This is a great gift of a Gospel passage as we celebrate the centenary of the Good Shepherd Sisters in this city. Their history goes back well beyond those very difficult years after 1919 as Northern Ireland was set up and the border created. Their origins and spirituality can be traced to various difficult times in France. That is no surprise as the best of the Church down through the centuries has been seen in responding to challenging situations. Saint John Eudes in the first half of the seventeenth century realised just how many women were being abandoned and mistreated in France. Just saying pious prayers was not enough. And he set up a congregation of women who would specialise in supporting women in need. After the turmoil of the French Revolution, Rose Virginia Pelletier saw the need for a new energy in the growing cities of France. The sisters first came to Ireland at a time when the Irish Church was rebuilding after Catholic Emancipation. As well as Irish foundations, Ireland was blessed with congregations of young idealistic women and men flooding in mainly from France and Italy. Despite the Famine, this was a time of growth and development. Newly industrialised towns and cities were throwing up not just factories but a range of social problems – and there was an increasing need for educational opportunities. That is where the Good Shepherd Sisters had always been at their best. It is where generous hearts were moved by the Gospel and by the love of God to do something for some, even if they could not do everything for everybody.
As we can see from this Gospel passage, the love of God and the love of the suffering are intimately connected. In some ways, the rich man at his table is not an evil person. But his wealth and power make him unable even to see Lazarus at the door. Society is so often structured in such a way that the poor are viewed as an embarrassment and should be neither seen nor heard. In that way, they don’t disturb the calm of the rest. It may theoretically be sad when they die of disease much earlier than the rest – but we can be tempted to see their premature deaths as more of a burden on the health system or as a result of their own folly. And being invisible or unimportant in society is one of the things that actually contributes to premature death. It kills the spirit.
And Jesus – who elsewhere describes himself as the Good Shepherd – knows his own, even when others might ignore them. Jesus goes in search of the lost sheep, precisely because the little lost one doesn’t want to be found or is maybe too embarrassed that others might see their dark side. No wonder addiction can be seen as an attraction for many. Feeding the addictions dulls the pain and, at the same time, it makes money for the strong.
The Good Shepherd Sisters have borne witness to this image of Jesus in many ways, working especially with women. They sought to offer safe accommodation to those who were living far from home and to young women in situations where their families were unable or unwilling to look after them. They have worked with the world of female exploitation, whether that of prostitution or of trafficking. Women continue to be used and abused all around the world. And there is still a desperate, not just for those who will help them but also for those who will love them and tell them that they are precious and beautiful in God’s eyes even when they feel battered in bruised, both in mind and in body.
But the work of the Good Shepherd Sisters here was not just a useful social service. Those who choose to dedicate their lives and their many talents to loving strangers are also a pointer to something different. The current narrative tends to portray everything that had to do with Church and nuns as part of a consistently terrible past, now to be replaced by a thriving culture of self-indulgence that will liberate people to do what they want. But a centenary like this is an important opportunity to both recognise Church failures in the past and to celebrate the prophetic role of Good Shepherd Sisters in Derry. Nowadays, women dedicated to the love of the God and of the poor are an unwelcome stone in the shoe of those who would trumpet the benefits of social change but be blind to those who still pay the price for the success of the strong.
I see the present time as one more God-given opportunity for you as female religious to re-propose your vision. There is now such a fear of the future and a realisation that consumerism offers a very hollow hope. Young people – following in the ideas of Pope Francis and Laudato Si’ – are recognising that our unsustainable use of resources to make more and more tat may be embellishing our present but it is destroying their future. The bank crash of the last decade has shown us the hidden power of the unimaginably strong. The economic message may encourage our illusion of freedom but it ignores the fact that we are also prisoners of unseen hands who dictate what choices we have. The unseemly antics of many politicians offer pathetic role models for how to resolve differences in the service of the Common Good. When key social concepts such as marriage and sexual identity are reduced to ‘what I feel is right for me today’, it is no surprise that the centre cannot hold. Freedom can too often be an excuse for irresponsibility – and women so often are the ones who literally are left holding the baby.
The strength of the Church has always in its ability to let people hear the divine call to generous risk-taking idealism in the service of others. We have been at our weakest when the focus has been on our institutions rather than on those who most needed love. The recognition of our failures can be an important act of humility – but the acceptance of that truth should enable us to be set free so as to witness in the present. The danger is that a preoccupation with the past will hobble us today and make us unable to speak into the modern realities. The new elite do not wish to hear words of criticism – like the ones of Jesus in today’s Gospel. If we can be tied up in knots as regards our past, we can be prevented from speaking prophetically about today. But there are too many people like Lazarus who are unseen, missing and not missed. They need those who will bear witness by their lives to the Good Shepherd. Religious congregations are at their best when they are courageous and prophetic. When the charism becomes too institutionalised, it can lose its taste. Your presence was for many years built on a hilltop on this side of the river. You are at your best when you are salt to the earth and light to the world. You are at your best when you are at fringes and not at the centre.
Today we remember all those who began the work here in Derry exactly a century ago – and those who have walked in their footsteps. Many of those decades were difficult. The present time offers new challenges as numbers and energy levels fall.
We thank God for the lives that were enhanced by your ministry. We are blessed by the faithfulness of those who have ministered here and pointed to heaven. And we pray for the grace to wait in this fallow time for a new outpouring of generous followers of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. That will come in God’s own good time – for a society without generous idealists is its own worst enemy.
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry. This Mass took place on Sunday 29 September in Saint Columba’s Church, Waterside, Derry to mark the centenary of the arrival of Good Shepherd Sisters in Derry on 29 September 1919.
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