|Rev. Fr. Augustine Vallooran V.C.|
In this Year of the Consecrated Life, Pope Francis wants the whole Church to turn its gaze towards the grace of radical commitment to Jesus Christ lived out in communities. The Holy Father urges us to look to the past with gratitude, to live the present with passion and to embrace the future with hope. Pope Saint John Paul ll has set apart the Feast of Presentation of the Lord Jesus at the Temple as the day of the Renewal of Religious Vows. He reminded all the Religious men and women, “You have not only a glorious history to remember and to recount, but also a great history still to be accomplished! Look to the future, where the Spirit is sending you in order to do even greater things.” (Vita Consecrata No. 110) For all those who are living either in contemplative orders or in active Religious congregations, this is a time to accept this challenge and recommit themselves to the service of the Church.
“I Have Appointed You A Prophet To The Nations” (Jeremiah 1:5)
It is very significant that Pope Francis asserts that the way the Religious are to be at the service of the Church today is by being prophets. It is not enough that they claim to imitate Jesus Christ radically. The Pope writes that all Christians are in fact bound to do that. Holy Father writes, “Radical evangelical living is not only for Religious; it is demanded of everyone. But Religious follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way…” (Letter for the Year of Consecrated Life II.2) ‘Prophetic way’ means bearing witness to how Jesus lived on this earth; in other words, to become the mouthpiece of Jesus in the modern world. The word prophet comes from the Greek word “pro-phete” which means “to speak for God.” In the history of Salvation, God sent prophets, men He chose to speak for Him to His people. The prophets were determined to wait upon God and get the message from Him and to share it powerfully with the people of God. Their commitment was only to God. They prayed over the problems of the people and discerned God’s Will and announced it in no uncertain terms. Since they were sure of God’s Will, they always started their prophecy by the declaration that this was the Word of God. Balaam the prophet said it very accurately to the king Balak, “I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will; what the Lord says, that is what I will say’?”(Numbers 24:13) The prophets did not make any compromise even to favour the kings because their commitment was to God and God alone - and that is how they were able to wake up the whole world around them to follow God’s Path. This is the mission the Religious have in the world today. The Pope writes, “I’m counting on you to wake the world up, since the distinctive sign of consecrated life is prophecy.” (LYCL II.2.)
The world today has chosen to go the way of secularization. God is not any more a part of man’s world vision. Even those who claim to believe in God have kept God confined to the places of worship. They do not allow God to determine their way of thinking and style of living. God on the margins of human life cannot determine the mainstream of life. What is convenient and useful is that which counts ultimately for everyone. The heavenly dimension feels omitted from earthly life. As a result, structures that are not just, dominate the world exploiting the poor and the marginalized today. What is important is not that sin abounds in the world but that there is no one to condemn it and lead man back to God. It is in this context that the Holy Father finds the great relevance of religious life. “Prophets receive from God the ability to scrutinize 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 the dawn (Isaiah 21:11,12)… they are able to discern and denounce the evil of sin and injustice.” (LYCL II.2.)
“The Joy Of The Lord Is Your Strength” (Nehemiah 8:10)
The prophetic message that Religious should be committed to declare, is of Hope and Joy. The world is sinking fast into a state of cynical despair and meaninglessness. Economic structures and technological developments have brought humankind nearer each other than ever before - only to be separated by forces of hatred, selfish political agenda, religious fanaticism and communal tensions. Life is become more convenient and comfortable, only to push man into desperate search for the fundamental meaning of life itself. It is at this juncture of history that the Religious have a irreplaceable role to play. They who have accepted Jesus as the purpose and goal of their life should become living witnesses of Hope and Joy.
The Pope quotes the old saying, “Where there are Religious, there is joy,” and contends that “this saying is true and should become true wherever the Religious are present and are working.” The Pope continues, “We are called to know and show that God is able to fill our hearts to the brim with happiness; that we need not seek our happiness elsewhere; that the authentic fraternity found in our communities increases our joy”(LYCL II.1.) This prophetic function of pointing to Jesus as the source of joy is urgent in the world today. The world is chasing passing pleasures, but abiding joy seems to elude all the while. Jesus holds the key to human longing: “I say these things that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.”(John 15:11) After having met Jesus, St John describes joy as the conclusion of the experience. He writes, “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life… we declare to you… so that our joy may be complete.”(I John 1:1-4) The Religious have this intimate relationship with Jesus as their patrimony.
The Pope continues to exhort that even in moments of disappointments and infirmities that are natural to human life we must be able to find the Face of Jesus Christ because in such experiences, we are conformed to Him who, out of love of us, did not refuse the sufferings of the Cross. One is reminded of the teaching of St Peter, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings… If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.” (I Peter 4:12-14) The sufferings in community life and the dwindling of vocations to religious life should not in any way lead one to question the wisdom of consecrated life. We are warned against the ‘prophets of doom’ as the Pope says, “I urge you not to join the ranks of the prophets of doom who proclaim the end or meaninglessness of the consecrated life in the Church in our day.” Our hope is not to be governed by these dismal statistics but solely by the Lord and His call for this is a hope that does not disappoint.
“He Who Eats My Flesh And Drinks My Blood Abides In Me” (John 6:56)
To be prophets of Joy and Hope in the contemporary scenario, what is needed of Religious is to be “deeply rooted in personal communion with God” and with each other in the Religious communities. A total surrender to Jesus Christ is at the core of consecrated life. An intimate relationship with Jesus should be the wellspring of life for then with St Paul, one can say, “For me to live is Christ.”(Philippians1:21) It is in the daily Eucharistic Celebration that we experience this intimacy that Jesus invites us to, saying, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”(John 15:4) Every Eucharistic Celebration must be the answer that each one gives to Jesus along with Simon Peter when he was asked, “Do you love me more than these?”(John 21:15) The Pope insists that when our first and only love is Jesus, then alone will we be empowered to love every person around us for we hold within us the Heart of God.
All the founders of Religious communities have given prime place in the timetable of the day, for the Eucharistic Celebration. It is at the Altar that our High Priest is waiting to accept our weaknesses and infirmities to turn it all to our strength. At the Last Supper, Jesus took the bread and said, “This is my body to be broken for you… Take and eat.” Again, He took the cup of wine and said, “This is my blood to be shed for you… Take and drink.” After having said it, Jesus went on to say, “Do this in memory of me.”(Luke 22:19) In fact, we gather at the Altar to celebrate this memory of Jesus offering Himself to be broken for our salvation. When we say “our” salvation in the plural, it sounds very impersonal. Hence St. Paul significantly asserts, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”(Galatians 2:20) We should not imagine the Suffering, Passion and Death of Jesus as thrust upon Him. Jesus said, “No one takes my life away from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” (John 10:18) It was a decision of love that led Jesus to offer Himself to be betrayed, condemned and crucified. There is a beautiful song “Above All” which narrates the different moments of the Passion of Christ right up to His Death. The song climaxes in a little verse, “Above all He thought of me.” This verse reveals the love behind the act. Every bit of pain that burned into His Body, every drop of tear that He shed was for my sake. It is when we stand at the Altar that we realize how precious we are in the Eyes of God.
If sacrifice is the measure of love, the ultimate love is experienced when we stand at the altar. When we celebrate this memory of how much I am loved by my God at the Altar, there are other memories that well up from the depth of our heart - painful memories of having been devalued in our day-to-day life. The Pope says, “Like everyone else we have our troubles, our dark nights of the soul, our disappointments and infirmities, our experience of slowing down as we grow older.” Such negative experiences devalue our life and cloud our minds with thick shadows of unhappiness. It is at this moment that we remember the words of Jesus that He uttered at the beginning of the Last Supper, “I have desired with a great desire to eat this Passover meal with you.”(Luke 22:15) The Lord has been waiting for every one of us at the Altar because He knows how distressed and disturbed we are even when we live our consecration to Him. He is present to every such pain in our hearts. “Thou hast kept count of my tossings; put thou my tears in thy bottle! Are they not in thy book?”(Psalm 56:8) When we offer our heartaches at the Altar together with the bread and wine, the Lord accepts us and anoints us with the Holy Spirit - divinizing us to live by His Power. He accepts all that we are and have and makes it His Own when He says, “This is mine. This is me. This is my body.” I get overwhelmed in this great experience of this Saving Love.
Reliving this experience every day, we truly become immersed in the joy of being accepted and loved as we are. We are now empowered to live by God’s own strength. A Religious person who goes through this experience daily has a great message to the world. The Pope writes, “In a society which exalts the cult of efficiency, fitness and success, one which ignores the poor and dismisses ‘losers’, we can witness by our lives the truth of the words of Scripture: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)” This strength comes first from our intimacy with the Lord Jesus and also from our communion with the members of the community. In the Religious community, the dignity of each person is to be respected and the gifts of each is to be shared with everyone. Thus the Religious should become “experts in communion” as the Pope describes. The Pope continues that it is only when the young people of today find the Religious as happy men and women that they will join their ranks.
“Imitate Me As I Imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1)
In my high school, I had a headmaster who was a priest. We respected him very much and we were also quite afraid of him. He was a strict disciplinarian. He would not tolerate any bit of indiscipline or disorder in the school. He was a very good and strong person, always alert to his job. One day a man came to the school and began to abuse him verbally. This man seemed drunk and spoke very rudely and even despisingly to the priest. We had anticipated that true to his strong character, the priest would react strongly to this man. The complaint of this man was that his son had failed in the exam. We were surprised and even shocked to hear the headmaster speaking to him very gently. This man however continued to raise his voice and shout abusive words. We were shocked by the entire event and especially by the very uncharacteristic response of our hero! Returning from school, I continued to ponder over this incident. I felt strongly that the headmaster should have shouted at him and proved the strength of his character. I could not understand how he allowed himself to be humiliated in front of the students. A month later, there was the school picnic and I happened to sit next to the headmaster in the bus. While talking to him I mentioned this incident and my impression that what would have been right was for the man to be taught a lesson. The headmaster very patiently explained to me that as a priest he always wanted to mould his life according to the personality of Jesus. He was strict in his discipline in order that the children may be motivated in their studies. It would not be fitting though for him to discipline the drunkard. He did not have to defend himself before a drunkard by shouting at him because God wants us to overcome evil by good. More anger would increase the evil of anger to spread and could even flare up in violence. The priest even quoted the words of Jesus, "Learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart."(Matthew 11:29) I shared this with my friends and all of us were surprised at this deep spiritual side of his character. He made a deep impression on me that the words of Jesus had moulded his behaviour pattern at a tense and difficult moment. His life, his love and commitment to Christ that controlled him became an inspiring force in my life. The presence of a consecrated person will be noticed by everyone around and will serve as an authentic witness to our Lord Jesus. Through them, the Presence of Jesus becomes real and tangible to the people today.
The contemporary man is groping in the dark not being able to find the way to authentic joy. There are misleading flashes of light everywhere. Counterfeits of joy are around deceiving seekers. As a result, man is slipping into a sort of desperate meaninglessness. A modern Indian writer voiced this: "Light is grief. It is better to remain in the dark." At this juncture of human history when religion is considered fanaticism, the neighbour as hell and life as a useless burden thrust upon man, the one hope of humanity to reach the authenticity of life is the presence of consecrated persons who make Jesus real in their lives. This mission indeed is prophetic!
Let Us Pray:
Lord Jesus, You are the Merciful and Faithful High Priest. We give thanks to You for choosing a people consecrated to You to serve the Church. We seek Your Graces upon them. Speak Your Word to their hearts that they may be mighty prophets preparing a way in the wilderness for Your Glory to shine on all mankind. You have called them to be a leaven in our world bringing Joy, Hope and Courage to all around them. Anoint them with Your Spirit and may their lives lead the world to experience Your Saving Love.