Given at Westminster Cathedral at the opening Mass for the Year of Consecrated Life on 29 November 2014.
Last Sunday, as you might have heard, I went to Gaza to visit the Catholic community and to celebrate Mass with them. It was a disturbing and deeply shocking visit. There were scenes of devastation all round. The results of war are always thus.
It was shocking to see such endemic poverty, the fate of so many ordinary people there, caught up in a terrible conflict. As I drove round, there was very little constructive economic activity that I could see. What little economic activity there is took the form of trade in second-hand and salvaged material. But that’s not enough to sustain 1.5 million people.
Gaza has a high population of young people under the age of 25. Although they are well-educated, there is little future for them. And what they have seen and experienced in their young lives is nothing short of traumatic. Any child who has reached the age of eight has already lived through three wars!
And yet there are signs of hope. The Catholic parish is blessed with 12 sisters belonging to three religious congregations. Given the size of the parish of 140, they are a much needed blessing. The Missionaries of Charity run an orphanage looking after children and infants, some of whom are disabled, who have lost their parents. The Sisters of the Incarnate Word work in the parish with the Priest, Fr Jorge and the Rosary Sisters run a large secondary school with 800 pupils, very few of whom are Catholic. The vast majority of the pupils, as with the overall population, are Muslims. This is one measure of the great contribution that this tiny community make to the wider common good.
The sisters are there in the midst of the community, doing what religious sisters do. They are doing what is done here 100 times over, in different circumstances. They carry out their mission in extreme circumstances. You do so, day by day, here in our community. And it always done with a smile, always with delight and happiness, with the joy of wanting to work hard and serve the Lord wherever it is needed.
This brings me to the words printed on the opening page, words of Pope Francis: 'I want to say one word to you and this word is joy. Wherever consecrated people are, there is always joy.' That is true in Gaza. It’s true here and in so many places. So, thank you for all that you do and the joy with which you do it.
The source of this joy can be found in the Scriptures for this Mass. They carry us to that source in powerful images.
In the first reading, the Lord says to each of us, ‘Set me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm.’ Now a seal is a badge of authenticity. A seal is a word of the Author, a guarantee of ownership, of bonding.
A seal is an indelible mark, a brand. It is permanent, a gift of faithful love which carries with it the pain of such love, a love that is stronger than death. It’s a seal on the heart. It is deep, inscrutable, hidden, nurtured in intimacy, away from public gaze.
Yet it is also a seal on the arm. It is to be public, visible, worn where others see it, giving an unmistakable identity, one which is recognised by all who see it.
This is a seal which is tender and strong, a seal that is treasured, a seal that makes clear the source of joy, for it is a seal of our Master.
This Year of Consecrated Life is an opportunity for renewing this depth in our lives. It is an opportunity for making clearer and explaining publicly the character of our calling. This is surely one of our aims during this Year: to tell our story and to rejoice in all we have received.
The Gospel today spells out a crucial lesson: we cannot truly tell our story unless the person of Jesus is central to the account we give.
In the Gospel, we hear of the vine and the branches. It is an organic connection: one root, one sap which rises and gives fruit. ‘I am the vine. You are the branches.’ No matter how imaginative and creative we may want to be, we cannot tell our story without speaking of Him whom my heart loves, of Him whom all my days I gladly serve. He is central to our salvation. He must be central to the story we want to tell.
There is discomfort too in this image. To be fruitful we have to be pruned. To accept a seal, to make a promise, to be professed, is to be cut off from other possibilities, just as it is to be married or dedicated to a profession. Without pruning a vine goes all over the place: dashing here and there, grabbing onto this and that, claiming a lodging in so many different places. But it bears no fruit.
So, as we reflect, do not be afraid to name the points at which you were pruned: the cost, the things you gave up, the family you did not have, the bank accounts you did not fill, the autonomy you gave up. And reflect on them with gratitude, not regret, because by them the Lord brought you closer to Himself.
And we will continue to be pruned, until the final pruning cut when we shall be free to be with Him for eternity.
We are on the threshold of Advent. Already we have heard the words of the trumpet call of Advent, words spoken in a setting of devastation, words that can resonate throughout this Year of Consecrated Life: in our hearts, in the story you tell in parishes, in gatherings, in newsletters, in articles, in every initiative. These are the words: 'Stand erect, hold your heads high, for your liberation is near at hand!'
So, set Him as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm, for love is strong as death, Love which no flood can quench, no torrents drown.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols