As we quickly come to the end of the Year of Consecrated Life and move our focus to the Year of Mercy, Sister Catherine McCahill sgs reflects on its meaning for herself and for religious in general.
The Year of Consecrated Life. My first reaction was puzzlement – why this, why now?
Surely, I thought, there are more significant issues for the universal Church. Like many Australians, I baulk at titles or nomenclature that differentiates me, or perhaps sets me apart. “Consecrated” is one such title. It is just not the way I refer to myself. Yet, I was being offered an invitation, perhaps a challenge, and on reflection, I at least owed it to myself, my congregation, and to this fairly new pope, to respond to the invitation.
Now as we quickly come to the end of the Year, I want to reflect on its meaning for me, and for religious more generally.
“Religious life is,” according to Mercy Sister Carol Zinn, “a radical response to the Gospel in a particular historical and cultural context.” Rejoice, the preparatory message to all religious from the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life quotes Pope Francis: “Evangelical radicalness is not only for religious: it is demanded of all. But religious follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way”.
So is this, my way of life, radical, I ask myself? What is the basis for its radicality? For me, the basis is in my response to the call of Jesus as I encounter it in the Gospels. Two particular Gospel narratives provide my framework: Jesus commissioning the apostles (Mark 3:13-15) and Jesus washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-15).
The appointment and naming of the apostles in the Gospel of Mark has three dimensions: to be with Jesus, to be sent out to proclaim the Good News, and to have authority to cast out demons. Undoubtedly this call is for all Christian disciples, but needs to find particular intensity in the choice and way of life of those who vow to live as religious.
“Being with Jesus” is, for me, the Gospel expression of “seeking God”, a central motif in the Rule of St Benedict. “The question we have to ask ourselves during this Year”, according to Pope Francis, “is if and how we are open to being challenged by the Gospel… Is Jesus really our first and only love?” (Apostolic Letter on the Occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life, I, #2).
As readers and students of Mark’s Gospel, we know how spectacularly those first apostles failed to be “with Jesus”. One betrayed him, another denied him and ultimately they all abandoned him as he made his way to the cross. The conversion call then for me and for all religious this Year is, in the knowledge and hope of the resurrection, to regroup within myself and as a community. Francis reminds us to recall “the joy of the moment when Jesus first looked at me”. Furthermore, “to stay with Christ requires us to share our lives, our choices, the obedience of faith, the happiness of poverty, the radicality of love” (Rejoice, #4).
From “being with Jesus” we can proclaim the Good News, the “joy of the Gospel”. It is indeed radical, if we know and can show the world that “God is able to fill our hearts to the brim with happiness; that we do not need to seek our happiness elsewhere” (Apostolic Letter, II, #1).
It is GOOD News when we speak of hope in the face of the world’s despair, when we stand in solidarity with marginalised or suffering people so that they know they are not abandoned on the cross, when we insist that creation belongs to God and is not for human domination or exploitation. It is GOOD News when we promote the dignity of all persons and promote fraternal charity rather than racism, when we are agents of reconciliation and messengers of peace.
“Casting out demons” requires a more nuanced interpretation in our contemporary world, unlike that of Mark’s community in the first century BCE. For me, it connects with the prophetic nature of this call. “Prophets receive from God the ability to scrutinise the times in which they live and to interpret events: they are like sentinels who keep watch in the night and sense the coming of dawn. Prophets know God and they know the men and women who are their brothers and sisters. They are able to discern and denounce the evil of sin and injustice” (Apostolic Letter, II, #2).
When we advocate on behalf those who are trafficked, or when we protest the demonising practices of migration policies, we are casting out demons. When we investigate and publicise the environmental impacts of coal seam gas production and the combustion of fossil fuels, we are casting out demons.
Consistently and constantly proclaiming the Good News and casting out demons is radical; it requires a depth of commitment and purpose that is only sustained by intimate connection to Jesus and the Trinity, individually and communally. We cannot do this alone; as religious we choose to do it with our sisters or brothers in community. As biblical scholar Brendan Byrne says, “Being ‘with’ Jesus in Mark’s Gospel entails not simply physical presence but living in close companionship as disciples. The capacity to preach effectively and expel demons flows from that companionship and is its essential outreach”.
The communitarian aspect of discipleship is given new meaning in the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples during his final meal with them (John 13:1-15). Having taken off his outer garment (the same one that the soldiers will rip from his shoulders at the crucifixion) and making himself a servant by tying a cloth or apron around his waist, Jesus washes and dries the feet of his disciples. He performs the task normally relegated to the household slaves. We note that his betrayer is still present and included.
Then comes the challenge – “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do what I have done to you”. Jesus insists that his disciples – and all of us who make this claim – follow his example. He has enacted the laying down of his life on the cross before it happens. Christian disciples are invited to lay down their life for each other, including those who are our betrayers.
Whose feet will I wash, I ask myself? Foot-washing holds a significant place in Benedictine communities. The Rule insists that the table-servers wash the feet of the community on the eve of Sabbath, and that the Abbot and entire community wash the feet of guests.
In the early days of the present pope’s pontificate, when we were being enthralled by his fresh and personable manner, I remarked to a colleague, “I am waiting to see what he will do on Holy Thursday”. Of course, I was not disappointed as Francis bent to wash the feet of female and male, Christian and non-Christian juvenile prisoners.
Francis reminds religious of the call to be “experts in communion” – to avoid “criticism, gossip, envy, jealousy, hostility” and to practise “mutual acceptance and concern, practising a communion of goods both material and spiritual, fraternal correction and respect for those who are weak” and monitoring the manner in which we “relate to persons from different cultures” (Apostolic Letter, II, #3).
As a Sister of the Good Samaritan, this is the meaning of being neighbour – proclaiming the Good News, casting out demons and washing the feet of all those I encounter whether in my own community or elsewhere.
As this Year of Consecrated Life draws to end and we move our focus to the Year of Mercy, I ask myself again about its meaning for me. Yes, I have taken the opportunity “to look to the past with gratitude”, “to live the present with passion” and “to embrace the future with hope” (aims of the Year as described by Francis). Like the first 12 that Jesus appoints (Mark) and those disciples whose feet are washed (John), I am not always faithful to his invitation. However, I hope and pray that this Year has been more about conversion than celebration, and that like the first community, together we can rely on the presence and promise of the risen Jesus to be with us.
Good Samaritan Sister Catherine McCahill is currently a member of the leadership of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. Prior to her election, she was involved in education for over 30 years, in secondary schools and, more recently, at a tertiary level in biblical studies and religious education.