Feast of St Thérèse, Patroness of the Missions
The SMA Provincial Leader, Fr Fachtna O'Driscoll, celebrated the Closing Mass of the National Novena at 7.30pm in St Joseph's SMA Church in Blackrock Road. This is the final time Fr O'Driscoll will celebrate this Mass as Provincial Leader as his second term of office draws to a close in July 2013. An overflowing congregation, the largest for several years, heard Fr O'Driscoll give the following homily. After the Mass, many of the congregation accepted the invitation of the SMA community to join them for refreshments in the Dining Room.
Readings for the Mass: Job 1: 6-22 and Luke 9.46-50
A call to mission action
Three special times or occasions come together in this mission month of October. We saw some years ago that the Irish Missionary Union through its Mission Alive programme has somewhat captured again this month for mission in the Irish Church.
This year we are very fortunate to have a special Mission Alive celebration of Mission at St Joseph’s African Missions Church in Wilton. This will take place on Mission Sunday itself, October 21st. You are all invited to join the parish community of Wilton and missionaries from all over Cork to celebrate a Mass for Mission at 10.30am on that day. The Mass itself will be followed by missionary displays and a small reception. This will give you an opportunity to meet parishioners from the sister SMA parish and other missionaries who will be there on that day.
So, back to the three occasions that happily coincide during this mission month.
the 50th anniversary of beginning of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II)
this month the beginning of Year of Faith
the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation. [Incidentally Bishop Kieran O’Reilly SMA, bishop of Killaloe, is one of the two Irish bishops who will be present in Rome for the Synod].
Vatican II was the first great expression of universality of church – from Asia, Africa etc. Of course it had been taking shape for one hundred years previously but this was the first occasion when the whole world took note of it. Particularly the Church in the Western world began to realise how quickly the Spirit of God was allowing developments to take shape in what was then known as the 3rd World but is more accurately known as the majority world.
With Vatican II the “Ad gentes” dimension of church was clear for all to see. This Latin phrase meaning “to the peoples” and refers specifically to that universal dimension of the church, i.e. that all peoples have a right to know about Jesus Christ and believe in Him as their Lord and Saviour.
It is still valid today and perhaps even more so. Remarkably, the number of those who don’t know Christ has grown. This does not mean, of course, that the numbers who do know of Christ has decreased but rather is accounted for by the huge population explosion and the greatest growth has taken place in those areas of the world least exposed to the message of the gospel. It is important to recognise of course that the fact that people don’t know of Christ does not mean that they are not redeemed by Christ but it means they are ignorant of this belief. It is likely that this is through no fault of their own but nevertheless it is a reality.
That is why there continues to be a contemporary urgency to preach the gospel to ‘all’ peoples.
Pope Benedict, in announcing the Year of Faith, said “today as in the past, Christ sends us through the highways of the world to proclaim his Gospel to all the peoples of the earth”. In order to do that, we must first be people of faith. And that we have to work at. Faith is a gift but not a gift that comes automatically. The Penny Catechism definition of Faith is not at all bad: “Faith is a supernatural gift of God which enables us to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed.” Being a religious or priest is no guarantee that the gift will always remain strong. All of us have periods when our faith is weakened. And those are the times when the prayerful support of other members of the believing community help us to hang in. Someone once described prayer as a gift given to those who pray. In a similar way, I would describe faith as a gift given to those open to receive it. What is important here however is that we do not beat ourselves if we find our faith weakening or doubts creeping in. Beating ourselves will only damage us more. What we need to do then is to come before the Lord and make that humble prayer: Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.
Focusing back on mission for a moment, it is good to remember back to Pope Paul VI. In a brilliant encyclical during the mid 70s, – Evangelii Nuntiandi – he says: “mission is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is a duty incumbent on her by the command of Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved.”
Vatican II insisted this was a commitment of all the people of God. It is the special responsibility of the bishop who is to lead his diocese in missionary zeal. This missionary spirit or hue is to colour every aspect of life in the diocese. All elements of the church must feel called to this service of evangelisation.
Mission is lived everywhere. By virtue of baptism all are called to be evangelisers. No necessarily by preaching in the normal sense of the word – we call to mind again the famous phrase attributed to St Francis of Assisi, “preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words”. So mission is lived in our homes, our communities, in our parish and in our country. But there is also a particular mission which is lived for the others and this is really what we traditionally refer to as being a missionary. This is the mission ‘ad extra’.
People here very familiar with the notion of mission ‘ad gentes’ or ‘ad extra’, i.e to those outside, meaning peoples beyond one’s own country and culture. You see missionaries coming and going from Africa all the time. In recent times you have seen young African sisters and priests sharing the Good News here at Mass or at this Novena.
I could be here all night naming out the different congregations of brothers, priests and sisters who mission ad extra. Some congregations are formed specifically for mission ad extra such as OLA and SMA while others mission at home while also having some members mission ‘ad extra’, i.e. outside their own place of origin.
Great care has to be taken concerning the attitude we bring to mission ‘ad extra’. I spoke here some years ago about Jean Vanier’s insights on the idea of power and powerlessness. I want to revisit that tonight because I believe it is crucial for how we might do mission.
Vanier pointed out that the call of the gospel to us is not to be generous as such but to be builders of community. The distinction bears reflection. Generosity can often begin from a position of power. I can be generous with you because I have more resources than you. It comes from a position of strength rather than a position of vulnerability. And Jesus acts from a position of vulnerability rather than a position of strength. God himself became a vulnerable human person when incarnated in the person of Jesus. Just as tonight we hear in our gospel: “for the least among you all, that is the one who is great.”
And so, Christian mission must also begin not in generosity but in vulnerability, in an attempt to form community. So, when I go out to the other I go not from a position of strength but rather being prepared to be vulnerable. I would have to admit that we are not always very successful at doing this in our practise. The missionary ought to go to listen to and be with the other in their concrete situation. I go to live and share the other’s life and allow that to shape my life just as much as I am shaping theirs. It is a position of mutuality, of equality.
For me this insight is beautifully summed up in the quotation from the great prophetic figure and political leader of India in the last century, Mahatma Ghandi. This too I quoted to you before but it bears repeating; “real change will occur not when we begin to give more to others but when we begin to take less for ourselves”.
So these three occasions call us to mission action. But when mission is done from an attitude of superiority then the true God is covered over rather than revealed. Only when done from an attitude of vulnerability and mutuality will the true God be revealed and his Kingdom take shape.
My Vocation is Love
Fr Seamus Nohilly SMA preached on the theme My vocation is Love on the fourth night of the Novena.
Some time ago a particular presenter on The Living Word on RTE Radio finished his ‘Thought for the Day’ by saying that Our Lord will only ask us one question at the end of our lives: ‘How well have you loved’?
- This all encompassing nature of Love was brought out by St. Augustine when he said ‘Love and then do what you will’
- Of course Jesus Himself put this truth very clearly when he said the whole Law and the prophets can be summed up in ‘Love of God and Love of neighbour’
The majority of you who have attended this Novena over the years and are quite familiar with the short life of St. Thérèse will not be surprised when St. Thérèse said “Love is my vocation” Listen to what she said in what many consider to be her best efforts at poetry – one verse from ‘Living on Love’:
Living on Love is giving without limit
Without claiming any wages here below.
Ah! I give without counting, truly sure
That when one loves, one does not keep count !
Overflowing with tenderness, I have given everything,
To the Divine Heart…. Lightly I run.
I have nothing left but my only wealth:
Living on Love
No matter which vocation each of us has in life , our calling is likewise “to live on Love” How then can we, while we make this Novena this year, grow and improve in “giving without limits ….not keeping count …overflow with tenderness”, to use St. Thérèse's words. Let me make this core point in this reflection this evening about where we must begin if love is to be ever more the outstanding characteristic of our life.
I go back to the very first Retreat I made as a 14 year old in our SMA Secondary School at the time – in Ballinafad, Co. Mayo. The one thing I can remember from that Retreat is what the priest said: “Many of the Saints considered themselves the greatest of sinners!” My reaction was – come off it; who do you think you are codding. My idea of a saint then was of someone if they sinned at all, it was only in a small matter and then not very often.
Now many years later I think I understand better what those saints were saying about themselves. What makes a Saint a Saint; what distinguishes the truly holy person is not so much the extent of their good deeds and services to the church, but rather their keen sensitivity to and depth of appreciation of God’s love for them – a love manifested in the person, life, Death and Res. Of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. They were so attuned to this unconditional love for them that they saw their own response to this love as inadequate and falling so far short of what it ought to be and because of this they saw sinfulness in themselves; SIN AS A FAILURE TO LOVE AS ONE COULD AND IN MISSING MANY OPPORTUNITIES TO DO SO. This is one of the best definitions of sin.
So to improve in our vocation to love, it is not so much or primarily about upping the number of my good deeds; not so much about making more strenuous efforts of my own strength; not so much about making firm new resolutions but rather on a daily basis allowing the love of God in Jesus wash over me; let the love of God more and more touch my heart – and it is in prayer; in familiarity and reflection on the word of God in the Scriptures that this transformation will take place in us. It is this sensitivity to such overwhelming love from God that impels one to respond; to give; to reach beyond oneself; to be missioned out. If the first part is right, my response will fall into place.
I believe that we have now a great opportunity to make good progress in this central challenge of the Christian life in the Year of Faith that is beginning in some 15 days time – on 11 October I believe in incentives as moments of grace. We need them – so let us make this Year of Faith one of prayer; one of greater information and formation in our Faith; one not only of increased knowledge but felt knowledge of Jesus Christ; in short a faith of the heart and from the heart– like what characterised the 23 years of St. Thérèse’s life.
Let me conclude this exhortation by referring to a phenomenon that is the very opposite of the Saints feeling they were the greatest of sinners. It is from my own experience of being a minister of the Sacrament of Reconciliation especially in the past 10 to 20 years. When someone comes to confession and says it may be 2 years, 5 or 10 years since they made their last confession I am delighted that they have made the breakthrough and I make a point of assuring them that the Lord is so pleased that they have come back to make their peace and receive the forgiveness of God in the Sacrament. But in some cases then that happiness turns to disappointment when the Penitent says something like I cannot remember any particular sin that I am guilty of. That I find sad – that in 5 or 10 years one cannot point to anything one has done wrong and especially cannot point to any missed opportunities to reach out in love. And the reason why one does not have what I call a healthy and wholesome sense of sin is, because one is not touched by the love God or another human being. If we have no sense of experience of being loved then we will have a poor sense of sin in our lives.
In summary where we are to put the emphasis in making love our calling is nicely put by St. John in his Letter Chapter 4, verses 10-11:
“This is love: not that we loved God but that He first loved us and sent His son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins: Dear Friends, if such has been the love of God, we too must love one another”
And I leave the last word to St. Thérèse as she looks towards the end of her life – the last verse from the poem I quoted from earlier: Living on Love:
Dying of love is what I hope for,
When I shall see my bonds broken,
My God will be my great reward,
I don’t desire to possess other goods.
I want to be on fire with His love
I want to see Him, to unite myself to Him forever.
That is my Heaven… that is my destiny
Living on Love!!!...”
St Thérèse's Way to God
Fr Eamonn Kelly SMA was a missionary in Nigeria for many years. He now lives in active retirement in Athlone, Co Westmeath. He was Principal Celebrant and Preacher for the third evening of our Novena. He shared with us some thoughts on St Thérèse's Way to God.
St Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order, wrote a Rule of Life for his monks. It is called simply: Rule of Benedict.
At the very beginning he says: "As we make progress in our way of life and in faith and as our hearts expand with the inexpressible sweetness of love, we shall run along the path of God's commandments, so that we may have a share threough patience, in the sufferings of Christ, and thereby a share in his Kingdom".
Looking at St Thérèse it seems to me that two phrases from what Benedict said echo in her life and in what she called her Little Way to God.
Let us first examine the phrase 'as our hearts expand with the inexpressible sweetness of love'.
Love indeed was Thérèse's way. She says it so many times. For example, 'how much Jesus desires to be loved' ... and when a Sister asked her about what she does when she prays her reply: "I don't say anything, I simply love Him."
The centrality of love for Thérèse was based on a strong conviction of God as Father, as a Loving Father, with the corollary that she was a child on whom the Father's love had been lavished.
I imagine that for Thérèse the Parable of the Prodigal Son must have been a favourite - and of the three persons in the parable - her favourite must surely have been, not either of the two sons, but the father. Some call this parable the Story of the Prodigal Father. He is hte 'prodigal' of the story: throwing away his love on two ungrateful sons.
Jesus telling the story paints tow pictures of the father: in one he is standing on the highest point of his property, arms outstretched, wishing and calling his strayed son home. The second image is not so vivid, but nonetheless we are given to understand that the goes out of his way to reassure the stay-at-home son that he is equally loved.
From an early age, Thérèse had the trusting love of a child, "My Way," she said, "is all confidence and love."
We have all watched a little child take its first baby steps away from its parents ... but very soon it turns back to be received into the open and welcoming embrace of its loving father or mother. Such was the childlike trust of Thérèse towards the God whom she addresses as 'Papa', Father.
Speaking of something she will do when she reaches Heaven she says: "When I shall have arrived at port, I will teach you how to travel on the stormy sea of the world: with surrender and the love of a child who knows his father loves im and cannot leave him alone in the hour of danger... the way of simple love and confidence is really made for you."
The 2nd phrase from Benedict which I find echoing in the life of Thérèse is: "we shall run along the path of God's commandments, so that we may have a share threough patience, in the sufferings of Christ, and thereby a share in his Kingdom".
So it turns out for Thérèse. Her nine years in the Convent following the Carmelite way of life. Nine years of doing little things well, of loving her fellow Sisters, of doing countless acts of kindness, of praying for priests and for the missions. These years were often marked with suffering. She had sickness, disagreements and misunderstandings with other Sisters, and even, apparently, doubts about her faith. In the eighteen months before her death she suffered terribly from TB and for a month before her death she was even unable to receive Holy Communion.
Yes, indeed, through patience Thérèse did have a share in the sufferings of Christ. She carried the Cross with Him.
Thérèse did nothing extraordinary in her short life. She said she couldn't do great deeds like the great Saints whose lives she read. But she knew that by doing the little things with great love she was acceptable to God. He loved her as the little person she was. I am reminded of the words from the Bible: 'Even while we were still sinners God loved us.'
If we consider for a moment little acts of kindness, such as Thérèse often performed, how much they can brighten up our day!! Looking back at the recent Paralympic Games in London and the extraordinary performances of the athletes we can only imagine how many acts of kindness were shown to them to encourage them to achieve their potential.
How is it that St Thérèse, a nun in an enclosed convent became so popular so quickly after her death, and remains so today?
Is it at least in part that her message - her Little Way - strikes a chord in each of us, that it has a ring of truth that runs counter to the philosophy which bred the Celtic Tiger, which today has been so humbled?
And is not Thérèse herself a reminder to us all that we also have a loving Father, a prodigal Father reaching out to us, calling each of us home.