Saturday, September 10, 2011

Religious as Prophets of Hope in Times of Crisis

NOTE: I was honored to be asked to address the religious men and women of the Diocese today during the Annual Day of Recollection for Religious.  My talk was entitled, "Religious as Prophets of Hope in Times of Crisis" and the text is below:
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A man was brought to Mercy Hospital, and taken quickly in for coronary surgery. The operation went well and, as the groggy man regained consciousness, he was reassured by a Sister of Mercy who was waiting by his bed. “Mr. Smith, you're going to be just fine,” said the nun, gently patting his hand. “We do need to know, however, how you intend to pay for your stay here. Are you covered by insurance?” “No, sorry, I don't have any insurance,” the man whispered. “Can you pay in cash?” persisted the nun. “I'm afraid I cannot, Sister.” “Well, do you have any close relatives?” the nun insisted. “Just my sister in New Mexico,” he volunteered. “But she's a humble spinster nun.” The Sister responded, “Oh no, I must correct you, Mr. Smith. Nuns are not spinsters; they are married to Jesus.” “Wonderful,” said Smith. “In that case, please send the bill to my brother-in-law.”

It is such a blessing and an honor to be here and address you today. By a show of hands do we have any Dominican Sisters of Hope here today? How about any Sacred Hearts Fathers? Any Sisters of Mercy? How about any other Franciscan Friars? I ask this question because I stand here before you today, 20 years after entering my life as a Franciscan, because of you. I was taught by the Dominican Sisters at St. Francis Xavier in Acushnet and brought to the Sacraments by the Sacred Heart Fathers there as well. I found my first images of happy and holy community from the Sisters of Mercy, through my Aunt, Sr. Maureen Mitchell. And, it was, of course, with the Friars that I found my home and my particular calling to religious life.

So, when I speak on the theme of religious life today and the power of the witness of consecrated life to the world around us, my thoughts are not theoretical, they are practical. It was the witness of so many religious women and men of the Diocese of Fall River that were first prophets of hope and holiness to me.

In many ways, our times are marked by crisis. Certainly this weekend we are all very conscious of the era of terrorism and war that we have lived with for the past decade. And, concurrent with the crisis in our world has been a crisis in our Church as we have struggled with an abuse scandal that has rocked us all and perhaps even made some of us question why we do what we do. So, what are we to do as women and men committed to living consecrated life in the Church and in the world? And how can our witness to the life we have been called to be the sign and symbol to others for the return to goodness and holiness and peace that we all desire?

We naturally focus upon the challenges present in our own times. I think of the challenges we’ve faced over the course of just my lifetime – the tumult and uncertainty both within the church and society during the 1960s – the assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the war in Vietnam, the struggle for Civil Rights, all coupled with the most dramatic changes the Church had seen in centuries including a drastic and tremendous change in the form and focus of religious life; the disillusionment in government during the 1970s and the economic and political crises that ended that decade; the greed of the 1980s and the scourge of AIDS; a sexual abuse scandal in the Church that begin to slowly come to light through the 1990s reaching its peak just past the turn of the new millennium.

We can look at these things and be tempted to feel overwhelmed by them, depressed even by them. We can tend to think that things have never been as bad as they are today or that we are helpless and hopeless to do anything about it. We can look at our shrinking churches and shrinking communities and think the end is near.
Now, I don’t know about you, but for me – I reject those notions. In fact, I embrace the opposite. I think that it is particularly in these moments that the church and the world needs us; needs our public witness of a life lived fully for God in the context of community, with a love for the poor and in the context of the Church. I think the church and the world desperately needs the hope that our way of life has to offer.

In fact, last month, during World Youth Day in Madrid, our Holy Father Pope Benedict met with a group of religious women and made this very point. He said, “In a world of relativism and mediocrity we need that radicalism to which your consecration bears witness. Your lives must testify to the personal encounter with Christ which has nourished your consecration.” My sisters and brothers, the world needs our witness of religious life today perhaps more than ever. The world needs religious women and men to be signs and prophets of hope in a world that instead seems to have embraced violence and war and greed and suffering.

So what does this look like, this being a Prophet of Hope? What does it mean to be a sign to the world? Well, let me back up about 800 years and share with you some lessons in being Prophets of Hope from my own Franciscan Tradition.

We may think that the crises we face today are as bad as things have ever been. But, any student of the 13th century can tell you that is not the case. Let me paint a picture for you of the world and the Church that St. Francis of Assisi encountered in his times.

As important as the Second Vatican Council is to our time, the Fourth Lateran Council was to the times of Francis and Clare. The Fourth Lateran Council took place in the year 1215. It was a truly extraordinary Council in the history of the Church. It was one of the best attended Councils ever. There were 1,383 people there: 71 patriarchs and metropolitans, 412 bishops, and 900 abbots and priors together with representatives of several monarchs. St. Francis was among those there.

Pope Innocent III when calling the Council’s stated its purpose “to eradicate vices and to plant virtues, to correct faults and to reform morals, to remove heresies and to strengthen faith, to settle discords and to establish peace, to get rid of oppression and to foster liberty, to induce princes and Christian people to come to the aid of the holy Land...” So, they had their sites set high.

The Council issued 71 canons and some of the more famous ones were canons that defined Transubstantiation, established seminaries for the proper training of priests, gave us the Easter Duty, it also is the Council that mandates Tabernacles for the Blessed Sacrament and Ambries for the Holy Oils. But, if you want to get a sense of the state of affairs at the time, let me share with you just a few of the Canons from the Council:

Canon 15: All clerics shall carefully abstain from drunkenness. Wherefore, let them accommodate the wine to themselves, and themselves to the wine. Nor shall anyone be encouraged to drink, for drunkenness banishes reason and incites to lust. We decree, therefore, that that abuse be absolutely abolished by which in some localities the drinkers bind themselves suo modo to an equal portion of drink and he in their judgment is the hero of the day who out drinks the others.

Canon 16: Clerics shall not hold secular offices or engage in secular and, above all, dishonest pursuits. They shall not attend the performances of mimics and buffoons, or theatrical representations. They shall not visit taverns except in case of necessity, namely, when on a journey. They are forbidden to play games of chance or be present at them. They must have a becoming crown and tonsure and apply themselves diligently to the study of the divine offices and other useful subjects. Their garments must be worn clasped at the top and neither too short nor too long. They are not to use red or green garments or curiously sewed together gloves, or beak-shaped shoes or gilded bridles, saddles, pectoral ornaments (for horses), spurs, or anything else indicative of excess. Buckles may under no condition be worn, nor sashes having ornaments of gold or silver, nor rings, unless it be in keeping with the dignity of their office.

Canon 17: It is a matter for regret that there are some minor clerics and even prelates who spend half of the night in banqueting and in unlawful gossip, not to mention other abuses, and in giving the remainder to sleep. They are scarcely awakened by the diurnal concerts of the birds. Then they hasten through matins in a hurried and careless manner. There are others who say Mass scarcely four times a year and, what is worse, do not even attend Mass, and when they are present they are engaged outside in conversation with lay people to escape the silence of the choir; so that, while they readily lend their ears to unbecoming talk, they regard with utter indifference things that are divine.

Canon 18: No cleric may pronounce a sentence of death, or execute such a sentence, or be present at its execution. Nor may any cleric write or dictate letters destined for the execution of such a sentence.

Canon 27: Since the direction of souls is the art of arts, we strictly command that bishops, either themselves or through other qualified men, diligently prepare and instruct those to be elevated to the priesthood in the divine offices and in the proper administration of the sacraments of the Church. If in the future they presume to ordain ignorant and unformed men (a defect that can easily be discovered), we decree that both those ordaining and those ordained be subject to severe punishment. In the ordination of priests especially, it is better to have a few good ministers than many who are no good, for if the blind lead the blind both will fall into the pit (Matt. 15:14).

There are of course many more, but these I think sufficiently illustrate the point. Think about the image of the 13th Century Church that these canons paint. We have an out-of-control clergy with little or no care for their own spiritual life or the life of those they serve; untrained, dressing wildly, praying rarely, drunk frequently, renting out the Church buildings for profit, and potentially handing down and carrying out death sentences on the people in their towns.

And yet, when we think of the 13th Century, its scandals are not the first thing that come to mind. We think instead of great holiness and hope. This is the era, after all, that gives us so many saints like Francis, Clare and Agnes of Assisi, Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, Anthony of Padua and Elizabeth of Hungary. Believe it or not, there were also some who were not Franciscans – saints like Dominic, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Agnes of Prague, Ingrid of Sweden, and so many more.

In other words, this era of great scandal and crisis in the Church and the world becomes the impetus which inspires countless good women and men to not throw in the towel, but instead to pursue greater and greater holiness. Let’s look at St. Francis in particular and how he responded. I would contend that in the face of the darkness of his times, St. Francis became a Prophet of Hope to the church and to the world around him. How did he do it? By loving the Church and the world to holiness.

There is a famous story in the life of Francis when he had travelled to the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome in 1209 seeking the approval of Pope Innocent III for this new way of life; the life of the Gospel that he sought to live. The Pope was uncertain about allowing this, as others had tried this life of poverty and often ended in heresy. But, then, the Pope had a dream. In his life of St. Francis, St. Bonaventure writes about it saying, “In a dream the Roman Pontiff himself saw that the Lateran Basilica was almost ready to fall down, and a poor little, small and scorned man, was propping it up with his own bent back so that it would not fall…[The Pope] said, ‘Truly, this is he who will hold up Christ’s Church by what he does and what he preaches.’” That dream would be, itself, prophetic.

So, how did Francis respond to the state of affairs in his world? One of the things he did was to love. The biographies and legends of his life are full of stories that are ultimately stories of love – how Francis loved his brothers, how he loved the poor, how he loved the lepers, how he loved Muslims (let’s not forget even in a church bent on Crusade, Francis went and instead met with Sultan Malik al-Kamil in love sharing with him the Gospels in dialogue; an encounter that had the potential of ending the Crusades – how’s that for a model for us today?) and Francis so deeply loved the Church. He did this so profoundly simply by the way he lived and interacted with others. We’ve all heard the famous quote attributed to St. Francis, “Live the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words.” Now whether he actually said that is another question – but he definitely lived it. He might have even said, “Love at all times, when necessary use words.”

One of the other things he did was to write. The Council Fathers told all those present to spread the word of what they had done there. Francis takes this up with vigor. He writes to everyone – to his friars, to clerics, to rulers of the world, to Provincials, to all the faithful. He writes to everybody. And rather than curse the darkness, Francis encourages them to the light.

To a clergy mired in scandal, Francis encourages them in hope to holiness. First, he warns them in their sin. He writes, “Remember my brother priests, what has been written concerning the law of Moses, how one transgressing even in corporals things used to die without any pity by the sentence of the Lord. How much greater and more worse are the torments one merits to suffer, who has trampled upon the Son of God?” But, then he encourages them saying, “See your dignity, my brother priests, and be holy, because He himself is Holy. And just as above all others on account of this ministry the Lord God has honored you, in this manner also love, revere, and honor Him above all others…Let the whole man tremble with fear, let the whole world begin to completely quake, and let heaven exult, when upon the altar in the hand of the priest is Christ, the Son of the living God!...Therefore keep nothing of yourselves for yourselves, so that He may receive you whole, He who manifests Himself wholly to you.”

He writes similarly to all the faithful saying to them, “We also ought to frequently visit churches and [honor] clerics, not so much for their own sake, if they be sinners, but on account of their office and administration of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, which they sacrifice upon the altar and receive and administer to others.”

In virtually every one of his writings, Francis follows this same path – calling the sinful, especially those within the church, to holiness and reminding people what was important in their faith. Challenge and hope, backed up by the power of his personal witness to holiness and love and the life of the Gospel.

A century that began mired in heresy, crisis and scandal is a century that ended as one of the greatest periods of holiness in the history of the Church. It is a time that inspired others to become prophets of hope to a world in crisis.

And, I think this is what we are called to do too – in our world, in our communities, in our church. We are called to be Prophets of Hope to a world that needs that hope desperately. So, how do we do this today?

Let me offer a few suggestions. The first is to remember who we are as consecrated women and men. We know that at the heart of our call, we strive to live what every Christian is called to; in that our way of life is not unique. In his 1994 Apostolic Exhortation on Consecrated Life, Vita Consecrata, Blessed Pope John Paul II said, “In effect, the consecrated life is at the very heart of the church as a decisive element for her mission, since it ‘manifests the inner nature of the Christian calling.’ The Consecrated Life is a precious and necessary gift for the present and future of the People of God, since it is an intimate part of her life, her holiness and her mission.” What we live is what every Christian is called to – but we live it publicly, we live it for everyone to see, we live it on the outside as a witness. We remind the People of God, through our public witness, that there is still value in our world of making a complete and total gift of ourselves to God.

The second way that we are Prophets of Hope is that through our way of life, we remind the world that goodness is still possible; that holiness is still attainable. We remind the world that sin isn’t the only option; that vengeance isn’t the only answer; that greed and the accumulation of power and wealth are not the solution; that purity and dignity and a selfless commitment to others can still exist and can still, in fact, change our world. We remind the church and the world that there is another way; a better way.

And the third quality for Prophets of Hope is the most important one – love. When we break down what St. Francis and St. Clare did – as I’m sure we could for any of the founders and countless members of your communities and congregations – we find the same thing. They loved! They loved Jesus; they loved the Church; they loved the sinners; they loved the marginalized – they loved. And so must we. We are prophets of hope when we love others to goodness; when we love our world to peacefulness; when we love our neighbors to compassion and care, especially for the poor and marginalized; and, yes, when we love our church past even its own sin to holiness.

After all, St. Paul reminds us in First Corinthians, “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

At the closing Mass of World Youth Day in Toronto back in 2002 – a Mass I was honored to concelebrate – Blessed Pope John Paul II said the following, “If you love Jesus, love the Church! The harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame. But think of the vast majority of dedicated and generous priests and religious whose only wish is to serve and do good! At difficult moments in the Church's life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent.”

So, let us as Prophets of Hope, as public witnesses to the Gospel, as women and men of holiness and goodness and peace and compassion – let us challenge our world by the witness of our lives lived consecrated to Jesus Christ and His Church; and let us do that filled with an overwhelming and overflowing love.

Let me end with a reflection on hope that I came across recently:

• To have hope is to believe that history continues, open to the dream of God and to human creativity.
• To have hope is to continue affirming that it is possible to dream a different world, without hunger, without injustice, without discrimination.
• To have hope is to be a courier of God and courier of men and women of good will, tearing down walls, destroying borders, building bridges.
• To have hope is to believe in the revolutionary potential of faith, is to leave the door open so that the Spirit can enter and make all things anew.
• To have hope is to begin again as many times as necessary.
• To have hope is to believe that hope is not the last thing that dies.
• To have hope is to believe that hope cannot die that hope no longer dies.
• To have hope is to live.

The crises at the start of the 13th Century would usher in a renewal in holiness that swept over the Church and the world as the men and women of that day, especially those consecrated religious, became Prophets of Hope to the challenge of their times.

As we sit at the start of the second decade of both a new century and millennium, why should our time be any different? Why can’t our response be just the same? Perhaps our world and our religious communities are just waiting to give birth to the saints of this age; the holy and hopeful women and men who will lead this time back to the Gospel. Perhaps it is up to us to love the church and the world to holiness. All we need to is choose it.

I thank you for the opportunity to be with you today and to share some thoughts with you today. I thank you for your witness of hope and love to me.

May God give all of us His hope, His love and His peace.

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