrated Life
I’m sure you will all agree that we are so very blessed to have a Pope who has chosen to dedicate this year to the Celebration of Consecrated Life. Not only is he addressing us as our Pope but also as a fellow religious who by his example has been incarnating for us his own consecrated commitment in so many powerful and inspirational ways.
This special year for the Church has three objectives:
First, it is an occasion to make grateful remembrance of the past, Second, we are called to live our present with passion,
Second, we are called to live our present with passion,
Third, we are challenged to embrace the future with hope, deepening our trust in the Lord
This afternoon we will take a look at each of these objectives and see how we can best live them throughout this upcoming year and into our future.
GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE OF THE PAST
When we reflect on our past we can all agree on what a wonderful gift Religious Life has been for the Church. Every one of our Congregations has been heir to a history of rich charisms. Through them we see the hand of God calling individuals to follow Jesus intimately and to incarnate the Gospel in a unique and particular way. This brings to mind a wonderful anecdotal story told by the Jesuit James Martin, which I think perfectly, illustrates the nature of our charisms:
A Franciscan, a Dominican, and a Jesuit are celebrating Mass together when the lights suddenly go out in the church. The Franciscan praises the chance to live more simply and to conserve resources. The Dominican gives a learned homily on how God brings light to the world, and the Jesuit goes to the basement to replace the fuses.
Charisms as you can see are that unique slant or highlight of a particular Gospel value that each Congregation offers to the Church. And our charisms have been rich and enriching.
Like a seed, which becomes a tree, each Institute grew and stretched out its branches inviting more and more life within itself. It did this by taking leaps of faith against all human odds, enduring deprivations and sacrifices of great cost and demanding of its members a self-sacrificing love, which did not count the personal cost.
Our ministries were fruitful in actualizing the healing presence of Jesus–the prophetic Jesus, the teacher Jesus, the miracle worker Jesus. Jesus who reached out to the poor and marginalized. Through us Jesus walked our earth healing the sick, teaching the ignorant, comforting the afflicted and carrying out the entire spectrum of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. There was no obstacle too great to be overcome and through faith and courage wonders were achieved!
Continuing to look to our past, we can clearly see the vision, hopes and dreams of our Founders and Foundresses reaching fulfillment. Yes, our past has been honorable. However, reflecting on and celebrating our past is only one dimension of this Year of Consecrated Life, one that can be misunderstood and used to just ‘rest on our laurels’. Just clinging to the past as in the sense of yearning and longing for the ‘good old days’ can be paralyzing and counter-productive, and we see this when we look to the story of the Exodus in the Scriptures. Remember how Israel longed to turn back and return to the fleshpots of Egypt? If they had returned there they would never have experienced their liberation from slavery or the miracles of the manna and quail. The same could and may happen to us if we indulge in setting our past upon a pedestal and worshipping it. Somewhat like the apostles who were looking up to the heavens as Jesus ascended until they were given their marching orders to come down from the mountain and get to work.
I believe Pope Francis is calling us to look to our past because remembrance of God’s wonders, help, and fidelity in the past reassures and convinces us that this same God who has been faithful in the past will surely not abandon us in the present. The God of Abraham Isaac, Elizabeth Seton, Paula Frassinetti, Mary Ward, Dominic, Francis and all of our Founders and Foundresses-this God continues to walk with each of us who carry on their legacy and dream. Our past has been glorious and taking the time to recall it should reawaken in us great joy and a realization that the ever-present Lord of History who has promised to be with us all days even to the end of time is faithful to His promise. Grateful remembrance of the past should convince us of the Lord’s ever-present help and fill us with an enthusiasm and joy that bursts forth in passionate living.
LIVING THE PRESENT WITH PASSION
During this year dedicated to the celebration of our Consecrated Life and using our past as a model and a mentor, we move into our present time challenged to live our present with PASSION!
The word passion stems from the Latin meaning from the depths of feeling, to the point of hurting or suffering. Our passionate living should be strong enough to be so contagious, and catchy that as our modern youth would say it literally goes viral and herein lies the crux of the matter and I believe, our greatest challenge.
Are we, in our present day, living our lives passionately relying on the on-going promises of our Lord or have we permitted ourselves to fall into a state of somnolence? Have we allowed human logic to displace faith by evaluating our worth in terms of numbers (numbers attached to vocations or to our ages? Have we lost sight of the many miracles told in the Bible of aged persons, who accomplished great works for God to the very end of their days? Are we so caught up in our aches and pains, special dietary needs, and the latest health fads that we can no longer give credible witness of passionate living? Have we so fully bought into the culture of materialism and secularism, that we have suffocated the Spirit of God within and extinguished the flame of our first Love? Have we become cynical and critical, loosing sight of the workings of God within our everyday lives? Are our lives lived passionately or have we resigned ourselves to live with a desperate despair secretly yearning and crying for the “good old days?” rather than making each new day a ‘good day?
Here let us pause a moment to watch at what possibly seems to sum up our present situation…
Video Part I-The Rabbi’s Gift
How sad…how very sad- both the rabbi and the abbot cry as they consider their state of affairs…their seeming demise. They ask, “ Is there no remedy? No solution for us? But don’t we too ask the same questions? Don’t we ask, “Has God abandoned us?” What are we doing or not doing that has caused our present day reality? What have we done wrong for this to happen to us?” ‘Why don’t we have vocations?” “Are we dying?” “Do we no longer have anything to offer the Church?”
Pope Francis would certainly disagree with that diagnosis. Francis tells us the solution is possible and the solution lies within the reach of each one of us. If we are discouraged, disheartened, apathetic and passionless might it not be because we have lost sight of the essential core of our lives? That core is Jesus, the One to whom we pledged our lives unreservedly when we professed our vows! Is Jesus really and truly still our First Love or have we allowed self-will, self-importance, selfishness, and self-gratification to replace Him in our hearts? Only if Jesus is our center and the beloved of our lives will we be able to radiate that joy and enthusiasm, serenity, peace, and PASSION, which would then attract others to follow.
Surely God’s Spirit has not abandoned us, but in all honesty we must ask, “Have we abandoned God’s Spirit?” Have we like Peter reasoned only with the thoughts of humans? Have our judgments been based solely on human logic? Do we allow difficulties to discourage and paralyze us? Have we so cluttered our spiritual blood vessels with material goods, worldly ideas and secular thinking that His Precious Blood cannot transmit life to our hearts? Have we chosen the way of isolation, independence and self –will over community and the supremacy of the common good? Has what started out as a Divine Romance turned into a ho-hum relationship? Where is the fire, the passion of our first Love? Might this not be the reason Pope Francis is challenging us to look at our present situation and wake up our world? Our world of Religious Life has to be reawakened before the world outside can be.
Over and over again Francis warns his own colleagues how gossip, back-biting, excessive reliance on technology, escapism through over activity, careerism, along with using authority as control, criticizing, using the tongue to hurt and damage the spirit of others is causing internal death in the Church. Might it also be the cause of the same in Religious life – in our communities? A kingdom divided against itself is doomed to failure and so we must each one of us take to heart the words of our Beloved, “ that they all be one as You, Father are in Me and I in You, that the world may come to believe.” We cannot wake up our world to belief and expect to be credible if we ourselves are asleep.
Maybe in the face of our personal failures and sinfulness we feel powerless to change – ourselves first and then our communities. Maybe we feel we no longer have the energy or enthusiasm to start over again.
What is evident is that Pope Francis, a religious himself, would not have issued this challenge to awaken our world if he himself had not experienced that in some ways our world has fallen asleep and that there is a solution. We ask ourselves where is that necessary blast which will knock us out of our apathy and complacency? Where is that life force which can restore us to the joy and dedication to our First Love? Where is our passion?
Characteristic of his ability to use vivid and clear images to help us understand well, Pope Francis uses the image of sleep and arousal from sleep to open our eyes to this reality.
Think for instance about awakening from sleep on a cold wintery morning. It probably is not your favorite thought nor probably not a pretty sight – grogginess, reluctance to move out of a comfortable warm bed, fuzziness of thought, slowness and stiffness of movement… and think now about an awakening force…a shower, a blast of cold air, a loud alarm … and suddenly a transformation…an energy, dynamism, purpose and meaning, motivation to embrace a new day happens . Using this analogy given to us, let us now turn to the Scriptures to try to find a way to achieve that to which Francis is challenging us.
For this purpose I have chosen the parable given by Ezekiel when Israel was in dire straights. Ezekiel, as you know, was called by God to assume the heavy burden of the prophetic office during a period of crises in Israel. Called to this role in Babylon as one of the exiles deported by Nebuchadnezzar, his first task was to prepare his fellow countrymen for the destruction of Jerusalem. As you can imagine he was not a bearer of good news and as he looked around for help, he found not only corruption within the ranks of his own people but also universal corruption.
He was tormented by the distortion of his people’s understanding of God. He agonized over Israel’s moral conduct. They were shameless in their crimes and their land was ravaged. They were a people of lost hope and despair. They had lost sight of their First Love and could no longer relate to their days of being the Lord’s beloved. But God who is ever faithful intervenes and gives to Ezekiel a vision of change and a promise to help achieve it. It is out of this teaching that Ezekiel conveys an awakening of new life through the Vision of the Dry Bones! Let us listen for a moment to this passage…Chapter 37
I have spoken and I have done it!
Can we not find a parallel here? Does it not reflect the situation of the abbot and the rabbi? Can we not also find our own situation of present day Religious Life here? Have we let our embattled bones become dry? Have we become as lifeless corpses? Cannot the Spirit of God who breathed over the dry bones of Israel infuse new life into our dry bones? God prophesies: “Wake up dry bones I will open up your graves and have you rise from them.” And so Pope Francis, our new prophet of God, cries out to us- “Wake up and rise up! God is Lord of life and as He has promised so it will be done!
And how does the Spirit of the Lord get it done? The Spirit leads us back to Jesus. Jesus is He who gives flesh and sinew to our dry bones. But for this to happen we must talk with Him. Listen to Him. If we do not pray, if we do not talk with Jesus, open our hearts and hurts to Jesus, we do not know Him. We may know many things about Jesus but we really will not know Jesus. Without prayer we do not know Him. Jesus wants to give His Heart to us. He will give us His heart in prayer.
But the Spirit tells us even this is not enough. Ultimately to really know Jesus we must walk with him. We come to know Him through our actions on behalf of others. Pope Francis tells us one cannot know Jesus without getting oneself involved with Him, without betting your life on Him. Ignatius tells us that anyone who chooses to join Him, He offers nothing but a share in His hardships, but that if we are faithful in sharing in His hardships we will assuredly follow Him in glory. Are we willing to do this? We once were and are we still willing?
When did the saints enter into their journey with Jesus? Thomas the apostle began his true journey when he recognized Jesus as Lord as he gazed on Jesus’ open wounds (Jn. 20:24-29). Francis of Assisi’s journey began with the gaze of the crucified Jesus in the church of San Damiano. Teresa of Calcutta’s journey began with a train ride through the slums of India. And we? Where do we find our journey with Jesus today? We gaze on the wounds of Jesus today when we gaze on the wounds of our brothers and sisters. We find Jesus’ wounds in carrying out works of mercy, when we reach out to our brothers and sisters because they are hungry, thirsty, lonely and oppressed. We begin in our own monasteries and convents and branch out into our ministries of service. Every day Jesus asks us to take a leap of faith toward Him, but through these His wounds.
The wounds of Jesus need to be bound with tenderness and we have to kiss the wounds of Jesus as He reveals them to us. Each day every person we will meet will present that invitation to find the wound, which needs care. Assuming that tender care is what will bring new life, passionate life, and abundant life!
Is this not what the New Evangelization is all about? We are reminded over and over again that when the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, i.e., to be Jesus for others, she becomes self-referential, self-serving and then gets sick. Using the image of the deformed woman of the Gospel as the vivid image of this malady Pope Francis calls us to a New Evangelization. The Church, he says, is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries. When the Church is focused on self, inadvertently, she believes she has her own light, and gives way to that very serious evil, spiritual worldliness, giving glory only to self. Hence the call to a New Evangelization is a call firstly to us Consecrated Religious to proclaim with our lives the Good News, the person of Jesus, in order to avoid this spiritual malady which in truth can lead to our demise.
So yes, this is our solution. Trusting in the daily outpouring of the Spirit of God we will awaken and our loving God will make all things new in and through us. Trusting in the power of the Word of God and being faithful in pondering it, we will become Spirit filled once again and awaken to new dimensions of our life and then be able to passionately awaken the larger world for our God.
The third challenge of Francis to us for this year is to ‘embrace the future with hope’. Clearly if we are able to fulfill the first two objectives of this special year it will lead to hope, but let us look at this challenge in greater detail.
What is our future? Surely it is the unknown, but while we do not know the future we know Who holds the future in His hands. Are we able then to face an unknown future with all its uncertainty with hope? There is a choice involved here. Going back to Israel during the Exile some saw the possibility of a full restoration of their lives in their homeland and took all the necessary initiatives to prepare for the return home. Others however chose to deny its possibility of happening, collapsing in despair over their fear and they simply remained in that foreign land abandoning their people and their God. We have a choice – in fear we can hold the future at arm’s length and see it as a distraction from life, rather than life itself. Or, we can embrace it with boldness, as did our forebears. The future can be ours if we choose and it can truly be a future full of hope if we courageously step into the unknown trusting in our Beloved, confident that with our God everything is possible.
Here again our fellow colleague in Religious life, Pope Francis, offers us this wise advice for our closing thought:
“Here is the first word that I wish to say to you: joy! Do not be men and women of sadness: a Religious can never be sad!
Never give way to discouragement! Ours is not a joy born of having many possessions, many successes but from knowing that with Him we are never alone, even at difficult moments, even when life’s journey comes up against problems and obstacles that seem insurmountable, and there are so many of them! And in these days the enemy, the devil comes, often in many different disguises, and slyly speaks his word to us. Do not listen to him! Let us cling to Jesus! We accompany, we follow Jesus, but more importantly, we know He accompanies us and even carries us on His shoulders. This is our joy; this is the hope that we must bring to our world. This is what will awaken our world! Do not let your hearts be robbed of this hope! Do not let this hope of yours be stolen! Jesus is the source of this our hope. Cling to Him, Cling to Jesus!”
As a finale to this reflection on our call to celebrate our Consecrated Life, as outlined by Pope Francis, I thought you might be curious to know the ending to our parable of the Rabbi’s Gift I leave you with this ending to take home with you and ponder throughout this special year because I believe it is our story today and it epitomizes for us the meaning of this year of celebration as God’s consecrated people.