Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C with the General Chapter of the Sisters of Mercy – St Joseph’s Spirituality Centre, Baulkham Hills 2016
Thank you for the invitation to share with you this moment of communion, prayer and discernment. I come among you not so much as a Bishop but as a fellow religious.
I’d like to offer you a few thoughts that I hope can affirm you and challenge you to live our religious vocation as I myself try to live it, albeit in a different context.
I think we are living in a very privileged moment, even if it is also full of uncertainty and chaos. When Pope Francis appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome after the conclave, it came as a shock and a welcome sign to us. He eschewed the usual trappings; he introduced himself as a bishop of Rome and – unusually – he bowed and asked the people for their blessing. That was the prophetic sign of the century! If you like, it was the beginning of the shock therapy of the Holy Spirit, that this stuffy old Church needs.
To be a prophetic sign:
That is our job, too. The first and foremost function of religious is to be a prophetic sign. Religious life is not meant simply to be a labour force in the church. It is meant to be much more than the sum total of what we do.
Religious have something like an innovative function for the church. They seek to renew her vigour by the radical commitment to the Gospel. Against the tendency to accommodate and compromise on the part of the mainstream, religious who dance to a different dream beat, hold the rest to the dream. In this sense, we are doing the greatest service to the Church not primarily by our works but the radical witness of our vowed lives.
We are a kind of shock therapy of the Holy Spirit for the Church. We are a form of a dangerous memory within the Church. We hold the Church to account in what she is meant to be. What made Catherine McAuley a prophet was not that she founded a teaching order. It was her critique, defiance and transcendence of status quo. In offering education beyond the established Church of Ireland, she went against the prevalent culture. The boundary breaking spirit of Jesus was alive in her. That is being prophetic and rekindling the dangerous memory and we owe it to Catherine to reinvent and reimagine her charism in our own situation.
To go to the margins:
The second virtue required of us during this time is the courage to go to the margins. Pope Francis constantly calls us to move beyond the security of status quo and take the risk of going to the periphery.
Hence our challenge is to accompany people from the margins into a journey towards the fullness of life and love. It is to embrace the call to identify with the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people. It is to listen and to give voice to the “sensus fidelium” even at our own cost. It is to do what Moses did when he left his comfort zone and went out to witness the sufferings of his people. Only then he could challenge the power of the palace and lead the exodus to new life. To do this, we must be able to live in and to bridge the yawning gap between the ideal and the real, between the call to holiness and the imperfect world.
We are meant to be in the coalface, in the messiness of it all and at the same time in fidelity to the Gospel. We are sent to the strong and the weak, the wholesome and the broken, the pious and the impious, the normal and the bizarre. We are to be “a Malcolm in the middle” who occupies in betwixt and between, liminal, peripheral and precarious places. Like Christ in his ministry among the sick and the lost, we are called to meet God in the most unlikely people and places. Today’s Gospel finds him walking along the border of Samaria and Galilee. He identified himself with the marginalised by immersing himself at the margins. We too must be in that frontier space. It is that precarious liminal space where the true cost of our discipleship is counted, because we dare to walk with the Samaritans of our time, just like Jesus did before us. They could be asylum seekers, the homeless, the indigenous, the victims of injustice, the Muslim refugees, the LGBT persons etc…
To live the new exile in vulnerable trust:
Finally, the third virtue required of us in this time of transition is that of vulnerable trust. As we are cut loose from the safe and secure moorings of the past and launched into the treacherous waters of the future, we grow in the awareness of paschal rhythm. We realise what needs to die and what needs to rise. We must learn to live as a minority in the midst of a secular society. We must learn to influence it not as fellow pilgrims. We must learn to engage with others and to act as leaven in a critical and disbelieving world. We religious are meant to be that crucial yeast in critical times.
Religious life is not meant to be a numbers game. Quality, not quantity, that marks our presence. Substance and not the size of the group that makes the difference. Hence, this time can be a blessing in disguise as it makes us less reliant on ourselves but on the power of God. Diminishment allows us the precious opportunity to identify with the “remnant faithful”, to learn the power of vulnerable trust. It is not a time for activism, cynicism or nostalgia. It is a time for deepening of commitment, of grounding in our core values.
The time that we are living in can be likened to Holy Saturday in the Gospel. It is the day of God’s concealment, of the great solitude of Jesus. It is a liminal interval, a time in which one stands between the old and the new. Our task is to live the creative tension between the pain of the present and the hope of the future.
The word diminishment was mentioned with realism in Catherine Ryan opening address. Don’t worry Sisters, we Franciscans and almost every other established order are all in the same boat. I don’t mean the proverbial Titanic. I mean it’s where God is calling us to be. And that’s alright as long as we like the midwives during the slavery in Egypt know how to deliver and nurture new life in the face of painful transition. Or like St Paul, we can say with confidence “death is at work in us, but life in you”.
Our charism is being reborn in ways beyond the traditional structures of religious life. Perhaps the mighty river has not dried up into a billabong, but merely changed its course. Perhaps, it is not in yearning for or holding on the known and the familiar but in reimagining the future and venturing into the unknown chaos like the old exodus that we shall find new life. Perhaps like Moses, we can point people to the promise land in the misty distance with a wisdom and certainty of ripe old age.
Let us endeavour to live this trying time in silent hope, in vulnerable trust, in total abandonment, in humble self-emptying. Then we can be certain that the loving God will take care of the rest. He will bring about renewal and transformation as He brought Jesus Christ to life from the dead. May Mary of Nazareth, the finest exemplar of enduring hope intercede for us and accompany us on the journey of faithfulness.
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