Reaching out in religious life

Given by Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Mark S. Mealey, for the Mass for Consecrated Religious Life at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.

In our first reading this evening from the Book of Job, we hear of his suffering and trials, yet he remained faithful to the call he received from the Lord. For Christ heals the brokenhearted. In our Gospel from Mark, we hear the generosity of Christ's love to those in physical pain and spiritual need. His encounter with those in pain was a response of His accompaniment and loving presence.

All of us lay, religious and clergy are called to live a life in union with God in virtue of our sacramental initiation through baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. The Second Vatican Council reminds us that each of us is called to live a life of universal holiness. For many, the commitment to marriage and family life is their spiritual journey to union with God. For others, we are called to live a more intensified Christian life, and so we leave mother, father, brother and sister to join a religious community and profess a public commitment to God, to the church and to religious superiors through vows, bonds or promises. This is the consecrated way of life, the religious life.

This year, Pope Francis has called the church to reflect on the life and mission of those called to religious life and the gift that consecrated life is for the church and all its members. Tonight, we pause to celebrate this gift of God.

On the day of our profession, we committed ourselves to live the common life, participate in the pastoral activities of our communities and to be of service to the church and to the world. In this year dedicated to consecrated life, Pope Francis is challenging us to go deeper into the essence of consecrated life. We have been called personally and communally to reflect on the gift of religious life and consider new ways to be of service to today's world.

Among many others, I have found three elements of Pope Francis' recent homilies and addresses that confront us to extend ourselves beyond our comfort zones to reach out to others on the margin of life. Pope Francis calls us to revisit, again, our charism and the inspired spirit of our communities and to celebrate them in gratitude and thanksgiving. As part of this year of reflection, we should recall and recognize those community members who have inspired our individual and common life by their generous witness to our spirit and service. These efforts begin first within each of us. We need to take time to revitalize our personal spiritual, human and emotional lives in light of the distinct and unique treasures given by the Holy Spirit. We ought to make every effort to renew our personal encounter with Christ in virtue of our religious witness. Communally, we should take time to renew ourselves in the spirit of our mission and so enhance our common life and our unique gifts to the church and the world. Most importantly, we need to read the signs of our times and look for new ways to bring our gifts to those we serve. We must allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us and not be afraid to think in new ways and accept the new challenges at our doors. The Holy Father repeatedly reminds us that we must go out into the streets.

Pope Francis has already begun to model this for us each day in his own ministry. Among many, there are three aspects of his ministry and spirit which could be helpful in our daily life and ministry: (1) the art of accompaniment; (2) the virtue of tenderness and (3) to be a person for others.

One of the major influences on the pope's pastoral vision for religious is expressed in the apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Articles 169 and 170. There the pope encourages the gift of accompaniment, which is the gift of our presence and concerns for those most in need. This accompaniment the pope says "teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other." This pace of accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life. The Pontiff reminds us: "Today more than ever we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others, are familiar with processes which call for prudence, understanding, patience and docility of the Spirit, so that, we can protect the flock from wolves, who would scatter the flock. We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur."

In his recent Christmas Eve Mass homily, Pope Francis reminded us that the birth of the Savor is the light which pierces the deepest darkness. The light that shatters the darkness reveals to us God's patient fidelity towards us. God does not know outbursts of anger or impatience; He is always there. In reflecting on the birth of Christ, the pope challenges us with the question "How do we welcome the tenderness of God? Do I allow myself to be taken up by God, to be embraced by Him, or do I prevent Him from drawing close. … What is most important is not seeking Him, but rather allowing Him to seek us, find us and caress us with tenderness. The question put to us simply by the Infant's presence is: 'Do I allow God to love me?'" The Holy Father continues: "Do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us, or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel. How much the world today needs tenderness? The patience of God, the closeness of God, the tenderness of God." This call to tenderness is for each of us to go beyond our comfort zones and reaches out to encounter and journey with those in need.

Thirdly, a person for others. In his ministry, the Holy Father models for us the gift for others. In virtue of our consecrated lives, we are called to sacrifice to live and to serve others. He calls us to be present to others and to invest ourselves in fulfilling the needs of others: to give the gift of presence, time and attentive listening. We are called to make time for those in poverty of spirit, mind and body.

As we celebrate this Year of Consecrated Life, let us strive to begin the art of accompaniment and to be consciously more attentive to those in need by the gift of our presence; by our words of encouragement; by sharing the gift of the Gospel and the charism of our religious communities.

May God be blessed.

Father Mealey is the diocesan Vicar General for Administration and Moderator of the Curia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015