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Tuesday, 30 June 2015 13:12

God working in us all

Sr Jan Gray rsmReligious women and men are proof that "God so loved the world" and God continues to work through us all, despite any limitations. I learnt more from the humility and weakness of other religious just how much God loves us in all the ways we are human, not just in our being God-like, said Mercy Sister Janette Gray at the Melbourne Evening for the Year of Consecrated Life.

I joined the sisters of Mercy 10 years after the end of Vatican II. Without Vatican II, I doubt I would have become a religious. Vatican II reshaped how religious life stood in relation to the real world. It was no longer locked away in a convent on the hill and presented as the more perfect way to live a Christian commitment for the more holy. I knew I didn't fit that. I knew only too well my limitations and sinfulness. I also received from Vatican II a strong sense of the role of the laity: that by baptism we were all "called to holiness" not just the few in religious life. But I also knew that I wanted a deeper relationship or commitment to God and to share somehow the love of God I had already been enriched by from my parents and family and the many others that had given so much to me. It seemed to be my turn to share that love as widely as I could. I wasn't that young, I was 23, I had been teaching and I'd had a few significant personal relationships. but something more was drawing me.

The reason for that drawing, of course, changes over the years and you come to understand yourself more through the often hard process of formation and reflection. From the beginning my choice of religious life was about seeking a life of prayer and service. I wanted to know God more and to find the best way my gifts could be used for service of God's people. Further on I understood that Christianity is ultimately a very practical faith. It must to be practically embodied. Of course, as I had learnt already, God's love is very much embodied in the love of married couples, through my parents and in the many other examples of human love that I had experienced in my life. Yet we tend to regard this embodiment of love as too "ordinary". We seldom (even within the Church) immediately connect this love with its divine source, God's love. So that's why our world needs another "sign", something more direct, that more visibly embodies that God loves our humanity, our world, so much that in Jesus Christ he became one of us, and that therefore some of us give their lives to embodying God's love of us in this way.

In our times this embodiment hasn't always been a good sign. There is a problem with this embodiment when it fails, that is, whether any of us can adequately represent this great love of God? Over the years I have encountered many wonderful religious women and men who have been such powerful evidence of God's love. I'm sure you have known them too. They radiate a thorough goodness, openness, warmth and integrity. They inspire us to more. They are really saints. When I began in this life I was so proud to belong to this band of dedicated, committed, unstinting "spiritual Olympians" that I saw serving God's people. It was so uplifting. Then I also met a number of faulty people in religious life, who were definitely not perfect, in fact they were people like me. Sadly I came to be disedified and discouraged by this. Instead of their humanity all I experienced was their human failings and limitations. Thanks to God, it was through this that I finally saw who we religious really are. Not embodiments of the perfection of God, but proofs that "God so loved the world" that God continues to work through us all, despite any limitations we may put on that. Because it is through my limitations that God demonstrates just how great God is. So I learnt more from the humility and weakness of other religious just how much God loves us in all the ways we are human, not just in our being God-like.

As well, I have had so many opportunities to be personally extended, mostly by the wonderful people who have allowed me into their lives because I am a religious. This has been among the great privileges of this life, being invited to hear the important issues and struggles they face. The courage and warmth that I have experienced from these moments, have kept my life grounded in reality. This same contact with reality informed the Mercy founder, Catherine McAuley’s continuing engagement of lay colleagues in her mission.

So what is the future of religious life? Often commentators judge that the contemplative forms of religious life will always have a future because of their long history and wide occurrence across other faiths and traditions, whereas it is presumed that the more active, engaged in the world forms will not persist. Their works largely have been supplanted by governments and other institutions, and by the appropriate expansion of the roles and baptismal charism of the laity since Vatican II. I doubt this gloomy forecast because active/ministerial religious life has always been about more than our works. Our lives of service address many different and growing needs around us and continue to find diverse and meaningful expressions of God's concern for everyone. In our world where excessive
wealth advances alongside deplorable conditions of need, I believe there will always be people who will continue to be scandalised enough to reject such personal benefits to share their resources communally and with those with less. Likewise in our world, where sex and sexual identity are so commodified that most people, especially women, are reduced to mere objects, I believe there will be people who choose to channel their sexuality beyond personal satisfaction to a generous inclusion of others in their lives. In our world where blatant use of power over others has such destructive consequences as war, domestic violence, psychological violence and exploitation of the
young, I believe some people will choose to express their personal power through shared decisionmaking and collaboratively forgo "I did it my way" alone. Now, not all of these people will choose to live out these convictions through a life-long commitment to religious life, but some will and I believe religious life is evolving into the future enough to be a venue for such people. As well many already do not choose this life and still live out such generosity and commitment through innovative lives of service. In fact, I believe that there are more people living some form of what was gathered under religious life in the past now than ever before. I believe that part of the future of religious life will be to encourage these people in their daily commitment through the often faulty witness of lives like mine.

Sometimes people ask me how can I work for such a terrible institution as the Catholic Church, as throughout history there has never been such a collection of scoundrels, crooks, liars, thieves, rapists, paedophiles, murderers, and mass-murderers. Yet these have made up the Church that God has chosen to be the sign of God's love on earth? How can this be? Surely God would choose something better. But this is falling into the ruse of perfection once more. Rather, if this Church and all it contains is God's sign then that means that there is room enough for me and my sinfulness, room enough for everyone in God's plan. Through all this limitation we show how forgiving and
loving God's mercy is. This is the reason for my life. 

(Photo of Sr Jan Gray courtesy of Anne Walsh.)

This article comprised Sr Janette Gray's talk for the the Melbourne Evening for the Year of Consecrated Life on 19 May 2015, an event from Church Resources (CR), Catholic Church Insurance (CCI), Australian Catholic University (ACU) and Catholic Religious Australia (CRA).

This article was first published on the 3 June 2015 issue (Edition 623) of Mercy E-News, the online weekly newsletter of the Mercy International Association.