Bishop Dermot Farrell is Bishop of Ossory, Ireland. This homily was preached at 11.00 am Mass in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, yesterday, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.
Today we celebrate the Presentation of the Lord Jesus in the Temple; it is also the World Day for Consecrated Life, a day which seeks to support religious women and men in their calling to radical discipleship to be – with a profound humility – a light for the world. The variety of charisms represented here today have made an enormous contribution to the life of the Diocese of Ossory by bearing witness to the light of faith in this city and beyond. This is a day of celebration of fidelity and service. Today is not only for those who live a life as consecrated religious but also all of us who live a life of dedication to God and of witnessing to God’s kingdom. It makes sense therefore that today is also a day we are all invited to renew our baptismal commitment.
As bishop of this diocese, I wish to thank you for your faithful witness and service. There are many, many, years of service represented here today. I offer you warmest thanks, deepest admiration and respect, and heartfelt prayers, that God will make your witness and your labors ever more fruitful for the good of all people, for the mission of the Church, and for the glory of God.
The way of life of consecrated religious springs from the very heart of the gospel. While your way of life takes many forms, enriched by a wondrous array of charisms, and is expressed in a great variety of ministries, you embody the Lord’s own way of life. Day-in-day-out, your lives put flesh on the word God has spoken to us in his Son. Christ’s was a life of intense prayer; it was a life of communion with his disciples, a life of poverty, a life of chaste and singlehearted love extended to all whom he encountered, a life of obedience to the saving will of his Father. Today’s liturgy reminds us that love requires commitment. When we enter into the realm of love, there may be painful consequences. Like Mary who heard Simeon’s prophecy and did not withdraw her love, you have embraced your vocation generously, notwithstanding the many challenges you have encountered, even the modern era’s eclipse of God.
But today’s Gospel is about much more than obedience in love. It is also about an encounter: the young Mary and Joseph meet the elderly Simeon and Anna (see Luke 2:25–28, 34). In obedience to the Law, two young people go to the temple; they meet two older people seeking to live the Law, and moved by the Spirit. Their encounter takes place in the temple, that place which Christ himself would call “the house of prayer.” Their meeting is within the community of faith, not something private. Our vocations too blossomed in a believing community, and consecrated life flourishes in the Church, not in isolation from it.
Simeon and Anna met the Lord face to face. Why is it that only Simeon and Anna recognized the face of the Holy One? I suspect that their long years of prayer and practice, of attentiveness to God prepared them to see beyond appearances and recognize the Lord in their midst. The same is true for each one of us today. It is what we do day-in-day-out that makes the difference in our lives: we come to know God’s word by constant hearing; it becomes part of us. We become the Body of Christ by constantly receiving the Eucharist; unworthy as we are, we become what we receive. It is not one giant leap, but a journey of thousands of small steps. If the truth be told, we shuffle after Christ, but that is how God would have it. In an era where we frequently hear of instant change, and only the extraordinary seems worthy of note, there is a huge need for the witness of the reality of discipleship.
In this perspective then, Simeon’s prediction reminds us that love requires commitment. God calls us to encounter him through faithfulness to concrete things: daily prayer, the celebration of the sacraments – in particular, Eucharist and Reconciliation, genuine charity, and daily attentiveness to the word of God. The life of faith has a deep unity; and so we are also called to commitment in the concrete things of life: adherence to the rule in the consecrated life and living out of our promises of obedience – an expression of our real solidarity with each other as sisters and brothers. There is something vital at stake here: failure to give oneself to the Congregation or Order reduces a community to a group of independent individuals who cooperate when it suits then. Think of your founders’ hope and confidence when they undertook the path that resulted in the communities they founded. Responding with generosity to our vocation means an openness to the Spirit and to the surprise of the God who sends the Spirit, just as in the temple.
Although we are living in times that can be very disheartening, consecrated life is about not battening down the hatches until the current storms pass over or simply ‘survival’, locking us up in the trap of self-victimization, but the call to live out our baptismal calling. Rather than wearing ourselves out in ensuring the survival of structures inherited from previous centuries which no longer correspond to life today, our way of life must inspire the younger generations. As I have said before, the crises in the Church today have little to do with numbers. It is a crisis of faith. Thinking only of survival robs consecrated life of vitality and life and a positive forward-looking mind-set. Disengagement, despondency and a negative approach to your way of life robs your charisms of power and of their original creative force. Joy, one of the fruits of the Spirit, is a root characteristic of your consecrated life. However, it takes both wisdom and courage to discern the true joy of the gospel in our communities and in the Church. Surely it is part of the responsibility of those in leadership to lead others to the recognition of those things which will not pass away.
Of course, the Church must respond to today’s challenges. Rather than being focused short-sightedly on the glory of the past, and the magnificent institutions which our sisters and brothers before us built – old wineskins, to use the Lord’s phrase – we need to accept the responsibility of mission as we experience it now. Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the barren rhetoric that says: “We have always done it this way.” “I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.” (The Joy of the Gospel, 33, emphasis added). Perhaps with the clarity that comes after a life of service and ministry, we might come to a sense of what endures, and a clearer awareness of what is essential. “The Church will always be small in some sense – a bit of leaven in the dough, a mustard seed – and yet powerful enough to effectively save the whole world (see Matt 13:33 and Luke 13:20-21)” André Louf, In the School of Contemplation (Collegeville: Cistercian Publications, 2015, 36). Competence, credibility, contemplation, creativity, boldness, simplicity and humility are some of the new wineskins required as we “put out into the deep” (Luke 5:4) to find new ways forward, but that also means that we need to bid farewell to our concept of success in numbers.
Given the current age profile of the members of the Religious Congregations and Orders, and indeed the diocesan clergy, with no young priests or religious, nor any prospect of an influx of vocations, I can foresee a situation in which our way of life could, for all intents and purposes, within a generation or two have disappeared from the landscape in Ossory if very radical action is not taken now. Our Lord is the Lord of risk. Bold decisions must be taken today, even if it is painful to do so, and we risk making the wrong decision. Otherwise, we die of irrelevancy. As Timothy Radcliffe wrote, “we have nothing to fear from crises. The Church was born of one and is renewed through them; they are our specialty!” (Timothy Radcliffe OP, “Power and Powerlessness in the Church: The Chance for Renewal.” in Austen Ivereigh (ed.), Unfinished Journey: The Church 40 Years after Vatican II. (London: Continuum, 2003), 119–34; here 120). When we look at the present shortcomings of structure and function within the Church then, like Jesus, we need a bold creative response rather than fleeing from the reality of the distressful present.
When Christians lose the ability to live in joy, when we can only think negatively, we have lost faith in the God who is Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The God whom we call “our Father” is a not only a God of love but is also the God of hope. “Take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33) – says his Son. In an age when the world increasingly thinks it can save itself, the core of our call to be disciples of Christ is to try to place our trust ever more completely in God, Jesus’ Father and ours. My sisters and brothers, let us seek anew the courage to collaborate in God’s plan. Let us discover anew the courage to pray, “thy will be done.” If we are to witness to and be servants of God’s Kingdom present this generation, we have to face up to today’s world and have the freedom to address it. However, as the Church does not follow a worldly order, we will always find ourselves in counter-cultural situations and place. May the particular call of religious life to live Christian joy and to share the Lord’s life and love be renewed in you in these days and in days to come. And may the Lord bless you, may he console you and strengthen you; may he keep you always in his love!