Here is the homily by Father Francis Bradley at a Mass of Thanksgiving for the Gift of Consecrated Life, celebrated Sunday in Saint Joseph’s Church, Galliagh.
Father Bradley is the Diocesan Administrator. He was joined by retired Bishop Séamus Hegarty of Derry, 30 priests and 40 religious from around the Diocese of Derry. During the celebration, Father Michael McCaughey PP of The Three Patrons, welcomed the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal to their new home in what was previously the Parochial House in Galliagh.
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A few years ago, a lady speaking on series on Radio Ulster entitled ‘Days like this’, beautifully recounted her experience of dealing with the deaths, in quick succession, of both her parents. She explained how, having died just two weeks apart, that trauma was as nothing to the challenge that they, as a family, faced just a few days later when they went to their parent’s home to sort out their belongings. Neither she nor any of her brothers or sisters were looking forward to this daunting task. The sight of their father’s shoes, the baking apron favoured by their mother – and the familiar smell of their clothes was almost too much. She went on to tell how, while all of these items and episodes had a particular resonance for each of them, there was one item which none of them wanted to approach – it was an old writing box which their mother had – a family heirloom in which she always said she kept the most important family items. They had placed this writing box on a small table in the drawing room – carefully avoiding it every time they passed during that long day. Towards evening, with all their parents’ effects sorted out they gathered in the drawing room, around this box. It was her eldest brother who opened the box – and there, as expected, they found the title deeds to their parents’ home – to the very spot of land on which they stood; statements and references to different bank accounts and investments which their parents had made down through the years. These were indeed the documents they expected to find. But then there were things there which they didn’t expect – love letters which their parents had written to each other many years earlier when their father, a naval recruit, had been stationed overseas; their first hair-cuts and tooth – each in an envelope with their name on the front; and finally, and most poignantly, the first palm paintings or artistic scribbling’s which each of them had made in school. She said that the contents of that box, the memories which it evoked, and the realities it spoke of taught her something very important – she said that they all left the house that day with a whole new appreciation of the great people their parents really were, and with a fresh understanding of who they now are themselves.
The day when Jesus was presented in the Temple must have been a notable day in his life, and in the lives of Mary and Joseph. It was certainly the day of days for Simeon and Anna – and all because of the encounter they experienced. I often imagine that Simeon was of the same vintage as Anna – both in their mid-eighties. To live to that age then must have been quite an accomplishment. But then again, physiologists and medical practitioners of every hue tell us that faith is good for you – trends would seem to indicate that, for the most part, people of faith tend to live longer, they heal quicker and they tend to complain less. Simeon and Anna were certainly people of faith – they never ever lost their trust in God; as a result, they never ever lost hope.
Since 1997, the Church universal has celebrated the Feast day of the Presentation of the Lord as a special day of celebration and thanksgiving for Consecrated Life. As Pope Francis, himself a long-time member of the Jesuit congregation, said this morning in Rome, ‘the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple is also known as the Feast of the Encounter: the encounter between Jesus and his people; an encounter between the Old Testament, represented by the demands of the Jewish Law, and the New Testament, represented by the infant Jesus; an encounter between the young, represented by Mary and Joseph, and the elderly, represented by Simeon and Anna.’ From whichever perspective you view it, this is an encounter.
Encounters are good. Often they are about joy, sometimes they bring sorrow; but always, they must be experienced, for it is through them that we grow and develop, it is from them that we learn.
Today, in this Church, the same encounter is going on. Here the older a longer established orders, congregations and societies are meeting the newer ones who are only finding their feet. Here, the wisdom of experience encounters the energy of enthusiasm. Here the charisms of founders like Catherine McAuley, Mary Ward, Mary Euphrasia Pelletier, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Pierre Bienvenu Noailles, Edmund Ignatius Rice, Victoire Larmenier, Benedict Groeschel, Marie Dominique Phillippe, encounter the demands of living life as a Catholic Christian in the world of today. And here, most importantly, as a people called to holiness of life, we all encounter the life-giving presence of a living person, the same Jesus Christ, presented in the Temple, present here today.
This should strengthen our hope, this should give peace to our hearts and souls.
We need hope, we need peace of mind and soul. For the experience of Mary and Joseph in the Temple that day was not all sweetness and light. Simeon uttered a challenging prophecy – that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart. And a sword did pierce her motherly heart – it demanded forbearance and it demanded love. The headlines of recent years and months, of recent weeks and days means that the motherly heart of love deep down in the experience of the Church is being pierced still. But the same ability to carry that hurt tenderly will give its own witness, for it puts flesh and blood again on faith, and forbearance and forgiveness.
The generous and courageous living of a life consecrated to God has bequeaths a legacy of faith, hope and love – why? – because women and men religious are witnesses of faith, witnesses to hope, and witnesses in love. Together with the secular ministerial priesthood, with married couples and parents, with children and the elderly, with single people – with all who live lives of courageous witness, you are love deep down in the heart of the Church.
Life is not perfect. That is why people like you and so many more are needed in the world of today. People for whom care and compassion are not merely a job to be done, but the very cornerstones of the life of commitment which is to be lived generously every day. Forty nine years ago, the 1965 Council document Perfectae Caritatis addressed this. Its name should never be forgotten for it talks about the pursuit (not the achievement) of perfect charity through the evangelical counsels. It teaches us that consecrated lifedraws its origin from the doctrine and example of the Divine Master and reveals itself as a splendid sign of the heavenly kingdom.
The Diocese of Derry has been and continues to be the beneficiary of the courageous witness of so many and varied forms of consecrated life. The distinct charisms of the many orders, institutes and societies of apostolic life and their various expressions, often tailored specifically to the sometimes impossible role they were asked to fulfil, or the challenging environment in which this had to be fulfilled has given a colour and life to our experience as a local community of faith. It is my hope, as I am sure it is yours, that this diocese, and the Church as a whole, will continue to be the beneficiary of such a beautiful expression of the call to holiness which comes to everyone in baptism but which is lived out with such commitment by you as a people of faith. I hope, too, that, in being a grateful beneficiary of such a wonderful way of life, the Diocese of Derry will always do what it can, in pragmatic and prayerful ways, to contribute to and support consecrated life in its pursuit of perfect charity through the living of the evangelical counsels. For what it is worth as we await the appointment of our new bishop, I pledge you my commitment to such support. I hope that the new bishop will do likewise. Maybe he will be from a religious community, and if so, will know this need and offer this support all the more keenly still.
In the tenderness of your hearts, in the gentleness of your touch, in the broadness of your smile, in the calm of your lives, in the courage of your witness, in the pains you suffer, in the laughter you enjoy, in the difficulties, yes, but most especially in the Christ you encounter as you live in poverty of spirit, as you love with a generous chastity of heart, as you listen with a will docile to the voice of the Spirit, continue to remind all of us, and especially those of us who need reminding most, of where our true and lasting home lies – nowhere other than in the kingdom of tomorrow to which your lives point, the kingdom which your lives make present in the world of today.
Today and every day, we have the opportunity for a whole range of encounters. May we make the most of them – and allow God, in and through us, to make the most of them. Like Simeon and Anna, may we never lose sight of the reasons for our hope, may we cherish the gifts God has given us, and the opportunities we have to wake up the world as we make use of these great gifts.
Unlike the family who gathered to sort out the belongings of those absent parents who had died, we remind ourselves that we gather every day in the presence of the one who has gone through death and now lives forever. But like them, we gather as a family of faith, and may we leave this encounter and every such encounter with a new appreciation of the great people who have trod this ground before us, and with a fresh understanding of who we really are.