Homily of Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv during Vespers for the Memorial of St Bonaventure with Religious in the Diocese of Parramatta (Australia), St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta, 15 July, 2016
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
It is great for us to be here, to give thanks to the Lord and to renew our commitment to be the sign of light, hope and joy to the Church and the people of our time. I want to say a big thanks to you all. Thank you not simply for the work that you do, great or small, seen or unseen, celebrated or uncelebrated, among the mainstream society or on the margins. We want to thank you, above all, for who you are, for the witness of generous love that you give by virtue of your consecration.
I don’t have to remind you that religious life in Australia and most Western societies is in transition, to put it very mildly. Judging by many measures or at least looking at the appearances, some would even conclude that our best days are behind us. They are ready to write obituaries for a life so glorious in the past but now hopelessly riddled with crisis. Let’s make no qualms about it. We feel it too in our bones. Every day, we struggle to come to terms with an acute sense of loss: our numbers, our resources, our status, our prestige and even our own identity, our own morale.
There was a time my Order was suppressed in France, Spain and Portugal. No, it wasn’t a Jesuit pope who tried to even the score with the Franciscans. The rulers thought we were too papist. Whatever the real reason, it must have been demoralising for the friars who went through the suppression. But at least then, the crisis was not due to indifference and apathy. In this our time and in many places where we find ourselves, a crisis of relevance stares us in the face. Like the people of God in the exile, we are being led to a place of great trial and temptation, a place until now untrodden and uncharted. Like them, we can try to relive the glorious past with nostalgia and risk losing our prophetic witness or we can go forward with courage and faith trusting that God will bring about new life out of our barrenness.
In fact, if the experience of the remnant faithful was any guide, it was the exile that was the catalyst for a new Israel; it formed a new consciousness of who God was and what it truly meant to be his people; it brought about the most transforming experience that profoundly shaped the faith of the new Israel. Perhaps we religious are called to do the same for the people of our time. By nature, we are not primarily the work force for the Church. Rather, we are catalysts for renewal. We explore new frontiers and possibilities. Our job is not merely to maintain existing order and status quo, but rather to inspire and to keep the fire of the Gospel burning for the sake of the Church and of the world.
One of my favourite images that speak to religious life today is that of Simeon and Anna holding the child Jesus in the temple. I don’t mean to say that we religious are just getting old and derelict like Simeon and Anna. I mean to say that we have an important role to play even if we find ourselves confronted with our own mortality. Simeon and Anna are a kind of image of religious. In the words of St Paul, we are like earthenware vessels holding the inestimable treasure of Christ. If like Anna and Simeon, we are faced with decline and demise, we should not fear as long as we can pass on to others the hope, the light and the salvation that we have seen.
St John Paul II wrote that religious are first and foremost called to be the icon of the transfigured Christ. The transfiguration here is the result of the deep and personal union with Christ and at the same time the result of the suffering with Christ. Religious life will change in its expressions, shapes and sizes. We should not fear these changes. The only thing we should fear is the failure to bear the wounds of the suffering Servant and to be the icon of the transfigured Christ for our Church and for our world.
One of my childhood memories has to do with learning how to keep the fire alive until the next morning. I remember standing by my mother’s side near the wood-fire place that served as our humble stove (there was little electricity in our village then). Late into the night, she would choose one strong red amber and bury it deep into the ashes. This amber would then be used to light the fire the following morning. I wonder if our life as religious is a bit like that. In a time of diminishment and uncertainty, our task is simply to keep the amber of our charism alive and pass it to the next generation. And the new custodians of our charism may not dress like us, live like us or work like us. Each of us, personally and collectively are challenged to pass the gift we have received to others, so that they too might be all the better for it, so that they too might have life.
Dear friends and fellow religious, I want to conclude this reflection by reaffirming my respect and admiration for you. I don’t say this simply because of the works that you do for our Church. There is something much deeper here that resonates with me very strongly. I ask you to continue to be for the Church the icon of the transfigured Christ, even if things are not looking up for you, numerically, financially or otherwise. Be for us the example of living the Church’s Holy Saturday or in the words of the mystic John, the dark night of the soul. Then we can be certain that the loving God will take care of the rest. He will bring about renewal and transformation as He brought Jesus Christ to life from the dead. May Mary of Nazareth, the finest example of suffering in hope intercede for you and accompany you on the journey of faithfulness.