United with those in Rome, in Glasgow and throughout the world, here we are closing the Year of Consecrated Life. It has perhaps been overshadowed by the Synod on Marriage and the Family and by the Year of Mercy, but we hope it has had its own secret effect in the Body of Christ which is formed of all of us – lay, children and parents, the married, the single, the ordained and consecrated.
It was St John Paul II who called for the first World Day of Consecrated Life, on this day, feast of the Presentation, in 1997.
The day when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple seems apt for remembering the consecrated life and giving thanks for it, and a good day for us who are consecrated to renew our commitment. This day, said John Paul, is ‘an eloquent icon of the total offering of one’s life for all those who are called to show forth in the Church and in the world, by means of the evangelical counsels, the characteristic features of Jesus, the chaste, poor and obedient one.’ Mary, carrying Jesus to the Temple, is a figure of Mother Church who ‘continues to offer her sons and daughters to the heavenly Father, associating them with the one oblation of Christ’ (Message of John Paul II for the First World Day of Consecrated Life, 6 January 1997).
Today, in a way, is the Offertory of Jesus’ life. And our Profession too is an offertory, linked to his.
It’s beautiful to think that a kind of mothering grace had led each of us out of our own Bethlehem or Nazareth, out of our own family life and life in the world in the ordinary sense, up to the Temple in Jerusalem. The prayer of Mary and the word and sacraments of the Church have carried us to the Temple of religious life at the heart of Jerusalem, the City of God. In the arms of this mothering grace, each of us been taken in the footsteps of Christ. We have made profession of the evangelical counsels. It is, indeed, a lived Offertory, a lived Presentation of the Gifts. ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness, we have received the bread we offer you.’ This is the plain, simple bread of ourselves. We offer it to God.
It’s not by chance that the Church now prefers profession to be made during Mass, and at this very point: after the hearing of the Word and before the offering of the Sacrifice.
Yes, profession is the offertory of our life, as the Presentation of the Lord was the offertory moment of Jesus’ life – the moment when the horizon of his death and resurrection opened up before him and Joseph and his mother through the prophecy of Simeon.
On his profession day, 10 February 1891, Bl Columba Marmion wrote: ‘Solemn Profession is a holocaust, a total gift of oneself to God, and the most perfect imitation of Christ. On the day of the purification in the Temple, Jesus offered himself to his Father without reserve; and from the time of this official oblation, so to speak, every moment of his life he did what ‘pleased the Father’ until on the Cross, he pronounced his Consummatum Est… I have made a firm resolution to imitate this perfect oblation of Jesus by transforming my profession into a holocaust of faith, hope and charity.’
‘Here I am, I come to do your will’.
By professing chastity, we offer God our body, by professing poverty the possession or at least the use of material things, by professing obedience, what’s nearest and dearest to us, our will. This is a whole offering. Or to put it another way, by professing we chastity we offer who and what we are, as man or woman; through poverty what we have, through obedience what we do. Think of a human being who falls in love and wants to enter into the covenant of marriage with his or her beloved. Isn’t there a gift there of body and things and life, of self and freedom? This is the gift the consecrated make, not to a single human being, but to the Father of all, and for all, after the pattern of the chaste, poor and obedient Christ.
Profession, like the Offertory, is a prayer. ‘Suscipe me, Domine’, St Benedict has his monks sing at that moment. Take me up, O Lord, according to your word.
As part of the contemplation for attaining love at the end of his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius has the famous prayer that beings with the same word: ‘Receive, O Lord, all my liberty. Take my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. Whatsoever I have or hold, You have given me; I give it all back to You and surrender it wholly to be governed by your will. Give me only your love and your grace, and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.’
The Eucharist is the heart of the Christian life, and in a special way of the consecrated life. How many religious congregations have the provision of daily Mass or at least daily Communion as an essential element.
I think the Eucharist contains our whole religious life within it. It’s our pattern.
Our profession is the offertory of our religious life. Through the Church and in the Church, we are presented to the Father, as are the bread and wine. And then in the great Eucharistic Prayer, the High Prayer as the Germans call it, this bread and wine are indeed taken up, transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ and offered in adoration, thanksgiving, propitiation and intercession to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We offer ourselves and the action of God ‘consecrates’ us, changes us.
The Church makes much more now than she did of the prayer over the professed. It is a prayer that belongs to that whole clutch of prayers, like the blessing of baptismal water, the nuptial blessing used at weddings, the prayers of ordination, consecration of a virgin, dedication of an altar and church. It is prayed by a bishop or priest, representing Christ, as is the Eucharistic Prayer. It invokes the Holy Spirit on the person being professed, as the Eucharistic Prayer does on the bread and wine. Certainly it doesn’t effect a sacramental transubstantiation (!), but it does convey a transforming grace. The offering of ourselves we make in the profession of vows is taken up, suscipe-d by the prayer of the Church and the action of the Holy Spirit. It becomes praise and thanksgiving to the Father in Christ. And what happens through the prayer of profession happens again through the whole of our religious life. Life itself becomes an instrument of God: the demands that are made on us, the people we live and suffer and rejoice with, the unnoticed prayer people wrap around us, our health, our struggles, the vicissitudes of our own communities and congregations. As long as we open our hearts to them, keep saying ‘suscipe’ somewhere in ourselves, all of these things continue and deepen our consecration, can make us more Christ-like. Our whole life, really, becomes a Eucharistic prayer. The Christian life of every baptized person is and should be, first and foremost, praise and thanksgiving to God – not in our heads, especially, but of its nature. And this becomes still more visible and explicit in the life of those baptized persons who have made profession. Before we rush to the practical gift of ourselves to others, to the mission, let’s remember that, by virtue of profession, we are a prayer: of thanksgiving, of atonement, of intercession. We will all one day pass beyond the age of competence. We won’t be able to do things for other people any more. We’ll need them to do things for us, probably. We’ll be like the baby in Mary’s arms. But, baptized and consecrated, we can still be prayer.
And yet it’s true: the plain, ordinary bread and wine that we are, consecrated by the sanctifying action of God, is to be broken and given. Is to become part of the mission of Christ continued in the Church. We are to help build the Body of Christ, to keep his Blood in circulation as it were. We are to be the bread that strengthen’s man’s heart and a wine that gives joy. Nothing worse than mouldy bread or vinegary wine. There can be religious like that! God keep us from that! The coming of the Christ-child to the Temple brought joy to old Simeon and Anna. May we bring joy to old and young alike! May we be all that the Church wishes us to be!
The Christ-child passed from the arms of Mary to those of Simeon. Perhaps it’s a symbol that we too are given to the people we serve. Simeon and Anna were people of hope, and Jesus brought them consolation. There is almost always some hope in the hearts of human beings, and I would love to think that Religious can somehow bring their fellow human beings assurance that this hope is not in vain: that Christ is the redemption and fulfilment of us all.
I began with John Paul II. Let me end with Pope Francis, a religious himself and the one who called this Year now ending.
‘What in particular do I expect from this Year of grace for consecrated life?
‘1. That the old saying will always be true: “Where there are religious, there is joy”. 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; and that our total self-giving in service to the Church, to families and young people, to the elderly and the poor, brings us life-long personal fulfilment.
None of us should be dour, discontented and dissatisfied, for “a gloomy disciple is a disciple of gloom”. 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. But in all these things we should be able to discover “perfect joy”. For it is here that we learn to recognize the face of Christ, who became like us in all things, and to rejoice in the knowledge that we are being conformed to him who, out of love of us, did not refuse the sufferings of the cross…
I am counting on you to wake up the world’ (Letter of Pope Francis to all Consecrated People, 21 November 2014).
Let us now renew our professions.