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Bishop Kevin Dowling on Role of Religious in the New Millennium

The following talk was delivered by Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa to the UK’s Conference of Religious of England Wales on 15 May 2013.

Introduction

• “The church is tired, in the Europe of well-being and in America. Our culture has become old, our churches and our religious houses are big and empty, the bureaucratic apparatus of the church grows, our rites and our dress are pompous. Do these things, however, express what we are today? ... Well-being weighs on us. We find ourselves like the rich young man who went away sad when Jesus called him to be his disciple. I know that we can't let everything go easily. At least, however, we can seek people who are free and closest to their neighbour, like Archbishop Romero and the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador. Where are the heroes among us who can inspire us?”

The church is 200 years behind the times. Why doesn't it stir? Are we afraid?” (Cardinal Carlo Maria Montini – 8 August 2012, from his last interview translated from Italian by the National Catholic Reporter, USA)

• “We live in a church where almost any disagreement to almost any degree with almost any church leader on almost any topic is seen as dissent.  And I'm not speaking about the essentials of the faith--those elements contained in the Creed--but about less essential topics.  Even on those topics—say, the proper way to deal with politicians at odds with church teaching, new translations of the Mass, the best way for bishops to deal with complicated pastoral issues, and so on—the slightest whiff of disagreement is confused with disloyalty.”

What does this engender? It engenders a fear-based church.” (“A fear-based Church”, James Martin SJ, AMERICA Magazine, 8 July 2010)

• “It is weariness that is palpable in so many groups now. The problem is that weariness is far worse than anger. Far more stultifying than mere indifference. Weariness comes from a soul whose hope has been disappointed one time too many. To be weary is not a condition of the body -- that's tiredness. No, weariness is a condition of the heart that has lost the energy to care anymore. People are weary of hearing more about the laws of the church than the love of Jesus. People are weary of seeing whole classes of people -- women, gays and even other faith communities again -- rejected, labeled, seen as "deficient," crossed off the list of the acceptable……There's an ennui that sets in when people get nothing but old answers to new questions…….When people are weary, they cease to care; they cease to listen; they cease to wait. These are the kind of people who waited for a new pope, whatever kind of man he might be….”

(“Who are the people who were waiting for Pope Francis?” Sister Joan Chittister, National Catholic Reporter, 14 March 2013)

In January 2002, I sat at a simple shrine under a tree on a hot day. The shrine marked the scene of a shocking atrocity. This was in the compound of Holy Cross Parish, Kauda, in the Nuba Mountains, Sudan, one of the most remote and underdeveloped areas in Africa.

In its single-minded commitment to terrorise and subjugate the people in the southern areas of Sudan, the Bashir regime in Khartoum embarked on an infamous bombing campaign. Antonov transport planes would fly low over villages and crude barrels of explosives and shrapnel were rolled down the ramp at the back of the plane onto the villages and people below. One morning, an Antonov flew low over the Holy Cross Parish compound. The Catholic school teachers and children were having classes under the trees to shelter from the hot sun. Three bombs were dropped. One hit the ground next to a tree where a teacher was conducting her class – 14 children and the teacher were killed.

Church leaders and peace activists in Sudan and in other countries began a campaign. They meticulously documented such atrocities, double-checked, and then engaged in advocacy with the important Governments involved in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement process which had not yet been concluded at Naivasha in Kenya. This advocacy and pressure led to the cessation of the bombing campaign. (Sadly, in the past year and more the Bashir regime started this again and even extended the bombing campaign, resulting in forced displacement and starvation of thousands of people. An example of just how hard it is for Church and civil society groupings to sustain effective advocacy on behalf of the poor and vulnerable, especially in situations of conflict).

But, the point of my story is that this devastated community after its time of mourning climbed the nearby hill and built their school of mud brick and straw so that it would be camouflaged. I climbed the hill, and experienced the harsh reality and faith-filled struggle of those people. There was only one trained teacher on the staff; they had a staff room made of reeds; the statistics showed that nearly half the children were orphans – parents killed in the brutal war. I went into classes, and saw the immense poverty. I asked one girl what she wanted to be. “I want to be a doctor”, she said. “Why”?, I asked. “Because there is so much suffering and sickness here and I want to care for my people”.

What a dream – for a young girl in a Catholic school, with next to nothing. I thought to myself: if only some sisters and brothers who have retired from teaching in our schools could come to areas like this and upgrade the teaching staff, and bring material for the children. Well, it is happening! The USG and UISG in Rome have spearheaded a wonderful initiative, bringing in religious from around the world to work with the Church and Bishops in South Sudan in a major drive to respond to critical needs and to develop the people and communities in this new country.

The first class in the Catholic Health Training Institute will graduate in July, 2013, and another group at the end of the year. The first teachers to graduate from the two year pre-service program will do so also in July. The goal now is for operating funds and capacity building over the next few years before handing over to other communities or local South Sudanese where possible. The model is good but challenging, with religious communities made up of men and women from 19 congregations and 20 countries. This is an example of what is possible when bishops and religious collaborate together in trust to meet the needs of the most abandoned in society.

Let us pause for a moment. I ask you to be aware, peacefully aware of the God who is present at the centre of your being. Just stay with that awareness for a few moments. And then, bring to that “centering in God” your feelings as you begin this Conference. As you listened to my introduction, what did you feel? What are you feeling about the future of your Congregation and its communities? What indeed are you feeling about the Church in general, and the future of the Church and religious life in the UK? What are your concerns about religious life vis a vis the Vatican and, for example, what has happened to the LCWR in the United States?

Perhaps we are feeling a little uncertain and unsure of the future or of what we are about now, in the sense that we are indeed discerning and searching but not finding the answers that really satisfy and inspire; perhaps we are feeling a bit worried, wondering about what is going on at the moment in the Church and in the world; perhaps we recognize that with the numbers we have, the age factor, etc. we do not have the luxury of many options to respond in the present context – so, what is the future going to be like for our communities?

The current reality in life is indeed demanding of us, and was captured so well in these words of Thomas Merton which I came across in a book: “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence….(and that is) activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralises our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” (I saw this quote in an article, but it did not give the reference to where it could be found in Merton’s works).

In considering religious life today and its future, and the oft-repeated phrase that our call is to be “prophetic” in the Church and world, and so forth, inner wisdom is indeed a value without which our search may not be really fruitful. Inner wisdom must begin from considering and analysing the present complex reality in which we live and minister, allow this to question us and our assumptions as religious, so that we reflect on and try to discern the meaning of God’s word, God’s call and our way of life in this complex, even confusing reality – but with a contemplative, peaceful attitude………not so easy to do.

The societal context in which we live – the reality of secularism and materialism

Let me begin with some personal reflections on the context in which we are called to live religious life today here in the UK.

Firstly, the context of the world and society of today. All over the world today, including the UK, secularism and materialism are on the increase. The results are there to be seen. Certainly in the more developed world, church attendance is falling in places, and the influence of the Church and Church leadership in terms of societal issues and shaping public opinion seems to be getting weaker all the time.

At the worldwide level, there are signs that this is also becoming the reality in terms of the spirit and quality of life among people and societies, e.g. disturbing indications of a focus on self-interest and self-advancement, indeed greed, with so many millions who remain poor and are getting poorer slipping through the net. The ideal seems to be to create secular states, with Constitutions not founded on religious values per se. The spirit of secularism and materialism is on the rise especially among the rich and the middle class of society – and becomes the norm for the aspirations of the poor as well.

Again, the world of instant communication means that people are exposed to a whole variety of messages, information, differing values and non-values. The message of the Church, therefore, is competing for the attention and interest of people.

Perhaps the growing secularist mentality in Europe, the USA and Canada, among others, is also a reaction against the power and influence of the Catholic Church in the past, even recent past. This can be seen especially in countries like Ireland, Spain – with its links to Franco and fascism – Italy, and in other countries where the Church is perceived to be too authoritarian or too powerful, e.g. having too much power and influence over the Government and national policies, and over the lives of ordinary people. And, sadly, the sex abuse scandals have only added to the problem.

Secularism had and has its roots in the confusion between the separation of Church and State and the separation of Church and society. The Church is also a very human institution and, as such, is part of any society. What secularism attempts is to separate Church from society. For its part, the Church evidently has a duty and indeed a right to reflect on and speak about issues in society particularly as these affect people, especially the vulnerable, and the quality of life of all citizens. On the other hand, if in the face of scandals and public criticism, the Church as institution begins to focus primarily on its internal, “Churchy” programmes, and fails to address and speak out on behalf of the marginalised, alienated and poor of society, it will simply be experienced as even more irrelevant and meaningless.

Wherever we are, we live in a world which is subject to global attitudes and influences, fuelled by the vast power of the media in all its forms. However, is there perhaps a strand which seems to run through the current secularised world?.....that, in spite of all that this modern global secular and materialistic society promises and offers, is there perhaps at the centre of the lives of many a kind of “emptiness”, even if people are not truly aware of this or ready to accept it in themselves? This is an issue which we, as religious, should engage with as part of our call.

The context of the Church

I think we face some crucial questions in the present Church system and context.

I worked for five years developing Redemptorist young adult ministry in Europe when I was a member of the Redemptorist International Leadership Team from 1986 until the end of 1990. I found many young adults in Europe, really committed and searching Christians who centered their lives on Jesus, who were aware of and interested in third world issues and the reality of the poor, but who felt very alienated from the Church, i.e. the institutional and hierarchical Church, and in particular Church authority as they experienced it. And, sadly, many of these thinking young adults have no longer any real contact with Church, or have left the Church.

On the other hand, it has to be recognised that there is another strata of Church membership, e.g. the various new movements, even in the young adult group, which have taken on with enthusiasm the present model of Church and its practices, and seem to value its strong system of authority. All this clearly meets a need in some at least. Does this Church “system” respond perhaps to their quest for a sense of identity and security in the kind of world we live in today?

In this regard, for our purposes today, I would like to focus on two issues: the centrality of the baptismal call and mission which belongs to every Christian, and the core meaning of the religious charism within the present Church structure and within the reality of our world.

The baptismal call and mission, the role of the laity

When I entered religious formation in 1961 – and perhaps this was the same for many of the more “mature in age” among us here – I had an under-developed sense or understanding of the meaning of the call and mission. There were notions like this was the means towards full-time commitment and service in the Church, and that the religious life was a special or privileged way towards attaining a higher if not the highest state of perfection by distancing oneself from the world and its concerns. This understanding was reinforced by the type and content of the formation I received, and the prevailing and dominant culture in the Church.

In her book, The Fire in the Ashes: A Spirituality of Contemporary Religious Life (1995), Joan Chittister remarked that we inherited a form of religious life in which great attention was “given to the definitions of types and distinctions between orders, (so) commitment to religious life gradually became thought of more as a canonical form of life than a charismatic form of life, more as a set of rules to be followed than a set of ideals to be sought”. My experience exactly.

A major shift occurred with Vatican II through its central document on the Church “Lumen Gentium”. The call and mission of all Christians flowing from their baptism was brought to centre stage – this made all of us “equals” as members of the People of God and followers of the Lord. Added emphasis to this was given by the clear articulation of the universal call to holiness. No longer could “holiness” be considered the special preserve of those entering religious life. The language of a “state of perfection” which had been used for religious life was abandoned in Lumen Gentium. Instead, religious were called to live the Gospel through embracing and living fully the evangelical counsels in and through “prophetic” forms of life and ministry. Religious life was therefore situated within the universal call to holiness which belongs to all God’s people.

The emphasis now was on its nature as a “concrete sign”, “a special life-form and witness” of the search for the Absolute, the God-dimension in the reality of life, and of a selfless and vowed commitment to the building of God’s reign in the world………a reign which is all about people experiencing their personal dignity and a quality of life which is in accord with their fundamental personal worth as those made in God’s image; which is all about living in just relationships with each other and the creation and a commitment to non-violence, reconciliation and peace.

And so, for many searching young people and lay people, there was a shift in perceptions. One can be involved in Church, in ministry, in service to the poor, truly be engaged in the issues of the world, and live the universal call to holiness, without becoming a religious. As a lay person I could experience my own call, vocation, to a relationship with God and to a life of committed service in the Church and world. Looking at it another way, we as religious were/are faced with a challenging question: in terms of who and what we are as religious, how can we share our life-form and witness with others in a way which might allow God’s word and God’s call to be heard by searching people, both young and older, through finding a sacred place with us in which to encounter God, and what God may be asking of them?

The core meaning of the call to Religious Life within the Structure of the Church

With the developments at Vatican II and afterwards, the promotion of the universal call to holiness and so forth, there had to be a re-visioning of the fundamental call and meaning of the religious life. Becoming and being a “concrete sign” of the search for the Absolute in any particular socio-cultural context, challenging us to a total commitment to the building of God’s reign, the vows also could no longer be understood in terms of what could basically be described as a set of norms and ascetical practices in view of achieving a state of holiness or perfection. Rather, the raison d’être of the vows was to proclaim and bring about the Good News of the reign of God and this especially among the vulnerable, marginalised and poor of the world, and indeed the marginalised and alienated in the Church. They exist in function of a living critique of the different forms of social sin and social pathologies which diminish/destroy the person, the family, the society, the planet. And so, the goal in living the vows is to become ever more authentically a prophetic sign and presence of God’s reign in the midst of Church and world.

However, the notion of religious life as being essentially “prophetic” took time to become really central in institutional Church consciousness. In 1978, religious life was described as “charismatic and prophetic” in the document “Religious Life and Human Promotion”. A major development in terms of this articulation occurred at the Ninth Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 1994, in which I participated. The topic for discussion was: “The Consecrated Life and its Mission in the Church and in the World”.

Certainly, during the Synod, there was a quite substantial focus on the prophetic dimension of religious life in the 8 minute interventions by the participants, both bishops and religious.

Eventually, the document Vita Consecrata was promulgated by Pope John Paul II. Yes, indeed, there was a major section of the document with the title: “A Prophetic Witness in the face of Great Challenges”. The Pope stated, for example, that there is “a prophetic dimension which belongs to the consecrated life as such, resulting from the radical nature of the following of Christ and of the subsequent dedication to the mission characteristic of the consecrated life” (paragraph 84).

Again, there was reference to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, where it is stated that the Holy Spirit “furnishes and directs her (the Church) with various gifts, both hierarchical and charismatic”. But then, the crucial issue of how these diverse gifts are to be managed or harmonised in the Church is clarified unequivocally: the “prophetic stimulus” can only be “guaranteed” when it functions in “full harmony with the Church’s Magisterium and discipline”.

In other words, religious life – perhaps especially if it takes on a more overtly prophetic expression – has to always come under the supervision of Church authority in order to ensure that it will be in “full harmony with the Church’s Magisterium and its discipline”. Religious life or the charismatic dimension in the Church may not, if this approach or policy is followed to the full, be allowed to really serve as a balance or complement to institutional authority. Nor – it seems to me - will prophetic critique of the Church’s official policies and practices be allowed. That was how I understood this issue when the document first appeared, and I think it has been born out by what has happened since the 1994 Synod (but even before that). Perhaps there may be a change under Pope Francis, at least in terms of promoting a spirit of respectful listening and dialogue in the Church.

Religious Life – A way of life, a life-form, that is essentially prophetic

Cardinal Martini said this in his last interview: “Father Karl Rahner often used the image of the embers hidden under the ash. I see in the church today so much ash over the embers that often I'm hit with a sense of impotence. How can we liberate the embers from the ash, to reinvigorate the fires of love? For the first thing, we have to seek out these embers. Where are the individuals full of generosity, like the Good Samaritan? Who have faith like the Roman centurion? Who are enthusiastic like John the Baptist? Who dare the new, like Paul? Who are faithful like Mary Magdalene?” (ibid).

What, therefore, is the calling and mission of the prophet – into which we need to insert our own reflections on our calling and mission as religious today and into the future in the U.K.?

The prophet is called by God to discern and interpret how the Reign of God can be brought into, infused into the realities of the present context, whatever that context might be. To do this, the prophet must be inserted, ‘incarnated’ personally into the life and reality of people in their particular time and context, and then interpret the actual experience of the people in the light of God’s word and vision for all the people and all of creation. Classically, this is described as “listening” to God’s voice in the situation, or reading the “signs of the times”, and then bringing the Word of God into a creative and ongoing relationship of critique with the reality on the ground, and offering alternative life-giving signs and experiences to people.

Only through this identification and oneness with people in their existential reality can the prophet speak God’s word to the people, and bring the people and their concerns into the presence of God. The prophet, as it were, mediates the inter-relationship between God, people, the historical situation at any given time, and the planet and its challenges. This means that the prophet never has the advantage of being able to speak and act with the benefit of hindsight; it is always a discernment of what needs to be said and done in the living context of the here and now with all the risks and doubts that this entails.

We can sum this up by using the phrase of Sister Sandra Schneiders concerning religious life: “……a charismatically grounded, prophetic life form in the Church called by God to the ever ambiguous task of discerning how the Gospel, the good news of the Reign of God, can be made salvifically operative in the concrete and confusing situations in which believers must live their Christ-life today in witness to all peoples of the infinite loving-kindness of our God”. (Part V, Reflections by Sister Sandra Schneiders IHM, National Catholic Reporter, 4 – 8 January, 2010)

But, what is the goal, the objective of this speaking and acting in the name of God in the living context of the here and now? In other words, what was/is the fundamental word and witness of Jesus which we as religious are to incarnate in the living context of today? It seems to me that this was and is, and will always be, to bring to light and life that God is a God of justice and compassion for the whole of creation and for all people, but especially for the “little ones” of the world and Church, the poorest and most vulnerable spiritually and materially – as mirrored in Jesus’ own reflection on the text from Isaiah in the synagogue (cf. Luke 4: 16-21). In passing, I wonder whether one of the groups which feels most abandoned and alienated in the Church today is precisely the “thinking” Catholics, those who are able to think, discern, and make critical judgements about what does not make sense to them in the Church, and about what God seems to be calling for in the current context of the Church and its mission in the world.

In fact, God is compassion and justice, and the prophetic calling of religious is quite simply to make present this God of compassion and justice in a way that can actually be experienced by people in the “messiness” of life with all it struggles and uncertainties, and to help them make some sense of it all and find the courage to keep going.

Compassion and justice reflect and incarnate so much of the witness and word of Jesus – it is all about non-violence, equity in terms of sharing the world’s resources, the fundamental equality and dignity of every human being (especially all those marginalised and excluded), inclusiveness in all relationships and decision-making in terms of people and the entire creation. It is fundamentally a witness against domination and the use and abuse of power to control and diminish others.

But we also need to reflect on the fact that the prophets, including Jesus, did not “succeed” in earthly terms in their calling and quest; they experienced the fate of all prophets – questioning, rejection and sometimes even death, as well as the seeming victory of power, domination and force. But, Jesus triumphed over death and handed on his prophetic mission and ministry to the followers – with the only expectation that we will experience the same as He did, and as all the prophets did. But, as he promised, the Spirit will be with us….. “do not fear; I will be with you always.”

The Challenge of Religious Life to be “Prophetic”

How we are to be prophetic and about what – that is indeed a very challenging question. Firstly, the general context of society at present reveals one possible core meaning of this call or invitation. The Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sachs, put the question succinctly: Can we be good without God? Can we be a moral society without God? His answer was that, yes, we might succeed in this – but only for a while. In other words, without a clear sense of the spiritual in life, i.e. of a higher order in life by which we can truly measure that good is better than evil, and measure how the vulnerable and little ones in our midst are treated so that societal life is not predicated on the survival of the fittest……unless society and its people have a deeper or higher sense of the objective need of these values to direct its policies, practices and way of life, then it becomes ever more easy to justify anything, any policy and any practice simply because people can justify this subjectively for themselves.

Therefore, the religious, or better, the spiritual dimension of life – especially in our increasingly secularised world – needs to be experienced as a vitally important part of the effort, even struggle, to promote and maintain the good and positive values so necessary for the future of the planet, and the future of individuals, families, societies and humankind as a whole.

This is only another way of stating that religious values, spiritual values need to be heard, reflected on and seen as essential if society is to continue to be “civilised” in a way most reasonable people would recognise as such, and that the test of being a truly “civilised” nation is the way we treat and care for our most vulnerable members. The quest for meaning in life, and a corresponding commitment to strive for an authentic quality of life for all peoples in a given society, especially its “little ones”, and indeed of the global community and planet, is at the heart of being “prophetic”, and central also to our vowed life, witness and mission as religious.

Another way of looking at this call is in terms of witnessing by our life and ministries to the values which are counter-cultural and contradict the prevailing worldly ways of thinking and living, and by ‘touching’ people, life, and the planet with the God-dimension, the vision God has for our world and all its creatures.

What I have been struggling to articulate in my sharing with you today was summed up well in reflections from the International Forum of Religious for Global Solidarity in Sri Lanka in 1994. It stated clearly: “The theology shaping our hearts, our minds, and our souls as well as our thoughts, passion, and action cannot be anything but prophetic…..”, …such “prophecy will not properly exercise its role until it challenges both priest and king – the cleric and the culture – from the perspective of the poor and the demands of social justice”.

Here again we encounter the idea of the dominant culture in both Church and society. In our increasingly institutionalised Church over the past years, the religious charisms which should interface seamlessly with prophetic call and mission in the real world have been brought under the control or authority of the priestly function. On the other hand, the dominant culture of the globalised world has effectively resulted in a control of everyone and everything by the dominant political and economic elites.

Walter Brueggemann articulated what prophetic ministry in our contemporary Church and society is all about….it must “nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” (The Prophetic Imagination, 1978).

As religious we are invited to live out an alternative calling, witness and ministry in the world, but also in the Church. Given what has happened in the Church since Vatican II, it is becoming difficult not to be subsumed or co-opted by, or not to just “give in” to the prevailing culture in the Church. We have to find creative and non-violent ways to question the use, and sometimes perhaps even the abuse of power in the Church, as well as in society, and to offer an alternative vision to that which prevails at present – that is the challenge. Otherwise we run the risk that our prophetic charisms handed on to us by our founders can become a mere routine “going along with” what the Church Institution determines is a valid and appropriate response to the “signs of the times” today…..and what the powerful ones in the world decide for us and the planet.

It seems to me that we need to peacefully accept that there will always be difficulties and even tension between official Church institutional authority and religious life and charisms as expressed in prophetic ministries where God seems to be absent. We are talking about an institutional authority which must look after (conserve) and supervise the Church as an institution vis a vis a charismatic form of life which is of the Spirit who breathes where she wills. Both the hierarchy and religious need to understand and accept that there will always be difficulties and tension between these two “callings”. The goal must be for both to create the conditions for mutual respect, listening and dialogue. For religious, it seems to me, this means to commit to living our charism with faith, integrity and even courage with no desire to be provocative or to bring about division in the Body of Christ (but sometimes, of course, in a human community such as the Church there will be division in spite of our best efforts to avoid it). For Church authority it means that such authority must be in service of a ‘higher’ mission; such authority must at all times be experienced by all as a humble, listening, servant leadership.

Conclusion

I do not pretend to have the answers to these challenging issues. I am just one of you, engaged in the same objective, viz. a search for an authentic expression of the charismatic calling of religious life in the actual context of Church and world so that the Reign of God can be proclaimed, brought into being and sustained. This is a calling to develop alternative communities which seek to live out the call and mission of Jesus in a different, alternative way, by a vowed life and ministry in communion with others, and by committing to build the Reign of God in our suffering world and suffering planet.

The “place” of religious, it seems to me, will always be where God ‘seems’ to be absent (because, in reality, God is not absent, only seems to be), and where the institutional Church is absent. As religious we are quintessentially the ones called to make God present through our charismatic presence in all such situations of “absence” – every form of discrimination, injustice, stigma, exclusion, marginalisation, abuse of power and domination, and every experience of poverty and impoverishment which diminishes and destroys the God-given dignity of the human person, family, and society - and the integrity of creation.

Ours is a call to “presence”, to “being with”, to “sharing in solidarity with”, to enabling God to be present to people and every dehumanising reality through the word we speak, the sense of belonging we bring to others, the search with the hurting and hopeless “little ones” of society and Church, so that together we find the door which God wants to open through our presence and communion with them. It does not mean all of us need to move out of existing ministries and commitments like schools, health care institutions, and so on. It means we continually recreate those institutions through and with the people with whom we minister; we continually make those institutions become “sacred and safe places” where God can be and is present, and where God’s reign can be experienced by those among whom we are ministering; and at the same time inspiring and promoting the “outreach” of these institutions so that they become ever more truly communities of solidarity and transformation with the children and people in the surrounding society………so that all of us together can live more truly as communities of justice and compassion, and as stewards of creation.

Let us listen to the following:

“Amid the continuing uncertainty of two separate Vatican investigations into their lives and work, US Catholic sisters "can never lose hope" about their role in the church, the new second-in-command of the Vatican office that oversees them said on Tuesday (7 May).

The difficulties of the moment, said Franciscan Fr Jose Rodriguez Carballo, the new secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Religious, "can never take us to despair."

"In the moment of least hope, the sun could shine -- and I can see it," Rodriguez said. "I invite [the sisters] to prayer, discernment and dialogue -- communion. These are the three words that the consecrated life always has to have present."

"I've had the possibility to visit the world three times over," Rodriguez said during a homily later in the Mass. "In the most forgotten corners ... in the most arid spiritual deserts, there I always found a community of sisters who gave courageous witness to the Gospel," he said. "As little ones among the littlest ones, teaching, healing, accompanying all kinds."

"What would become of the thousands of poor people whom you serve without reserve?" he asked. "I am convinced that the church needs you because the world needs you." (cf. report in the National Catholic Reporter, May 2013)

I also place before you the last words of Cardinal Martini’s interview, and let him speak to you directly: “I'm old and sick, and I depend on the help of others. Good people around me make me feel their love. This love is stronger than the sentiment of distrust that I feel every now and then with regard to the church in Europe. Only love defeats exhaustion. God is love. Now I have a question for you: What can you do for the church?” (ibid).

We need each other as we try to discern in faith and trust with our God who will be faithful to us in the search. Therefore, the clear need for a contemplative attitude as we hold the questions and challenges in faith, and remain faithful in a discerning search for what God desires of us. At the same time the continuing need to be realistic – with our aging communities, and struggles to continue very valuable ministries……to be realistic about what is possible in terms of becoming more authentically prophetic, while we care for and continue to affirm those who are ministering now in our communities, or are aging and sick and live their religious calling and witness as aged and sick disciples of Jesus. I conclude with part of a poem by Mark Nepo, suffering and dying of cancer:

“My heart was beating like a heron awakened in the weeds, no room to move. Tangled and surprised by the noise of my mind, I fluttered without grace to the centre of the lake which humans call silence. I guess, if you should ask, peace is no more than the underside of tired wings resting on the lake while the heart in its feathers pounds softer and softer.” I pray that the heart in our wings and feathers today will slowly pound softer and softer so that we can be at peace, silent in God’s hands, as we wrestle with the challenges of religious life today and into the future.

Bishop Kevin Dowling C.Ss.R.

 

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