Homily for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the occasion of Foundation Day for the Sisters of Mercy at Congregation Chapel, Parramatta, 08 December 2016
It is with great joy and gratitude that we are gathered in this chapel, dedicated to the memory of Mother M Clare Dunphy, in order to celebrate the traditional foundation day of the Sisters of Parramatta Mercy. Here, we feel her presence and that of the pioneering sisters who volunteered themselves to leave familiar shores of their beloved Ireland for the ends of the earth. Here, we are inspired by their great missionary zeal, their spirit of adventure and their bonds of sisterhood that bound them ever so closely to each other and to their God.
I chose for my episcopal motto “launch into the deep” in memory of my boat journey as well as in my desire to walk unfamiliar paths. However, I feel that my leap of faith was but a small step in comparison to these pioneer sisters. It was a long giant stride when they left the shores of a small island nation and ventured into a much bigger, stranger and further continent. They defied the odds, overcame the hurdles and quickly made their mark in this country. They laid a sound foundation. Or as St Paul says it somewhere: “I planted, Apollos watered and God gave the increase”. The Church in Australia and here in Parramatta particularly has been so much enriched by the abundant harvest produced by the Sisters from Callan and their spiritual offspring.
Much has changed since this chapel was part of a large convent where it was teeming with religious life. Like many convents or monasteries years ago, this place was like a scene in the “Sound of Music”. Oh the good old days. And yet, you are not sitting around, moping and hoping for the good old days to return. You are busy getting on with the mission God has given you to do. In a lot of cases, you are reinventing yourselves and rebirthing your charism in unexpected ways. You are thinking outside the square by virtue of you creative obedience to the Holy Spirit. You are busy with nurturing and delivering new life. You are like the embers in the ashes that will start the fire the morning after. The words of St Paul may best describe what many religious sisters today are doing “Death is at work in us but life in you”.
The ember of faith, hope and love is not extinguished even if this generation of bearers of the ember may diminish and even die out. What Catherine McAuley, trailblazers and prophetic people like her taught us is that we must learn to look beyond the present; we must learn to reframe the harsh reality around us into a hopeful vision. We must learn to see things in the perspective of God and point others in the direction of the Kingdom.
We see something of this prophetic reframing and reimagining in Pope Francis and the way he challenges us to follow the arc of sacred history. Despite all the challenges we face in the secular age, there is no time to lose in nostalgic yearning for bygone era. It is not time for us to raise our drawbridges and retreat behind the fortress. We must abandon our culture of comfort and go to the periphery. We must be less of an enclosure for the virtuous but more an oasis for the weary and downtrodden. We must be less of an experience of exclusion and more of an encounter of radical love, inclusiveness and solidarity. The spirit is calling us anew into the business of being the sacrament of God’s love for the world.
The Gospel tells us the story of how God’s plan unfolds and impacts on the lives of Mary and Joseph. In the story of the Annunciation, Mary was disturbed by the words of the angel that she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit. In spite of the mystery and uncertainty, Mary gave that faith-filled response “I am the handmaid of the Lord and let it be done unto me according to your word”. How difficult it is for us to accept God’s plan for us that can come through unexpected circumstances. We need a faith and trust of Mary to surrender ourselves to God. We need to remember that God’s ways are not our ways and it is our faith-filled response to life’s many unwelcome changes that enables us to follow the ways of God.
I want to conclude this homily by reaffirming my respect and admiration for you. I am convinced that if the Church has a bright future, it is due to the example of many female religious who are like those early female disciples, Mary Magdala, Mary wife of Clopas and most of all Mary of Nazareth. Be for us the example of living the Gospel of Christ suffering, dying and rising again. 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 example of suffering in hope intercede for you and accompany you on the journey of faithfulness. Using the words of St Paul, we thank our God every time we think of you. As we pray for you today we pray with gratitude.
For we are sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
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