Homily of Bishop Joseph Duffy celebrating 150 years of St Louis Sisters in Ireland
A Shoilse, Uachtarán na hÉireann, my dear Sisters of St Louis, brother-bishops and clergy, sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ. It is my pleasant duty to welcome President McAleese to the Diocese of Clogher. Your Excellency, we have of course had Martin and yourself in the Diocese many times during your years of high office, not least some years ago on Lough Derg. We are greatly honoured by your presence here today.
Last month I attended a seminar in Rome organised for Bishops involved in social communications. Over the few days one got to meet most of the ten or so bishops present, amongst them Archbishop Niederauer of San Francisco, California. “I know you are lrish”, he said to me, “ but what part of Ireland are you from?” “A place called Monaghan”, I said, expecting no reaction, “Oh”, he said, “the St Louis Sisters. I knew them well when I was in LA. Did you know a Sister Bernadette Murphy from Monaghan town? She did marvellous work in our Education office”. That is to let you know how the St Louis education charism has got around. I can tell you in the diocese of Clogher we owe the Sisters a huge debt of gratitude for their magnificent contribution to education over the 150 years. I mean education in the broadest sense; not merely the basics which were always taught to the highest standards but also music and drama to the same level of perfection. I am thinking in particular of their many fine boarding schools both south and north of the Border, including the Diocese of Down and Connor, two of whose bishops, Bishop Treanor and Bishop Farquhar, are with us today.
Archbishop Niederauer went on to relay a story he heard from one of the Sisters about the old days in Monaghan convent. The local Bishop, obviously one of my predecessors, – he didn’t say which – was paying one of his formal visits to the Convent. The Sisters went about the task of preparation with their usual efficiency. Time came for the cup of tea: the best china was produced, the best silverware, a silver sugar bowl with matching tongs to deliver the lump sugar. The young Sister, on duty for the first time, took the tongs to deliver the sugar. Then it happened. Overcome by the occasion and possibly over-rehearsed, she was heard to say “Two lords, my lump”. Apparently, the story went into the folklore of the convent. I am sure the Sister was eventually able to see the fun of it, whatever about the Bishop.
These stories capture much of what I want to say today. We all feel genuinely proud of the high esteem the St Louis Sisters have won for themselves across the world, not only in Ireland but everywhere they went, America, Africa, England, and of course France where it all began. We are also conscious of the equally attractive and varied texture of personality behind the public image, behind what often appeared on the surface to be immaculate uniformity. Over the years I have known many of you in person; my own St Louis experience began when I was four years of age. I have mentioned high esteem. That high esteem comes from a common source, a source which is your community way of life, a way of life reflecting years of unstinted generosity and dedicated hard work, most of it behind the scenes, years of humble listening and obedience to God’s will. In this respect, your two very challenging mottos are complementary; Dieu le veult and Ut sint unum.
Dieu le veult, ‘God wills it’, is attributed to your patron, St Louis, king of France. St Louis, we are told, was a person of exceptional character, who had to his name great cultural and humanitarian achievements; apparently he had Thomas Aquinas regularly at his table, another personal friend was the founder of the Sorbonne. He set up a hospital for the poor, he negotiated treaties, he was famous for keeping his word. Rather suddenly, he left all this behind, left it to embark on a crusade to the Holy Land, a crusade that turned out to be over-ambitious but was considered at the time to be a pressing missionary concern. The important point for us is that there was absolutely no worldly motive here; nothing in it for himself beyond an obedient response to what the occasion demanded. Not a bad template for your own predecessors, those three women who came to Monaghan in 1859, women who put their own comfort and indeed their health on the line, in an environment of post-Famine disease and depression. Not a bad template for the Sisters, whom some of you, like myself, will remember, who pioneered the mission to Ghana and Nigeria in the late 1940s.
Discerning the will of God is of the essence of Christian life. While the task belongs to every baptised person, there have always been in the Church groups of women and men who consecrate themselves in an organised radical way to what we call ‘religious life’. Perhaps we need to get the message out these days that this is much more than an optional extra; it’s an integral and intimate part of Church life, it’s at the core of what the Church is about. It means putting one’s home and family to one side, certainly not ignoring them but subordinating them to the greater good, it means being alone with the Lord on a daily basis, it means carrying the high tension of uncertainty and doubt as to the best way of reaching out to others. But it also brings with it the consolation of knowing that you are cultivating a garden, a garden of inner peace, a peace the world cannot give.
Your second motto, Ut sint unum, ‘that they may be one’ is very different from the first. It is more an aspiration than an imperative, its a gentle prayer, a humble recognition that our world, not just the world outside, but the human nature within each of us, is a fragmented place, that disagreements and misunderstandings come the way of all of us, all the time, that there is always a risk factor in reaching out, however prudent and careful we think ourselves to be. The initial experience of the Sisters in Monaghan, the utter lack of basic communication at the time of their arrival, the riven nature of the society into which they came, their own internal troubles later on, which to their credit they resolved, the tidal wave of change brought about by the Second Vatican Council, the new emphasis on
ecumenism: these were some of the issues that made and continue to make this simple prayer of the Lord for his apostles immediate and real for St Louis Sisters.
What of the future? In view of the collapse of vocations to religious life which has overtaken the Church in this part of the world, it is tempting to close the book and consider the work done. I don’t have to remind you that this would be to lose our way. It would also be an injustice not only to those valiant women whom we remember today, but also to the prophetic witness so many of you present here today continue to give, both by your quiet life of prayer and the many helpful ways in which you serve the local community. If it all gets you down at times, think of those early women who moved from their socially privileged Francophone and Victorian background into espousing enthusiastically the Irish Ireland of Clochar Lughaidh Muineachán and Clochar Lughaidh Carraig Mhachaire Rois.
It is the same spirit we need today to keep moving into the new world that awaits us. And it is a spirit that inspires this celebration. There is a 15th station of the Cross somewhere in the Donegal Gaeltacht that reads: Mac no hOighe slán, The Virgin’s Son is alive, Christ is risen.
Bishop Joseph Duffy is Bishop of Clogher and Chair of the Bishops’ Commission for Communications.
Bishop Duffy’s delivered this homily yesterday, 26 April 2009, in St Macartan’s Cathedral, Monaghan, at the Mass celebrating 150 years of St Louis Sisters in Ireland. The congregation of over 1,000 people included St Louis Sisters, President Mary McAleese and her husband Dr Martin McAleese, local TDs and members of Monaghan Town Council.
Sister Uainín Clarke is the Institute Leader of the St Louis Sisters and is based in Dublin. Sister Anne Kavanagh is the Regional Leader of the St Louis Sisters in Ireland and is based in Dundalk.
The congregation, which consists of approximately 500 Religious Sisters, is especially involved in education, pastoral care and medical work and has missions in Brazil, California, England, France, Ghana, Ireland, Nigeria and Benin.