Introduction: 125 Years of Vowed Service
It is always a joy for me to offer Mass here at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen but tonight I have a special reason for rejoicing. We are celebrating the closing Mass of the 125th Anniversary Year of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart.
This is a local celebration with global implications. As some of you may know, the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart is a congregation of women religious founded right here in Baltimore in 1890. In fact, in this Cathedral Church by the Saint Joseph chapel, there is a fresco of the foundress of the Mission Helpers. Her name is Mary Frances Cunningham, known as Mother Demetrias – and under her image is a quote from the Acts of the Apostles which reads: “You shall be witnesses unto me to the uttermost parts of the world” (AA 1:8).
But let’s stay local for a moment. By the end of the 19th century, many of the freed slaves settled here in Baltimore. It was a pastoral challenge near and dear to the heart of Cardinal Gibbons but he knew he needed help in addressing it. It was not merely a matter of numbers but also a matter of changing hearts. Mary Frances Cunningham was a parishioner at St. Martin’s Parish on Fulton Street. There were many black children in her neighborhood but she realized that they were not allowed in the church for religious education. She began teaching them on the steps of the Church and soon received permission to invite these children inside. Her spirit of charity extended to many other aspects of their lives and she soon networked with other women doing similar work. Thus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, was the idea born of establishing the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart.
The new community began to grow and to expand its outreach, through innovative teaching methods and advances in religious education. Soon the community had spread far beyond Baltimore to other places in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. As the sisters say of themselves: “We are missionaries, we go where God calls us.” Thus, dear sisters, you go about the work of religious education, pastoral care, spiritual direction, social services, and many other ministries, assisting in the fulfillment of that mission which Jesus entrusted to the Church. We are here to say thanks – thanks to God and thanks to you for your witness to Christ and for your apostolic labors for a century and a quarter.
The Living Word of God
In today’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews we read: “…the Word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword.” We need to experience the power of God’s Word to split open and reveal not only what is in our hearts but also what lay at the heart of our plans and projects. In doing so, God’s Word opens us to what the Lord really wants to accomplish in us and through us for the Church and for the world all around us.
By opening yourselves to God’s Word, dear sisters, you carry forward your mission not with mere human dedication but with a true sense of discipleship. The Word of God resonates in your hearts, shapes your plans, sends you forth. From the very beginning, you and the sisters who came before you have been what Pope Francis calls, “Missionary Disciples.”
The Rich Young Man
Indeed, today’s Gospel about the rich young man helps us see the importance of your vocation and your community, and it is this: the Church cannot do without vowed religious men and women, – not just because of the work that they do but because of the witness to Christ and the Gospel that they provide.
Unlike the rich young man in the Gospel – who kept the rules within the confines of a comfortable existence – vowed religious are to be so endowed with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit that they take the Lord at His word when He says: “Go, sell what you have, and then you will have treasure in heaven.” Instead of relying on silver or gold, power or prestige, beauty or brawn, consecrated religious adopt a form of discipleship which demonstrates that the Lord’s love is the great treasure beyond which nothing else is needed. “God alone is enough,” St. Theresa of Avila wrote. “Jesus, I trust in Thee,” St. Faustina said.
Religious life, therefore, is not merely a matter of rules. Rather, living in consecrated chastity, poverty, and obedience, religious are called to “a transfigured existence capable of amazing the world!” – to use the words of Pope John Paul the Great.
Why This Is of Concern to the Whole Church
Yet you, dear friends and parishioners, may be asking yourselves: what does this have to do with us? Most of us in this Cathedral this evening are not in religious vows as such and it would probably be an unpleasant surprise if your spouse suddenly decided to start living the vows as such!
In fact, the consecrated lives of these sisters and indeed of all religious matters to us and it matters to the health of the Church and the vigor of its mission to preach the Gospel. Without their radically evangelical style of life, we who are immersed in secularity may never take today’s Gospel seriously. We may never discern how to allow possessions, positions, & the preoccupations of daily life to loosen their grip on us, to loosen their overwhelming claim on our affections, our thoughts, and our plans. We might be too busy to sit at the Master’s feet and listen, too caught up in the world for the seed of the Gospel to germinate. After all, we are called to be more than decent people who make time for the Lord. But in fact, all of us are called to observe the commandments in the spirit of the Beatitudes: to be poor in spirit, pure of heart, meek and humble, hungry for holiness. All of us are called to assist in the mission of the Church as missionary disciples and all of us are challenged to reach out with great generosity to those in need. The Mission Helpers inspire us by their lives to be true disciples of the Lord, as Pope Francis says, “full time, not part time Christians.”
A most startling truth is that the redeemed in heaven are chaste, poor, and obedient. Those in consecrated life by word, witness, and work are to help provide us with a roadmap for becoming those sorts of persons, people who live in this passing world with our hearts set on the world to come. In the grace of the Holy Spirit, we must choose not to walk away from the Lord sad but rather to choose to be ‘poor in spirit, pure of heart, meek and humble, – so that the ‘Father will see and love in us what He sees and loves in Christ.’