How the Gospel Stands
A Sermon for the Golden Jubilees of Srs Pauline and Angela Mary Saturday Sept 3rd 2016
Fr.Aidan Nichols o.p.
“A peculiar kind of mission" I expect almost everyone here will be aware that this is the title of a book about the the English Dominican Congregation by Anselm Nye. I'd skimmed the book when it first appeared, and only read it properly when Sr Mary Pauline and Sr Angela Mary asked me to prepare a homily for this occasion.
It came as rather a shock to discover that the words “a peculiar kind of mission,” written by Archbishop Errington, the co-adjutor with right of succession to the first Archbishop of Westminster, were intended as a criticism, and in fact, as a dismissal.
‘Peculiar’ can mean ‘distinctive’, ‘special’. When we say Westminster Abbey is a ‘royal peculiar’ we don’t mean that it is rum. We mean that it is distinctive in having a special relation to the monarchy, for kings and queens are crowned there. Archbishop Errington meant, by contrast, that the first Dominican sisters in England were oddballs, a rum outfit, because they considered themselves to have an apostolic mission of their own which was not simply a matter of what the diocesan clergy asked them to do
The Archbishop did not recognise what we should call today, in language borrowed from St.Paul, the charism of apostolic sisters in the Dominican tradition. Our charism stems from the charism of our holy father St.Dominic, who is the patriarch not only of the friars, but of nuns and sisters, and the members of the fraternities and its nature is expressed in advance in the prophecy chosen as the first reading of today’s Mass: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good tidings.”
Yet behind the charism of the founder, which is, we could say, an ‘archetypal’ charism, in which each Dominican participates without, however, possessing it in a personal way for himself or herself, since only the whole Dominican family does that; there is something – still in the order of charismata, gifts of the Holy Spirit, that is more fundamental still. And that is the charisms we were given, each of us personally as our very own, in Christian initiation, in baptism and Confirmation.
And here I would like to draw your attention to the ceremony whereby immediately after christening a child, the minister of Baptism says:”May the Lord touch your ears to hear his word and your lips to proclaim the Faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.” It’s a remarkable co-incidence, to put it no stronger, that the ‘peculiar mission’ of Sr.Angela Mary has concerned the ears of the deaf, and the ‘peculiar mission’ of Sr. Mary Pauline the speech of the dumb, or at any rate, of those whose speech is impaired. It looks, doesn’t it, as if the charisms given to them at their own Baptism and Confirmation clustered around a future call to enable others to fulfil what the rites of initiation ask for them: that even if hearing impaired they should understand the good-tidings brought over the mountains and even if speech-impaired they should be made able to communicate in that world of language where the good things are passed on. Could there be anything more evangelical than this, anything more directly connected to the life of the baptized at its most basic levels ? Anything less – in the Archbishop of Trebizond’s sense of the word – ‘peculiar’ ?
There is however, another use of ‘peculiar’ in the negative sense that we are more likely to come across today and it brings me to the two remaining readings selected for this Mass which are about the cross of Christ and our sharing in that cross. No doubt, like all of us, the sisters whose jubilee we are celebrating today have had a taste of that cross; there is no life without it, none without its sorrows and regrets. But one cross they have carried, not exactly together but in strict succession to each other, has been the drying up of vocations to the consecrated life in an age that finds that life so ‘peculiar’ as not to be worth considering, even from within the church. The seemingly inexorable decline of the Congregation, as of so many others: what lies behind it? Is it that social and cultural conditions have changed so dramatically that it is now almost beyond the bounds of the imagination, at least in England, to envisage it? Or is it that the Church is self-wounded, embarking on a reform on all fronts so wide-ranging and, in practice, poorly focussed, that in the end almost everything was called into question?
Without seeking to adjudicate that issue here, we can say that, at any rate, this situation should never have come about, because the consecrated life is the simplest and most direct expression of the life of a disciple of Jesus - someone who is content with hearing, contemplating and cherishing the Word of God and seeking to practice it, with no need for extra complications in property, relationships and schemes of personal autonomy.
In this way, the future revival of the religious life in England is the index of how the Gospel stands.
Meanwhile, we thank these two sisters for the service they have done, the witness they have given, and ask God in whose hands lie all things, to give them abundantly of his grace whether the years that lie ahead be short or long.
And may God bless us all.