Bishop Dowling CSsR: memories, experiences, stories... leading us to the future

Bishop Kevin Dowling's homily
at the closing of the Year for Consecrated Life
(at the bottom of the page there is a link to download the text)

Just on 6 weeks ago – on 2nd December 2015 – about 100 people from the United States came to a small municipality (Santiago Nonualco) in El Salvador. They joined the local people, poor peasant farmers, for a ceremony to mark the 35th anniversary of the deaths of 4 United States women missionaries.

For it was on 2nd December 1980, 35 years before, that two Maryknoll Sisters, an Ursuline Sister, and a lay missionary were abducted, and brutally raped and murdered by members of the notorious Salvadoran National Guard. All four missionaries were working among refugees from the violent civil war in El Salvador. One of them, Maryknoll Sister Maura Clarke, had worked for 20 years in Nicaragua, and had come to El Salvador at the invitation of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who himself had been assassinated earlier that same year 1980, on 24 March.

I was privileged to share in a week of witness and pastoral and theological reflection in El Salvador in March 2005 around the 25th anniversary of Archbishop Romero’s death. During that time I knelt in prayer at the altar in the chapel of the Sisters who ran a cancer hospital next to Romero’s house. On 24 March 1980 he fell dead behind that altar as he celebrated Mass – just one shot from a marksman/sniper. Everything is the same except for the simple inscription on the wall just behind the altar: “At this altar Monsignor Oscar A Romero offered his life for his people”. So simple, an invitation to reflection on the witness of that great pastor and martyr. I also had the privilege of going to the spot where the three sisters and the lay missionary were murdered, and there is a simple plaque at that spot, the simplicity making the remembrance all the more poignant.

But on 2 December last year, the local people stood on that spot with 4 large framed pictures of the missionaries. They affirmed that the missionaries’ spirit lives on among them, that their mission work among the poor continues!

One of the women said: "We feel happy to see all these people who come here to remember the life of the nuns….it was very painful for us in the community to witness everything that happened 35 years ago.” Yes a painful memory, but it has borne fruit – the people there keep striving for a life of dignity amid their poverty.

Perhaps each one of us has a memory, a story to share today of the way you were touched by a religious sister, brother, or priest – and we need to share these stories. As a little boy I went to Loreto Convent School in Hillcrest, here in Pretoria, for the early grade years before I moved over the fence to the Christian Brothers for the rest of my schooling. Sister Patricia (Mother Patrick then), a sometimes rather severe looking Loreto sister in her habit prepared us for our First Communion. And, boy oh boy were we prepared! I think even Albert Nolan on a good day would have been stretched to match the way we could answer all her questions.

At one point I was moved up from one grade to another... so I completed two grades in one year. I always presumed it was because I was so intelligent... then... Many years later, I met the same Sister Patricia, in the convent next door (to the cathedral), now an older lady. I asked her: “Sister Patricia, was it true that I was promoted to the next grade because I was so clever?” Without a moment’s hesitation, with a glint in her eye the reply came back: “Oh no” she said; “it was impossible to control the class because you were making eyes at all the girls!” Yes, dear Sister Patricia, a memory of a sister whose sometimes serious exterior masked a very warm heart.

Yes, memories, experiences, stories. Jesus said in today’s Gospel: “It is to the glory of my Father that you should bear much fruit and be my disciples….” (John 15: 8; New Jerusalem Bible). And it is this which we are celebrating today at the close of the “Year of the Consecrated Life” – remembering the often heroic self-sacrifice and commitment of religious especially in those early years on the missions, the solidarity with the “little ones” of God’s people which has characterised the witness of so many religious here in Southern Africa down the years – including religious priests. We give thanks to God today because in many ways our local Church in this region was built on the foundation of the very lives of those religious! They also set up rural clinics, schools, hospitals, farm schools, and other social services years before the State came on the scene in some areas. That witness calls us to take from them relevant lessons for today.

Yes... the present. The context and the reality of life today challenges us with many questions. For some of us, it is about discerning what God is calling us to as we experience the mystery of having to “let go”... to let go of institutions and important pastoral and social ministries perhaps because of our limitations at present, and also because the State has taken over some of what religious sisters and brothers, in particular, pioneered. The mystery of “letting go”... whatever way we may be experiencing that now, all of us gathered here today witness in faith that God has done great things through you, and we are with all our religious today in gratitude and prayerful support as you, as we discern together the present and the future.

And so - what is God inviting us to in our search for what our call and charism means today? For some of us, it is a question of recognizing how God is still present through us even in the midst of our frailty and fragility; for all of us, to affirm how God is gifting us with the Spirit to share our lives with others in various forms of association and perhaps through new avenues of ministry which respond to new needs; of how God is inviting us to perhaps imagine and creatively bring to birth new forms of religious life, new forms of religious community; it is a question of how can we pass on our charisms to others, so that our spirit can continue in different, but nonetheless relevant ways especially through collaborative witness and ministries with our lay faithful as they live their baptismal calling, witness and mission.

There is also the ongoing challenge of the witness and indeed quality of “religious community” in life as it is today with the influence of the culture of individualism, and the awareness of human rights and the uniqueness of each individual. In the Acts of the Apostles today (Acts 2: 42 – 47) we heard of the witness of the early Christian community. The ideals and values in the ways they lived and shared together still speak to us religious today. And the context today invites religious community life to be even more inclusive, to include an outreach to the margins, to witness against all the examples of our modern throw-away culture which condemns so many, and the creation, to be discarded…not protected, still less enhanced!

Yes, there are indeed questions and challenges. But, throughout this Year of the Consecrated Life, we have been invited to trace our journey thus far; an invitation not to idealise the past – as if the past should be the norm for today; but to make a new act of faith that if God has been with us on the journey thus far, and if our lives and witness and engagement in real life issues have born much fruit as Jesus wanted….if that is true, and it is, God will be with us now and as we discern the future with God and with the people among whom God has placed us.

Pope Francis has proclaimed a Jubilee Year of Mercy. Mercy! All down the ages what has characterised religious and religious life everywhere is that God called people to bring Jesus and the Gospel into a whole variety of situations which called for compassion, for mercy; situations which called for redress, indeed for justice; situations where God seemed to be absent... to be inserted in those very situations of misery, marginalisation, exclusion in its multiple forms; situations where people despaired of ever finding a glimmer of hope through which they could reclaim their dignity as one created in God’s image! Religious throughout the ages were found present and ministering, serving, in those situations where God seemed to be absent. And through their presence and creative pastoral responses, the light of God’s presence dawned in the hearts of the “little ones” of God’s earth.

That remains the challenge and the invitation of God in today’s much more complex reality. Where does God seem to be absent today, and why? What does that call us to even as we experience our limitations and lack of resources to work towards the structural/systemic changes that are needed today in society if all the forms of poverty and exclusion, and the destruction of creation, are to be transformed?

For me, God is calling us in every reality to live a mystery of “communion”... the call is to live in the “now” and be present at the margins where God seems to be absent... as mystics... yes, as mystics.

Our alleluia verse today gives us the entry point: “If you make my word your home, you will indeed be my disciples” (John 8: 31). Mysticism is not the preserve of the very few who are kind of not ordinary human beings. It should be part of every disciple’s life experience. As Karl Rahner affirmed a long time ago: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he/she will not exist at all!”... Mysticism is about the mystery of the branches being totally one with the vine (cf. John 15: 4-5), of making the word our “home” (cf. John 8.31). It is about seeing all things in God, and seeing God in everything... and then responding out of that experience of communion with God, and risking to go where God leads us... Meister Eckart imagined us as God's seed, and God's seed must grow into God! “You are to sow; Christ is to reap”, he said. Our mystical call is simply to be in communion with God in all our own experiences of the peripheries today... and to open a door of hope to others and the creation!

One sign of how we are continuing to fulfill our mission as religious will be the launch later in this Mass of the new Catholic Board of Education. For several years religious communities have been discerning how to hand on the spirit and charism of their Congregation – particularly in the ministry of education and schools – to lay leadership. This is not a simple matter; how does new leadership “catch the spirit” as it were from the religious who formerly were responsible for everything? As one lay principal in the USA remarked: “Sisters no longer run the school, teach in classrooms, or eat one egg weekly to keep down tuition costs!”

The handing on of the charism and spirit to others requires prayer, discernment, and commitment to a communion with the emerging and actual lay leadership and staffs, so that what characterised those schools when the sisters and brothers were in leadership should continue in new and vital ways into the future. Today, charism cannot survive unarticulated. It must be spoken and shared -- consciously named and, in this “naming”, be lived into the future.

There are many positive examples of how this leap in faith by religious communities has born much fruit as our lay leadership and staffs in schools live their calling to bear fruit and to be disciples of Jesus, as Jesus invited all of us, and to continue to keep alive the charism and spirit of the sisters and brothers who went before them.

Today, we take it to another level. The future of Catholic Education in South Africa in particular will now be in the hands of the new Catholic Board of Education, with the Catholic Institute of Education as the service provider. The very charism and mission of Catholic Education, fulfilled for so many years by religious, is now taking the form of a partnership between bishops, religious and lay faithful. We begin a new journey in faith today! We should rejoice in this important moment which, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, will enable our Church to continue to fulfil its prophetic mission and contribute to the whole education enterprise. Congratulations and thanks to all who have worked so hard to reach this day!

And so, memories, stories and experiences from the past and the present! What can we take away with us today?

For me personally, it can be summed up in a quote from Saint Angela Merici, the founder of the Ursulines: "Be confident, risk new things, stick with it; then be ready for big surprises." And so, as we celebrate and give thanks to God for the past, as we analyse and prayerfully ponder the present signs of the times, and as we open our hearts and spirit to where God may wish to lead us in the future, let us take that challenge of Sister Angela to heart: "Be confident, risk new things, stick with it; then be ready for big surprises." Amen!

Bishop Kevin Dowling C.Ss.R.
16 January, 2016 – Sacred Heart Cathedral, Pretoria

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