Becoming a living icon of the Lord

Religious life involves a deep friendship with Christ which requires “prayer, sacrament, [and] contemplation”. Photo: Alphonsus Fok.

This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP for the Mass for Consecrated Life at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 21 May 2024.

Twenty-eight years ago, following the Synod on consecrated life, Pope St John Paul II released his Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata. It’s opening sentence reads: “The Consecrated Life, deeply rooted in the example and teaching of Christ the Lord, is a gift of God the Father to his Church through the Holy Spirit.”  

So John Paul began his document with a focus on religious life as a God-given gift, a theme that runs also through his teaching on marriage and family life and his teaching on ordained life. He also calls this gift special, precious, a treasure. There are risks in such talk. For one thing, a vocation can be treated as someone’s private possession, rather than as a gift to the Church and humanity. What’s more, not every religious experiences their state of life as a gift, at least not all the time; sometimes it is as much a trial as an endowment! Gift talk can sound like consecrated religious are more graced than others and so can encourage a kind of elitism. And it can make vocational discernment and living rather passive and mysterious, as if God arbitrarily doles out vocations and all we have to do is accept, resigning ourselves to passively enduring Him whatever He does with us.  

John Paul, of course, had something much more positive and dynamic in mind. From the get-go, he situated the gift of consecrated life in the life of the Trinity and in doing so he underlined not only the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of consecrated life but also its vital ‘what’. When describing the gift, he used adjectives like radical, total, constant, visible, alive, sustaining, fruitful, shared. A spiritual gift from God for the benefit of all, and a gift of self, rendered to God and humanity. 

Pope Benedict XVI suggested we understand the gift through the prism of imitation of Christ. Now, imitation is not such a popular concept in a world fixated on originality and authenticity. Imitation Pierre Cardin doesn’t cut the mustard. But Benedict’s wise thought was that religious life is Christological or it is nothing. Put simply, it is motivated by the desire to be like Jesus. “Be imitators of me as I am in Christ,” St Paul famously exhorts the Corinthians (1Cor 4:16-17; 11:1). Though we receive our vocation as a gift, we then give ourselves in return: the imitation of Christ is a dynamic thing. Not just a passive imprint from our creation in the image of God, or from our re-creation in that likeness at our Baptism: it is an ongoing conversion by God’s grace and conforming oneself to Christ by our own best efforts.  

Thus whilst the church is blessed with a wonderful diversity of religious institutes and forms of consecration, with equally diverse founding inspirations, spiritualities and ministries, with every kind of habit, outlook and sensibility, all religious share in the goal of discerning Christ’s will, following His directions, relating to others as He did, and becoming more and more like Him. As we see on the front of our booklets the glorious byzantine mosaic of the Pantocrator from Hagia Sophia, so each religious becomes a living icon of that Lord, with one hand blessing the world and the other holding the Gospels. 

In today’s gospel (Jn 15:1-8), Jesus offers some coaching on how this might be achieved. He tells His disciples that if they want to be fruitful they must remain attached to Him like vines to their trunk; they must endure such pruning as comes their way; they must receive and keep His words; and they must be ready to ask for God’s help along the way. Without such intimacy with the Lord, we might be humane and highly professional, but we will be spiritually unfruitful. Such friendship requires a life of prayer, sacrament, contemplation, “asking what you will”, making your home in Him, drawing sustenance from Him as the trunk rooted in the divine life.  

In his homily on the 28th World Day for Consecrated Life celebrated earlier this year, Pope Francis said that, like old Simeon and Anna, we religious wait longingly for the coming of the Lord. Years of patient waiting in service prepared them and prepare us to recognise Him when He is presented in the Temple. By then Simeon was “righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Lk 2:25). Anna was a hermitess who “did not depart from the temple” (Lk 2:37). Like these two, the Holy Father said, we too must cultivate an interior life of joyful humility and silent gratitude, resisting inclinations to worldliness or bitterness. We must be “nourished by adoration, by the work of the knees and the heart, by concrete prayer that struggles and intercedes, capable of reawakening a longing for God, that initial love, that amazement of the first day, that taste of waiting,” the Pontiff challenged. 

The gift which you religious and your colleagues have faithfully lived out, in imitation of Christ and service of others, was received by you as the gift of your vocation and given by you as the gift of yourself to the Church and the world. This treasure has enriched the Archdiocese of Sydney. Your religious lives have kept you attached to the True Vine and drawn others to be grafted to Him. In the words from Peter’s epistle today, “You do not see him, yet you love him; without seeing him, you are already filled with an indescribable joy, because you believe; and you are sure of the end to which your faith looks forward.” (1Pet 1: 8-9). Thank you for your gift and God bless you always! 

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