of Our Lady of Dolours Parish in Glasnevin, Dublin
on 25 May 2018, feast of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat.
What I find most remarkable about Madeleine Sophie is that she was encouraged to found a congregation before she had even reached her 21st birthday, and false modesty didn’t hold her back! Even more remarkable is that she was setting out on this journey at a moment in history which could not have been less auspicious! She was only 10 when the French revolution broke out, with its virulent, and in some ways justifiable, anti-clericalism, but it brought with it an antipathy to faith, seeing religion as a product of an irrational and infantile mind. However, it doesn’t seem to have deflected Madeleine Sophie from her vision of offering girls a path to ‘fullness of life’ through education informed by faith. She seems to have had a holistic approach to education, seeing relationships of trust as the key to learning.
This should give us heart today, as we struggle to discern where mission might be calling us, in a world where faith seems increasingly out of sync with the present culture and even irrelevant. It is fitting that we gather to celebrate Madeleine Sophie’s feast day in the days immediately following Pentecost.
There is a very definite sense of dying taking place in the Church, particularly but not exclusively in the west. The dramatic decline in vocations to priesthood and religious life, especially in this country, is an indication of a diminishing religious sensibility and in particular a lack of interest in the mystery of Jesus Christ. The outcome of today’s referendum may represent another significant cultural shift. Although the experience is disheartening, maybe there is a dying that needs to be done, because the Holy Spirit wants something new to come to birth. ‘Unless I go, the Holy Spirit cannot come,’ Jesus warned his disciples.
Our task today is to prepare the ground for a future that we cannot even imagine, never mind glimpse. ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls upon the ground and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies it yields a rich harvest’.
When you gathered for your General Chapter in 2016, you had the courage to recognise, in the experience of letting go more traditional forms of ministry, the call to embrace ‘new frontiers’, to live a life closer to the daily reality of other people, to deepen your ‘capacity to listen to the heartbeat of God in yourselves and in the world and to live in greater unity with one another and solidarity with the world.’ No matter what the challenge, God is always leading us forward in hope.
Where do we find signs of hope? I find it in the faithfulness of the older Church members, despite all the disillusionment with the Church they have witnessed in recent years; in the courage of young parents who go against the tide in seeking to share deep Christian values and faith with their children; and in the idealism and goodness in young people. I am sure you have your own experiences. We, too, are called to be a sign of hope through our faithfulness and our openness to wherever the Spirit is trying to lead us. Our task is no less, but no more, daunting than that facing the disciples in the aftermath of Ascension/Pentecost, but we have the assurance of the Holy Spirit with us.
Just after this Mass I am returning to my parish to celebrate the funeral of a parishioner who died on Tuesday in her 101st year. She was a woman of deep faith and who knew joy and suffering. Four of her six children predeceased her, but she is mourned by 19 children and 22 great-grandchildren who loved her. Perhaps her parting gift to them is to remind them of the gift of faith.
I feel privileged to celebrate with you this morning. I am conscious of connections. The first Sacred Heart house in Dublin was in Glasnevin, where I currently minister. My father’s only sibling, Ruth, joined the Society and left for Japan in 1960 (the year I was born), where she spent the next 50 years involved in education. When she developed cancer in 1999, we began to visit her in Tokyo. There I had the great privilege of meeting Sr. Brigid Keogh, author of our recessional hymn, and a truly remarkable lady. Then aged 98 she insisted on taking us out to lunch in a lovely French restaurant. As we prepared to raise our glasses, she said what will we propose a toast to. Almost immediately she answered her own question: ‘I know: let’s toast the future!’
Let’s ask the Holy Spirit, the Blessed Trinity, St. Madeleine Sophie, and the many Sacred Heart sisters, like Brigid Keogh, who have gone before us, to inspire us to go forward in faith and confidence, realising that it is the Lord’s kingdom we are asked to serve faithfully, not our own.