A. As was mentioned at the beginning of Mass, this evening we are joined by women and men in consecrated life who serve in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. We are closing a special year of appreciation for consecrated life that Pope Francis inaugurated last year; at the same time we are observing the World Day for Consecrated Life as well as the significant anniversaries of those men and women who have consecrated their lives to God.
B. The term “consecrated life” may not be familiar to many Catholics. Perhaps we are more familiar with the term “religious life” – and with terms such as “sisters”, “nuns”, “brothers” or “religious”. Consecrated life is a more inclusive term. It refers not only to members of religious communities but indeed to all those in the Church who have dedicated their lives to God to the Church through the vows or promises of chastity, poverty, and obedience.
C. We owe a great debt of thanks to these men and women in consecrated life. They continue to serve the Church and the wider society in many different ways: they educate the young, care for the sick and elderly, welcome immigrants, assist the poor and needy, assist in parishes, and much, much more. In fact, in tonight’s celebration, the Year for Consecrated Life, now ending, and the Year of Mercy, now beginning, come together. For it is often men and women in consecrated life who lead the Church in practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy – such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and consoling the sorrowful. They do all of this and much more with a generous, good-hearted love that speaks to us of the presence and power of Christ’s love still at work in our world. So, let us ask where this vocation comes from and what energizes it.
II. Love Is the Answer
A. The answer to that question, happily, can be found in tonight’s Scripture readings, beginning with that beautiful hymn to love by St. Paul in our second reading. The word “love” is used to describe many things, including a multitude of sins, but authentic Christian love imitates the love revealed in the heart of Jesus. Other kinds of love can be tainted with selfishness and deceit. But Jesus loves us for our own sake, and he pours out his life and love for us without seeking any reward or return for his love, except the benefit it brings us. And what is the benefit his love brings to us? Salvation from our sins and a renewed capacity to love God and others!
B. All of us were called on the day of our baptism to love as Jesus loves. It’s really not enough merely to love our neighbor as ourselves. At the Last Supper, the first Eucharist, Jesus said to his Apostles, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you should love one another” (John 13:33-34). If we are honest with ourselves, we know we fall short of the ideal. How many times a day do we sin against love?
C. Those in consecrated life have accepted a further calling that contains an element of derring-do. They have consecrated their lives in and for this love Jesus has for us. And their consecration in Jesus’ love takes the form of three vows or promises: chastity, poverty, and obedience. So, they have been called and chosen to live Christian love in a concentrated form. They have adopted Christ’s own style of life and strive in God’s grace to reproduce in our times his chaste and singlehearted love, to renew in our times Jesus’ simplicity of life and his love for the poor, and to replicate his loving obedience to the merciful will of God his Father. We call these vows or promises evangelical counsels because they spring from the heart of the Gospel and aid in spreading the Gospel.
D. In fact, the vows are not so much about what consecrated men and women cannot do but much more about what they can do… their lives are all about the freedom, the joy, and the apostolic vigor that Jesus’ love, when reproduced in our lives, unlocks. And so we should not be surprised to find sisters, brothers, religious priests, consecrated lay women, members of secular institutes – the list goes on – we should not be surprised when we find these men and women doing amazing things for the Church and for humanity. We should not be surprised that when we get to know them we see in them the promise of God’s Kingdom here and now. They are called, Pope Francis says, “to wake up the world!” Their “transfigured lives”, Pope John Paul II said, “are capable of amazing the world!”
III. The Counsels Really Are Evangelical
A. So far, dear women and men in consecrated life, I have spoken about you, and so glowingly that I hope you do feel you are listening to your own eulogy! Now, with your kind permission, I’d like to offer you a word or two, words that reflect not only my gratitude but also the inspiration I draw from you as I seek to fulfill my own responsibilities as a pastor and minister of the Gospel.
B. Many of you heard the calling to religious life early on in life. Some of you, like myself, began to pursue your vocation in your teenage years. So, I’m betting you can relate to what the Lord said through the prophet, Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born, I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” The seed of your vocation was inscribed on your humanity from the start, it was watered in baptism, nurtured by the Word of God and the Sacraments, and in the grace of the Holy Spirit has come of age. And your vocation, like all vocations, in the Church, has a prophetic element: as individuals and as members of religious communities, you personify the Gospel that you proclaim in Word and ministry.
C. Both you and I know that we do this while struggling with our faults and failings. You and I do this as imperfect instruments of a perfect love. In spite of it all, the Lord has called you to consecrated life and he has made you a sign of the Kingdom of God in our midst. Just as Jeremiah and the Lord Jesus himself encountered opposition from the beginning of their ministry, so too you stand for truths, values, a way of life, and a way of love that is often in sharp contrast with a culture that sometimes is self-centered, a culture that accepts diversity but often insists on a kind of secular orthodoxy. The Gospel values you embody and work to attain transcend the narrow ideological and political categories that are all around us. It may be hinted that we should stick to our monasteries and flee to our sacristies and remain silent as the world passes by. Yet, if the evangelical counsels you proclaim are meant to express Jesus’ love for us, then they are meant not to make war on culture, nor merely to coexist with culture, but to transform the culture from within by means of that love Jesus has for all of us. In your lives and ministries, human dignity and social justice are not abstract ideas; they are made concrete by the love of Jesus which you bring to persons and communities that suffer from both physical and spiritual poverty. In your chastity we find love; in your poverty, true value; in your obedience, freedom!
IV. Conclusion: Year of Consecrated Life and the Year of Mercy
A. So, as the Year of Consecrated Life gives way to the Year of Mercy, I join with Bishop Madden, with Catholics from every corner of the Archdiocese, and with many in the wider culture who know and love you – I join with all of them in thanking you for the works of mercy that you accomplish because you are consecrated to the Lord in his love. May the Lord give you encouragement and joy in your vocation and may many young women and men respond generously, as you did, to a vocation to consecrated life!
B. God bless you and keep you always in his love!