02/02/07 Day for Consecrated Life Homily

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Homily given by Dr. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of all Ireland
during the celebration of the Day for Consecrated Life,
Church of the Holy Child, Larkhill, 2nd Feb ’07
In my past existence, working for the Holy See, I regularly visited developing countries and was privileged to have the occasion to visit and to get to know the activities of Church communities large and small in all the continents.

There was one recurring experience which left an indelible remark on me and which sprung to my mind as I prepared for this event this evening.  On many occasions, very often in the most remote of villages, I would come across an elderly Irish missionary who had probably been there for most of his or her life.  But invariably when I arrived I noted a certain reluctance to get involved with me. To my surprise, instead of an instant welcome for a fellow landsman, I could clearly detect that the missionary setting a certain distance from me.

On the first few occasions I thought that the root of their suspicions might be that I was from the Vatican.  But on the other hand these elderly and evidently prayerful religious looked anything like exponents of radical theology or revolutionary liberation theologian, so I felt that they should have nothing to fear from the Vatican.

It was only with time that I discovered what their fear was.  They were suspicious that this Irishman might have been somehow or another contacted by their provincial leadership in a conspiracy to convince them to come home at that stage in their lives and retire to Ireland where they would have good health care and support.  This was the last thing they wanted and as the barriers slowly broke down between us the missionary would stress to me that above all they wanted to die where they had ministered.  Home for them was where the Lord had called them to carry out their witness and ministry and nowhere else.

Religious life is about commitment until one dies.  It is about a radical commitment to the Gospel which inspires the religious to reject legitimate aspirations and comforts in order to witness to the person of Jesus in a radical way.This is what we have come to celebrate here this evening.  If I may paraphrase some reflections of Pope John Paul II who instituted 2nd February as the Day for Consecrated Life:

  • we have come to praise God and to thank him for the great gift of consecrated life which enriches the Church by a multiplicity of charisms;
  • we have come to provide  an opportunity for consecrated people to celebrate the marvels which the Lord has accomplished in them;
  • we have come  to foster a knowledge of and esteem for the consecrated life by the whole people of God.

I am particularly happy to have the occasion to celebrate the many ways in which your radical life-long commitment has enriched the Church in the Dublin diocese and to express my thanks and appreciation.

In the past year alone I have been able to celebrate a number of anniversaries with religious Congregations in Dublin.  I think in particular of celebrations I had with the Sisters of Marcy and the Holy Faith Sisters.  I felt a great sense of pride in realising that that the faith community of the Dublin diocese produced from its ranks and from its Christian families such extraordinary women as Catherine McCauley and Margaret Aylward, who alongside other foundresses, did so much for the renewal of the Church in Ireland and later worldwide.
The mid-nineteenth century when these Irish religious congregations were founded was indeed a period of extraordinary renewal. Just over one hundred and fifty years ago, in 1856, Mount Argus first welcomed the Passionist community.   Four years earlier – in 1852 – the Mater Hospital opened in Dublin.  Four years later Blackrock College and Terenure College would open.   In 1856, alongside the Passionist Fathers inMount Argus, the Oblate Fathers came to Inchicore.  University Church on Saint Stephen’s Green had just opened, an essential dimension of the vision of a University of Cardinal Newman.  The Daughters of Charity opened their first house in Dublin in North William Street one year later, coming from Drogheda where they had just established their first house in Ireland.  The following year the Jesuits came to Milltown Park.    With a period of ten years many of what are today the landmarks of Catholic Dublin – physically and also in what they signify – were built.   And you can see that I will be in the business of celebrating anniversaries for some years to come!But what was happening in the mid-nineteenth century was not an exercise in real estate. All these institutions and buildings were places of prayer and faith formation, as well as for bettering the life of people through education and health care.

The diocese of Dublin has been generously repaid for its contribution towards religious life.  Let me give you some statistics about the presence of consecrated life in the Archdiocese of Dublin today.At the present moment, there are 297 communities of consecrated women, including contemplatives, 38 communities of brothers and 183 communities of religious priests, including one community of contemplatives, and 16 consecrated women in the Archdiocese of Dublin. There are members of 2 Secular Institutes of Consecrated Life, some new ecclesial movements, as well as lay associations of the faithful. 44 Parishes – that is over 25% of all parishes – are run by religious priests. And there are individual religious priests working in individual parishes.   I should not forget the work done by Parish Sisters which in its way will serve as an inspiration and a model for lay parish workers in parishes in the years to come. I believe that religious working in parishes bring a special qualitative contribution to ministry through the witness of their simple community life, which enhances their witness of poverty.

Religious men and women are to be found in every area of spiritual and social need in the Archdiocese: in prayer ministry, as chaplains in schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and prisons.  They are present in education at all levels, health care, social services, with travellers, refugees, migrants, asylum seekers, those with HIV/AIDS, the elderly, the poor and marginalised and  the homeless – to mention just a selection of ministries.  Retired teachers do great work in helping our new-comer children and their parents to improve their language skills.

The Church today needs above all the witness of praying communities. I know that the sick and retired members of religious communities support us all by their prayers and suffering.   In a very special way, the 10 contemplative communities (Carmelites, Poor Clares, Redemptoristines and Cistercians) support the Archdiocese through their on-going prayer for the needs of the Church.  It strikes me that while popularly your houses are called enclosed, they in fact provide an open door for the many who wish to share in your prayer life and receive spiritual help and guidance. The simplicity of your poverty is for many a true antidote to the consumer and at times wasteful lifestyle which attracts many but which in the end leaves their hearts empty.

Following Christ means living in a specific cultural reality but by opening our hearts daily to the love of God rising above and cleansing that culture.  It means pondering the word of God to help ourselves and others discern about the meaning of our lives.    The opposite to a life of continual discernment is one which is self-centred and self satisfied, marked by smugness, arrogance, and overconfidence unable to recognise where we have got it wrong, open neither to listening to the other nor to the purifying power of the love and the mercy of Jesus.  The Christian path is always one of conversion, turning around, changing our way of looking at and understanding things.

Sometimes people feel that things are going wrong with the Church and going wrong terminally!  Numbers have gone done.  Devotions which were popular are either not attended or gone.  Young people do not seem to be attracted to the message of Jesus.    The answer some propose is to go back to the way things were done in the past.

The challenge of faith is to address the realities of faith in the context of today and not think of some imagined better times of the past.  Indeed, when we look back at those past times they were perhaps not as golden as they seem to appear.  Perhaps today’s crisis is due at least in part to the fact that we had placed too much trust in externals of religions or on external supports to our own security, just as others have been entrapped in the externals of possessions.

Faith is about risk.  It is about placing our trust in a God who protects us, but does not remove us from the trails and the realities of everyday life.   What is the path that we must follow?  How do we prepare for that path? The Gospels remind us that what we have to add to our clothes is not the designer label but sincere compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and love.  These are not necessarily the clothes of the powerful or the influential or the fashionable.  But they are the clothes of the good; it is the clothing of love alone which holds together the fabric of our own lives and the values of society.

If we free ourselves to live our religious life and the evangelical counsels with greater authenticity then we free ourselves to living the risks of religious life today.  I was very struck to note that Catherine McAuley began her novitiate at the age of fifty two.  Life expectancy in the Dublin of those days was not much above sixty.  Catherine was therefore by the standards of the time quite elderly.  But for Catherine it was never too late to change.  And it is never too late for us to change. It is never too late to fight our sinfulness and human inadequacies.  Times are challenging.  But we – no matter whether we are young or old – are called to live in these times and these times only.  Let us live our mission to the full, and like those missionaries I mentioned meet death faithfully where the Lord has called us to be.