AGM – CONFERENCE OF RELIGIOUS OF IRELAND
GREAT SOUTHERN HOTEL, ROSSLARE, CO WEXFORD
HOMILY GIVEN BY
ARCHBISHOP SEÁN BRADY
WEDNESDAY 8 JUNE 2005
Ever since receiving your kind invitation I have looked forward to this evening with a mixture of eagerness and awe. Naturally I am very pleased to have been invited to meet you all and to have this opportunity of celebrating Mass with you, especially in this Year of the Eucharist. At the same time I am rather apprehensive at the thought of preaching to people who have, not only dedicated themselves to the following of Christ closely in religious life, but who have attained a leadership role within their Congregations and a certain expertise of the spiritual life which that implies.
Straightaway I have to confess that my first experience of the cloister was not a very happy one. At a very tender age, my mother took me to visit an elderly cousin in the Poor Clare Convent in Cavan. The sight of this strangely clad lady peering out from behind a rather intimidating looking grill was just too much. So, I promptly bolted out of the room in tears.
I am very happy to say that I have, I hope, long since overcome that childhood fright. The explanation is simple – I have met and known so many outstanding religious all over the world who so wonderfully show forth God’s love to the rest of us by their outstanding witness to the sacred mission of Jesus Christ.
The older I get, the more inclined I am to count my blessings. One of those blessings definitely is, it now appears very clear to me, the number of wonderful outstanding consecrated people that it has been my good fortune to have met and known in life. Their love and their kindness, their faith and their faithfulness, their service and their self-sacrifice, have inspired and enriched my own life a lot. One is already a ‘Blessed’ in Heaven – Blessed Therese of Calcutta. But, she is only one and typical of so many others. I am talking about those whom I have known personally and of course if we include those whose books I have read or whose preaching I have heard, well then the horizon widens vastly. So, for all of that I give thanks this evening. Thanks to God the source of all good and thanks to you as the successors and confreres and colleagues of so many holy women and men.
Here I am Lord – I come to do your will
Your law is written on my heart
Those words of Psalm 39. 8.9 form the Entrance Antiphon of one of the Masses of Religious Profession. We live in the era of the Holy Spirit. I believe that the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, would have chosen those words after careful study and prayer and reflection because, in a sense, they say so much about the essence of religious life. I am sure you have mulled over them and reflected on them often.
When I was discussing with Father Paul Murphy what Readings to read this evening, we decided to stick with the Readings of the day. I am glad that we did so. The First Reading comes from Chapter 3 of the second letter to the Corinthians. In it St Paul says that we are ministers, that is, servants of a new covenant – a new covenant of the Spirit which gives life. Earlier he had been waxing rather eloquently in flowery language saying,
“For we are the aroma of Christ to God, among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. For through us”, Paul says, “God spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing Him”. And then he pulls himself up with the question: Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? And he says, surely we don’t need – as some do – letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves, he says, are our letters, written on our hearts. Written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. And then begins the reading which we have just heard, “such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God”. That confidence is based on love. – the love of God for us and the love that is written in our hearts for God. Confidence is an important virtue for all of us. It is important that we be confident but with a confidence that is built on the qualification which we get from God – not from our own efforts. For what have we, that we have not received and if we have received it, why do we glory as if we hadn’t received it. After this, in the passage just read, Paul says. Since then we have such a hope that we act with great boldness.
It was my privilege to be present at one General Synod of the Church in October 2001 dealing with the topic The Bishop – Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World. I hope to be present at another next October, please God. But, in the document published after the 2001 Synod the Bishop was reminded of his duty in the Church, to esteem and promote the specific vocations and mission of the consecrated life. A vocation which belongs solidly to the life and holiness of the Church. So, in an effort to improve my own esteem for the consecrated life in the Church, I returned to what was said after an earlier Synod. I also recalled my own contact with people consecrated like the St Clares in Cavan, Sisters in St. Patrick’s College, Vincentians Fathers who are the Spiritual Directors in Maynooth, the Religious Sisters of St John of God. The list is endless and it is wonderful.
Now, as I reflect a little more, I see how the theory and the practice match perfectly. You reveal God’s love to the world. “I will be love at the heart of the Church” said St. Therese. So, your vocations is to be love at the heart at the Church. The Eucharist is always at the heart of the Church. Your love is maintained, nourished and strengthened by your participation in the Eucharist and your reception of the body and blood of Christ who was totally consecrated to the Father. Of course, by so doing, you also give hope to the world – a world that is often despairing and starved of hope. The reason is this. For every person, for every one of us, charity received and given is the fundamental experience that gives rise to hope. We simply cannot live without hope. We get our hope from the experience of giving and receiving love. Thank you for people like Sister Dorothy Stang, shot dead last February in the heart of the Amazon, where she had been since 1956 defending the poor.
I think it was Synod for Asia which picked out three characteristics of religious life which can inspire people today in an especially relevant and powerful way. Those characteristics were
The Search for God
Living in community
Service of others.
THE SEARCH FOR GOD
We live in a world where the sense of God’s presence is often diminished, if not completely eliminated. Where God is often missing but not missed. But you are a powerful testimony to the primacy of God and to the existence of a life beyond life on earth. That testimony is a treasure of great price. We all count on you. You are called to be our leaders, our guides, in that search for God. This is a search, which has always stirred the human heart but reveals itself today in so many forms.
There is much talk today about new evangelisation. I think religious have an immense contribution to make to that. I am thinking of, for example, pre-sacramental preparation, which will have to be undertaken more and more in the parishes. Your experience of prayer and living the Christian life, could play an immense part in training the formators for example.
LIVING IN COMMUNITY
By living in community you bear witness to the values of Christian fraternity and, I suppose, I better say sorority. You bear witness to the transforming power of the Good News. We live in an era when the family is under fierce pressure. The evidence of family breakdown is all around us. Family breakdown is, essentially, a breakdown in community living. Living in community can provide inspiration for families to stay together and not to split up. No community is perfect or totally happy. It is a constant struggle. But the temptation nowadays is for people to feel that they are not as happy in marriage as they had expected. The temptation is to reach the conclusion ‘I am not happy but I should be happy, I have a right to be happy, so I must be in the wrong place. Let me get out of here’.
SERVICE TO OTHERS
Lastly of course there is the self-giving love of everyone, especially from the hearts of religious brothers and sisters and fathers. The self-giving which has inspired Christians and non-Christians alike down through the centuries.
Today I thank God and the religious concerned for the enrichment which your presence and your ministry brings to parishes throughout the world. The way you follow has often been called a Way of Perfection and the State of Consecrated Life. Obviously it means a way of perfection to be acquired and not of a perfection already acquired. The failure to appreciate this vital distinction may have led some people not to speak in those terms any more and I think that is a great pity. Of course you are not actually claiming to possess perfection, you acknowledge that you are sinners like all human beings. But you do feel and you are more expressly called to strive for perfection, which consists essentially in charity. We are all called to perfection.
I thank you for your constant reminders by word and example that our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees. Thank you for taking up the invitation of the Lord to fulfil and perfect, in our time and bring to fulfilment, the Laws and the prophets. Thank you for setting constantly the message that, of course values must be written into constitutions and rules but they must also be written in love on the hearts of people. Thank you for recalling to all of us that Christ, as the Wisdom of God, is not only preached by his ministers but is also manifested by, and embodied in, his servants. Long may you continue to do so. All of the charisms given by a gracious God to His Church, are for all of the People of God. This evening we give thanks for the Communion of Saints and for the communion of holy people and of holy things given by God to His people.