Homily for the Memorial of St Anthony Claret with the General Chapter of the Dominican Sisters of Eastern Australia and the Solomon Islands at St Joseph’s Centre for Reflective Learning, Baulkham Hills, 24 October 2017
It is a great honour for me to be here and to celebrate the Eucharist with you in the context of your chapter. I feel a close bond with you as a fellow religious in the itinerant and mendicant tradition. I also have a deep admiration for you because of the way you nurture hope and carry that hope to others. In the darkness of despair and alienation that many experience especially in the church at this time, you are like those wise virgins in the Gospel and shine the light of hope onto their paths. Your 2013 Chapter Statement says it beautifully: “Seek truth, build bridges, carry a living Word of Hope beyond the camp into a fractured and needy world where God is already waiting for us.”
It is so easy for us to turn inwards, or in the words of Pope Francis, to become self-referential when we face diminishment. But 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. If religious life is to invigorate itself, it will not necessarily be by inventing new works or by returning to old practices. It will be fundamentally through the ability to re-engage our faith tradition in the light of contemporary experience. Edward Schillebeeckx challenges us like this “The Dominican Story is only valid if it takes up the thread of an earlier story, that of Jesus of Nazareth, and brings it up-to-date in its own way”.
Transition times are inevitably full of chaos, uncertainty and even confusion. As the Holy Spirit leads us in a new exodus, we are called to go forward into the future with courage. We need to remember that times of crisis, can be times of grace and the moment of Kairos. The Church was not at its best when it reached the heights of imperial power in what was known as Christendom. The Church was at its best when it was poor, persecuted and powerless. Consistently, we true believers are challenged to be the beacons of hope in the midst of pain, suffering and despair.
God’s ways often involve the pain of letting go, of beginning again, of going forward with hope and trust. The Word of God today speaks of a new beginning and a time of renewal. Amid all the gloom and doom, Isaiah is able to see the plan of God, which is the broadening of Israel’s self-identity and mission through the exile. Isaiah insists despite all the evidence to the contrary that there is a hopeful future ahead. He maintains that God will remake a battered nation and a humiliated people. “No need to think about what was done before. Look, I am doing something new”, he says to the people. For Isaiah, the future of God’s chosen people does not lie in the old things like the temple, the priesthood, the festivals, the land etc, which had been taken away from them. Their future, rather, lies in being an alternative society under God’s rule, a community of hospitality, compassion, justice and neighbourliness, as it finds itself in a strange land.
The prophecy of Isaiah is fitting for us as we witness the passing of the old and the emergence of the new. There is a sense in which the Church finds itself in a culturally strange land. It is not in yearning for, or holding on, the known and the security of institutional power, but in reimagining the future and venturing into the unknown chaos like the old exodus that we will find new life.
Religious, with their characteristic embrace insecurity of vulnerable trust, will play a critical role in summoning the prophetic courage and imagination of the whole church in order to “clear the way for the Lord through the wilderness”. Your history is a journey into chaos, discovery and reimagination writ large. You have known too well that there is never a time to settle into false securities: numbers, prestige and visibility of congregational influence etc. Discerning and living the creative power of the Spirit through suppression, dispersal, disguise and diminishment have been your strength.
In the Gospel, Jesus uses the Parable of the Faithful Servant, which is similar to the Parable of the Virgins, to remind his disciples of the need to be alert. It is a kind of spiritual sensitivity and vigilance that allows us to discern God’s presence and action in the world and to make a faithful response to it.
The parable stresses the element of waiting in the dark of night as a symbol of transition. The dark of night is a liminal interval, a time in which one stands between the old and the new. Yet we must learn to listen in silence and stillness. Liminal time is a time for mysticism and not activism. Our task is to live contemplatively, the creative tension between the pain of the present and the hope of the future. Only then we can begin to discern and act according to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
We ask you to continue to be for the Church the icon of the inclusive, compassionate and all-embracing Christ. Be for us the example of living the Gospel of Christ: suffering, dying and rising again. Continue to nurture and deliver new life as you and your spiritual forebears like Dominic and Catherine of Siena have always done and done beyond belief, precisely when you faced the supposed impossibility such as in times of suppression and dispersal. Then we can be certain that the loving God will take care of the rest.
He will bring about renewal and transformation even if he takes us through a season of dying. But then as Paul says “Death is at work in us, but life in you”. For the dying that gives way to new and more abundant life is the very essence of Christianity.