I am always conscious of the great blessing we have in the contemplative Religious Communities of our Archdiocese. However, since I have, once again, visited several of them within the past few months, I would like to reflect upon their presence and mission this week.
Sign of contradiction
In the second chapter of the Gospel of Saint Luke, we find the prophecy of holy Simeon concerning the child Jesus, who had just been presented in the Temple according to Jewish law: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted” (Luke 2:34). Since we are all called to follow Jesus, we will also be called, at times, to be “signs of contradiction.”
The universal and perennial nature of this call is highlighted by the fact that the first book of the late Pope John Paul II to be published in English was called “Sign of Contradiction,” and it contained the conferences he preached as Cardinal Wojtyla to Pope Paul VI and the members of the Papal Household during the Lenten season of 1976. Many of you, in your daily witness to Jesus, are “signs of contradiction” in your efforts to reflect Jesus and His teaching in the midst of the time and place in which you are called to live.
I want to reassure you that, in this mission, you are not alone as you seek to fulfill this aspect of the Christian life. You are not alone because you are strengthened by the grace of Jesus, which helps us to be faithful and because we are all united in Christ’s Mystical Body, as we help one another in our quest for holiness and fidelity. You are also not alone, because you have the prayers of consecrated women, our contemplative Religious, who help us by their lives of prayer and sacrifice, even when we are not conscious of them.
This week, in reflecting on the presence and the blessing of the contemplative Religious Communities in our Archdiocese, we are reminded that they are constant “signs of contradiction” in the midst of the world. This is so for many reasons but we may say that it is particularly so because human nature often tends to favor what is spectacular, at least at that fleeting moment.
Children are known to say, from an early age: “Look at me!” That sentiment, however, is not limited to children! Despite this inclination, we are so privileged to have in our midst, within our own Archdiocese of Philadelphia, consecrated women who are living signs of contradiction to that basic human weakness, which yearns to be seen and acknowledged. The presence of our five communities of contemplative Religious is an ongoing witness of silent, prayerful, faithful witness to the message of Jesus within society and within our local Church.
Defining the contemplative Religious Life
The Decree on the Renewal of the Religious Life of the Second Vatican Council teaches: “Members of those communities which are totally dedicated to contemplation give themselves to God alone in solitude and silence and through constant prayer and ready penance. No matter how urgent may be the needs of the active apostolate, such communities will always have a distinguished part to play in Christ’s Mystical Body, where ‘all members have not the same function’ (Romans 12:4). For they offer God a choice sacrifice of praise. They brighten God’s people with the richest splendors of sanctity. By their example they motivate this people; by imparting a hidden, apostolic fruitfulness, they make this people grow. Thus they are the glory of the Church and an overflowing fountain of heavenly graces” (Perfectae Caritatis, 7).
It would be a great mistake to think that cloistered Religious are “cut off” from the community and its needs. In fact, that is exactly what they are not. The Christian life must always be lived in charity. Charity must always be exercised, in some way, within the community because by its nature, charity must always be turned outward. In the First Letter of John we read: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21).
Contemplative Religious, who have given themselves in total consecration to Jesus as consecrated virgins “for the sake of the kingdom” are not cut off from the needs of the world. Their consecration to God must show forth in their love of neighbor, according to the teaching of Jesus. Who is the “neighbor” of the contemplative Religious? First, it is her Sisters, with whom she lives in community. We must not forget that this also involves great charity. You may be aware of the observation that Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, the “Little Flower,” makes in her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul.” She relates that one of her greatest penances as a cloistered Carmelite nun was having to endure the elderly Sister who sat near her in the Chapel, constantly rattling the Rosary she wore at her side!
The love of the contemplative Religious for the wider community and Church is part of the reason for their existence. They are very conscious of the needs of the world and the Church. It is part of their responsibility to pray for those needs. It can even be said that they are even more conscious of the needs of others than many of us are, because we are often distracted or caught up in our own needs of those of a limited circle.
The Sisters, unencumbered by worldly needs, are free to be conscious of and to pray and sacrifice for the needs of the entire Church. This is why many of the faithful have always turned to these Religious in order to seek their prayers, especially in times of great trial and struggle. I tell those of you who are reading this that, with great gratitude, I often turn to these Sisters myself in order to seek their prayers for the many needs of the Archdiocese which have been entrusted to my pastoral care.
While I worked in Rome for many years, in the service of the Holy See, it was my great privilege to have as a part of the apostolic work I also engaged in, the work of Chaplain to a Monastery of cloistered Carmelite Nuns in that city. In that way, as well as in my contact with the contemplative Religious in St. Louis and here in our own Archdiocese, I have been able to see at close range the effect of the prayers and sacrifices of these Religious, who are very much a part of the greater community and of the universal Church.
The monasteries and convents of contemplative Religious in our local Church
I would like to briefly summarize the various communities of contemplative Religious we have in the Archdiocese, along with their particular mission.
The Poor Clares: This Order was founded in the year 1212, when Saint Francis of Assisi welcomed Saint Clare as a follower of his way of life. In the spirit of their holy “father and mother,” Saint Francis and Clare, the Poor Clares continue that life of poverty, contemplation of the things of God, and communal life with which Francis and Clare suffused the Church.
The Carmelites: Saint Therese, from the hidden life of Carmel, became one of the best-known and most loved saints of the twentieth century. One of the statements from her autobiography, written at the request of her Superior, summarizes well the life of the Carmelite. She wrote: “In the heart of my mother the Church, I will be love. Love reaches through time and space, because it is eternal.”
The Nuns of the Visitation of Holy Mary: This Community takes its name from the visit Mary made to her cousin Elizabeth, just after Mary had learned she was to be the Mother of God. Appropriately, this event is the great example of what I wrote above, namely that the life of the contemplative Religious must always be turned outwards in charity. These Nuns are actually my neighbors and I hope that I can trust in their special prayers for me and the needs of the Archdiocese.
The Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters (“Pink Sisters”): Many Philadelphians know the Convent of the Pink Sisters, where the Chapel, with the Blessed Sacrament continually exposed, is often open for public prayer. They describe their mission in this way: “We are a cloistered-contemplative missionary Congregation, living in community, whose members are entirely dedicated to the contemplative life in the service of perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Thus we offer intercessory prayer for the needs of all.”
The Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd: This community is part of what the Sisters describe as “one Community, two lifestyles.” There are Sisters involved in the active apostolate, who reach out to the needy and weak, especially young women and girls, and the contemplatives, who support the work of their Sisters in the apostolate by their prayers, sacrifices and contemplation.
I hope that our brief reflection on the contemplative Religious Communities of the Archdiocese will make us more conscious of their presence in our midst, because they are certainly always conscious of us and our needs.
3 September 2009