Most of us would agree that the late ‘60’s were challenging years as our country was turned upside down by the Vietnam war, and our church was turned upside down by Vatican II. We were in the throes of radical change, and in 1969 when sisters were leaving in droves, Jeanne, Dot and I made final vows. The day before our vow ceremony our novitiate was abuzz with people sprucing up the grounds, busy in the kitchen preparing food, others placing lovely décor around the house and getting the chapel ready. In conversation with one of the sisters I commented, “ Wow. I feel overwhelmed and humbled by all that’s being done for us.” Without batting an eye she said, “Oh we’re not doing this just for you. The community needs this, and the whole church needs this.” I felt properly put in my place. But she was absolutely right, of course.
I could certainly say the same to you, Alverda, Pauline, Helen, Barbara, Terry, Harriet and Judy. What we are doing is for you, of course, but in these times our community and the whole church needs the witness of your life’s fidelity to God and God’s people. You and we are giving witness to the power of God’s Spirit at work now at a time when the American public image of the Catholic Church has been profoundly damaged like nothing before in the history of this country. But God’s Spirit is alive and well in women religious. For example, from CA to NY God’s Spirit is bringing us elder women religious together with young women and men hungry for meaning and purpose and eager to serve God’s people. Who could have imagined such a powerful alliance between the Nuns & the Nones, or as we are also called, the Sisters and the Seekers! And then there are our own women in formation! Another example is that for the past several years Simone Campbell and we white haired Nuns on the Bus have been proclaiming truth to power on behalf of vulnerable people from so many arenas of life.
And what a model we have in our father Dominic whose feast we celebrate today.
The Dominican order was born out of Dominic’s passion to set people free from the tyranny of untruth. Don’t we have our own versions of rampant untruth that Paul’s letter to Timothy warns us about? Fake narratives are tickling lots of ears! There was for Paul and for Dominic and now in our time a profound lack of trust in the truth of people’s words and the truth of their lives.
Simon Tugwell says Dominic did not deliberately set out to create something new in the church. Rather he yielded himself faithfully to the mysterious dictates of providence. The Church of the late 12th century needed men and women who spoke truth with their words and their lives. We know well the stories of Dominic’s persistence, in season and out, to be personally present to those hungering for truth. Dominic shared Pope Francis’s passion for a Culture of Encounter. Simone Campbell spoke eloquently to us two weeks ago about the characteristics of religious life that nurture our prophetic call. She said one of those characteristics is that we must touch the pain of our world and allow our hearts to be broken so that we may be present to it all and allow it to shape our lives.
That’s what each of our Jubiliarians has done with her life. She has allowed her heart to be broken by the pain and need she encountered. She has been and is the Holy Preaching. For each of them the proclamation of Isaiah from the first reading is so true. “How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of those announcing peace.” Each has been led by the dictates of Providence to her own unique mountain and has been the presence of God by her life and her words nurturing peace. I asked each of them to name a specific way that her life has been the presence of God and the Holy Preaching.
Alverda’s life has been a listening presence particularly in her ministry as a hospital chaplain. She journeyed with the sick and dying in their sacred crisis moments.
Pauline’s life has been a respectful welcoming presence particularly during her years of ministry among the homeless.
Helen’s life has been a loving faithful presence to those among whom she lived and served as a parish pastoral minister.
Barbara’s life has been an empowering presence particularly as a voice for low-income women in domestic violence cases, helping them obtain protective orders and custody of their children, and the assets rightfully theirs.
Terry’s life has been a healing and life-giving presence particularly in her many years as a nurse and midwife.
Harriet’s life has been a compassionate gentle presence particularly in her years with medically fragile children at The Home of the Innocents in Louisville.
Judy’s life has been an advocating presence particularly as Justice Promoter for the congregation speaking and writing to shine a light on many justice issues.
The young seekers out there could well be sitting at the table with any of you wise women we celebrate today because you all continue to be the presence of God’s powerful Holy Preaching.
You our sister Jubiliarians, and all of us, signed a blank check with God decades ago not knowing what the cost would be. All of us know that it not ourselves we are sure of, but the fidelity of God who lured us with the invitation to religious life. The very end of Matthew’s Gospel we heard today is a fitting reminder to us that in our struggles and doubts along the way, Jesus promises to be with us always. THAT we can count on.
I want to close with a reflection by Cardinal Leger to the priests of Montreal that I’ve loved for decades and have shared with many over the years.
The demand for fidelity should always be before our eyes as one of the most important aspects of our moral life of which we should be constantly aware. The act by which we committed ourselves to God and the service of our sisters and brothers was of incomparable daring. Fidelity is not the hardness of habit or the dead hand of unenthusiastic perseverance. It is consent reborn and renewed in spite of the changes in life. It is a return and an approach to the first generosity, to the first giving. Fidelity is not a blind attachment to a single decision, much less to a principle. It is the unchanging gift of oneself to the person loved.
Thank you, sisters, for the unchanging gift of yourself to God, to God’s people, and to us your Dominican family.