Homily on Apostolic Life

(Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley, Ofm. Cap. delivered the following homily at the “Symposium on Apostolic Life: Religious Life Since Vatican II ... Reclaiming the Treasure,” that took place at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. Sept.27, 2008.)

Your Eminence, my brother Bishops, priests, deacons, fellow religious, dear friends,

On the lovely island of Martha’s Vineyard, there is a beautiful church dedicated to Saint Augustine, and in that church there are windows depicting the seven Sacraments. When you go into the Church, one of the first windows you see is the one that is dedicated to the Sacrament of Penance. The crossed keys, the priest’s stole and the words from Scripture, “Go and sin no more.” The Church is not air conditioned and in the summer it is very warm, so they open the windows, but that particular window, the only pain of glass that opens is the pain where the word “no” is written. So, the tourists go in to the Church and they read, “Go and sin more.” In my ten years as Bishop here in Fall River, no one ever complained. The amazing thing is that for many people they think of the Church as being the Church of no: “don’t do this and don’t do that.” When in reality, we are the Church of yes. We are called upon to say, “yes” to God: “yes” to love, “yes to life, “yes to the commandments, “yes” to the beatitudes, “yes” to our consecration. God’s word needs to be in our hearts, bound to our wrist and a pendent on our forehead. It is not enough to say, “Lord, Lord, we must build our lives on the rock of God’s word and not on the sand of our own self-will.

In today’s Gospel, the first son says, “no” to the Father, “I won’t go and work in the vineyard.” Afterward, he changes his mind. Perhaps it is fear that the Father will punish him or write him out of the will. Perhaps he realizes how much the Father loves him and how inappropriate his negative response is. He suddenly sees his act of disobedience as shameless ingratitude. He ends up changing his plan to accept the Father’s plan.

This son is like the publicans and the prostitutes who had organized their lives prescinding from God and his commandments. They had other priorities. But the preaching of John the Baptist and his prophetic witness helped them to find the path to repentance and conversion.

The second son says: “Sure, Dad, I’ll go,” but his word is not a solid commitment, and he does not go. This son is like the Pharisees who hypocritically say one thing and then do something else.

Jesus’ parable teaches us that promises can never substitute for performance, and fine words can never take the place of deeds. The son who said he would go, and then he did not. He had all the outward marks of courtesy. In the end, he does his own thing.

On the other hand, the parable teaches us that a good thing can be easily spoiled by the way that it is done. A noble deed begrudgingly performed is suddenly less noble. Saint Therese rightly shows in her spirituality of the little way that the value of an action depends in great part on the love and humility of the one performing the action. The most insignificant gesture takes on great value when it is done with love and with humility. Great deeds can be vitiated by vainglory and selfish motivations. Who was it who said of the nuns of Port Royal, “They are as pure as angels but as proud as devils?”

Religious life is supposed to be different from these two sons in the parable. We find our example in the “yes” of Mary. When God was knocking on the door of humanity, Mary in our name says, “yes” and opens that door. We find our example in the yes of Jesus: a yes that we live out in a life of radical discipleship, one of self-emptying.

Jesus’ obedience unto death, even death on the cross, is the saving event that gives meaning to our yes and to our obedience. In a world that cherishes autonomy and freedom, the vow of obedience sometimes seems oppressive or unhealthy. And yet, it is only in that obedience that we find the spiritual dynamism that is the essential component of all Christian discipleship and has such a strong bearing even on the quality of our prayer. In the New Testament, obedience is more a state than an action. Jesus’ kenosis is a continuous act of love and self-giving.

Our religious profession is to imitate Jesus’ self-emptying, to throw off the tyranny of self-will and to be available to God and His Church with an antecedent willingness born of a listening heart that seeks first the will of God.

Our yes in religious life is not a cry in the dark. It is a yes to Christ who lives and walks with us. It is a yes to Christ and to the Body of Christ, the Church. Our call is to serve in the vineyard, Christ’s Church. Our participation in an individual religious community is the way that we live out our commitment. But that vocation is within the context of the Church. Our fraternity, our sisterhood must never cut us off from the whole Church. It is only in the context of the Church that our charisms can be discerned, cultivated and authentically lived.

The Second Vatican Council urges us to read the signs of the times. Well, I believe that we religious must read the signs of the times today and say, “yes,” yes to a new generation of Catholics who are different from the generations of 30 and 40 and even 20 years ago. Each year when I meet with the Presidents of our Catholic Colleges in the area, it is always very encouraging to hear them say that they have never experienced such openness to the faith as they see in today’s students even though religious illiteracy looms so large in the Catholic landscape.

I am very encouraged by the incredible increase of applicants to my own religious community: the Capuchins of the St. Augustine’s Province. We have more in formation now, a small province of 200 friars, almost 40 men in formation. It has been years since we have experienced this. The Vision Vocation Match “Report on Trends in Religious Life”, that Ann Carey already quoted to us, which is done on behalf of the National Religious Vocations Conference, indicates that in the last three years there have been a 125 percent increase in the number of inquiries contacting religious communities and a 19 percent increase in those entering religious communities. This increase in consecrated life is found primarily among younger Catholics.

It is reported that those considering religious life identify strongly with the teachings of the Catholic Church, and almost all of them say that they are drawn to religious life by “a desire to live a life of faithfulness to the Church and the Church’s teachings.” A preference for wearing distinctively religious clothing has also found favor among current discerners. Eucharistic devotion and common prayer are an essential part of what they hope to experience in religious life.

These discerners tend to be well educated, the majority have college degrees. They are looking for community life. Strong community and happy religious are a big draw for young people. My own vocation began when I was a child, and my dad took me along for a ride when he was dropping my brother off for a retreat with the older kids. It was at a Capuchin seminary, and there we met an old German friar who was working in the fields. As we left, my Dad turned to me and said, “You know, that is the happiest man in the world.” He did not have a great car or a beautiful wife or fancy clothes, but there was joy in his eyes and peace in his heart. I wanted to experience that same happiness. Years later, I returned and joined that same monastery. The priest by the way was Father Bede, the one who helped Father Judge found the Trinitarians.

Nothing is a bigger turn off for our young people than the cynical, angry religious who is dissatisfied with the Church and the teachings of the Church. Nothing, on the other hand, is more attractive and inviting than a happy religious who loves the Church and is enthused by being part of the Church’s mission. Corporate ministries, especially service directed to the poor, are also very attractive to young people today.

Many young Catholics have been drawn to the service projects and the mission affiliations of our religious communities. When these experiences are marked by faith formation, prayer and spiritual direction, they can provide young people with a powerful motivation to try religious life.

Often people in the Church are quick to write off young people as too secularized, too self-indulgent, to modern to be interested in the Church, much less in religious life. Pope John Paul II showed us that if we love young people and trust them that their idealism can reenergize our Church. Religious communities that can read the signs of the times and say “yes” to a new generation of Catholics will have the greatest opportunity to grow. Business as usual, an inability for self-criticism, an obstinate attachment to failed experiments will alienate young people and accelerate the demise of religious life in our country.

As religious, we must also say, “yes” to the new Catholics who have come to our shores. The PEW Report has commented on the fact that over half the immigrants that come to the United States each year are Catholics. The greatest number are Hispanics. The same report says that half the Catholics in the United States at this moment between the ages of 20 and 30 are Hispanics. One tenth of the ordinations each year in this country are Asians, mostly Vietnamese. Our religious communities need to be more open to the piety and the traditions of our immigrant population.

Religious life does not take place in a vacuum. Our success or lack of success in evangelizing and passing on the faith also will determine the dimensions of consecrated life in the future. We must all recommit ourselves to the task of spreading the Catholic faith. Yes to evangelization means proclaiming the social Gospel of preferential option for the poor, the Gospel of Life and the defense of the family, which is the sanctuary of life. Consecrated life is a costly grace of discipleship that is born out of a deep love for Christ and the Church. Leading people to discover the love of Christ is what our task is about. Religious need to be artisans of the civilization of love.

It is my prayer that in this time of crisis for religious life, that we religious will redouble our efforts to get our house in order. We must recommit ourselves to the contemplative aspect of our vocation so that the spirit will lead us on paths of authentic renewal. Great love and great humility are required to salvage religious life in our country.

In the history of the Church, renewal and growth in the Church was occasioned by the founding of monasteries, religious orders and congregations. Now it is our turn. If we bury this talent, this treasure of religious life in the ground for fear and pessimism, the whole Church will suffer.

A few years ago, on a foggy road, a driver pulled over on the Santa Anna Freeway in California to change his flat tire. To avoid hitting him, the car behind him slowed down so abruptly that a third car crashed into him. This was repeated by two hundred cars in a five-mile pile up. In addition to the two hundred collisions, there were sixty cars that were totally wrecked, fifty injured people and one person was killed. Crumpled cars were strewn like dominoes in every direction. The first driver, fixed his tire, got in his car and drove away from the ensuing confusion, oblivious to the massive chain reaction that he had touched off.

I think there is a parable in this for us religious. Often, we are unaware of the far-reaching results of little decisions that we make in our communities or decisions that we fail to make. We have said, “yes” to God and to his people, the Church. Let us have the courage to look closely at what has been happening in religious life, without blaming and without recriminations and with the realization of what is at stake, so that we leave no stone unturned to renew religious life for new generations of Catholics. We must say, “yes” and live yes. God bless you.