2 Talks by Bishop Kevin Dowling

2 Talks by bishop Kevin Dowling,
to the CORI AGM, June 2015

1. “Revisioning Religious life for the 21st century in a global context”

(First Talk to COR Ireland)

Good afternoon everyone. Firstly, my sincere thanks to your executive for giving me the privilege of coming to Ireland to share our ongoing journey of faith and witness with you, my sisters and brothers in the religious life. I come – not as a theologian or expert, because I am neither. I come as one who is travelling the same road as you, as one who tries to discern what this call seems to be inviting us to in what is a very challenging local and global context – which places before us some real and difficult questions, as we all know.
Last week President Michael Higgins paid tribute to the thousands of Irish missionaries transforming lives and communities around the world at the Misean Cara AGM. I also want to sincerely thank and express my appreciation in the same way. They planted seeds which are developing in ways those women and men of faith may not have foreseen at the time. I remember when serving on the Redemptorist General Council I paid a visit to the Philippines in 1986 and did a visitation with the Redemptorist Superior General to the same country over a period of six weeks in 1988, travelling from north to south. I met the Columbans and Redemptorists from Ireland, for example on the island of Negros where they served with their great prophetic Bishop Fortich whom I was privileged to meet – indeed a dangerous ministry in the midst of widespread oppression by the military. Presently I have 6 Irish SMA priests ministering in the diocese I serve, one Irish De La Salle Brother, and 2 Irish Sisters of Charity of St. Paul. And organisations like Trócaire and Misean Cara give such a relevant and inspiring support in all they do through partnerships with local people, communities and organisations which bring hope and new life in so many countries.
Misean Cara Chairperson Matt Moran said at the AGM: “Local and indigenous missionaries are continuing the development work initiated, and carried out for many decades by Irish missionaries in poor countries in the global south. Missionary development is an integral part of Ireland’s overseas aid programme, and is recognised for its holistic approach and how it reaches into remote areas where other agencies generally do not operate. Apart from providing essential services in education and health, missionaries enable the poor and marginalised to advocate for their rights and to seek social justice.”
There are thousands of experiences we could share about this great story and history; and it continues in spite of the challenges of falling numbers, a different global and Church context today, the reality of global economic and political elites, secularism, consumerism, individualism, and the other “isms” which affect the very possibility of a true quality of life for the millions of poor and marginalised of our world, and threaten the very future of the planet.
I take you now to a true personal story and experience. “We open our doors to everyone – even though they might come in to kill us”. Those words were spoken on Sunday, 8 June, 2014, by a soft-spoken Syrian-born Jesuit priest, Fr. Mourad Abou Seif, whose gentle eyes also revealed oceans of suffering and trauma he has personally experienced in Homs, Syria. He said this during the Pax Christi International Peace Award ceremony in a church in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. That evening I was privileged to give the Jesuit Refugee Service Syria the 2014 Pax Christi International Peace Award together with my co-president, Mrs. Marie Dennis from the USA. Earlier that day we had listened to Fr. Mourad Abou Seif and Fr. Ziad Halil describe the horrendous suffering in that protracted war, and their work with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Homs and Aleppo where both of them have remained, in spite of the assassination of a brother Jesuit priest in April last year. And some two weeks ago another Jesuit Fr. Jacques Mourad was abducted outside Homs by jihadists and has not been seen since. Yes! these religious priests have stayed with their people and are witnessing to non-violence and peace together with scores of Muslim and Christian peace activists with whom they work in providing humanitarian relief, education, health-care, and above all hope. But, as he said: “We open our doors to everyone – even though they might come in to kill us. And we will never stop opening our doors. We can only find our safety in God”. Yes….the witness of “presence”, of “staying with in solidarity” by two religious…….in a situation which is a “site of suffering”.
The Misean Cara AGM and the story of the Jesuits in Syria forms the background to the theme I was requested to address at this Conference: “Revisioning religious life for the 21st century in a global context”.

During the past centuries, religious were at the heart of the Church’s mission in the world. The immigrant communities in the USA, for example, were characterised by close knit parishes served with dedication by their priests, and with the sisters and brothers opening up schools, hospitals and other services which responded to critical social needs – what we would term today “being prophetic”. The focus was on the “doing” – and necessarily so.
In many African countries in the late 1800s and 1900s Governments were not equipped to even start providing healthcare and education programmes – and the Church, and especially religious sisters and brothers filled that gap. Even today, the Church still provides 40% of healthcare in sub-Saharan African countries with great distinction in spite of the challenges like HIV/Aids, TB, malaria, the Ebola epidemic and other awful diseases, and with deep appreciation from the people they serve…..why? Because there was and still is a qualitative difference in the services provided by these priests and religious in very under-resourced settings. In no sense was/is it perceived by the people to be a “job” they did/do. The people sensed and still sense the true reality which was and is the spiritual dimension, the presence of God in their presence among the people, the spirit and practice of the Gospel which these dedicated women and men brought to their “work” among the people. This was and is “evangelical distinctiveness”.
But times have changed both in terms of the global political and economic reality and in terms of the Vision and Mission of Church since Vatican II. In many places we cannot be conceived any more as being responsible in great measure for the institutions of the local Churches……others, including especially the lay faithful are assuming their baptismal role and mission in the Church, taking co-responsibility for the Church seriously. This has led as we know to a questioning of what our role and mission as religious is today in this globalised world and the kind of Church where there are cultural, ideological and other differences which need to be dealt with creatively – particularly in the more developed world. Something else is being asked of us. Can we embark on a different journey for today and the future so that we can continue to be a leaven in society and Church, but in new ways?
The exhortation Vita Consecrata after the 1994 Synod articulated this challenge: “The Holy Spirit calls consecrated men and women to present new answers to the new problems of today’s world” (Vita Consecrata, par 73).. “new answers to new problems”….Today, among other issues, it is the global systems of injustice and economic oppression which require new answers, and we grapple to find an entry point for advocacy in addition to responding to the more immediate humanitarian crises, refugees, human rights abuses, etc. – often caused by these systemic issues.

But there are successes in advocacy, even if limited. For example, the Jesuit Missions, as part of the Global Ignatian Advocacy Network, recently achieved something notable when the European Union agreed to implement controls over trade in conflict minerals which often is the cause of war and violence by militias and others in places like the Central African Republic, Colombia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – countries which are rich in mineral resources.

And so, back to our theme. Different expressions have been used to describe the charism and mission of religious ……. they are called to be “liminal”, to use the word of your own Diarmuid O’Murchu, to be “counter-cultural”, to be those who live “on the edge”. Brother Sean Sammon, a Marist Brother reflected: “Religious Life is meant to be the Church’s conscience, reminding that large body continually about its true nature, about what it longs to be, can be, must be”. To be the “Church’s conscience”….brings into focus the possibility of tension between the charismatic and hierarchical dimensions of the Church as a community of communities. Our call today is to try to understand in newer and richer ways the usual expression of our calling, viz. “to be prophetic”…..

The question for me at this point is: Can we, or rather should we try to determine a priori what is “prophetic” religious life, or should we not rather focus on living our discipleship with the Lord as holistically and radically as possible in all situations of suffering and impoverishment, engaging with the systemic issues as well as the effects of those systems – and leaving the fruit of our witness and life to God?
Interestingly, Sandra Schneiders identifies the social and cultural context as key for the living out of the charism of prophecy in consecrated living, and therefore members of communities will be called to prophetic action in different ways e.g. an American religious in the American empire and its context of political and economic power, an Asian religious in the context of a Muslim or Hindu culture, an African religious in a rural community with issues like patriarchy, war and disease, and so on. She stated: “Every form of Religious Life is called to be prophetic in a situation that cannot be generalised to or deduced from some archetypal and abstract concept…….Solidarity with the people among whom one lives involves one in a specific cultural setting with its specific issues.” (Schneiders, Finding the Treasure, 327). So, there can be different ways of expressing the “prophetic”.
Let us go back to the original charism of Christianity. The “Jesus movement” with its life in community was also recognisably prophetic with one of the key gifts – prophecy (the second gift after the call to be an apostle) being actually experienced as communicating a life-giving message to the community and building up that community in a context of persecution. But that prophetic and charismatic community became institutionalised and then clericalised when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire in the time of Constantine. Now the charism took on the trappings of routine within an institution, and the norms and traditions of the political empire of the time were incorporated into the Church and hierarchical system, so that what was a charismatic life in community now became increasingly institutionalised by laws and canons.
The result was a sense of being “distanced” from the original Gospel vision, and here Fr. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor makes an interesting comment: “It is not without significance that religious communities began to be formed at precisely the moment that Christianity became the official religion of the empire………it was then that certain individuals began to see the difference between the Church as they knew it and the first Christian communities, and recreate deliberately the ideal described in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:44-47;4:32-35) (Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, What is Religious Life? A Critical Re-Appraisal – Wilmington, Del: Michael Glazier, 1977, 13).
The new charismatic religious movements, like those founded by Bernard and Benedict, experienced the same phenomenon of institutionalisation over time, and then other movements came into being and in turn faced the same challenge. The issue for us today is the same, therefore: can we revision and live authentically the essentially prophetic nature of our calling in the religious life, and how do we do so in our context today?

Another aspect of our search. After Vatican II and “Lumen Gentium”, consecrated living has to be situated and understood within the universal call to holiness which belongs to all God’s people, and what is emphasised now is the nature of consecrated living as a “concrete sign”, “a personal witness” to the search for the Absolute, the “God-is-with-us” or the “God-dimension” present in the total reality of life – even if this God dimension is not evident to people, together with a selfless striving to build the reign of God in the world, to transform the world into a redeemed “site” of God’s living presence.
All of us as communities in religious life have spent many years reviewing the quality of our commitment to the Gospel in the light of the charism of the founders and the “signs of the times” as the Vatican Council directed – and the process continues. We were encouraged and directed to found this process on the core dimensions of contemplation and prophecy. In a word, to live prophetically demands an authentic integration of contemplation and discernment in the presence of God into our daily living, with its call to presence and action. It needs to be experienced in our witness as religious people in diverse cultural contexts, in our personal and community commitment to social justice and the integrity of creation, and in the ways we live out solidarity with the poor and marginalised through advocacy and practical action in the Church and world of today.
Pope Paul VI in his 1971 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelica Testificatio spoke powerful words….”We hear rising up, more pressing than ever, from their personal distress and collective misery, ‘the cry of the poor’”. He went on to reflect that this reality had had such an effect on religious that “some of you even feel on occasion the temptation to take violent action.” He urged against this and offered two ways in which religious must respond in a prophetic way if they are to remain faithful: “How then will the cry of the poor find an echo in your lives? That cry must, first of all, bar you from whatever would be a compromise with any form of social injustice. It obliges you to waken your consciences to the drama of misery and to the demands of social justice made by the Gospel and the Church.”….and…..this cry of the poor “leads some of you to join the poor in their situation and to share their bitter cares”. (Evangelica Testificatio, Apostolic Exhortation on the Renewal of Religious Life according to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, June 29, 1971, 18).
Firstly, I think this comes down to a question to discern together in our communities, inspired by leadership: In the light of the “signs of the times” today, and as an expression of our Institute’s prophetic charism handed down to us by our founders, what particular “gift” have we to offer in order to create and sustain an alternative experience for suffering and struggling people in today’s Church and world? What is our “gift”? Is there something “special” that we have to offer particularly in our multi-cultural communities?
Karl Rahner stated: “Christian faith today (and consequently spirituality) must be continually freshly realized: in the dimension of a secularized world, in the dimension of atheism, in the sphere of technical rationality….in such a situation the lonely responsibility of the individual in his/her decision of faith is necessary and required in a way much more radical than it was in former times…..The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he/she will not exist at all”…….
Interesting…a mystic! Julian of Norwich tells us we are not just made by God; we are made of God! Meister Eckart imagined us as God’s seed, and God’s seed must grow into God! This points very clearly to the call that contemplation and discernment must infuse the prophetic ministry options we take if those options are to breathe with the Spirit and power of God to transform.
This is an invitation to us, and it is a difficult one……..the need to recover the religious, or much better the spiritual dimension of life, especially in our increasingly secularised world, but in ways which make sense to people in a framework of respectful dialogue with them. Over the past years one can observe a moving away from a primarily Eurocentric Church with all that implies, to a global and multi-cultural Church with diverse expressions of faith-life…that there can indeed be many other cultural values of great worth and many different experiences and expressions of faith and spirituality. This provides a meaning for life and a challenge not only for our own Institutes and each of us as individuals in our modern world, but also in terms of our outreach in ministry to other groupings, and spiritual or religious or faith traditions in society and the world.
Paradoxically, the questioning and lack of personal meaning and satisfaction in the quest for deeper spiritual living and experience, which many people have found in the mainline churches, as well as the seeming lack of success in transforming social and political injustice by those church people committed to social activism and engagement with liberation theology and practice, has led several, perhaps many either to the more conservative groups of churches, or to conservative groupings within churches; or to churches and evangelistic style crusades which provide a more emotional experience of Christianity and spirituality. But even within the Church community we experience strong differences of opinion, e.g. in the lead up to the coming Synod with different approaches to the theology of marriage and pastoral responses, even among senior Cardinals.
In this regard, a too dogmatic or authoritarian approach by the institutional Church, especially with its strict control of theology in view of what it defines as orthodoxy, can also lead to a dislocation of theology and spirituality. The systems of theology should not only be focused inwards on the coherence and logic of doctrines which can be rationally demonstrated in the hothouse of philosophical and theological constructs. A theology should be a living expression of a spirituality, there should be a dynamic relationship between the two so that a growth in theological understanding of God should necessarily lead to creating and sustaining an experience of the closeness of the love-filled God to all humankind and its deepest desires, and to all the issues relating to the human and planetary condition. As our great South African Dominican theologian, Albert Nolan, remarked: “Suffering must be the new starting point for modern theology and spirituality”. Theology today should, in my view, be “done” more and more at the coal face of human experience, especially that of suffering and degradation – that must be theology’s privileged “locus”. I will personally be disappointed if there is not a strong emphasis at the coming Synod on the Church reaching out in meaningful ways to all the “hurting” and “struggling” couples, marriages and families. To restate and reaffirm traditional ideals for marriage is the easy part.
We have lived for several years in what could be termed an era of post-modernism which is difficult to define or describe. Post-modernism is the sequel to the so-called modernist period which began in the 17th century. There have been many and great achievements in this modernist period, and great progress in the technological and scientific fields which have benefited humankind and developed the quality of life – at least for some. But the modernist era also reveled in a rationalist approach to everything, coupled with the idea that there are universal truths which can be discovered and applied whatever the context might be. With its focus on progress which cannot in fact be sustained, unlimited development of the world’s resources which is a myth, and the incredible power it gave to the few to exploit humankind and the resources of the planet, the modernist era has also brought about the unspeakable horrors of war, genocide, extreme poverty, and the misery and sickness of millions who are systematically excluded from even a basic quality of life.
When all this is analysed, modernism and all it has spawned has most definitely been found seriously wanting in terms of the goals under which it operated, its systems of political and economic oppression, the triumph of unfettered power over what is right and good, the phenomenon of initially lawful revolutionary idealism in liberation movements so quickly moving to become the oppressive system it sought to overcome, and so on. Life has also become very impersonal. Indeed all the supportive and life-giving community and cultural systems and institutions of past eras have been undermined and replaced with the “god” of individualism and self-interest, and the “god” of political and national interests. All this has led to great disillusionment and has seriously undermined the hope for a future of peace and stability on this planet.
The resulting era or period of post-modernism in which we still live today has also brought about much that can be seriously limiting in terms of truly human progress in our world. One recognizes the tendencies not to replace or change the negative effects and results of modernism, not to transform the current worldview, but rather to instill an anti-worldview in its place by getting rid of ideas and concepts like the value of the individual human being, the common good, purpose and meaning in life, and God. (This particular expression of post-modernism results in everything becoming relative, the relativism that Pope Benedict XVI was so concerned about, where there is nothing which has an inherent and essential value through which everyone can work for a future that will benefit all).
It is precisely the recovery of the spiritual dimension in all of life and the essential interconnectedness of everything in the cosmos, which is at the heart of the spirituality which many perhaps yearn for and which, surely, is also is part of the prophetic witness and experience we as religious people should be able offer as our “gift” to each other, and in outreach to others, especially the poor and marginalised of the world, and in conscious stewardship of our planet.
It is what Professor Celia Kourie of the University of South Africa has identified as constructive post-modernism and the values it proclaims and strives to implement or live out. She holds that this “has great significance for present-day spirituality and indeed is one of the factors contributing to an interest in the subject. There is no attempt to eliminate (the death of God etc,.), but rather to revise modern premises and traditional concepts”. Griffin states that constructive postmodernism aims for a “new unity of scientific, ethical, aesthetic and religious intuitions, transcending individualism, patriarchy, mechanization, militarism;” constructive postmodernism “provides support for the ecology, peace, feminist and other emancipatory movements of our time…” (Griffin 1988:xi).
Professor Kourie states that “one of the most significant characteristics of constructive post-modernism is its emphasis on the inter-connectedness of all of life, human and non-human……” and that it affirms the notion “in which God is seen to be in all things and all things are in God… (not pantheism)”….and she concludes that “such a spirituality will surely help effect both personal and societal transformation”.
This brings us back to the notion of our traditional call to be “counter-cultural”, to be part of the counter-movement which participates in everything which emancipates people and the planet from exploitation and destruction. I gained some valuable insights from an abstract of K. Waaijman, a research fellow in the Department of the New Testament, at the University of the Free State in South Africa.
He stated that “the origin of Israel is connected with a counter-movement arising from the wilderness: oppressed farmers, shepherds, and stateless people took action against the Egyptian dominance of the Middle East. Prophets like Elijah, Micah, and Jeremiah formed a counter-movement against kings who violated the rights of the people. Holy fools, dissidents, anchorites, and exiles formed a constant counter current against established relations. Mary’s Magnificat, Francis’s Ode to the sun, Pascal’s Thoughts and Buber’s I and thou are all counter-voices which continue to undermine the self-delusion of power.
Counter-movements (he said) in spirituality are found outside the sphere of power structures and established relations: outside of their concepts, their spatial order, their time period, their hierarchies, their great narratives. But they do not let themselves be locked up in this “outside” state. They swim against the current (italics mine).”
What he is talking about here is not a spirituality that takes flight from reality and stays outside; it swims against the current; it engages with everything that has to do with oppression and the self-delusion of power as this affects and afflicts especially the little ones of the world; it becomes an anti-structure to the prevailing power structures.
The heart of the question facing us is: how does leadership lead so that we can be a creative counter-cultural movement offering an alternative experience of Jesus and the Gospel in the heart of a world of poverty, injustice, misery, sickness, lack of meaning and – hopelessness?
If there is one reality that is characteristic of so much in life today it is the lack of an experience of real hope – and this is true of the fearful rich, just as it is of the marginalised and despairing poor, of those who externally are “making it” in life, but experience that their life has little meaning, and those who feel very personally the marginalisation that comes from living with HIV/Aids, impoverishment, and so on and so on. How can we as religious, in our witness and ministries, become a “wellspring of hope”? I will deal with this more extensively in the second talk.
I conclude now by coming back to the twin values of contemplation and prophecy which are at the heart of our quest to revision religious life so that we may be more authentically the life-giving and hope-filled presence of the Lord who has come that all may have life and life to the full (John 10: 10). So much of what we need to strive for should begin and be based on contemplation and discernment in the Spirit. It is only in that spirit that we can be at peace in the Lord, entrust our searching to the Lord, and abandon ourselves and the outcomes of our attempts to live our prophetic calling and ministry to the Provident God who can act even, and especially in the “mess” of life and in the personal weakness we all experience.
Sister Sandra Schneiders summed up her understanding of religious life today: It is ……”a charismatically grounded, prophetic life form in the Church called by God to the ever ambiguous task of discerning how the Gospel, the good news of the Reign of God, can be made salvifically operative in the concrete and confusing situations in which believers must live their Christ-life today in witness to all peoples of the infinite loving-kindness of our God”.

I end with a short poem by one, Mark Nepo, who reflected on his long struggle with cancer: “My heart was beating like a heron awakened in the weeds, no room to move. Tangled and surprised by the noise of my mind, I fluttered without grace to the centre of the lake which humans call silence. I guess, if you should ask, peace is no more than the underside of tired wings resting on the lake while the heart in its feathers pounds softer and softer.”
And so my prayer for all of us is…… that the heart in our wings and feathers will slowly pound softer and softer so that we can be at peace, silent in God’s hands, as we wrestle with the meaning of religious life today and for the future.
Kevin Dowling C.Ss.R.
3 June, 2014


2. “Revisioning Religious life for the 21st century in a global context”

(Second Talk to CORI AGM)

A sea captain and an old chief engineer were talking one day, and they began to argue about whose expertise was most needed for the running of the ship. The debate got more and more heated, and finally the captain decided that they should trade jobs for the day. The chief engineer would be on the bridge, and the captain would go down to the engine room. Only a few hours into their shift, the captain emerged from below decks sweating, his face and uniform covered in dirt and oil.

“Chief,” he bellowed, “you need to go down to the engine room. I can’t get her to go.” “Of course you can’t”, barked the engineer, “she’s aground.”

Perhaps a lighthearted reflection on how we might be feeling as leaders “running the ship”, especially in the light of the challenge of revisioning religious life to be prophetic in the context of today’s world and Church. Can we as leaders get our ship “to go” in that direction, or do we sometimes feel we are “aground”?

At a conference like this each year, we hopefully have time to share with each other and reflect on our experiences, our questions, our concerns, our reality as leaders of communities and institutes – and find encouragement to continue the journey. We do this in the face of much that may be difficult to deal with today: the increasingly secularised context in which we live; the fragility of our members with their histories and their hurts; depending on where we are living and ministering, the challenge of how to integrate different cultures in our communities; the many managerial tasks which occupy us as we try to be accountable stewards of what we have and are doing; looking for opportunities to inject new life into the group even with aging communities and smaller numbers…..all this and so more occupies us.

Expectations of leadership in general today, expectations of each of us in the context of our own communities, are indeed great. We are often told we need to be people of vision who should provide inspiration to our communities; that we need to nurture a sense of identity as witnessing communities and give direction to where we are going, or where we need to return to; we are challenged to enable our people and communities to focus on being what they should be – Liminal communities!

Looking at the demands and the expectations placed upon us today, we might with some justification be drawn to the conclusion that if Jesus were in our place, he would find it hard going even on a really good day!

In my experience in Congregational leadership, and even as a bishop reflecting on the life and ministry of religious communities, I think that one of the great challenges we face in terms of revisioning religious life for the 21st century in a global context is community life, how it can be life-giving for the members, its witness value, openness to others, how to be present and engaged as communities at the “peripheries”, etc.

This morning I would like to begin with a reflection on community from Brother Sean Sammon, a Marist Brother:

“Because we’ve grown up in families, many congregations believe we have the skills to live in community. But religious communities are not families; they are, instead, groups of adults who have come together to live their life intensely around the Gospel. The skills needed for family life are different than those needed in community. We have to find ways to make honesty non-threatening, to support and care for one another in adult ways, to be able to express affection, negotiate disagreements, and celebrate and pray in a meaningful way.”

Each of those facets could be the subject of a talk or reflection – because what it affirms is that if religious community is to fulfill its witness and mission in Church and world, it needs each member, or at least most of them, to be wholesome, well-rounded, self-actualising people who can work towards all those goals: to find ways to make honesty non-threatening, to support and care for one another in adult ways, to be able to express affection, negotiate disagreements, and celebrate and pray in a meaningful way……all in view of living or witnessing with a passion the mission of being religious and communities as a leaven in the Church and world.

I would like to offer a reflection on one way, just one way among other possibilities, which we can reflect on in our quest to revision religious life, its witness and mission. And this is revisioning our vowed life, our vows which we are called to live out individually and in community.

From my early years in religious life, I have felt there was a need to express and live a more holistic understanding and practice of the vows for today’s religious life, i.e. in a way which speaks to me or makes better sense to me, and which places witness and mission at the centre of living the vows. One of the great insights that liberation theology offered has been that we cannot live our lives as Christians, as disciples of Jesus, “ahistorically”. We can only try to be authentic by the way we incarnate our life and witness through our insertion into the actual socio-historical reality in which we live and serve, and to be open to new horizons in our ministry options. So, or vows, witness and mission should be viewed together, one feeding into the other, interfacing with each other.

Walter Brueggemann articulated what prophetic ministry in our contemporary Church and society is all about….it must “nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” (The Prophetic Imagination, 1978). We need to ask the question honestly: is the dominant culture in the Church life-giving especially for all those who feel alienated and marginalised? And is the dominant global culture not simply a means for the advancement of the powerful elites at the expense of the poor……and what does this call us to in terms of witnessing to an alternative experience of hope for all who feel “poor”?

And so I am trying to see the vows as values, ideals, which are to be lived out, expressed in witness and mission. This is an invitation to me to view the vows in relation to people in their social reality, and in relation to creation, the environment – both of these in the current socio-historical-economic situation with all the forms of diminishment and exclusion which pertain in the global world today.

So, firstly, The Vow of Celibacy – a Vow of Wholesome and Inclusive Love and Communion for the Reign of God in our world

We all know the essential characteristics of the Vow, viz. that all Christians are called to chastity, whether in married, single, priestly, or religious life, but that not all are called to celibacy. But I need to ask myself the question: What does the gift and struggle of celibacy mean to me personally at this point in my faith journey as a religious, a Redemptorist?

Yes, I understand that in living this vow we let go of the generativity of love in marriage, and celibacy is just one way of “being” in the world; it cannot be ever conceived of as the best way of being in the world, but the question is: do I believe it is the best way of being in the world now for me in my calling, and how?

As we all know, chastity/celibacy is not about not loving; it is about learning day by day, in all the experiences of life as it is…..learning “to love well, to love grandly, to love with sweeping gestures”, as Sister Joan Chittister observed. This vow is about being in love with God who is the centre of all we are and do, and about being in love with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be.

The vow invites or calls for a solemn commitment to a way of life that will enable religious to pour out their love upon everyone as “a prophetic act of witness”, as Albert Nolan observed. It is to embrace the whole world, like Jesus on the Cross.

Celibacy essentially involves being in relationship. Coming from Africa as I do, being in relationship is at the core of an African sense of identity. The basis for Western forms of humanism, and sense of identity, would seem to be: “I think therefore I am”; the basis for African humanism is “I relate, therefore I am”, or “I am because you are”. Therefore, the witness dimension of this vow hopefully could be an invitation to others to move beyond personal or group identity, whether ethnic or national identity, to a deeper sense of being world citizens, of being invited to be people who live in “communion”.

In addition, one of the challenges for us in the socio-historical context of the Church today is the relationship between women and men, and the position and mission of women in the Church. Whatever might be said on this subject, this vow of learning to love well, to love grandly, to love with sweeping gestures, as Joan Chittister reflected, is all about witnessing to a non-discriminating love in the context of societies today, and a witness which we try to incarnate in the way we walk with people in the search for wholeness and wholesomeness.

So, if lived wholesomely or holistically this vow, like the others should be, on the one hand, essentially counter cultural and, on the other hand, offer the possibility of a more life-giving alternative experience which can help to transform the social context and the struggles of people, especially of the people among whom we live and minister…..people who might feel alienated, alone, and marginalised in different ways.

So, I would like to reflect with you on the Vow of Celibacy as Wholesome and Inclusive Love in view of Communion for the Reign of God. This is, firstly, a witness against a culture in many parts of the world, a culture of the use and abuse – indeed exploitation – of people and particularly women and girl children……especially through a culture of entitlement to sex. Our witness against such a culture could and should highlight that abuse of any kind, especially the abuse of the gift of sex, diminishes and even destroys the dignity of the “other” and the reverence which should be shown them.

In South Africa our Leadership Conference of Religious together with the Bishops’ Conference Commission for Justice and Peace on which I serve, has take up this challenge in the past years particularly with regard to the scourge of human trafficking, inviting us to play a meaningful role in providing relevant ways to freedom for those who are so cruelly exploited for economic gain. Human trafficking and migration is a global reality, including in Europe. In sub-Saharan Africa migration and trafficking opens vulnerable and impoverished women in particular to being infected and constantly re-infected with the HI Virus, often leading to a very distressing and lonely death, and leaving behind babies/children also infected; or having to survive as orphans. This is something which I have personally experienced in the diocese where I have ministered since 1991, and one reason why I have taken an uncompromising stand in support of so many vulnerable women and children living and dying with Aids defining diseases in this impoverished area of shacks around the mines. What they all suffer is truly a sin-full reality, a profound injustice, crying out to God for redress – and we as religious are surely called to denounce and redress this injustice of the trafficking and exploitation of women and children in particular with a response which can open doors for them to find hope and a way forward – through a respectful, listening dialogue and partnership with them!

Being counter-cultural also requires that we try offer an alternative which we strive to make possible together with the people among whom we minister, and which could provide inspiration to the individual religious and to our communities. In this, I find it helpful to myself to link our expression of each Vow to one or more of our Catholic Social Teaching (CST) principles, in view of what we need to witness to and live in relation to our mission in the actual world we live in. The CST principles can offer us not only ideals to live up to, but practical steps or orientations to consider in the quest with others to promote a more humane and sustainable global community.

I try to visualise the Vow of Celibacy, therefore, as bringing into focus the “mystery of communion” through striving to living out two Catholic Social Teaching Principles; firstly, “Person-Centredness”. “Person-Centredness” is a clear challenge and invitation to all to recognise the uniqueness of every individual person in their total social, economic, political, cultural and religious context, and from that foundation to build up a relational spirit and attitudes which will transcend the boundaries of race, culture, gender, political affiliation and anything else that can become divisive in relationships between people. In addition, to transform that which keeps the marginalised, rejected and alienated in society and Church from being able to choose life and experience life as a person made in God’s image, and in this way hopefully bring about more authentic “communion”. I try to visualise all this as a personal call to witness and mission in living the vow of celibacy for the reign of God.
People, some at least, are trying to move away from the different forms of domination in society which is one cause of poverty and the impoverishment of people. One example of “domination” is patriarchy. We should be in the forefront of a counter-witness, so that we and others move towards the goal of non-dominant relationships which encourage the fundamental rights and responsibilities of every person, and the richness of diversity. Perhaps one of the great gifts of feminism has been the emphasis placed on living and acting within collaborative models, and the commitment to live “caringly and responsibly” for all of life in view of promoting a new world order.

I/We need to move towards this goal where we are, where we live, and where we feel we can make a difference – not only with other religious communities, but also in partnership with the network of groups and NGOs which have similar ideals, and which have developed different programmes of action.

But the individual, family and community also exist and live within another relational context and that is creation, the universe, the environment. An important aspect of a more humane society is that of creating and sustaining a more humane environment so that all creation, not only thinking human beings, but all beings within the environment and universe, become included in a vision of care, concern, and the sustaining of life. Again, this is an aspect of living the “mystery of communion”.

This is about sustaining and preserving the creation for all future generations of beings in the universe, all of whom are interrelated, interconnected, and required/needed to provide a wholesome and life-giving environment for all.

This understanding is at the heart of the Social Teaching Principle of the “Integrity of Creation” and requires of us the ability to analyse and critique what diminishes the uniqueness of the universe and all its beings. The objective is to engage with and support, even work with those groups and NGOs etc. which struggle against so many odds to call humankind everywhere to protect and care for life, for all of life on the planet, so that there can indeed be a future for all of creation.

(The issue, therefore, of ecological and environmental reverence is not simply an esoteric pastime which some groups in the Church or society are sometimes accused of being obsessed about; it is critical to the very possibility that the planet and all life, including the possibility of life for people, can be sustained).

To conclude this section. Religious in history, and our own Congregations, have been found ministering in so many situations of unmet need, exclusion, marginalisation and discrimination, and also in more recent times in action to prevent the destruction of our vulnerable environment. The outcasts and rejected of society and Church today, the ravaged environment in many places….could these be the ‘Holy Ground’ where religious could or should be found present? Jesus’ whole life and ministry was an “outreach’, a reaching out to touch life and reality with healing, hope, new life and beginnings – so central to the themes which Pope Francis speaks about today.

Yes, there are outcasts and rejected not only in the world but also in the Church. Where we and our members live and minister, who are they? Which people or groups in the Church experience rejection and alienation, e.g. the divorced and remarried, single mothers, unemployed young people, those living and dying with HIV/Aids, gays and lesbians, and so on? That surely is where I and we could provide the counter-witness of inclusion, of ‘communion’ with, of love-filled being with, which can be one expression of the Vow of Celibacy.

The Vow of Poverty – the Vow of “Sharing”, a Call to ‘having just enough’ in view of solidarity and empowerment of others

Let me begin with a question: What does our way of life as religious, and specifically our Vow of Poverty, say to a world where:
• Consumerism and individualism thrives;
• The world’s resources are limited and abused;
• The gap between rich and poor in many countries grows;
• The life-style of the elites, and the plundering of earth’s resources is not sustainable.

Right away, we must always affirm that poverty is not a value; it is an evil. Would it make a difference if this vow was named “evangelical poverty”, or a vow of “mutual sustainability”, or a “vow of sharing so that others may simply live”? In the end, however it is named, much will depend on our witness and praxis of the vow.

My own efforts to revision the Vow of Poverty, have brought me to understand Poverty, not only in terms of “spiritual poverty” (the attitudes and values encompassed in “Happy are the Poor in Spirit”), but also in terms of living the value or the ethic of being satisfied with ‘just enough’, a daily call to personal conversion. Living with ‘just enough’ is not an end in itself. It is so that I can share myself and my gifts/resources in solidarity with others so that they can be empowered to become active in the transformation of their situation, and all forms of violence against people and the creation.

The witness involved in living this vow, therefore, calls me to be counter-cultural – to witness against the awful social sin of excessive wealth and power for the few, and degrading poverty and powerlessness to change anything for the billions, and the consequences this has for the planet and people; and it is also a call to a simpler lifestyle, to the ethic of having ‘just enough’. On the other hand to offer an alternative, that living and acting in this spirit is to commit to solidarity with, to sharing our “goods” i.e. our gifts, our giftedness as religious people, our skills, personal and community resources to enable both ourselves and others to live with a basic dignity and quality of life, and especially the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of the earth – in the hope that people will not just be forced to survive.

And so, I try to see this vow as a call to live out the Social Teaching principles of “solidarity”, “the universal destiny of the earth’s goods” (the “goods” of the earth are meant for everyone, and to be shared by everyone), and the “preferential option for the poor”, the “primacy of the poor”. I understand this vow also in terms of trying to live with an attitude of non-conformity. Firstly, on the personal level, of not conforming to the spirit/drive of “acquiring” more and more…Then, secondly, of being willing and able to study and critique political and economic policies which affect people and their quality of life, of seeking alternatives in collaboration with others, of being present on the margins with those who are marginalised and vulnerable, of going beyond where Church and our society may be at present.

Sometimes, as I strive to be “in communion” with others in this way, I experience my own personal poverty as a religious and as a bishop, and the poverty in the quality of relationships in the communities where I live and minister; the ongoing personality clashes which can sometimes be so draining both in religious and parish communities; the personal difficulties I experience with someone with whom I just cannot get on, etc. Perhaps we are all in this place in some way at different times. Here I/we will experience a poverty – indeed a powerlessness at times – which calls for great patience, and even surrender to and centering on the Lord within us as we strive to make – and continually re-make – a response within which there is a potential for growth, for resolution, for reconciliation, and sometimes even just for more gentler or more human communication, and a sharing of what is possible.

In spite of misgivings or fears, our experience of our own personal or community poverties, I believe we still need to begin with a sense, an awareness of our history and experiences of God’s presence and action in our own personal stories and journey as faith communities; – in other words of our humble GIFT in the Church and world as religious – as President Higgins affirmed so clearly recently. Our stories are a testimony to God at work even in weakness, because religious have felt truly “driven” by the Spirit to the margins, to places and people and communities where few have dared to go. And so, our engagement today can continue to bring a message of hope, a word of promise, to the little ones of our society and Church, to those who are searching for a truly human experience of life…..and we, in faith, must not lose heart as we strive with others who hold the same ideals to make a difference where this is possible, even in small ways.
But…..I realise more and more, and as I get older, that I cannot be this presence of hope if I get taken up entirely in activism – and the needs where I am are indeed overwhelming. I have known the feeling of drying up inside because the tasks are just too demanding on my spiritual resources above all. Contemplation, silent reflection, prayer, holistic living, and responding consciously in God’s presence – my responses and engagement must “breathe” with a contemplative spirit. And I need to take time out for this, which I don’t do enough…………And this takes me finally to a reflection on the Vow of Obedience.

The Vow of Obedience – a Vow of discernment through listening to the many “voices” of God

We live in a world:
• where power is abused;
• where there is a system of patriarchy in many places;
• where there is self-centredness and selfish individuality;
• where some people, the elites, have power over others in their millions.
I am trying to see that the heart of our vow of obedience as discerned listening, or discernment through and after truly listening, in order to respond in freedom to the call of God in the many voices of God “out there” in the actual context in which we serve. I want to emphasise the interconnectedness, or the interfacing of the 3 vows; they should be seamless in the way we live them out in practice, and the witness which each vow calls for.

The witness of our Vow of Obedience can be viewed, again, from two perspectives. In terms of what we try to witness against as we live this vow, its counter-cultural perspective, my life should be a questioning of the prevailing spirit of self-seeking and self-promotion which does not listen to anyone or anything except the self as I climb the ladder of success. On the other hand, to offer an alternative: a vow through which I am called to seek God’s will for humankind, our world and the planet. It is a commitment to building God’s vision that everything in this world should be interdependent. This will require a sacrificing of self so that I can indeed listen to the “other”, and so that the “good of all” which is inclusive of the entire creation can be sustained.

This commitment to discerning what promotes the “good of all” could be understood, therefore, as an expression of the Catholic Social Teaching Principle of the “Common Good” through which, by our lives and the way we work with others invites them to understand the importance of living interdependently so that together we can work towards achieving the “common good” of people and creation, and all beings on this planet. And as a practical witness in our quest for interdependence to promote the common good, the Social Teaching Principle of “subsidiarity” – that the higher level does not take over or inhibit what can be done at a lower level – a very important principle and ideal for aid and development agencies like Trócaire and CAFOD, and for all Church ministry. This affirms that everyone has gifts and skills which can be integrated into the quest for the common good by enabling or inviting everyone to really “listen” to each other…… and then to discover (another word for “discern’) what can be done or shared at their level of skill and responsibility, thus enabling interdependence to take on real meaning in the context in which people relate to each other and creation. It is a call to decentralized decision-making and practice based on personal and collaborative listening to the many voices of God which need to be discerned in our daily experience and ministries among the people we serve, in view of developing the partnerships with the “lower level” so that they are enabled to make the difference themselves. Therefore, the principles of the “common good” and “subsidiarity” should inspire us to always respect the reality in which we live and minister, and the concrete possibilities people have in their lives and in their personal and community context to transform the “sites” of suffering and impoverishment.

To be able to witness in this way calls for a deeper freedom in myself before God so that I become sensitive enough to listen to, and to discern what the different voices of God “out there” call for.

I remember the times I have been with someone who is very sick or dying, as I have done in our Aids hospice in-patient unit near my house. Their weakness meant that I had to listen very, very intently – and be silent within – to be able to hear and more importantly to feel the few words they struggled to share with me. Maybe it is the same with God. Most of the time I sense that God needs a deeper silence in me because God whispers a message to me in all kinds of situations. God does not shout aloud most times, I think; the gentleness of the breeze moving the leaves is much more characteristic of our non-violent God for me. The description in Isaiah 42 of the one who is called by God is equally true of the God who calls me: “He/she does not break the crushed reed, or quench the wavering flame” – i.e. the human person.

“There is more to life than merely increasing its speed,” said Gandhi. Yes, and I also need to discover the truth of what can be read in Ecclesiastes 4:6: “Better is one hand full of quietness, than two hands full of toil and striving after wind”.

And Thomas Merton once wrote: ““There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence…..(and that is) activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence…………..The frenzy of our activism neutralises our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

And so……meaning, relevance, credibility – these are key questions which are part of the struggle I experience in religious life today as we face complex challenges. There is nothing to be discouraged about in struggling with complex questions per se; it is the spirit and attitude with which I do so which will count in the end.

This draws me often to contemplate the beautiful story of Jeremiah sent by God to observe the potter at work (cf. Jeremiah 18). We remember how the fresh piece of wet clay did not turn out as the potter dreamed, so he pressed it together again and began to fashion – more perfectly this time – the image, the dream he had. And God’s powerful words: “Can I not do with you what the potter does?”


With the developments at Vatican II and afterwards, the theology of baptism and the promotion of the universal call to holiness and so forth, there had to be a re-visioning of the fundamental call and meaning of the religious life. Becoming and being a “concrete sign” of the search for the Absolute in any particular socio-cultural context, challenged to a total commitment to the building of God’s reign, the vows also could no longer be understood in terms of what could basically be described as a set of norms and ascetical practices in view of achieving a state of holiness or perfection. Rather, the raison d’être of the vows is to proclaim and bring about the Good News of the reign of God and this especially among the vulnerable, marginalised and poor of the world, and indeed the marginalised and alienated in the Church. The vows exist in function of a living critique of the different forms of personal and social sin which diminish/destroy the person, the family, the community, the planet. And so, the goal in living the vows is to become ever more authentically a prophetic sign and presence of God’s reign in the midst of Church and world.

To conclude I offer you the following reflection of Richard Rohr to sum up everything I have tried to share concerning the prophetic or liminal character of the religious calling and the vows:

“Those at the edge of any system and those excluded from any system, ironically and invariably hold the secret for the conversion and wholeness of that very group. They always hold the feared, rejected, and denied parts of the group’s soul. You see, therefore, why the church was meant to be that group that constantly went to the edges, to the “least of the brothers and sisters,” and even to the enemy. Jesus was not just a theological genius, but he was also a psychological and sociological genius. When any church defines itself by exclusion, it is always wrong. It is avoiding its only vocation, which is to be the Christ.

Only as the People of God receive the stranger, the sinner, and the immigrant, those who don’t play our game our way, do we discover not only the hidden, feared, and hated parts of our own souls, but the fullness of Jesus himself. We need them for our own conversion.

The Church is always converted when the outcasts are re-invited back into the temple. You see this in Jesus’ commonly sending marginalized people that he has healed, back into the village, back to their family, or back to the temple to “show themselves to the priests.” It is not just for their re-inclusion and acceptance, but actually for the group itself to be renewed.”

(Richard Rohr, Adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, p. 28, day 2)

Kevin Dowling C.Ss.R.
4 June, 2015

Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now