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Wednesday, 28 June 2017 22:23

A prophetic life disturbs and transforms

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Sr Mary Sujita snd and Fr Chris Monaghan cp 150Sister of Notre Dame Mary Sujita snd urged participants at the 2017 Catholic Religious Australia National Assembly to be ‘foot-washer leaders’ and reclaim the ‘prophetic sting’ that bears witness to God’s justice and compassion.

“The real prophetic challenge everywhere in the world today is to be a witness to the radical freedom, radical love and radical simplicity of Jesus in tangible ways so that our world can be touched and transformed by our presence and action,” said Sr Sujita. “Active compassion is prophetic action.”

“If we are serious about discipleship, then we need to take into account the distinct concern that Jesus showed for the downtrodden, women and migrants; his criticism of those in power; the summons he issued to the rich to divest themselves of surplus wealth; his denouncement of hypocritical religious leaders; his prophetic gesture of fellowship with the outcast and his way of challenging all to forgive.”

“These are the same ministries before us. We are called once again to be ‘foot-washer’ leaders. A prophetic religious life would always be countercultural and this is what Jesus has shown us by his example.”

Sr Sujita was speaking to an audience of around 130 leaders of Australian religious congregations and institutes, lay partners and guests who gathered in Melbourne from June 20 to 22 on the theme: Creating a future together – How will we be prophetic?

In her opening address, Sr Sujita affirmed the work of Australian religious, their achievements and their prophetic stance on key social issues, particularly citing the example of Saint Mary MacKillop. She also acknowledged their efforts in discerning the emerging identity of religious life in Australia amid the challenges of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

A missionary and educator, Sr Sujita became the first Asian Superior General of the Sisters of Notre Dame with its headquarters in Rome from 1998 to 2011. She has spent most of her time living among the marginalised people in North India. Drawing from her life and ministry among the Musahars in Bihar, she shared her insights and stories of encounter with the reality of poverty and powerlessness. One of the most powerful and humbling moments in her ministry was when a woman washed her feet upon her arrival in the community, a welcome sign of the poor. Living among the lowest in the caste hierarchy became a transforming and sacred experience. "The poor who have nothing have something to share with us," she said. "The people on the margins become our evangelisers, and the 'periphery' can even be in our communities."

How shall we be prophetic together?

To be prophetic disciples of Jesus, we need to live as Jesus lived, emphasised Sr Sujita. “We need audacious faith to confront ourselves and be open to ongoing conversion,  so like Jesus, our hearts and lives can embrace the most vulnerable people of our time,” she said. "We cannot communicate God's love to a people whose lives we have not touched with our lives, people who we really do not know as our brothers, sisters and friends."

She echoed Pope Francis who challenged all religious to make radical prophecy as a way of life, to go to the ‘periphery’ and meet people where they are. “The mission of Jesus was to reconcile and heal, to bring hope, comfort the afflicted and definitely discomfort the comforted, turn things upside down and inside out –a revolutionary way of being among human beings,” said Sr Sujita.

To be prophetic therefore entails a presence that disturbs and transforms. Sr Sujita urged religious leaders to translate their Chapter statements into action, which are borne of a genuine need but often become translated into institutional processes and structures.

“Each institution has its own needs and demands for efficiency and success, which have taken over the prophetic dimension of ministry. [We] somehow desensitise ourselves from that ‘prophetic sting’ and it is lost. How do we reclaim that part of our discipleship?”

“The Jesus moment was and always will be prophetic and revolutionary. You cannot domesticate the fire,” said Sr Sujita. “Today the spirit leads us to ask ourselves: In what concrete ways can we be prophets and mystics in our own lifestyle, spirituality and community? How do we help our public juridic persons (PJPs)* keep alive the prophetic spirit? What are we doing to ensure that the prophetic flame of our institution is kept alive?”

Sr Mary’s talks were complemented by sessions from Passionist Father Chris Monaghan cp who guided participants through scripture passages exploring the character, call and challenges of the prophets of the Old Testament. His presentation was interspersed with music, poetry and his own photographic work.

Fr Chris pointed out that the prophets were often called unexpectedly and lived a life of radical trust in God and with great vulnerability. He also touched on various texts that showed the significant role of women prophets who were rarely mentioned but figured greatly during critical moments in Old Testament history. “The central characteristics of prophecy in Israel had two senses: one who was called and one who proclaims. It’s one thing to be called, but you have to respond, you have to go out of your comfort zone and you have to proclaim in words or action,” said Fr Chris. “In other words, God’s word does not come back empty.”

“Prophets are immersed in public crises but are not primarily political agents or social activists. The poetic language of the prophet is intended to disrupt, destabilise and invite to alternative perceptions.”

Fellowship and farewells

The sessions ran over two days with periods of reflection and sharing facilitated by Br Graham Neist fms and moderator Sr Monica Cavanagh rsj. The fellowship was enriched by music-filled prayer sessions and the presence of representatives from overseas religious conferences: Sr Denise McMahon smsm representing the Conference of Major Superiors - Pacific Islands (CMSPI), Fr Rozario Menezes smm from the Federation of Religious in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. It was also attended by Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne Mark Edwards omi, Bishop Tony Randazzo of the Archdiocese of Sydney, Francis Sullivan, CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council (TJHC), Sheree Limbrick, CEO of Catholic Professional Standards (CPS), The Hon Geoffrey Giudice AO, Director of CPS, lay partners, guests representing Australian ministerial PJPs and sponsors.

The 2017 CRA National Assembly also saw some significant farewells, especially to Sr Rosemary Grundy pbvm who has served as CRA Director since 2015 and Sr Claire Condon sgs who recently retired as Co-Chair of the National Committee for Professional Standards, a joint committee of Catholic Religious Australia and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC). CRA staff Giselle Lapitan who will be moving on to a new role after five years as Communications Officer was also farewelled. CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council Francis Sullivan was also honoured at this Assembly as the TJHC winds down its work in the near term.

*A Public Juridic Person or PJP is a legal entity under canon law that allows the Church's ministries to function in the name of the Catholic Church. Religious Institutes, Dioceses and some Lay Ecclesial groups are PJPs. Read more from this PowerPoint presentation on public juridic persons or PJPs: http://www.cha.org.au/images/1.6_Gabrielle_McMullen.pdf.

(Text and photos by Giselle Lapitan)

Click here for the National Assembly page for materials on the 2017 CRA National Assembly.