Sr Joan Healy: Our time, our place

Sr Joan Healy

"Consecrated life, lived well, draws attention to God's goodness and God's just design for all of creation. In contrast to greed, raw power and selfishness it is prophetic." This is how Sr Joan Healy RSJ began her Reflection on Consecrated Life recently at ACU in Melbourne.

St Joan was one of the panel at the event, An Evening for Consecrated Life, organised by Church Resources and CathNews, ACU, Catholic Religious Australia, and CCI. She continued: 

A community following a gospel way of life has the possibility to mirror something fresh, to highlight gospel values. It is shaped by God's Spirit.

We meet tonight at the edge of Brunswick Street thirty meters or so from the place where Mary MacKillop was born. At the time of her birth in this neighbourhood, a rickety scaffold was being constructed for the execution of two Aboriginal elders who had broken white man’s law.

At their execution the population of Melbourne stood watching and a little further off local Aboriginal people climbed the gum trees to see. The death was gruesome and botched. The opinion piece in the Port Philip Gazette said, “May the fate [of the two elders] have a beneficial effect on the aborigines (sic) of the province. “

Mary MacKillop was later to write to convince her advisors in Rome, “It is an Australian who writes this, one brought up in the midst of many of the evils she tries to describe.”

The heart of her response was simple. We are called to follow Jesus as disciples. Need is great. God is our All and God will provide. We will form communities, share all we have and all we are, foster love. Be ready to go to the most neglected parts of God’s vineyard.

Mary was drawn to pray over the shape of consecrated life in her time and place, as we are in ours.

Tonight we ponder the events unfolding in Ballarat today and listen for the leading of God's Spirit. It is always a challenge.

Through the ages women and men conscious of God’s love have been drawn to respond wholeheartedly. This is a mystery, a gift of God. Place and time define the shape of it. Ours is a time of great need and moral dilemma.

In the month that Vatican II commenced I stepped across the threshold of the Sisters of St Joseph in Hawthorn East. Why? The Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, noted for his radical stance for justice and his stints in prison wrote, “Some things are so close to the heart's core that they are reflected in the quality of one's life and defy verbalisation.”

As I began my religious life, the Council called us to renewal. Since then it has been an Exodus of cloud by day and fire by night. If the cloud did not lift, we waited. In our Exodus the parting of the waters was exciting but there were also decades in deserts.

The documents circulating in this Year of Consecrated Life put some words on to this journey.

Looking back I know that the steps we took have actually led us to what this era of Pope Francis makes explicit: “... new frontiers, new realities, other cultures, different necessities, peripheries.”

Peripheries: margins; edges; sidelines. You reach this step by step. First we were asked to go back to the Gospel of Jesus and the deep story of our founding. We Josephites realised that Mary MacKillop and Father Julian Woods tried from the beginning to forge something daringly different, something for this country and the contemporary challenges, needs and evils of colonial days. Because of many influences and constrictions, customs and practices accumulated like barnacles around this simple vision.

Once I interviewed David Ranson, a Sydney theologian, on camera. He talked about a famous chess player who, to the horror of onlookers at a chess tournament, sacrificed the Queen. You don’t do that in chess.

But he had to do it. It proved to be the right thing to do. David was talking about renewal in religious congregations.

So about sacrificing the Queen? The decision we faced was about the central meaning that needs to be held firm. What must we let go of? What are we being called to now? What is God asking of us?

Mary MacKillop said, ‘Do what you can with the means at your disposal and calmly leave the rest to God’. I think God did provide.

We stepped away from outward signs of privileged status among God’s people, stopped  wearing our conspicuous religious habit, did all we could to honour the baptismal consecration of all and to avoid being put on a pedestal. We tried to let go of anything that set us apart. We rewrote our Constitutions in an effort to pin down what was essential.

As in our beginnings,  the Gospel was held in one hand and the circumstance of time and place in the other. We saw a small blue globe in an expanding universe. We saw an Australia where First People's were dispossessed and the double bottom line of money and assets seemed supreme.

We saw peoples and whole nations across the world involved in bloody struggles and civil wars, families living in terror, dislocation and need. We saw desperate migrants taking to leaky boats and flocking to our shores. We could not pray the Gospel and turn our backs.

Our leaders sent us one by one and two by two to places of emerging need in Australia and beyond, risking involvement in messy peripheries. As the numbers in our novitiate dropped, schools, welfare institutions and hospitals employed qualified laity.

For some Sisters, for a while, this seemed like sacrificing the Queen;: For others it seemed a breath of God’s Spirit leading us further to the edge of need.

Our communities are geographic clusters now. We come together as Sisters to talk about and pray over what is happening in our lives, to celebrate, to support, sometimes to grieve;  to hear each other and question where God may be leading us.

Our communities are more open than before. There are two “new ways” of being formally associated with the Sisters. There is an option for women and men, after mutual discernment and formation, to make a Covenant and belong with a local group of Josephites for the sake of mission.

There is also an option to make ‘private’ vows in the Church, a long-recognised way of entering into consecrated life, and then parallel to this to make a formal, mutually-agreed affiliation with the Josephites for a set time.

Those with either Covenant or Private Vows and Affiliation are financially independent but join us for community events and prayer and mutual support.

There is little risk and plenty of joy and inspiration in this emerging movement. Not many would see this as sacrificing the Queen.

Apart from this there are now canonical foundations for Ecclesial Movements and New Communities in the Catholic Church. Many of these have space for ‘consecrated life’. God’s Spirit is working in an unexpected way and Rome is honouring it. This growing movement is totally independent of us.

Mary MacKillop’s canonisation set me wondering. I stood outside the Exhibition Buildings and watched the crowd surging up Gertrude Street from Mary’s birthplace to the Melbourne celebration.

She belonged to them all, she was theirs. They were a cross-section of society, the kinds of people Mary would feel drawn to. These men, women and children felt the charism and will express it each in their own way and often in local communities. I

t is out of our hands. The Sisters are not the centre. God’s Spirit can take it wherever the breath may blow. Is this it?

It doesn’t feel like sacrificing the Queen, it feels exhilarating.

We are free to be peripheral, a sideline. I trust that whatever else we must let go will become clear in time. We live our religious life, a less common call than before but a still-dynamic call to gospel life.

We no longer represent power. The globe is shrinking; the universe is still being created, still expanding. Possibilities are immense, moral dilemmas are many. Around us people search for meaning.

We might simply aspire to be some kind of pool of silence in this troubled world, a sign of living water. We are free to be at the margins, among the people, listening, sharing and from among the people denouncing the injustices that are not of God’s design, finding God there.

We can be prophetic since we are, as Pope Francis wrote in the letter that launched this year, “Beholden to no one but God.”

We are free to live the gospel to a radical extreme without knowing what the future may bring. We must seek God's leading Chapter by Chapter, day by day. We are shaping something new; many of us will never live beyond a time of change. Old certainties are gone. God will provide.

Is this sacrificing the Queen? The exodus is not over, we hear the faint breath of God’s Spirit.

- Joan Healy RSJ

The final in the series of Evenings for Consecrated Life will be held in Brisbane on June 16. Click here for more details and to register.

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