Provincial Assembly of St. Joseph’s Young Priests Society

Talk given at the Provincial Congress of St. Joseph's Young Priests Society: 13th of March 2015

" During the summer, I was approached by some young lay people who were very interested in making a video about religious life. What you just saw was the finished product. I felt very privileged to be part of this endeavour and to work alongside other committed religious brothers and sisters. Launched on youtube on the 2nd of February, it has already clocked up 11,000 hits or so. The video has drawn a very positive reaction from many areas, even from secular journalism, highlighting the fact that religious life does in fact still invite interest, even if at times, this interest is mere curiosity. Religious life has existed for thousands of years and in every major religion. Every human person of whatever race, culture or religion tends irresistibly towards what is holy, what is mystery. Some choose to live this search for God passionately. I call this a pilgrimage and identify myself am a pilgrim, trying to travel always with that pilgrim virtue of joy!
However if you type in the word ‘nun’ in google, you have to scroll through at least 200 images before you get one that actually depicts a real nun and is not a caricature or is a not mocking crude image either. Against the backdrop of this ridicule, for the past decade or so, it seems that we have been afraid to tell the story of Jesus who calls individual men and women to serve him in religious life. Yes, the Church has been battered by so many scandals. But this generation of religious does not have the baggage of the Church of the 80 and 90’s to drag it down. This does not mean that we don’t acknowledge what has happened but we have to keep telling the story, our story. When I give vocations talks at youth retreats or conferences, I realise that people love hearing other people’s vocational calls as more than often they are hoping that there is something which will strike a chord in their own lives and be that trampoline which will help them to progress one stage further on their discernment process.
Whether, it’s to marriage or the priesthood or the religious life, as one of my own religious sisters likes to say, "nothing is better than a good love story". And there are many love stories out there! Believe it or not, there are nearly 1.2 million religious brothers, sisters in religious orders and diocesan priests in the world. The total global number in 2014 was broken down like this:
705,529 religious sisters and nuns
279,561 diocesan priests worldwide
134,752 religious order priests
55,314 religious brothers
When the Superiors General of the male Religious Orders, resident in Rome, asked for a meeting to greet the new Pope last November, November 24th, they got more than they bargained for! The Pope also took the opportunity on that occasion to announce that he would be proclaiming a Year for Consecrated Life for the entire Church, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, which speaks of religious in its sixth chapter and of the Decree of Vatican II Perfectae Caritatis. He also announced the review of the document on the mutual relations between bishops and religious.

The Year for Consecrated Life, which is actually not a calendar year, runs from the 29th of November 2014, to the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on 2nd of February 2016. After consultation with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life, he chose as the aims of this Year the same ones which Saint John Paul II proposed to the whole Church at the beginning of the third millennium, reiterating, in a certain sense, what he had earlier written in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata: “You have not only a glorious history to remember and to recount, but also a great history still to be accomplished! Look to the future, where the Spirit is sending you in order to do even greater things” (No. 110).” Following this, he outlined the aims of the Year of Consecrated Life: 1. To look to the past with gratitude. 2. To live the present with passion and 3. To embrace the future with hope.
Each time, I look at these aims; I am given the opportunity to look at the story which God writes with my life. I look to the past with a grateful heart, I strive to live the present with passion. I look to the future with a hope-filled gaze, knowing that it is in God’s hands.
When I left home at the age of 18 just after my Leaving Cert in 1998 to try out religious life, religious profession seemed so far down the road and only a possibility according to my own human reasoning. After all I had just ‘come to see’ the lifestyle of the sisters and had placed a large ‘handle with care’ sticker on my vocation. As time went on, my own spiritual hunger was being nourished, God’s footsteps began to become clearer in my life and I realised that it was getting serious- He was asking me to stay and serve his Church through this particular Congregation. Six years later, after spending three years in Stillorgan, Dublin and three years in our formation house in Rome I arrived at the big day where I consecrated myself to a life of service completely to Jesus the Divine Master and His Church with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in community life.
Looking back at these ‘footsteps’ I see that my vocation is nothing extraordinary and yet it is special because there are so many people and experiences woven into it. Being born and reared in Athlone my first encounter with our sisters was when I was 11 years old in one of our Liturgical Centres there in Athlone. Having met the sisters, I was struck by their authenticity which was reflected in the deep joy and peace they radiated with a mission which is shaped by prayer and liturgy, community, ministry and hospitality especially to priests. This was the magnet which attracted me to become part of this reality when I found it vibrantly resonating within my own heart as a teenager. They invited me to a choir practice in our parish and it was there that the tiny mustard seed had been sown. My love for music and for song was a decisive factor in this initial response and little did I know that it would be a catalyst for my vocational decision a few years later.

I was looking for stability and to make serious choices regarding my future and religious life was on the ‘to do list’. It was at this stage that I discovered Jesus present in the Eucharistic and the beauty of Perpetual Adoration, thanks to the various retreats passed with the sisters in Dublin and with the group ‘Youth 2000’. I discovered that He provides a spiritual adrenalin rush with his Eucharistic body and his Word that continues to pass through my blood filling me with new life. I had been searching to close an interior abyss that couldn’t be filled elsewhere. It was strange and even scary hearing myself pronounce those famous words ‘I want to join the convent and become a religious sister’. I was 17 at the time and like any teenager of that age I feared the reaction of my family and friends- it wasn’t exactly the ‘done thing’. My family were wonderful about it and have supported me 100% all the way. Being the eldest of five I didn’t know what to expect but my parent’s conclusion was that if this is what would make me happy then they would be happy too. It took slightly longer for some of my friends to embrace the idea and some even thought I was ‘mad’ but as I thought to myself: “Blessed are the cracked, for them the light shines through.”
Yes, religious life continues to be an adventure imbued by the breath of the Holy Spirit. At present I am serving in the Archdiocese of Dublin as the Assistant Vicar for Religious. I also assist in the Office for Clergy and provide canonical advice within our diocesan structures when requested. There where our Office acts as a bridge between the many religious orders and the Archbishop, I can serve religious priests, brothers and sisters, both contemplative and active, consecrated women of the order of consecrated virgins, public associations of the faithful, both diocesan and pontifical, not to mention whatever else lands on my desk! It is a wonderful experience to discover the wealth of the 100 plus different religious congregations and societies of apostolic life which are in the Diocese.
It is a great joy for me today to be with you who are the members of Saint Joseph Young Priests Society. Throughout the years I have witnessed the work of the Society and its members. When I read the profile of the work of the Society, it is like looking into the mirror of our specific religious charism. Our Founder wrote to us: “Your work is prayer for priests as they start off, in the active ministry, for sick priests, for deceased priests. You will have a special share in the fruits of the Masses, prayers and apostolate of the priests.”

Whilst our charism extends to priests in all their needs, special emphasis is placed on accompanying seminarians and young priests at the beginning of their ministry. We walk with them from ‘the womb to the tomb’ so to speak. From that time when they are discerning until they pass to the next life and beyond, our prayers and practical service accompany them. This varies from country to country according to the various ecclesial needs, yet the common thread is that we live out the vocation of motherhood.
Tomorrow here in Ireland, we celebrate Mother’s Day. We live in times in which much has been said about woman, her dignity and her role in the family and the world. Last year Pope Francis raised eyebrows around the world when he told a group of 800 visiting nuns they must be spiritual mothers and not 'old maids.' The sisters, who came from 76 countries, were in Rome for the plenary assembly of the International Union of Superiors General. He asked them; "What would the church be without you? It would be missing maternity, affection, tenderness and a mother's intuition." In his talk to the women, Pope Francis said their vow of chastity expands their ability to give themselves to God and to others "with the tenderness, mercy and closeness of Christ."  However, "please, let it be a fruitful chastity, a chastity that generates sons and daughters in the church. The consecrated woman is a mother, must be a mother and not a spinster," he said. While the sisters were laughing at his use of a very colloquial Italian word for "spinster" or "old maid," he added: "Forgive me for speaking this way, but the motherhood of consecrated life, its fertility, is important."

When I got to this part of the Pope’s talk, I was happily surprised. I had been waiting a long time to hear this said and it was a beautiful confirmation of my vocation at the service of the priesthood. As a disciple of the Divine Master, the vocation of spiritual maternity is very strong in our lives. We are called in a special way to be mothers to priests, walking alongside them as Mary our Mother walked with Jesus. Pope Francis said that just as Mary could not be understood without recognizing her role as being Jesus' mother, the church cannot be understood without recognizing its role as being the mother of all believers. "And you are an icon of Mary and the church," he said. Often people don’t associate sisters or nuns as being mothers, unless they happen to have the title ‘Mother Superior’. In many circles, even this title is dying out as for many it has connotations with subordination and not maternity.
One of the saddest things I sometimes hear a sister say is that they enter religious life because they don’t feel called or have the vocation to be a mother. Every religious sister should be able to say: ‘I would have been a good mother or a good spouse’. The same can be said of every priest or brother. First of all, a vocation is a call that the Lord places in the heart of the human person. The human person, created to love, will find its fulfillment in the generous giving of self. A vocation is a human reality, since only the human person was created for love, and only the human heart can experience a call to love and respond to it with love (MD, 29). Women realize this call to self-donation, which is engraved in their feminine nature, by being spouses and mothers. These are the two interconnected channels by which a woman expresses her call to a generous and sacrificial love, a love that is capable of giving life. The heart and body of a woman, and all of her being, is created to manifest her self-donation in two ways: being a spouse and a mother. Whether a woman embraces the vocation to married life or to consecrated virginity, she lives her spousal and maternal dimensions, but in different forms.

Consecrated chastity is actually a vow to love, not one person as in marriage, but to love God and all that flows from God. I get to be spiritual mother to 7 billion people! When I give my heart to God through this vow, I give my heart to all that is. My consecrated life is lived out in a community setting which is a challenge. In profession, I promise to live with my sisters for the Kingdom of God. This is a constant ministry of hospitality, I invite them in a genuine way into my life and I promise to enter their life in a respectful way, conscious that I walk on sacred ground. Day to day religious life is not glamorous or romantic. It's life - sometimes really good, sometimes so-so, and sometimes really difficult.
I have heard religious life likened to the effect of many snowflakes. This was an analogy which resonated particularly with me, considering last Summer I returned from having spent two years in Canada for my post-graduate studies. When we look at snowflakes, each one is a tiny, delicate crystal of ice, or cluster of ice crystals, that may be just a fraction of a centimetre and melts instantly upon contact. On its own, it doesn’t pack much punch, so to speak. However, when this tiny snowflake gets together with millions of other tiny snowflakes, everything changes. Nothing quite wakes up the world like a snowstorm! The power of snowflakes is in their togetherness. And so it is in the Christian life. We are stronger together. In religious life, this is particularly central. We are sisters because of the life which we hold in common. The title we assume implies that our primary identity is one of relationship, being ‘sisters’ indicates that we come from the same parent.

Sometimes I hear people say that religious life is such a waste! The particular Gospel passage which I choose for my Perpetual Profession is the passage from John’s Gospel where a woman anoints the feet of Jesus with precious ointment (John 12:1-8). The story of Jesus’ feet anointed with tears and perfume by a sinful woman is a love story, pure and simple. Not some cheap romance or TV soap love but one of complete and oblivious donation! When I look at my life at this moment and see this biblical woman’s gesture, I feel Jesus is saying to me: “Louise, are you ready to do the same? To be this self-emptying gift of prayer and joyful love, unafraid of stares or criticism from an often incomprehensive society? Are you willing to be balm for the brokenness and hurt of today’s humanity?” With his grace, I can answer with a heart-filled: “Yes!” For those around her, the gesture by the woman in the Gospel was a ‘waste’! The same echo often resounds when it comes to religious life: Is it not just a waste of a life? For me, it’s not! It is a life joyfully spent not on myself, but for others, a life dedicated out of love alone. For some, our prayer is a waste, for others going to Mass is foolishness, but for the ones who truly love Jesus it’s giving Him everything because He deserves it.

My journey so far in religious life has brought me immense happiness and satisfaction alongside times of sadness and challenges. It has allowed me to live in five different countries in various communities with different apostolic services, live with sisters from all over the world, solidify bonds of communion and friendship through a common mission and spirituality at the service of the Eucharist, the Priesthood and the Liturgy. In accordance with our specific charism, in daily adoration before the Blessed Sacrament to represent the needs of the Church and humanity and pray in reparation for the sins committed by the media, this is also where I find my strength and in turn the mission I carry out assumes its meaning. I discerned that the best way for me to live out my vocation to love is by this life of continual prayer and union with God as a Disciple of the Divine Master.

It’s not always easy to embrace the challenges which religious consecration presents but during these years I have come to understand that whilst it is possible to give without loving, I cannot love without giving. Concepts like obedience, celibacy, chastity and long-term commitment are often looked upon as frightening. In this cultural context it is a real challenge to us to be clear and confident about who we are as communities in mission and what we stand for. Drawing strength from a genuine relationship with Jesus nourished and reinforced with prayer, when my mind is still and alone with the beating of my heart. I can find a quiet assurance, an inner peace, in the core of my being that can face the doubts, the loneliness or the anxiety. It is there that He meets me where I am and as I am, making this concrete existence the place where He lives and dwells. Coming into religious life was an act of faith and love, both on my part and God’s part. To be a religious, today more than ever, is a risk, a huge leap of faith and love but it is a risk worth taking but it also of love-given and received! People often ask me: “Are you sure?” One hundred percent surety doesn’t enter into the equation here but what I am sure of is that God has a unique plan for me. If we reach the point where we are 100 percent sure, we have deleted that space for the Holy Spirit to work because God is a God of surprises. He is with me and He will not leave me. Without a deep sense of being held in this extravagant love, it would be hard to trust, face various decisions or let go of my safety nets which I had woven in order to keep God’s plans out and mine in! I am sure that, like the woman in the Gospel, that only when we stop measuring our relationship and response to God’s call in negative quantitative value, in what has to be ‘given up, that we truly start living qualitatively and receive the immensity of grace which He wants to pour onto our vulnerable love.
So a question? Does religious life has a future? Yes, I firmly believe it does. It will not be the religious life of 50 years ago, nor the numbers of 50 years ago. Consecrated life is at a crossroads but it cannot stay there forever. We have to make the transition, leaving behind what we know and undertake the Exodus journey. However consecrated life must preserve its identity, even to the point of paradox. Returning to monastic  roots, that is, to the radical and intense passion for the contemplation of God, consecrated life will become truly capable of a prophetic and transparent witness.

Allow me to give you a lovely example of how the Holy Spirit is preparing the future of religious life: Over the past 18 months or so, a new group has come into being called ‘Rise of the Roses’. Their mission is to rediscover the beauty of a life promised to God. These are not nuns or sisters. They are young vibrant women who love who they are and believe in the beauty of religious life! In their mission statement we read: “We believe that the Ireland is ripe for a new generation of young women (Irish Roses) to ‘rise up’ and answer the call to holiness. We are passionate about our home country, its people, culture and its rich Christian heritage. We want to show that the fire of faith still burns brightly in Ireland. The young people of our country have a tremendous opportunity, at this point in our history, to do something amazing for God - to 'rise and shine', spreading the joy and hope that comes from being a follower of Christ. We believe in power through ‘unity’. We aim to reconnect all the branches of our 'family tree' of believers so, rooted in Christ, the Catholic Church in Ireland can grow strong again and be a beacon of hope and shelter for all.”
Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation ‘Joy of the Gospel’ writes: “We are not called to accomplish epic feats or to proclaim high-sounding words, but to give witness to the joy that arises from the certainty of knowing we are loved, from the confidence that we are saved.” The ‘epic feat’ which we are called to live each day is simple, it is fidelity to the gift received. However, we continue to strive for holiness. Afterall, the works of God are performed by people of God. Our Founder, Blessed James Alberione reminds us that we sing the ‘Misere’ asking God for his pardon and then we intone the great ‘Magnficat’, as we praise Him for his goodness to us. The life of each of us, and the life of the whole Institute, is an ongoing story of grace upon grace: an apostolate suited to the needs of the times. As Disciples of the Divine Master, our life has been expressed since the beginning along the line of the Eucharistic mystery and with a style of life that is characterized by humility, silence, hiddenness, the spirit of sacrifice, and by unconditional giving of self.
The Church and religious life are always in dynamic relationship with the world in which they are inserted. The Church mirrors society so whatever flaws exist in society will exist in the Church and in consecrated life too. There is a crisis of fidelity in all sectors. Fear of commitment on a long term basis, we see it across society, be it in relationships and careers. Any commitment must renewed daily because it is a relationship built on unconditional love. Love matures, it is never finished and complete. It is hard to preach God in a world that believes it doesn’t need God. Today’s humanity is spiritually impoverished to the extent of not being able to realise its own poverty. The work of religious as individuals or communities is destroyed when it is “coloured by even the smallest taste of arrogance or sense of self-superiority." (Archbishop Diarmuid Martin to religious on 1st of February 2015).
Religious life will also be flawed because God calls normal people. He doesn’t call ‘ready-made saints’ or ‘instant nuns or priests’ He provokes. He asks: ‘what are you doing with your life? What meaning does it have?’ It is an itch that won’t go away and you have to respond with a generous and free ‘Yes’ just as I discovered. Again to quote from Pope Francis in his exhortation: “Joy of the Gospel”, he calls us to pause before the joy of the moment when "Jesus looked at me" and to recall the important and demanding, underlying meaning of our vocation: “It is a response to a call, a call of love”. To stay with Christ requires us to share our lives, our choices, the obedience of faith, the happiness of poverty, the radicality of love. It is about being reborn through vocation. Since we are witnesses of a communion beyond our vision and our limits, we are called to wear God’s smile and live joyfully.
In the 2014 Diocesan Statistics, we found there are over 3200 religious priests, brothers and sisters in the Dublin Diocese. Looking back 10 years ago, when I made my First Profession, there was a very obvious absence of vocations but there is a progressive turnaround in this area. Sometimes we may lose sight of the trees when we look at the forest. It is true that many religious orders have not had any vocations for a number of years but others have and this is a cause of joy and celebration for all of us. In the past 12 months alone here in the Archdiocese, 3 Jesuits have been ordained as Deacons. Tomorrow, God willing, I will attend the diaconate ordination of 6 Dominicans. The Capuchins will also welcome another deacon in the coming months. The Redemptoristines and Dominican Sisters respectively have each had a final and first Profession. There was one woman consecrated in the Order of Consecrated. The Fraternity of Mary Immaculate Queen, Ireland was recognised as a Diocesan Public Association of the Faithful en route to becoming a diocese religious Congregation. There are signs of a new springtime for the Church if we are willing to look at these buds of hope.
It may seem that religious life and other sectors of our Church are on a journey without a map. But that’s okay! Moses didn’t have a map yet he let the people on a journey of exodus, out of themselves and into the desert where they had to look at what was really essential. Maybe that is what is being asked of religious life at this time. After all the theological identity of religious life is not a reality given once and for all, it is a journey which enjoys the interior dynamism of the Holy Spirit. We embark upon this journey as the people of God. Where it exercises itself within the people of God is also given by the Spirit: maybe in the desert, on the periphery, at the frontier but always in the hearts of the people of God.

When Bishop Kevin Doran was consecrated bishop last July in Sligo, he launched the challenge at his ordination, asking: “Do we really want vocations? The answer seems to be: “Yes, but not from my family!” This is where the prayer comes in. And praying for vocations is part of the mission of St. Joseph’s Young Priest Society.This is a ministry which I fervently encourage you to continue, we need priests, holy priests to break the bread of the Word and the Eucharist for us.
I’d like to finish with a quote from the Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Eamon Martin on religious life: “May the Holy Spirit ‘fall afresh on us’ during this Year of Consecrated Life, blowing where God wills through our parishes, convents, monasteries and religious houses. Let the winds of the Holy Spirit inspire consecrated women and men to ‘wake up the world’. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has new plans for Consecrated Life in Ireland. We must be open to this, asking ourselves what are the charisms and apostolates that the Spirit desires for the renewal of faith in Ireland. I am confident that this renewal will be nourished and multiplied by the prayers and witness of consecrated women and men. Religious congregations – some old, some new- will continue to quietly inspire the people of Ireland by selfless lives of poverty, chastity and obedience, offering a humble, yet powerful, counter-witness to the emptiness that so often surrounds us.  If we are to ‘wake up the world’, there is much work to be done, but we need not fear. “With God all things are possible”. With joy and love in our hearts we will find ways of singing a new song to the Lord and “bringing the newness of the Gospel” to all our people.” AMEN."
Thank you.
Talk given by Sr. M. Louise O' Rourke, pddm, on the 13th of March, All Hallows College, Dublin.