BY CARMEL PILCHER RSJ
Perhaps the most joyous and lively liturgical celebration that I participated in last year occurred at St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney on the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Marist Brothers from across the land gathered to mark the inauguration of the Australian province.
Two former groups, one from the South and the other from the North, gathered to formally become one community.
The Marist Brothers are not unique in their reconfiguring.
Many religious communities, including my own, have explored different ways of governance.
The cynics will say that merging provinces or even congregations (as did many of the Sisters of Mercy), is brought about by the decreasing number of vowed religious and could be a last gasp effort to avoid the inevitable death of this form of religious life.
To all outward appearances this might seem the case.
But in fact we religious are simply continuing to heed the Second Vatican Council’s call to return to the spirit of our founders. We exist for one purpose only, to bring about the reign of God in our world at this time. Whether we merge, amalgamate or fuse – to use the official terms – this is a consequence of our search to find better and more efficient ways to share in Christ’s mission.
Restructuring is only one way we’ve done this.
We’ve also widened our tent pegs, as the scriptures have asked us to do. Many religious congregations today have affiliates that might be named oblates, companions, or associates.
The brothers, like many other religious congregations in this country, have always understood their Marist family to include not only those vowed, but their families, past students, and anyone closely associated with them. While they may be married or single, young or old, diocesan priests or consecrated laity, these dedicated Christians are also faithful followers of our founders.
Many in this country gather regularly as faithful disciples to study and live the spirit of Mary MacKillop, Catherine McAuley, Marcellin Champagnat and the countless other founders. The legacy of those courageous, often maligned but fully faithful religious leaders, continues to be mirrored in the Catholic health system, education and social services.
Many a ‘Marist’ or ‘Josephite’ school, ‘Charity’ or ‘Mercy’ hospital proudly continue their heritage although the vowed religious have long since moved on. Their spirit also infuses families, neighbourhoods and workplaces. As the vowed religious diminish in numbers those who identify with the spirit of our founders continue to expand and flourish.
In his homily at St Mary’s Cathedral last December, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane remarked that a restructuring of any organisation could mean one of two things. Either the Marist Brothers in Australia were entering into the final stages of ‘palliative care’, or moving toward a new beginning.
Everything about the day led us to believe it was the latter.
The brothers in their distinctive white habits could be seen dotted throughout the assembly. While a good number of them might have been old and grey, the delegations of students and their parents, teachers and ex-students from Marist schools from all over Australia reflected a strong and dynamic community. The Cathedral echoed to the vibrant sound of young singers and musicians.
Palliative care or a new beginning? The spirit of Marcellin Champagnat was clearly tangible in the packed Cathedral that reflected anything but death throes.
At the reception that followed, one of the General Councillors from Rome presented the new Provincial with a beautiful bronze statue of a pregnant Mary, made by a Spanish artist. His words struck a chord with me: ‘Go and give birth to something new.’ With that a group of Marist delegates set off for Mittagong to determine just what that new might look like.
I am convinced that the prophetic action of those holy women and men who continue to inspire their followers will bring our church to a new beginning. Surely religious congregations in new ways continue to be a beacon of hope.
Carmel Pilcher is a Sydney based Josephite who works as a liturgical consultant.
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