St. Joseph’s Church, Boyle, Co. Roscommon
Just a week ago I was in London for a meeting and I took an hour out to go and sit with one of my favourite pieces of art, Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus”. One of the characteristics of the work of Caravaggio, which is found in many of his paintings, is the contrast between light and darkness. It speaks to me. In much the same way, there are passages in the Scriptures which seems to speak more clearly to me because they pick up on the theme of how the presence of God penetrates the darkness and allows us to see more clearly where we are going. One of them is the passage of the vocation of Samuel, who heard the voice of God in the darkness of the temple, while the light in the sanctuary was still burning. The other is this image of Jesus, who is carried by his parents into what I always imagine to be the dimly lit interior of the temple. There he is greeted by Simeon and Anna, who see in him “a light to enlighten the pagans and give glory to God’s people Israel.
The Feast of the Presentation has always been associated with the celebration of consecrated life. For pastoral reasons, we gather a day early this year to mark the Year of Consecrated life in our diocese. It is quite appropriate when you take into account that, by date, this would be the Feast of St. Brigid, who is herself celebrated as a model of consecrated life, a women of prayer and social action, who was a light to her own generation and who continues to inspire us today.
I welcome in a special way today all the religious sisters and priests and brothers who are gathered with us as well as those who join us in spirit. I think of the religious from our diocese who, at this very moment, are bearing witness to the Gospel all over Ireland and on every continent. This is an opportunity for us, as a diocese, to give thanks for the witness of your lives and to ask God’s blessing on you and on the work of the congregations to which you belong.
As we reflect on our Gospel today, I think there are two different ways in which we can make the connection to consecrated life. The first is by exploring for a few moments the whole idea of Presentation in the Temple. From the time of their escape from Egypt, the people of Israel always celebrated the Passover, in memory of that night when God spared the first born male children of the Hebrews and led the people out of slavery into freedom. Associated with this was the tradition of presenting the first born male child of every family in the Temple. It was a way of saying that, just as life was a gift from God, so that life should be given back to God and consecrated to his service. In that Spirit, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple to present him to the Lord.
From earliest Christian times, we find the idea of dedicating oneself totally to the service of God as an accepted and valued practice among those who believed in Jesus. It was particularly associated with virginity and many of the Christian virgins of early Christian times were counted among the martyrs, those who bore witness to Jesus Christ by literally laying down their lives.
The beginnings of consecrated life, organised around some form of community are to be found as early as the third century, when communities of hermits gathered in the desert of Egypt. Over the years, consecrated life has taken on various forms depending on how the Spirit inspired men and women. Monastic communities began to appear in the sixth century, dedicated to prayer and penance and the study of the Word of God. Apostolic communities began to appear in the middle ages, dedicated to preaching and to the service of the poor and of course, here in Ireland, many of these congregations flourished in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, giving an enormous Christian witness through their care of the sick and their education of the poor. Other congregations were associated with formation of the clergy and with missionary activity.
The one characteristic associated with all of the different forms of consecrated life are the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Today, in a world which is more focussed on self, these vows are often misunderstood. People tend to see poverty, chastity and obedience as negatives, as ways in which the lives of men and women are somehow incomplete. Nothing could be further from the truth, but we do need to have a richer understanding of what are sometimes known as the “evangelical counsels” before we can really appreciate the richness of consecrated life. The call to Obedience, to Chastity, and to Poverty or simplicity of life style, is not a denial of the goodness of self, of others, or of things. It is primarily about being more free in ourselves to follow Jesus and to go where he leads us. The rich young man, in the Gospel story, struggled with this and “went away sad”. It would be odd if we did not sometimes struggle with it too. But then, there is no way of life worth living that doesn’t involve some sacrifice.
The evangelical counsels are just as relevant today as they ever were. We have experienced in recent years the pain of a society which has been turned upside down by a preoccupation with wealth and property, so that many young people now find it almost impossible to afford a home in which to begin their married lives. The vow of poverty is not a rejection of the goodness of things, but it does bear witness to the fact that we are only enriched by things when we can use them without being possessed by them.
I think it is fair to say that most of us would be conscious of how individualistic our western society has become. We are all very busy with project of one kind or another, many of them very worthwhile. But the reality is that many of the elements of community have disappeared from our society and, in some places, people can live next door to one another for years without even knowing one another’s names. The vow of obedience is not an abdication of responsibility, but a recognition that my own agenda is not all that counts. It is not a denial of personal freedom, but rather a placing of my freedom at the service of the community.
In much the same way, the vow of chastity is not a denial of the goodness of sexuality or relationship. Consecrated men and women need friendship and love just as much as anyone else. I think it would be true to say, however, that our world tends to divorce sexuality from love, from commitment and from its natural fruitfulness. The vow of chastity and the vows of marriage, when lived generously, each bear witness to a kind of love in which life is given freely as a gift. Marriage and consecrated life are different vocations; the sexual energy of men and women is channelled differently, but what they have in common is that they are both about love and about relationship.
As a priest, I know how easy it is at times to lose sight of the love of God which motivates us. I imagine the same is true for married people and for religious. The vows we make naturally become a burden if they are not lived out of love. For that reason, today, I think it is important that all of us, priests, religious and members of the lay faithful, pray often for one another and encourage one another in living our different vocations richly and generously.
I want to finish by returning to the Gospel which we heard earlier. One f the things which inspires me about this story is the faithfulness of Simeon and Anna. Each of them has grown old in the service of the Lord. Neither of them has lost sight of the promise. Simeon exclaims: “At last all powerful master, you give leave to your servant to go in peace according to your promise, for my eyes have seen your salvation”. On my pastoral visits to the parishes, I meet many elderly people who are house-bound, but who seem to live out of a rich faith in God and who spend much of their time at prayer. Equally I am inspired by the witness of so many religious women and men in our own diocese, many of them as old as Simeon and Anna, who continue to live their consecrated life with generosity and who continue to serve the people among whom they live. It is true that the average age of religious in Ireland is probably higher now than it ever was before, but that doesn’t mean that there is no energy. The witness, which is so much at the heart of religious life, continues and I pray that it may bear fruit in the future in the lives of young men and women who need something to inspire them.
- Bishop Kevin Doran is Bishop of Elphin.