GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF CORI – 2009
Address by Sr Conchita McDonnell mshr – President of CORI
We gather today as people of FAITH, in solidarity with one another and with the people of our nation. Few could deny the cataclysmic nature of what has happened to us in Ireland over the past months – as a country, as a church, as Irish Religious.
One thing is certain, no one has been left unaffected and the suffering that has ensued has been great. It is difficult to hold together the different elements that gave rise to the situation in which we find ourselves. Clearly more time is needed for reflection and analysis. Nevertheless, most of us here present have our own tentative understanding as to the meaning and message of what has occurred.
In the Global context it is an acknowledged fact that the world is undergoing a period of massive transition giving rise to a sense of dislocation, chaos, confusion, marginalisation, helplessness, growing anger and distrust. Old verities are gone at every level of society, familiar signposts that were trusted have vanished and a chilling sense of aimlessness and near despair is felt by many who are struggling with shattered hopes and an ever deepening sense of loss.
As part of society this mirrors, to a greater or lesser degree, the experience of many Irish Religious today and has been intensified by the publication of the Ryan report.
Faced with this crisis what is being asked of us in terms of leadership today? Our Faith, our Hope and our Love are being sorely tested. It was Peter’s faith which was recognised by Jesus as marking him out for leadership. Yet it, together with hope and love, clearly weakened in his experience of the passion. Our temptations are no different. Leadership calls us to interpret for ourselves and for others, through the prism of the Spirit, what is occurring in our lives so that we are led more deeply into the mystery of who we are and who God is.
Time of Exile
The theme of Exile in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, I believe, provides us with ways of understanding ourselves and of grounding our HOPE in a time of doubt and drought, a time of weakness and acute vulnerability.
For the Israelites the time of exile was a time of profound change. During this time of change they did not feel understood and neither did they understand themselves. There was a sense of cultural alienation within and without which tempted them to lie down under the sheer force of their changed situation. The final destruction of Judah meant the undermining of all that the old religion had meant, religiously, politically, socially and historically.
Yet surprisingly the time of exile is where we encounter some of the greatest prophets – Jeremiah, Ezekiel and 2nd and 3rd Isaiah. Unlike the false prophets of that time, Jeremiah, who foretold the exile, made it clear that it would not be brief. He also spoke to the underlying core issue when he asked them to look into their own hearts and lives and called them to metanoia/conversion.
(Jer 21, 22:1-9, 36, 37, 38)
Our Present Situation
Ezekiel is not the easiest of the prophets to understand, but he also speaks to our present situation. Challenging the belief of his time that the people were responsible for the sins of their forebears, his insight was the discovery of personal responsibility and its consequent implications for the manner in which they lived their own lives. (Ez: 18)
The prophets are consistently against the conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom and understanding all too often deafen us to the shouts of God. Thus when the exiles thought the exile was to be a short one, Jeremiah advises them to settle down. When it seems the exile is really permanent, 2nd Isaiah proclaims reprieve, forgiveness and return. (Is:40)
Significant for us in our own time is that 2nd Isaiah assumes that God has gone into exile with his people and will return with them. This is the prophet who declares that the desert will bloom and it is this which calls on our faith today. For God is to be found not in the past or the future but in an alien present.
When we read the experiences which these writings reflect we detect a wide variety of emotions and reactions not unlike some of our own: shock, guilt, pain, confusion and anger. And yet it was in the midst of this darkness and vulnerability that they struggled to understand who they really were and their relationship to God. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.” Lev: 26.13.
They had to forge a new identity over a long period of time based on, among other things, a re-interpretation of the Scriptures. A massive editing of received tradition occurred. The final redaction of the Torah took place during the exile as did the writing of many of the psalms including those, such as 137, which express extreme anger and revenge. To quote Kieran O’Mahoney osa “What took place was a fundamental re-imagining of the sagas and laws, in order to make them live again for a new and radically different audience and time”.
Our Challenge Today
Our identity as Irish religious has been fundamentally questioned over the past few months. We must not underplay the seriousness of the situation in which we find ourselves, but we must refuse to be defined and limited by it or to countenance the distortions of a hostile media. Other voices such as that of Margaret Wheatley speak more directly to our experience “Confused and overwhelmed, we become open to new interpretations and possibilities. Confusion often has a helpful companion, humility”. And in the words of Richard Rohr osm : “Dark times are among the best teachers”.
A New Focused Identity Required
It is incumbent on us to search for a new, clearer and more focused identity – attentive to new insights and new understandings.
For us, as for the Israelites, the central call is to metanoia, both a personal and communal conversion based on an acknowledgement of the fact that each of us is a sinner and every religious body has its own share of sinfulness. Without acceptance of this, Jesus as Saviour is irrelevant.
For much of the last century religious life was on a pedestal in Irish society. Great was the influence, power and esteem accorded to us – things which could be likened to our golden calf and other forms of idolatry. A theology of religious life was prevalent which suggested that we were better than others. The 2nd Vatican Council strove to disabuse us of such ideas. Intellectually we came to understand that, but now we are being asked to emotionally accept it in the corporate sinfulness laid bare by the various investigations, leading us to a humbler and more honest looking into our own hearts.
History will Reveal the Wider Picture
As we do so, it is of great importance to hold in memory the wider picture. It is an indisputable fact that the religious of this country have manifested so much that is of God down through the years. While the harsh word or the cruel action is now highlighted, what appears to be forgotten is the transformative love shown by many religious, which enabled those to whom they ministered to believe in themselves and their God and to live by Gospel values. History will undoubtedly reveal this.
Among the challenges for us today is to seek to have our capacity to believe, to hope and to love, enlarged and deepened. These virtues/gifts have been nourished and developed through our living of the vowed life. In times of crisis, like the one in which we find ourselves today, our very faith, hope and love are not only tested but can be shattered.
Only an adult Christian faith, hope and love are adequate for these times.
An adult Faith is one that does not define itself by knowledge but by relationship, that seeks to see beyond surface reality and doesn’t look for ready answers. To quote Abraham Heschel, the great Jewish mystic, “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers”.
An adult Hope puts its trust in what can’t be assessed. However tentative the steps we take we can be encouraged by Moltman “Hope lies precisely at the place and time where we can no longer see any future ahead of us”. We must be keepers of hope, while foregoing the comfort of hope.
An adult Love loves the unlovable in ourselves and in others, having at its centre compassion and forgiveness, the prime characteristics of Jesus’ life and ministry.
John Fullenbach svd puts it succinctly “If we bear the present time with humility and in faithfulness to our being disciples of Jesus; if we are willing to follow Jesus to the Jerusalem of our time; if we really die to all our ideas of how God should act in history; and if we let Christ himself through the Holy Spirit determine how his Kingdom will come into our world, then and only then will we again move from the crucifixion and burial to Resurrection and Pentecost”.
Our times are hard times for Religious and yet ours is a prophetic vocation. One of the terrors inherent in a prophetic vocation is the vision of evil within and without.
To quote from “The Prison Meditations” of Fr. Delp S.J.:
“Unless one has been shocked to the very depths of one’s being at the things one is capable of, as well as the failings of humanity as a whole, one cannot understand the full import of Advent or grow in the theological virtue of hope”
By waiting in prayer, in suffering and in affliction we begin expanding our capacity for the truth that God is with us in this alien time, a truth which draws us to a hope that is dependent on faith and informed by love so that our witness might be truly luminous in this darkened age.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua, 1962, The Prophets
Wheatley, Margaret J, 2004, Solving, not Attacking Complex Problems
Moltmann, Jurgen, 1964, Theology of Hope, London, SCM Press
Fullenbach sdv, Fr. John, 2009, Discipleship on the Way to Jerusalem,
Talk given at retreat in Rosminian Retreat Centre, Glencomeragh, Co. Waterford.
Delps s.j. Alfred, 1944, Prison Writings, New York, Published by Orbis Books. O”Mahoney, Kieran OSA 1999 Christianity in Exile Who needs the Jubilee? Doctrine and Life 1999