By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Our recent celebration of significant jubilees among our women and men religious in the Archdiocese gives us the opportunity this week to reflect on their faithful service.
Total years of service
We have probably all heard various claims for businesses or products which boast of the years of accumulated experience they have. The stability and experience that go with those many consistent years of service are, rightfully, seen as a claim upon the confidence and faith of those to whom the advertisers are appealing. When I was preparing for this year’s annual Religious Jubilarian Liturgy, I looked carefully at some figures to make sure that I was reading them correctly. I was indeed reading correctly that this year there are 265 religious sisters, priests and brothers in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who are celebrating significant jubilees of their religious profession. They represent 15,195 years of consecrated life!
Our first thought must be one of gratitude. Even if none of these jubilarians is known to us personally and even if we have had little or no contact with religious sisters, priests and brothers in our lives, we are called to be grateful.
Why is that? We know that in the Mystical Body of Christ, to which we all belong, there is a mutual dependence, one upon the other. Just as we sometimes say that when one part of our body is aching, it seems that our entire body is aching, so it is with the Body of Christ. If we are joined to the Vine, who is Christ and the life of grace He shares with us, then we are all joined in the one Body. Therefore, what one of us does affects all the others. When one of us sins, we bring down or weaken the entire Body of Christ. When one of us is faithful, we strengthen the entire Body.
Imagine how these faithful religious, with so many years of accumulated service, have strengthened the Body of Christ! When you or I were weak or in need of encouragement, their fidelity helped to lift us up, even if we were not aware of it at the time. This is why we not only congratulate these faithful religious but we also thank them for strengthening all of us through their fidelity to Christ and His Church.
The witness of religious men and women not limited to their activity
As Americans, we are particularly attuned to activity. This seems to be one of our characteristics, which is recognized throughout the world. There is much to be said for activity, as the many accomplishments of our country clearly indicate. There is much to be said about the apostolic activity of men and women religious in the United States throughout the history of their presence in our country.
As Pope John Paul II wrote, in a letter to the Bishops of the United States concerning the role of these religious: “Religious were among your pioneers. They blazed a trail in Catholic education at all levels, helping to create a magnificent educational system from elementary school to university. They brought into being health care facilities remarkable both for their numbers and quality. They made a valuable contribution to the provision of social services. Working towards the establishment of justice, love and peace, they helped to build a social order rooted in the Gospel, striving to bring generation after generation to the maturity of Christ”(Letter to the Bishops of the United States, 3 April 1983).
In rightfully acknowledging the tremendous activity that has been accomplished in our country through the zeal of our religious women and men, we can easily forget their primary role, which is to be faithful witnesses of Christ’s redeeming love in the world. This is why Pope John Paul II took the opportunity of the celebration of the Holy Year of the Redemption in 1983, to call the attention of the bishops of the United States to this call to faithful witness that the religious in our country have received, along with religious of every time and place. He did this both in the Letter I have already referenced and in his address to bishops on the occasion of their visit to Rome in that same year.
Allow me to quote his Letter again, this time in the context of the Redemption: “By their very vocation, religious are intimately linked to the Redemption. In their consecration to Jesus Christ they are signs of the Redemption that he accomplished. In the sacramental economy of the Church they are instruments for bringing this Redemption to the People of God. They do so by the vitality that radiates from the lives they live in union with Jesus, who continues to repeat to all his disciples: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’ (John 15:5).”
The witness of religious men and women is perennial, even if their activity changes
Many of you reading this feel a special gratitude to the religious sisters, priests, and brothers whom you came to know, and be influenced by, due to their involvement in the work of Catholic education. What a marvelous legacy this is! I know that many of you lead good Christian lives, and some are recalled to virtue after straying from Jesus and His Church, through what you were taught as children and young people by so many dedicated women and men religious. The debt of gratitude which so many of us, myself included, owe to these religious is one which we joyfully carry throughout our lives.
However, we cannot confuse the apostolate of religious with the vocation of religious. Apostolates can change with different historical circumstances, needs and possibilities but the concept of the faithful religious, consecrated in a special way as a sign of the love of Jesus in the world, always in the midst of and in fidelity to the Church He founded, remains the same. Just as we have to adjust to the reality that an inspanidual parish school does not give an inspanidual parish its identity, so we must remember that a specific apostolate does not comprise the identity of a consecrated religious. Just as the evangelizing mission of a parish or a local community continues without a parish school, so the redemptive mission of the consecrated religious man or woman continues despite changes in their apostolates. In his address to American bishops, which I mentioned above, Pope John Paul II said: “We bishops must have great esteem for the religious and for the immense contribution that they have made to the Church in the United States. And yet this contribution is more a contribution of what they are than of what they have done and are doing. In speaking of religious, we must say that their greatest dignity consists in this; that they are persons inspanidually called by God through the mediation of his Church. The value of their activity is great, but the value of their being religious is greater still” (Fifth ad limina Address to the Bishops of the United States, 19 September 1983).
Witness of fidelity
Just as our religious responded to particular needs at a given time in our history here in the United States, they do and will respond to the needs of today and tomorrow. Perhaps one of those greatest needs in our age is to witness to fidelity. In a world that seems overly concerned with what is material and which often seems to place little value on fidelity to commitments and promises, religious are called to give a powerful witness. Through chastity, poverty and obedience, they give witness to those things which are eternal in the midst of this passing world. Through prayer, they express their consecration and receive guidance as to the manner in which that consecration is to be expressed.
Above all, through life-long fidelity, our religious give witness to the challenge which the author of the Book of Revelation addresses to the angel of the church in Philadelphia: “Hold fast to what you have, so that no one may take your crown” (Revelation 3:11). On your behalf, and on my own, I once again say “thank you” to all these faithful women and men religious.
24 September 2009