Time to Rebalance the Scales: Religious Life Today
Following the sudden and tragic deaths of Srs. Marie Duddy and Frances Forde, I ask what impact their lives and deaths may yet have upon relationships between religious and the wider Irish society. It was the driest September on record. Sunshine with little rain enjoyed by us all. And yet, the heavens opened on the morning Marie and Frances were to be buried. Heavy rain from early morning. Still, the crowds gathered for the funeral Mass. The main celebrant, Fr. Gary commented that the rain reflected the mood of the people. It did, but it meant more than that.
I called to mind the funeral of Nelson Mandela. It rained incessantly that day too. The commentators told us that in Africa, rain is a sign of blessings from God. How appropriate for Marie, a sister who had shared her beloved charism of mercy with the people of Nigeria. Fitting too for Frances, as the lasting image the people of Holy Cross will have of her is walking the streets in the rain, with her simple plastic raincoat closed over as she visited the homes of the bereaved. The rain came down, heavily, a sign of the streets of Holy Cross being touched by the caress of the Divine, abundantly.
Crowds had gathered the previous evening too. Welcoming the coffins into the Church where these sisters of mercy prayed daily. A spontaneous, heart felt reaction from a Passionist parish; a people familiar with grief and unexpected death, but not anaesthetised against the pain of losing loved ones. Now they gathered to receive their sisters of mercy back into the heart of the parish, and to share in the pain of their loved ones.
Brought home together, but difficult to imagine two sisters more different. Fr. Gary caught the mood when he remarked that just as chalk and cheese can be attracted to share in married life, so too it happens in religious life. Seeming opposites living together in community, although probably with less choice than in married life. “Chalk and cheese” brought poignant smiles, as people instinctively knew to what he was referring. Frances, the archetypal traditional religious sister, rumoured to have slept wearing her veil, while Marie probably had not even owned one for many years. Frances, an undoubted sister of the street, while Marie graced the world of inter-faith dialogue with charm and intellect.
Opposites, but united in a common commitment to that charism of mercy with which they had touched the lives of so many. United too through living in community, where their difference was a source of enrichment rather than a source of division. We were witnessing the power of authenticity. Fr. Gary told us how these two “women of grace,” had seen bishops and politicians; civic leaders and representatives of governments and the PSNI; people from the world of education and church life; all gathered and welcomed to share in the pain and in the pride of the people of Holy Cross. Loyalists standing at the protest camp nearby stood with heads bowed out of respect for palpable goodness as the coffins passed.
So different, and yet so much in common. Living in the same house; a life of shared service to education; both working in their retirement when others would take deserved rest; each with a brother ordained a priest, and above all else, that which belonged deepest in the heart of each, sharers in that wonderful charism of mercy.
Standing at the back of the church, now overflowing, I was struck by the awareness that after the onslaught endured by men and women religious in recent years, at times much deserved, we were witnessing a rebalancing of the scales. People determined to come together to give thanks for the lives of humble, yet strong women, who were not afraid to rediscover a modern expression of that charism of mercy. It seemed that Marie and Frances had sparked a release of emotion and intimacy that had been for too long denied. People were proud to be here. From family members to fellow Sisters of Mercy; from parishioners who knew them well to three women religious I met, who had travelled by train from Dundalk that morning, unsure of where Holy Cross was, but driven by a sense that they “just had to be here.” At Mass the previous evening, Fr. Kieran had summed it up very simply, “Katherine McAuley would be proud of them.” The spontaneous applause from the people spoke of their confirmation.
As the coffins were being carried out, my mind wandered back to the funeral of Fr. Alec Reid. A man of courage who, like Frances and Marie, faithful to the end to the charism that drew him to the life of service as a religious in a wounded and a wounding church.
What will help this fractured church on the road to restored trust? Not the policies and procedures, and the numerous committees and sub-committees necessary as a framework for the safeguarding of children, but the authentic witness of humble people of faith; men and women, with the courage to live out that calling “to act justly, love tenderly and to walk humbly” with their God.
Three people of total integrity, living their lives faithful to an authentic living out their charism; a charism they did not receive in becoming religious, but people already imbued with that charism that they lived out in the companionship of others with a common vision. Marie and Frances as women of mercy; Fr. Alec, as the Redemptorist, who knew from the depth of his being that redemption was for all, often in the face of opposition from others who adopted an antiseptic approach about to whom they would talk. He was familiar with well meaning ministers in authority, whose hands remained clean, even sanitized, while he was determined to reach out to all, and in doing so made possible our redemption from violence and injustice. Religious for whom hiding below the parapet was not an option, but who lived out their charism in creative, challenging and life giving ways, bringing life and hope to all. Three faithful religious, signs of hope in a church where we are maybe beginning to reclaim our guts and our courage, and dare we say, a sense of long lost pride.
Sr. Frances Forde; Sr. Marie Duddy; Fr. Alec Reid. Religious united by the inability to live other than in the way of faithfulness; commitment and authenticity. Today, let us take a few moments to say a word of thanks to men and women of faith who took that road less travelled in religious life. When there is a cause of shame to be answered, let it be answered with the full weight of justice, but justice also calls for a rebalancing of the scales. Let the shame be answered, but let us also acknowledge that the religious of Ireland are a continuing source of life and light to so many. It is time to balance the scales, and may the followers of Katherine McAuley; Alphonsus Liguori; Paul of the Cross; Ignatius Loyola, Nano Nagle and so many other inspirational men and women know, that we are not only grateful to you for all you have done, but we are proud to count you as among our own.