They’re everywhere; ubiquitous is the word that comes to mind. So, watch out.
We encounter them in classrooms and hospitals, feeding our elderly and bringing Holy Communion to the infirm; I meet them in prisons and in boardrooms; there they are again cooking and serving meals to our soup kitchens for the poor; they assist in parishes and administer universities; they advocate for peace and push for justice; you’ll find them welcoming immigrants and running shelters and day-care centers. During my recent brief trip to Haiti, I met many of them already hard at work bringing comfort, aid, and consolation to those who are struggling in the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck that country. Then again, you may never even see them, but their presence is sure powerful as they pray constantly in cloisters and monasteries. Oftentimes you’ll recognize them by distinctive dress or familiar titles like “Brother,” “Sister,” “Father,” or “Mother,” while at other times you’ll only notice them by the serene, selfless, faithful spirit they exude.
I am speaking, of course, of the consecrated religious women and men who serve Jesus and His Church here in the Archdiocese of New York and throughout the world. I thank God for them.
The beloved Pope John Paul the Great asked that the Church observe Candlemas Day, forty days after Christmas, as “World Day of Consecrated Life.” (Here in the United States, Sunday, February 7 has been set aside by the USCCB to enable as many people as possible to participate.) Pope John Paul observed that there were two reasons that made February 2nd a most appropriate occasion to praise God for the charism of consecrated religious life in the Church.
For one, when our blessed Mother and St. Joseph presented Jesus in the temple forty days after His birth, they were obedient to the Jewish law which mandated that the first born be offered totally to God. Well, the Holy Father reasoned, those men and women who serve Jesus and His Church as sisters, brothers, and priests in religious orders are likewise totally, exclusively, radically set aside and returned to God. True, all of us, by baptism, are claimed by Christ. A consecrated religious woman or man, though, responding to God’s unique invitation, sets herself/himself apart as a sign of unique union with Jesus, vowing publicly to a bond with the poor, obedient, and virginal Christ. What is encouraged of all Christians – the evangelical counsels of poverty, obedient, and virginity – is expected of our religious, who present themselves totally and radically to Christ. Thus we honor them on the feast of the Presentation.
Two, on Candlemas Day, Simeon proclaimed Jesus as the “light of the world.” In a particularly brilliant way, our religious sisters, brothers, and order priests are lights to the world by the radiance of their apostolate. Following the charism of their founder – St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Dominic, Blessed Mother Theresa, Sr. Ignatius Loyola, St. Benedict, St. Scholastica, St. Teresa of Jesus, St. Augustine, St. Monica – just to name a few, these generous women and men bring the light of the gospel to the sick, poor, neglected, weak, forgotten. They are mirrors of the light of Christ, and thus we gratefully remember them on Candlemas Day.
This Archdiocese of New York has long been home to thousands of consecrated religious women and men. We owe them a lot. There’s no way our Catholic faith would be as vibrant and deeply-rooted as it is if those sisters, brothers, and order priests had not been part of our heritage.
Today, they continue to do so much for us. More importantly, though, than what they do is who they are. Their very being reminds us of the poor, obedient, chaste Christ; their very being points to the history and tradition of the Church, as they belong to religious families centuries old; their very being broadens our vision, as their solicitude goes beyond the confines of the ten counties of the Archdiocese of New York to embrace the Church universal.
They are true lights; they are genuinely presented and consecrated to the Lord at the root of their being. And, we are all the better for it. Sisters, Brothers, Fathers: this Sunday especially we say, we love you! We need you! We pray with you and for you! We thank you!