I. Introduction: A Few Memories
To me it is almost unimaginable that twenty years have passed since the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious was established and received canonical recognition from the Holy See. I account it a wonderful blessing to share this anniversary with you, to join with you in giving thanks to God for these past twenty years, and to share with you a few reflections on the evangelical counsels and the new evangelization.
Before offering these reflections, I do want to say a word of deepest thanks to those sisters who were involved in the founding of CMSWR and without whose prayerful and determined leadership we wouldn’t be celebrating this special anniversary. In the same breath, I would also like to mention James Cardinal Hickey who played such a crucial role in establishing the CMSWR. For many years, I was the Cardinal’s priest-secretary, and thus had a front-row seat from which to witness the beginnings of this Conference.
Years ago, Pope John Paul II invited members of the U.S. hierarchy to Rome for a special meeting to discuss the state of the Church in our country. A number of Archbishops were asked to prepare brief talks on various important aspects of the Church’s life. It fell to Cardinal Hickey to speak on the state of religious life. I can attest how seriously he took that assignment and how many times he re-wrote the talk that he delivered. His dedication to this task spoke volumes of his love for consecrated life. It wasn’t long before the Cardinal was appointed the Holy See’s liaison for religious communities who were unaffiliated with the LCWR. I recall meetings with the Consortium Perfectae Caritatis, the Institute on Religious Life, and many other meetings and discussions. With prayer, study, discussion, and thorough deliberation, he came to the conclusion that he should help in the establishment of what has become the CMSWR and was deeply involved in all that you so wisely did to put in place the solid foundations for this Conference which continues to serve so many religious institutes so well.
After Cardinal Hickey retired, he was under the loving care of the Little Sisters of the Poor. By then I was Bishop of Bridgeport but I would come down to Washington as often as I could to visit him. It wasn’t easy for the Cardinal to communicate but he had good days as well. On one of those occasions, I said to the Cardinal that among his many accomplishments, that the CMSWR might well have the greatest impact and bear the most lasting fruit. Tears filled his eyes, he gripped my hands, smiled, and said, “Thank you, Bill, I think so too!” No doubt the Cardinal is praying with us and for us from his place in eternity!
II. Fruit That Will Last
“Fruit that will last … ” This seems a pretty good place to begin talking about the evangelical counsels and the new evangelization. In the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus says to us: “It was not you who chose me but I who chose you and appointed you to go forth and bear fruit that will remain … ” (John 15:16). What is the fruit that remains, the lasting fruit that Jesus asks of us?
This appointment comes to us by way of Baptism. The call to bear fruit that remains is addressed to every disciple born anew by water and the Holy Spirit, and indeed every vocation is built upon the foundation of Baptism. Yet, as the Church’s teaching rightly insists, consecrated life is not simply a manifestation of Baptism but rather a new and distinct consecration rooted in Baptism. Each of us is called to bear lasting and abundant fruit according to the vocation, the state of life, to which we’ve been called.
Yet, isn’t it the case that so much of our work seems ephemeral, “a chase after the wind” as the Book of Ecclesiastes puts it (cf. 2:11)? I recall a young priest who served as a high school chaplain. He successfully encouraged students to attend daily Mass and to frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation; he transformed the religion department so that it was actually teaching the faith, he himself was a marvelous teacher, and a zealous promoter of vocations to the priesthood and to the consecrated life. By and by a new chaplain was appointed who quickly dismantled most all the programs that that his predecessor had begun. Understandably, the former chaplain felt almost as though he had labored in vain. We might ask: were those programs “the fruit that will last”?
Let’s take another example. At one time or another in our lives we’ve had to build buildings. There is a feeling of solid accomplishment as a building dedicated to worship, formation, healthcare, or charity rises out of the ground. We may be tempted to think of these as “fruit that will last” – but experience teaches that our buildings and even our institutions rise and fall. I have a lot of aging, vacant buildings in Baltimore if any of you are in the market! No, our programs, buildings, and many other accomplishments, though good, are transitory and exist for something better.
What, then, is the lasting fruit Jesus asks of us? I submit that the “lasting fruit” of which Jesus speaks are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. As you recall, the tradition of the Church lists twelve of them: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity” (Gal. 5:22-23, Compendium, 390). As the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “the fruits of the Holy Spirit are perfections formed in us as the first fruits of eternal glory.” They are the perfections which fit us for the everlasting Kingdom, truly the “fruit that will last.”
Trouble is, we can tend to view St. Paul’s list of the Spirit’s fruits as just that: a list of abstract qualities that are little more than the stuff of a particular examen. Good and necessary as this practice is, the fruits of the Holy Spirit take us to the heart of the Gospel in which the evangelical counsels are deeply rooted and to which those in consecrated life are uniquely equipped to bear witness. Have you noticed that the fruits of the Holy Spirit bear an uncanny resemblance to the Beatitudes? I’m not claiming any explicit textual relationship between Galatians Chapter 5 and the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 5. Nor am I saying that you can draw a straight line from every one of the Beatitudes to every one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. I’m only noting that many of things Jesus says will constitute our lasting joy are the same things that St. Paul teaches will constitute our lasting holiness, and that these same things are critical to the Church’s evangelizing mission. Is not charity the prime source of Beatitude inasmuch as God is love? Goodness and generosity have something to do with being poor in spirit. Gentleness has something to do with being meek. Modesty, self-control, and chastity have something to do with being pure of heart. Faithfulness and joy have something to do with rejoice to suffer for the Kingdom.
But don’t take this from me. The great moral theologian, the Dominican Father Servais Pinckaers, reminds us that St. Thomas Aquinas did in fact make explicit connections between the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit and the Beatitudes; he writes: “ … in order to recount all the riches of life lived according to the Spirit, St. Thomas thought it appropriate to add to the Beatitudes the fruits of the Holy Spirit as enumerated by St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians: charity, first, as the prime source of beatitude; then joy, which serves to define beatitude as ‘joy in truth’; and peace which renders it perfect….” He adds: “Is not ‘fruit’ the best image of beatitude – a fruit which has acquired its full perfection and beauty? It is the image of a life’s work which has reached its maturity” (S. Pinckaers, O.P., The Pinckaers Reader, “Beatitude & the Beatitudes in ST,” p. 129).
III. A Self-Portrait of Christ
You get the idea. And you probably had the idea before you came to my talk! But let’s take this idea a little bit further, for I hope you can see I am building a case. In the first volume of his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI tells us that the Beatitudes are something like Christ’s own self-portrait. Again, they are not merely a list of abstract qualities; rather those traits are like glints of God’s glory shining through Christ’s own humanity as he goes about preaching the Mysteries of the Kingdom. The Beatitudes are, to be sure, words of consolation and promise, and they are unforgettable lessons in discipleship, but the disciple must strive to imitate the Master by sharing his lot. As such, the Beatitudes anticipate the Cross and tell us what we are like when we deny ourselves and take up the Cross. In his very scholarly way, our Holy Father tells us that … “ … [the Beatitudes] apply to the disciple because they were first paradigmatically lived by Christ himself” (Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. I., p. 74). While we’re at it, let’s not forget that in revealing himself to us in the Beatitudes, Christ is at the same time revealing the face of the Father of Mercies and opening for us the path to fulfillment of our innate human dignity.
All this tells us not only what our interior lives should be like, that is, how they should be framed, fashioned, and honed by the Cross, but it also tells us the conditions under which we shall bear lasting fruit for the Church’s evangelizing mission. As Psalm 126 puts it, “those who sow in tears shall reap rejoicing.” The lasting and abundant fruit which the Lord has commanded us to produce can only be brought forth in the power of the Cross and by our sharing in it. Surely this is what St. Paul meant when he wrote to the Timothy, “ … bear your share of the hardship which the Gospel entails” (2 Tim. 1:8); He is not merely describing practical difficulties to be solved but rather point to the fact that the disciple must be shaped by the Cross in order to proclaim Christ crucified in an effective, persevering manner.
Thus, the Holy Father leads us to see the Beatitudes as “… a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure.” Let me quote a little more of what our Holy Father wrote: “Christ who has no place to lay his head (cf. Mt. 8:20) is truly poor; he who can say, “Come to me … for I am meek and lowly in heart” (cf. Mt. 11:28-29) is truly meek; he is the one who is pure of heart and so unceasingly beholds God. He is the peacemaker, he is the one who suffers for God’s sake … ” And then the Holy Father adds, “The Beatitudes display the mystery of Christ himself, and they call us into communion with him. But precisely because of their hidden Christological Character, the Beatitudes are also a road map for the Church which recognizes in them the model of what she herself should be.” Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. I., p. 74).
I would also bring forth a point which was commonly understood during the early centuries of the Church and is being slowly recovered in our day: namely, that the parallel that St. Augustine sets forth between the Beatitudes and the petitions of the Our Father. The Our Father is a prayer in which we ask to become like the Christ of the Beatitudes. Again, to quote Father Pinckaers, “The Christian cannot follow the way of the Beatitudes and virtues without the help of the Holy Spirit, and we cannot obtain this help without continual prayer, the model for which is the Lord’s prayer” (Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, p. 155).
What draws all of this together, at least in my mind and heart, are the words of Jesus: “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5). To “remain in the Lord” is to enter into deepest communion with Him, and thus with His Father, and thus with Christ’s Body, the Church. It is no mere external imitation of abstract qualities but a nuptial sharing in Christ’s life and love by partaking of his Pasch. The gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, the Beatitudes, the Our Father – these lay out for us what it means to remain in the Lord,
such that the Father can see and love in us what He sees in loves in Christ, such that we are living embodiments of the Gospel we seek to proclaim. Only in that way can it be said of us that we are witnesses to Christ not just teachers. By contrast, if we short-circuit the process, trying to engage in strategies, projects, and plans of evangelization without praying the Lord to remain with us that we might remain in him, without absorbing something of ‘the glory of God shining on the face of Christ’ (2 Cor. 4:6) – it is barely possible that we will be effective evangelizers.
IV. Consecrated Life and Evangelization
Years ago, before he was on television, Larry King had an all-night call in radio show. You had to be something of an insomniac to listen to him and occasionally, I must confess, I tuned in and listened longer than I should have. When a caller rambled, thus wasting the time of both the host and his guest, Larry King would irascibly say, “Get to the point!” Long about now, you might be wondering when I’ll explicitly link all I’ve been saying about the fruits of the Holy Spirit and the Beatitudes to evangelization and consecrated life, to the vocation and state of life which the Institutes represented here have so faithfully embraced. I’ll get right on it!
It was Blessed Pope John Paul II, in his Exhortation, Vita Consecrata, who wrote: “ … consecrated life, through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, ‘constitutes a closer imitation and an abiding re-enactment in the Church of the way of life which Jesus the supreme Consecrated One and missionary of the Father embraced and proposed to his disciples” (VC, 22). Later, in the same Exhortation, Pope John Paul II added: “A particular duty of the consecrated life is to remind the baptized of the fundamental values of the Gospel, by bearing ‘splendid and striking testimony that the world cannot be transfigured and offered to God without the Spirit of the Beatitudes” (VC, 56). It is that ‘splendid and striking testimony’ that you are called to contribute not just to the Church’s mission but to her deepest identity as bearer of the Gospel. Elsewhere in his beautiful exhortation, Pope John Paul II teaches that the evangelical counsels are a gift of the Trinity by which certain of the Lord’s followers are consecrated to live the Gospel in concentrated form. The evangelical counsels—chastity, poverty, obedience—express the intra-Trinitarian love which Jesus revealed in his sacred humanity, in his preaching, and in his death and resurrection. The evangelical counsels when lived in the power of the Holy Spirit bring about in individual religious and in the religious communities ‘a transfigured way of life capable of amazing the world’ (VC, 20). What we seek to do is not to amaze the world so as to call attention to ourselves or to any ideology or any purely political agenda – but rather to be agents who foster among the baptized and among those who are sincerely seeking the truth, a sense of wonder & awe which, in God’s grace, will lead to “Eucharistic amazement”, to recall yet another wonderful phrase of Blessed Pope John Paul II.
Just this past August, Sr. Joyce Candidi of the Oblate Sisters of the Heart of Jesus, offered a reflection which shows how the truth, beauty, and love of Christ shines forth upon the world via the self-abnegation, the self-oblation which the three evangelical counsels necessarily entail (see CMSWR website, VC, 21). Beginning with the vow of poverty, she acknowledges what Revelation teaches about the good of creation coupled with the perennial human tendency to abuse and hoard its bounty. Consecrated persons, as living signs of the self-giving love of the Trinity, bear living witness to the Son of Man who was poor in spirit, to the point of having had ‘no place to lay his head’ (Mt. 8:20). By allowing themselves to be dispossessed so as to acquire the pearl of great price (Mt. 13:16), namely, the Word made flesh, consecrated persons help to free those enslaved to possessions and to artificial needs that drive consumer society and lead to a re-discovery of Christ, the only treasure worth living for. By the vow of chastity, persons in consecrated life bear living witness to “the infinite love which links the three Divine Persons in the mysterious depths of the Trinity” (VC, 21) – that love which was revealed when the Son of Man poured out his life to save us. In foregoing the beautiful gifts of marriage and family, and by leading lives marked by purity of heart, by self-control and chastity, those in consecrated life manifest the single-hearted love at the heart of the Trinity, a love which Jesus revealed by his own style of life (recently discovered papyruses notwithstanding). As the document Starting Afresh from Christ adds, “Virginity opens the heart to the measure of Christ’s heart and makes it possible to love as he loved” (SA, 22). When people encounter such love in their lives, perhaps for the first time, a love that is pure, self-giving, and passionate, a love tied to truth and goodness, they can be liberated and amazed & perhaps for the first time their lives make sense. (see Redemptor Hominis, no. 10). A word about the vow of obedience by which religious bear living witness to Christ ‘whose food was to do the Father’s will’ (Jn. 4:34) and to that ‘liberating beauty of a dependence which is not servile but filial’ – (VC, 21) a reflection in history of the harmony of the Persons of the Trinity. The ultimate point of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, the Beatitudes, and the Our Father is that the greatest happiness we can experience here and in the hereafter is the harmony of our wills with the will of God, loving what God loves and rejecting what God rejects (see Deus Caritas Est). For many, obedience of every sort seems to be an infringement of one’s freedom and a trampling on their natural rights – yet, as the immortal Dante put it, “In his will is our peace” (Divine Comedy).
It seems to me that a general principle is starting to shape up and it’s this. Almost everyone agrees that Pope Paul VI prophetically identified as the great drama of the times in which we live the split between faith and culture. Indeed, this has been repeated not only in the writings of subsequent pontiffs but also in the flood of writings and talks on evangelization since 1974. Yet there are differing ways of looking at how to heal the rift. One way is to conform the faith as closely as possible to the culture. For example, a priest recently told me that the Church’s evangelizing mission really should prompt us to in some way recognize and even bless same sex marriages. That was his way and the way of many others to heal the fissure of faith and culture. Yet, that tensionless capitulation to the prevailing winds of culture is never the way of the Gospel; the Gospel always proceeds by way of moving from paradox to mystery – by giving we receive, by losing our lives we gain them, by dying we are born to eternal life. These terms, giving to receiving, dying to live – contradictory in human terms – reveal something of the inner life of the Trinity in our flesh and blood. We will make headway in healing the breach between faith and culture not by conforming the faith to culture but by way of paradox on the road to mystery. That is why your lives, chaste, poor, and obedient, so seemingly out of touch not only with popular culture but with the underlying philosophical currents of contemporary culture, has the possibility of impacting it and transforming it from within: ‘a transfigured way of life capable of amazing the world.’
V. The End in the Beginning
Most of us remember Stephen Covey’s book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The second of his seven habits is this: “Begin with the end in mind.”In other words, before some large and important undertaking, the highly effective person will have formed in his or her mind a pretty clear and concrete idea of the outcome, what the complete project should look like and what its effects ought to be. I happen to think I am talking to some highly effective people! The fruits of the Holy Spirit and the Beatitudes – indeed that which we pray for so earnestly in the Our Father – are outcomes. If we would be good evangelizers, these outcomes must not be merely an idea or a personal attainment but rather through Christ in the Spirit they should have taken possession of our souls and transformed us from within, body, mind, and spirit – in every dimension of our lives. Those whom we seek to evangelize must be able to see in us at least something of the outcome – for there is no reason for them really to be interested in the Gospel except that they are finally pondering the question, “what must I do to be saved?” “what lies beyond the grave?” “what really is the meaning of my existence?”
So long as the Gospel is advertised as an alternative palliative for earthly pain and really not much more, or so long as eternal redemption is a preached as a slam dunk requiring little or no conversion from the what the culture incessantly tells us, evangelization will fall flat and will not succeed – as empty churches and empty novitiates demonstrate so hauntingly. Rather, it is in ‘setting our hearts on that which is above where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father’ (Col. 3:1), in proclaiming the Gospel “without compromise” as Catherine Dougherty put it, that people are attracted from their former way of life and won over to the living God through the witness of our lives transformed by Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
So if we begin with the end in mind, we realize that the goal of your lives as consecrated religious and the goal of my life as a priest and bishop is the abundant fruit that comes from remaining in Christ and the lasting fruit that is born of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Continually seeking to die to Christ so that we may live with him, continually on the path to conversion and holiness, we are seeking to help those we encounter to become people of charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity – blessed because they are poor in spirit, happy because they mourn, rejoicing because they are meek, content because they seek holiness, joyous because they show and receive mercy, blessed because they are clean of heart and ready to suffer for the Kingdom (see Mt. 5:3-10). We are seeking to be formed and to form those who can truly say to the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the lasting and abundant fruit which the Lord seeks of us!
As we enter upon this Year of Faith, please accept my warmest that Sisters for your witness to Christ and please accept my prayers for you and the communities you represent. And please do pray for me now and again that I may be a good shepherd and courageous teacher of the faith as well.Thanks for listening!