“You, the religious of our diocese, have been quietly playing your part in carrying on Jesus’ mission of mercy for generations, and you continue carry it out today.” – Bishop O’Reilly
It is providential that the Year of Consecrated Life ends some weeks after the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. The intersection of the two years points to an important link between mission of consecrated religious – sisters, brothers, and priests – and the goal of the Jubilee Year, namely to proclaim the Mercy of God.
The readings of today are most fitting for this occasion. The word of God to Jeremiah reminds us all that our life and work are God’s initiative. They are rooted in God’s call:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you;
before you came to birth I consecrated you;
I have appointed you as prophet to the nations”( Jer 1:5).
Today we thank God for all the religious in our diocese and of our diocese who have generously and whole-heartedly responded to God’s call and who have given their lives to the service of God and God’s people. We thank God for their families and for the faith which enabled God’s call to be heard and allowed the seed of a vocation to germinate and grow and mature. We pray that God will inspire the people of our time to find new ways to answer his call and proclaim his mercy.
Jesus himself responded to God’s call in his own life. In his first address to the people in the synagogue of Nazareth he used the words of the prophet Isaiah to explain his call and mission. We heard it in the gospel of last Sunday:
“The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour” (Luke 4:18-19).
Jesus’ mission was to announce and establish the Kingdom of God. It was to bring God’s love to all who needed it, especially to the poor, the sick, the oppressed and the rejected – people in prison or on the margins of society. The whole ministry of Jesus was devoted to the works of mercy, healing the sick, helping the poor, comforting the bereaved, forgiving sinners, and reaching out to those on the margins.
You, the religious of our diocese, have been quietly playing your part in carrying on Jesus’ mission of mercy for generations, and you continue carry it out today. Many, like the Mercy Sisters, the Saint Clare’s Sisters, the Loreto Sisters, and others like the Presentation Sisters, who are no longer with us, have given your service in the diocese to the people of our diocese. You made enormous contributions to the work of education, particularly for those who would otherwise not be able to afford it. You were involved in health care; in parish ministry, in prayer and pastoral care of all kinds.
Others, like the Holy Rosary Sisters, who were founded in the diocese, have given your lives to bringing the good news of God’s mercy to people in the wider world – particularly in Africa. At the dedication of your new nursing home in Dublin last year, it was very moving to hear the women from West Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and elsewhere, speaking confidently, articulately and with great gratitude about the opportunities in life they had got because of their education by Holy Rosary Sisters. Many more could have spoken about the hospitals and health care and other services your sisters provided which transformed their lives and communities.
It was very fitting that a globe was among the symbols presented at the beginning of the Mass today. It recognised in a special way another group who deserve to be remembered today: the women and men from our diocese who joined religious orders and congregations in other places and devoted their lives to the service of others as missionaries of God’s mercy elsewhere in Ireland and around the world. Brother Gerald Smith’s book on the Religious Sisters and Brothers of the Diocese, which was also brought up at the beginning of Mass, has an appendix which contains the diary of Saint Mary Ignatius McEnroe’s journey from Ireland to Freemantle, Australia. She was from Munterconnaught and left Ireland in 1882. She arrived in Australia after a four-month sea journey, was professed after two years there, and died six months later at the age of 21. This is just one of countless stories of quiet heroism that will never made the headlines, but which are written in the Book of Life. Many are still serving God in near and far flung places. I hope some of their family members have been able to be with us as we remember and honour their contribution today.
Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel make it clear that the fate of the prophet is often to be rejected by his own people. He recalls the examples of Elijah and Elisha who experienced rejection in their time. Jesus himself is rejected by the people of his own town and ultimately by his own people.
The Religious of Ireland have experienced the prophet’s rejection in recent times in a very painful way. Indeed the whole Church in Ireland has experienced it. In the media reaction, some years ago, following the publication of the Ryan Report, and in other media productions and commentary since, you could be forgiven for thinking that the story of religious life in Ireland, and indeed of the Church as a whole, was one of unmitigated evil and abuse. There was evil and abuse of course, and it was right that it be exposed and condemned. But that evil was a very small part of the story, an aberration and an exception.
Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony said, in his oration at the death of Caesar, “the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” Let that not be the case with the Religious of Ireland or the Religious of our diocese. When the story of religious life in Ireland comes to be written, I hope that it will not forget the good, the enormous good, that was done quietly, secretly, unselfishly, generously and constantly, by so many devoted and dedicated sisters, brothers and priests. And I hope and I am confident that the enormous good that was done in this diocese and beyond it, by the Religious will not be forgotten.
In his Apostolic Letter To All Consecrated People on the occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life, Pope Francis outlined three aims for the Year:
- to look to the past with gratitude
- to live the present with passion
- to embrace the future with hope.
I don’t apologise for focusing mainly on gratitude for the past today. It is important that we as a diocese publicly acknowledge the contribution of our Religious to the life of the diocese and the wider Church. We don’t often have the opportunity to do so. We know that, despite your age profile, you still live the present with passion as you continue to bring God’s mercy into the lives of those among whom you live.
Our prayer today is that you will embrace the future with hope. That is indeed a challenge, but we trust in God, ‘whose power, working in us, can accomplish infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine’ (Eph 3.21). I leave you with a stirring quotation from the Exhortation of Pope John Paul after the Synod on Religious Life:
“You have not only a glorious history to remember and to recount, but also a great history still to be accomplished! Look to the future, where the Spirit is sending you to do even greater things” (Vita Consecrata, 110).
- Bishop Leo O’Reilly is Bishop of Kilmore. This Mass was celebrated on Sunday 31 January in the Cathedral of Saint Patrick and Saint Felim, Cavan.
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