Moments of hope: First Professions of Sister Mary Magdalene and Chiara Mary
by Fr Martin Ganeri o.p.
Fr Martin Blesses the scapulars of the newly professed
Today, as we come together to witness and to celebrate the first profession of Sr Mary Magdalene and Sr Chiara Mary, we witness and we celebrate a moment of hope, hope for these two sisters, hope for all the sisters of the English Congregation of St Catherine of Siena, the Stone Congregation. Just as two days ago, the sisters celebrated another moment of hope in the clothing of Sr Cecilia Bernadette, Sr Rose and Sr Philomena Benedict, when they received the ‘garments of salvation, the ‘robe of righteousness,’ as Isaiah puts it (Isaiah 69:10), when the prophet celebrates his own hope for his people, that they will come to possess the happiness of being restored to their land and become a sign of God’s salvation that all can see and share in.
Hope, then, a moment of hope, two moments of hope.
Hope, in general, and for everyone in whatever form of they life they have, is the firm expectation that we can achieve what is good in the future, that we can come to possess that which is good for us, what brings us happiness and fulfilment. Hope binds the present to the future. Hope is the basis for us to feel able to strive for the good things we hope for, with the confidence that these things are possible, however difficult they may seem to be to achieve.
And in our Christian lives, the theological virtue of hope is that firm expectation we have of our final good and fulfilment, of our final happiness which is God himself, the fullness of our salvation. Hope binds our present on this earth and on our earthly journeys to the future of our heavenly homeland, where we will share in the glory of God himself. This hope, which God pours into us through grace, is our basis, as Christians, for striving to live out our Christian discipleship, despite all the challenges we face and all the ways in which we fail. This hope leads us on, sure in the knowledge that beatitude is possible for us as our final goal.
And the choice for the religious life is a particular manifestation of hope in both general and theological form. Entering religious life, making profession in religious life, persevering in religious life, are acts of hope. We recognise that there is something good and that there is a source of happiness in religious life, a particular way in the here and now in which we can anticipate and share in that final happiness to which theological hope itself strives. A way in which we can bring about for ourselves and for others the realisation of the reign of God on earth, make the glory of God present on earth.
But, of course, what makes today (as indeed two days ago) a special moment of hope is that it is a moment of hope for the very future of the Stone Congregation itself. A moment of hope in a time of fragility. This is a fragile time in the life of this Congregation, as it is for other congregations of religious sisters, as it is for all religious congregations, indeed for the Church as a whole. We are living through a period of very considerable change, when there have for some time no longer been the same numbers of women and men who choose the religious life as their good in this life. This is indeed a time of fragility.
Today Sr Mary Magdalene and Sr Chiara Mary witness to the hope they have for the Stone Congregation and, in receiving their profession, the Congregation itself witness to its hope for its own future. This hope is grounded in the commitment these two sisters have to live out fully the life they are choosing. It is grounded in the talents they bring with them. It is all grounded in the grace of God, the power and will of God, to make of us what he chooses.
The Gospel passage for this Mass is taken from the twelfth chapter of St John’s Gospel. This is a pivotal chapter in the Gospel, one that serves as a kind of bridge between the account of the ministry of Christ and the account of his death and resurrection, a bridge between what is usually called the Book of Signs and the Book of Glory, the Book of Signs in which the identity and power of Christ is revealed in part in his deeds and words, and the Book of Glory in which that identity and power is fully manifest in his death and resurrection. And in this twelfth chapter Christ now moves from his ministry to his death and resurrection, as he looks forward to his sacrificial death and to the life it will bring about. This we might also say is a moment of hope. Hope binds the present to the future, it binds anticipation to possession. The theological virtue of hope binds the partial enjoyment of God’s life to the fullness of that life to come. And, in the same way, Christ binds the present of his ministry, the signs he has done, to the future when the glory of God in him will be fully revealed.
And in this moment of hope in Christ’s journey on earth he teaches that his death will be like the death of a grain of wheat, something that is necessary for the new crop of wheat to grow up:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it does, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12: 24-25).
The death of the grain of wheat can bear fruit in the new life of many grains. The death of the Son of God will bear fruit in the life of all the sons and daughters of God; the death of the disciple of Christ will bear fruit in the life of the Church.
This moment of hope contains and entails a death that will enable new life in abundance. And so it is with the moment of hope we are celebrating today. We know there will need to be many deaths for the new life of the Congregation for which we hope to come about. The moments of death for Sr Mary Magdalene and Sr Chiara Mary, as they make their own sacrifices to live out the religious as members of the Congregation in this challenging time; the moments of death for the structures and work of the Congregation as the difficult choices are made about how to work out a future for the Congregation as a whole. And yet, all these moments of death will be moments of hope, done so that new life may come from them, as God wills it.
The words of St Paul in the reading from Romans are words for all of us as we strive to live in hope in religious life in our present time:
I appeal to your therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12: 1-2)
A sacrifice of death for many things, in the hope that God wills a new growth and life.
To illustrate the invitation to this first profession, a picture of St Dominic receiving the first women into the Order in 1216 was chosen. And is very fitting to look back to the first beginnings of the Order today, to those other fragile times, and to the sacrifice that St Dominic and his companions made, to the sacrifice that those first women made. A moment then of hope and of reliance on the grace and will of God to bring about new life in the society of their time, in the Church and in their own particular lives. History can and indeed does repeat itself.
So, let us live in hope, as we celebrate the profession of Sr Mary Magdalene and Sr Chiara Mary and as we pray for them. And let us ask our father Dominic and to our sister Catherine for their prayers that the hope filled history of the Order may be renewed today.