The Year of Consecrated Life starts at the beginning of Advent this year and continues until early 2016. Mercy Sr Mary Neven of Auckland recently gave the following address about what it means to her to be a religious.
For me religious life is a privilege. It enables me to be close to the Church, its liturgies and sacraments.
I feel particularly blessed that I walk in the shoes of Cecilia Maher in my role as pastoral assistant at the cathedral. She lived in a house that stood where the right hand nave of the cathedral now is and served in the first stone cathedral two years after it was opened, teaching, visiting the sick, visiting
prisoners in the prison in Queen St, caring for orphans and doing pastoral care roles, as I endeavour to do today.
Walking with people and sharing in their lives, their family’s lives, their joys and sorrows makes me so aware of God’s presence today. I’d like to think that most religious in New Zealand, no matter what their ministry, also see their vocation as privilege and they also experience God’s presence in the people
I think religious today contribute significantly to the Church and have continued this tradition set by their religious pioneers and those who have followed them. However, today many active religious are no longer in traditional ministries — nursing and teaching — and I believe they will not be in the future. There are many discerning the needs of those on the margins, the voiceless, and the poor. There’s a huge
groundswell of New Zealanders now who are concerned about the growing numbers of people living in poverty, and the 250,000 children growing up without basic needs — nourishing food, adequate warm homes, warm clothing and education.
What active religious are doing today is identifying some of those issues and addressing them. The witness they are giving is inspiring lay colleagues to be involved too, and in many cases to take
leadership in so doing.
We religious are called to be countercultural. There is a “me, me and me” culture in our society today. We’re immersed in that, but religious are called to be prophetic witnesses to a Gospel culture that cares for others — the widow, the stranger and the orphan, as the First Testament names them.
There are a lot fewer religious today in the Church in New Zealand than there were when I entered in 1965. We are less visible than we were then; we live in the background rather than the foreground we used to enjoy and we’re older for the most part, but our distinctiveness comes from our living our vows authentically: Evangelical Poverty; Consecrated Chastity; Prophetic Obedience; and also living our individual congregation charisms.
I’m proud to be a Sister of Mercy. I think that for us Mercy Sisters, we are more than ever conscious of our call to justice, hospitality and compassion.
Our vows bind us to the Church, from where we are given our mandate to work and be part of a diocese. I said in my vows, “I dedicate myself to Christ and to the mission of the Church”.
We religious also need the support of the Church. I am well aware that many religious women would prefer not to work in a parish because religious women in general have a subordinate position in the Church and often also in society. However, in my role at St Patrick’s, I am privy to the worries, sorrows,
and upsets of many people — the elderly, sick, homeless. I know a family — a mother, grandmother and two
children and separately another woman — each looking for a home because of the threat of eviction and rising rents.
I hear the stories of many unemployed desperately searching for work, families who have children at Catholic schools reduced to one income and finding they cannot keep up with the fees, people of ethnic origin being harassed in the workplace to take on extra responsibilities or treated badly, fearful they
will lose their jobs and then their work visas.
There are plenty of people searching to find themselves, peace and God.
Even if we have half the religious we had years ago doing this sort of work, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes for the Church.
When I entered St Mary’s, seven other women joined at the same time. Today there are three of us who remain. I don’t believe that we’ll see large numbers entering religious life in the immediate future,
but I believe that Jesus continues to call probably more people than we can guess. I’ve often asked myself the question: “If I truly believe in my vocation as a Sister of Mercy, why would I not encourage others to share in this same vocation and lifestyle?”
About three years ago, I heard something that disturbed me. Two married women, independently of each other, within a couple of months of each other and who did not know each other, both said they’d thought about becoming a religious but didn’t and now wished they had. We have a challenge to invite others to consider a religious vocation if that seems to be Jesus’ call for them.
One of our challenges today is to understand new generations and to know what they are seeking. In an in-depth study done by the National Religious Vocation Convocation (NRVC) in the United States, some of these areas have been named as communal living, Eucharist, communal prayer and visibility.
I also believe that in our world broken with greed and selfishness, we religious are called to reconciliation, as indeed are all the baptised, but as people of the Church our witness isparamount. In reconciliation we find God’s love.
Many religious contribute significantly in the background today, no longer having the places in the foreground of the Church that they used to have and I think it is important that their stories are told and retold.
I read this recently in Horizon, the journal published by NRVC: “When we live in the narrative of mystery, when our story, no matter how faulty, searches for its meaning in the story of God’s love — when we hand over our stories to the One who came to teach us a different story — we see once again the
enchantment of religious life, the fascination of religious consecration today.
Without these contemplative eyes, it is all too easy to settle for cynicism, to be afraid that there is nothing there, no future for religious life, my community, the Church, or vocation ministry. As Fr
Richard Rohr, OFM, quoted in his book Everything Belongs: “Someone rightly said, ‘The problem is no longer to believe in God, it’s to believe in humanity’.”
Yes, I am privileged in many, many ways. Perhaps the most important is that I have time for prayer and contemplation — to be with Jesus and to draw strength from him. As Catherine McAuley said, “We have one solid comfort amidst this little tripping about, our hearts can always be centred in God, for whom alone we go forward or stay back”.
I know the Church needs our witness. And I know that we need to be witnesses of joy.