Celebration with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny
of the Birthday of Blessed Anne Marie Javouhey
Sunday, 9 November 2008,
Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran
(cf. Ps. 45)
I Cor. 3:9-11.16-17
I am most pleased that the sisters doing the liturgy planning for the celebration of Blessed Anne Marie’s Birthday and the feast day of Mother Provincial wholeheartedly embraced the Church’s universal calendar and indicated to me that we would be celebrating the Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran, the Pope’s Cathedral Church in Rome. I don’t know how many memorable homilies you sisters have been treated to year in and year out for this Provincial celebration, but I’ll do my best in the short time appropriate to a Sunday homily to see what I can do to offer you something at least worthwhile for 2008.
One of the purposes for having the Feast of John Lateran in the universal calendar is to offer every local Church an opportunity to celebrate the dedication of its own cathedral, should there not already be an anniversary date on which that dedication is observed. Cathedral or not, we all are invited at least once a year to raise our thoughts, starting from the earthly temple, to the temple of Christ’s Body from which flows the water which brings life and freshness to all it touches. We are called to reflect on what is truly monumental, namely the community of believers who are one in Christ, the true and lasting temple founded by Jesus on the rock which is Peter.
The Lateran Feast indeed reminds us that the Church’s nature is not summed up in the brick and mortar of a building, no matter how lovely and inspiring; today we are invited to call to mind that at the heart of the ecclesial mystery are the living stones… we, the saints, who make up this edifice of the spirit which is the Church of God. The texts which embellish this feast are truly filled with love from beginning to end and leave no doubt as to what we are celebrating. Interestingly enough for you as religious, their language is also spousal in nature and most appropriate for your annual reflection on your identity as Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, that is to say, in terms of your dignity and place within the Church.
The entrance antiphon assigned for the feast is a great example of the use of this language from matrimony, which is also the language of religious consecration: “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, like a bride adorned in readiness for her husband.”
Worship spaces should be beautiful like a bride and they should be structured to reflect the inspired word of God and the tradition of the Church. These spaces should connect us to the holy city, the New Jerusalem, and reflect in our day and time the way God is worshipped there. More beautiful still than the building should be the face of the bride which reflects the eternal glory shining forth from the face of the Bridegroom. I remember reading the architect’s explanation of why he built the new abbey church at St. John’s, Collegeville, out of unadorned grey concrete. He said that the beauty and color were to be provided by the people who gathered in that space for worship (the argument didn’t convince me as a child and convinces me even less almost 50 years later, but at least it is true that in worship the accent should be on the worshippers). In that sense too, remembering that from liturgy we move into life and vice versa, religious women can be expected to have beautiful faces. Theirs or yours is not necessarily the freshness of healthy youth or the magic of beauty creams or the art of Hollywood’s best plastic surgeons. What renders you attractive is your happiness as a religious, which is rooted in your faithful adherence to the plan of life which you embraced along with Christ, your Spouse, on the day of your religious profession. Your beauty springs from creative faithfulness to the one Spouse worth chasing after, the Christ.
Not long ago in a conversation with a professional woman here in Port of Spain (this is a woman whose acquaintance I had the honor to make early on in my four years now almost here and with whom I have had occasion now and again to exchange ideas), she told me that recently she had suggested to her two nieces that they look into making a retreat and that it might be a good idea if for their future they seriously considered religious life. She told me that she had said this to them out of her own deep conviction concerning what makes for a happy life. From her own religious schooling and closeness to the sisters she told me she had learned some very important lessons. She finds the life of the convent comparable if not superior to many other life choices. Ideally for her, religious life represents the quintessence of the ordered lifestyle. With right order, she tells me and I agree, comes real dignity. The genuine humility and sense of common purpose she observes among religious women also inspire her to this conviction. She illustrates this point more concretely in her own words with this example: she told me that it fills her with admiration, for example, that today’s mother superior could become tomorrow’s motherhouse gardener, sacristan or portress. She told me straight out that, as far as she is concerned, only a life without pretense can be a truly happy life (I swear to you, I am not making this up. I was pleasantly surprised to hear this coming to me unsolicited from a laywoman).
The bottom line on one side of the big bookmark bi-centenary tribute to Blessed Anne Marie Javouhey, which I received from you last year, says as much as what I have been saying: “Anne Marie had the dispositions of an apostle according to Christ: -availability, -hope and confidence, -prayer, interior spirit, -joy in doing God’s work”. That your blessed foundress had these dispositions was certainly great, but even greater is the fact that she shared them with generations of women who have formed and continue to form a genuine edifice of the Spirit. To the extent that you live the life individually you are a gift to the world and to the extent that you witness to these values as a community, you represent the New Jerusalem, the beautiful bride come down out of heaven, ready for her Spouse. Recognize your dignity, or should I say recognize your beauty?
According to the axiom, united we stand and divided we fall, we are talking about a community effort, which nonetheless comes to be thanks to the virtue of the single members. As a young and perhaps naïve priest I accepted almost at face value the assessment that religious communities of the apostolic life, nursing orders and teaching communities in particular, were no longer getting the big numbers of vocations because they had successfully worked themselves out of a job. As I say, I must have been young and naïve because I hadn’t figured out that one generation replaces another and that having, as in your case, promoted one or more generations of Caribbean women doesn’t mean that you have worked yourself out of a job. The older generations die out and new ones take their place; the girls and women who need to be educated and affirmed in their dignity as children of God will never run out. Your work is never done.
I spent over eight years working for the Apostolic Nuncio in Germany, five in Bonn and over three in Berlin. It was my great privilege in those years to accompany my boss as he, the first papal representative since Eugenio Pacelli who had done so between the two world wars, went about visiting extensively the Catholic communities of eastern Germany. The East is not only the land devastated by Communism but from the time of Martin Luther it was virtually off-bounds for us as Catholics. This is the part of Germany which the Protestant Reformation took and sort of kept. Ancient and beautiful church buildings stand there relatively unchanged (forgive me now for a judgment on my part), unchanged because with the Reformation the vital sort of Catholic life which keeps repainting and changing worship spaces to reflect the life and growth of the Church of living stones died. The only reason there is still a Letna (a special type of Rood Screen) in Halberstadt is because faith life stopped still and died there. By comparison, the cathedrals in the Catholic parts of Germany or to keep to our theme for today John Lateran as a building have known the rigors of war and destruction, but more than that Rome’s cathedral church has always experienced expansion, beautification and remodeling at the hands of the popes at the head of a living community of faithful, regardless of ups and downs, regardless of defections and setbacks over the centuries.
Living stones, sisters, the Church is built of living stones and you are an incredibly important part of that edifice of God in the Spirit. From the Temple flows the water which brings freshness and life to all it touches. You are the light of the world, the city set on the mountain top which cannot be hidden, the lamp which has its proper place on the lamp stand.
Sisters, I’m tempted to go through point by point the words on the jubilee bookmark I mentioned before: “Ann Marie had the dispositions of an apostle according to Christ:
-hope and confidence,
-prayer, interior spirit,
-joy in doing God’s work”.
Let’s just take one so as not to prolong the homily too much and tax your patience: -hope and confidence. Why was Anne Marie beatified? Because of a bonified miracle attesting to her reputation of intercessory power most certainly! But also because of her life of heroic virtue! “Hope and confidence”: did Anne Marie have her hope set on what we today can celebrate as two monumental centuries of service by her daughters? You know the answer to that question without much coaxing. Wouldn’t it be better to say of her that she had her hope set on the New Jerusalem and that she had placed her confidence in her Bridegroom?
There’s no telling where hope and confidence might take you yet today. I can’t help but think of one of your elderly sisters of the other province over in Cayenne who got herself a storefront in the poorest, toughest part of town and started an after school care program for students, inviting the wives of the prominent people of town to come help her children with their school lessons, with their homework. They came and so did countless Brazilian grandmothers and others not strong enough in French to help the children with their lessons but eager to support something which could empower their children’s children and offer them the tools they need to succeed. Is sister building something which will ultimately have a monumental brick and mortar structure of its own? I doubt it very much. But for every child who has experienced love after school and has been helped on the road to language proficiency, reading skills, and all the rest, well no doubt Anne Marie has reason to smile and elbow the Blessed Mother or St. Peter and say: “Behold God’s dwelling place among men! Look at my sister!”
Sisters, happy birthday to your mother foundress and happy feast day to mother provincial! Each of you is a wealth of experience and a litany of thanks. Each of you is a beautiful bride prepared for your Spouse. Don’t become keepers of the stones of the past, no matter how lovely they may be! We don’t know at what hour the Bridegroom will show – be ready and watching with your lamps burning bright!