200th Anniversary of the Founding of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur

Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, February 01, 2004

My sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, your families, your Associates and your many friends.

One of the ancient spiritual writers once wrote: “Anyone who loves God in the depths of (one’s) heart has already been loved by God.” “In fact,” he continued, “the measure of (your) love for God depends upon how deeply aware (you are) of God’s love for (you.)”.

Saint Julie Billiart was keenly aware of God’s love for her and that is why she exclaimed: “Ah, how good is our good God.” She recognized and appreciated the “grace upon grace” that her good God showered upon her. The grace of life, of faith, of love, of a calling to serve God in a very special way.

The grace to be a foundress of a religious community of women vowed to their God and committed to spread everywhere the gospel message that God is indeed good. And now the grace of the beatific blessing to see that her work for God was indeed good. And the grace to rejoice over the love, zeal, courage and commitment of her companion Sisters who for two hundred years have undauntedly extended her life, her spirit, her heart, her community, her mission. Truly she had received “grace upon grace” from her good God.

We, as part of the 21st Century Church, have the privilege to assemble today in festivity to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the founding of Julie Billiart’s Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. We lift up the goodness of God in the life of their Foundress and of her religious posterity over the years and echo: “How good is our good God.”

Sisters, congratulations and gratitude. We congratulate you upon your fidelity and loyalty to Saint Julie and on your spiritual and pastoral accomplishments of the past and present. We commend you not only for your service to poor children but also for the success of your diverse ministries among people at all levels of society throughout the five continents in which you minister.

And we thank you. I know Cardinal Keeler and Bishop Bennett join Archbishop Borders, Bishop Malooly, and one of your famous alumni, and myself in deepest gratitude for all of God’s work in the Archdiocese of Baltimore as well as in other local Churches where you serve. Through your presence and your pastoral ministries we also experience the goodness of our good God in our lives.

I cannot celebrate this Bicentennial without sharing with you an experience which Archbishop Borders and I had with the present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, during a private interview with him back in 1988. We were on the standard “Ad Limina” visit to Rome to make the quinquennial report on the ecclesial mission and ministries of the Archdiocese to the Holy Father and the Sacred Congregation.

Since the meeting took place before the Archdiocese was to celebrate its bicentennial of establishment as a diocese, naturally Archbishop Borders invited the Pope to join us in Baltimore for the grand jubilee. Both the Archbishop and I were taken off guard with the Pope’s reply to the invitation:“Two hundred years, not very many!” We are so deflated with the response that you could have scraped us off the floor of the papal office.

Whether it be European measure of history or the American measure of time, I think 200 years still constitute a healthy number of years. For the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur these past 200 years have been not only a good number of years but also a good amount of quality time. They have been productive and challenging years during which these dedicated and valiant women have enriched themselves spiritually and the Church ministerially.

Had the Church in her day provided such an array of scriptural readings as it has for us in today’s liturgy of the Word, Julie would have found the biblical blueprint for the foundation of her society of women religious. The three readings together form a biblical mosaic validating her faith and love-based motivation for the establishment of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

It is easy to identify Saint Julie Billiart and her call to serve in God’s ministry with that of Jeremiah in the first reading. From the very beginning of his life, Jeremiah was aware that the Lord had dedicated and appointed him a prophet to the nations. And God would furnish the grace, strength and confidence for Jeremiah to do God’s prophetic work. The Lord had made him “a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass” whereby his detractors would fight against him but not prevail over him. He was well fitted by God’s grace to fulfill his prophetic role: to carry a message beyond his own vision and perform a task beyond his own strength.

Spiritual writers list a number of attributes in defining a genuine prophet from God. They write that a true prophet is internally strong, is burdened by a mystery, is marked more by the capacity to listen than by the ability to speak. The true prophet, they say, is a person whose heart is full of love for God and God’s people.

Jeremiah possessed these attributes and so did Saint Julie Billiart. Oftentimes we speak of certain people “to the manor born.” I believe it is accurate to say that both Jeremiah and Julie were “to God’s mission born.”

In our second reading we had that beautiful monograph from Paul to the Corinthians on love. It speaks to the motive for doing God’s work. Whatever we say or do, even in behalf of God, is hollow if we do not have love for God and God’s people. It is that kind of love – not emotional fluff but a profound act of the will to think, speak and do what is good for the well-being of God and our neighbor. It was this quality of love that supported the foundation of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

On each written correspondence to her beloved isters Julie always inscribed her favorite prayer on divine love. It read: “May Jesus Christ live within us, and as for me may I no longer live but for His pure and holy love. May this love consume me every instant of my life so that I may become a victim of love.” Love of God and God’s people, especially the needy, motivated the Sisters of Notre Dame from their birth to the present day.

In the beginning of today’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking to the assembly at the Nazareth synagogue. “Today,” Jesus declares, “this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” The scripture passage to which Jesus was referring immediately preceded today’s gospel. It was the passage He had just read in the synagogue from Isaiah with whom He identified Himself and His own ministry.

The passage read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor, (to heal the broken-hearted.) He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

These were the words of Isaiah by which he defined his call and mission from God. With these same words Jesus was identifying Himself and His own mission to bring salvation to God’s people. Virtually, these words outlined Jesus’ job description prescribed by His Father.

It was that mission and those ministries that Jesus had in mind and heart when, before His Ascension, He directed His apostles and their progeny in faith: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

In this commission of His apostles, Jesus authorized Julie Billiart, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, indeed, all of us to do God’s work for the Kingdom.

The variety and richness of God’s work achieved by the Sisters of Notre Dame from February 2, 1804, when the first members of the new society undertook their new ministry, until today, February 1, 2004, were incredible. From the challenging but simple ministry of the education of orphans to the explosion of a variety of contemporary ministries, the Sisters and the Church through them have reaped “grace upon grace” from our good God.

Even Julie could not have envisioned the magnitude of the spiritual impact and the geographical extent to which her beloved daughters over the years would take her initial mission and ministry. By addressing the needs of the various times, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur have been on the cutting edge of implementing new educational methods in schools, catechetics, pastoral and social ministries according to cultural and geographic needs.

Ah, how good is our good God.”That is true for you, the faithful and dedicated servants of God, for the Church, for all of us because of you.

Again, congratulations and thank you in the name of the Church.