On 31 January, as part of the celebrations of the Year for Consecrated Life, Sister Ann Cunningham OP, Prioress of the Congregation of Saint Catherine of Siena, Newcastle, Natal, welcomed fellow Dominican, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon OP, of the Archdiocese of Liverpool, to the Niland Conference Centre to share his reflections on the place of Religious Life in today’s Church.
The atmosphere was resonant with joy as old friends came together, and new friendships were formed. Archbishop Malcolm’s relaxed, friendly but challenging style of presentation made it a very worthwhile occasion. His reflections were appreciated by some 120 people, Religious and Lay alike. It was a lovely gathering of various branches of the Dominican Family, as Sisters from three Congregations were present, together with a sprinkling of friars. We were joined by Religious women, and even a few men, from various spiritual families in the Church. Indeed, we were a wonderful cross-section of the People of God. In particular, the presence of the Daughters of Saint Paul with a mobile bookshop was greatly appreciated by many. In the words of Pope Francis, it was an occasion when truly Religious were able to ‘arrange [ourselves] so as to give expression to the one gift of God.’
Archbishop Malcolm’s talk was inspired by Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter to all Consecrated People, and centred on the reminder us that the Holy Father wants to bring the world back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ: ‘Is Jesus really our first and only love?’ Archbishop Malcolm’s theme was Mission, and Passion was a word he used many times in his address. Mission, he reminded us, is the raison d’etre of consecrated life and, in order to be effective, mission must be carried out with passion. Holiness, spirituality, the core of Christian life, must include mission, otherwise it is pointless.
Mission, Archbishop Malcom reminded us, means being sent by God to carry out the work of God. Theology itself must begin with mission; if it does not then theology is without passion, without energy. Creation was a missionary act of God. God is love and through love He made us in His image and likeness, and made us for a purpose. We were created in a Garden and sent to care for the earth, for the material world and its entire people. Our mission is to promote the original plan of God, the kingdom of God. All work, all inventions for the betterment of humankind, are part of this single mission. Sin is a refusal to carry out this mission.
Consecrated life, Archbishop Malcolm continued, is about service to others. It is not about individual self-realization or ambition. It must not involve ‘isms’ such as materialism, consumerism, or individualism. These will not lead to the realization of God’s Kingdom. The Formation of Religious has tended to focus on being rather than on mission. While being is important, Archbishop Malcolm emphasised, mission is more so. Religious must be outward- not inward-looking. Sadly, many today are centred on internal preoccupations and mission has become secondary. Archbishop Malcolm believes that problems are actually worse where missionary sense is weak. Again, Pope Francis is summoning consecrated people ‘to examine [their] fidelity to the mission entrusted to them.]’ In the absence of that fidelity, our consecrated life lacks meaning.
Mission is found in the Divine Being. It emerges from the heart of the Father, all of whose actions are mission. Missionaries are sent by God to carry out the work of God, to collaborate with God. Their mission is not theirs but God’s. This requires deep contemplation, communion with Jesus, listening to the Spirit as well as to the cries of the materially or spiritually needy. The Spirit needs people who are willing, open, surrendering, sensitive to the signs of the times, ready to serve with passion. We need to listen to the Gospel and let the Word light up our vision. We need to ask ourselves frequently what we have done to proclaim the gospel today.
If we truly live our mission the Church will be rejuvenated. Authentic missionaries attract and invite others to mission. Pope Francis reminds us that it is not our future but God’s future that matters. If we hold fast to mission, new life with follow.
Certainly the day was one of grace and blessing, bringing together consecrated men and women from a variety of charisms, and lay people committed to the mission entrusted to them. In a small way, we began to realise one of the hopes Pope Francis has named for this year: ‘a growth in communion between the members of different Institutes.’ Beginning with the opening of the Year for Consecrated Life in November 2014, a group of women religious has been working together to foster a deeper understanding of our different charisms each of which contributes to weaving the fabric of the whole Church committed to the mission of building the Kingdom of God. This day of reflection with Archbishop Malcolm, who shares our passion for the consecrated life, will surely bear fruit as together we ‘step out more courageously from the confines of our respective Institutes and work together.’
Sister Anne Walsh OP, Sister Columba Clearly OP, Sister Karen Marguerite OP
Rosary Priory, 2015