Given at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday 1 February 2014
Today's Mass is a lovely event, a moment to treasure. Here we come together to thank God for all the wonder and goodness we have experienced. And today, with a particular joy, we congratulate all the sisters present who are celebrating their Golden Jubilees during this year. And they are a good number, too! Religious life is evidently good for body as well as soul!
As we, or rather you, look back, one of the great features of your lives - and mine too although in a different way - is the experience of living in community. This is so often the focus of our happiness and often the focus of our disappointments and even our bitterness, too. Life in community is something with which we all struggle and, without doubt, will continue to struggle in the years ahead.
For Pope Francis, the project of living in the communities of the Church is quite central to our living of the Gospel. He tells us that in many significant ways the Lord comes to us in and through the actions of others, through the working of community and the relationships which make up that community. He warns us of the dangers of wanting to avoid the challenges of community, knowing only too well how easy that is.
He says that the Christian ideal calls us to overcome suspicions and mistrust of other, to overcome the fear of losing our privacy, and all sorts of other defensive attitudes. These are his words:
'Many try to escape from others and take refuge in the comfort of their privacy or in a small circle of close friends, renouncing the realism of the social aspect of the Gospel......Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness (Evangelii Gaudium 88).'
Then he explains a little more what he means when he speaks of a 'contemplative fraternity' - not an easy phrase to translate into everyday English! He is pointing to a way of living together, for both women and men, which seeks always to see the other through the eyes of God and not within the limits of human sight and reaction.
Pope Francis goes on to say:
'This is a fraternal love capable of seeing the sacred grandeur of our neighbour, of finding God in every human being, of tolerating the nuisances of life in common by clinging to the love of God, of opening the heart to divine love and seeking the happiness of others just as their heavenly Father does. Here and now, especially where we are a “little flock” (Luke 12:32), the Lord’s disciples are called to live as a community which is the salt of the earth and the light of the world (cf. Matthew 5:13-16). We are called to bear witness to a constantly new way of living together in fidelity to the Gospel. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of community! (Evangelii Gaudium 92)'
I have long thought that religious women have a great capacity to give a particular witness to this gift of the Gospel, despite all the difficulties it entails. A sure sign is the joyful laughter that often rings out when religious are together! How well I recall hearing some young people, a good few years ago now, ask of the religious communities of North London, this gift: 'Teach us,' they said, 'how to live together in community because no one else even tries!'
I thank you for the witness you give and all the crosses you bear in doing so.
Today's readings are helpful in reflecting on these themes.
Listening to Malachi we heard the Lord spoken of as 'the refiner and purifier.' Here we think of the flame of his love for each of us, and for all of us, as the agent of that purification. It is his love that calls us to rise above ourselves and strive to new efforts. It is his love alone that sometimes can motivate us to get out of bed in the morning and face again our own struggles and the idiosyncrasies of our companions.
And this love, this purifying, refining love, is made utterly visible and effective in his death on the cross, in the shedding of his blood to which we have saving recourse at this and every Mass. Only here do we receive the strength for each day, the food and flood of love which replaces our weariness with willingness, our hardness with compassion, our negativity with practical, positive action.
No wonder the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of him as 'the compassionate and trustworthy High Priest', able to atone for our sins because he is fully one with us in our human nature.
So, today, like Anna and Simeon of the Gospel, we present ourselves afresh to the Lord, seeking a joyful renewal in our dedication.
As the prayer of the Mass says: 'by your grace may we be presented to you with minds made pure.'
Recently I was stuck by these words from the Book of Lamentations. They seem so fitting to our Mass today, a Mass of thanksgiving, a Mass of re-dedication, a Mass celebrating the ever-youthful hope and joy given by the Gospel and to be expressed in our lives:
'But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
"The Lord is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."