Consecrated Life 2019
The variety of consecrated life in modern Ireland is dazzling
“God has created me to do him some definite service; he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another,” Blessed John Henry Newman famously wrote, and for those dazzled or baffled by the variety of consecrated life lived in Ireland alone, these are words worth remembering.
For Bro. Kevin Crowley, surely Ireland’s most famous Capuchin friar, the example of St Francis of Assisi has been key to driving him in his work with Ireland’s most vulnerable.
“Francis himself was a lover of the poor and the marginalised and creation,” Bro. Kevin says. “That was one of the things that inspired me. When I saw the need for helping people who are in the streets during the daytime looking in dustbins trying to get food out of them, I thought of us as Capuchins and Franciscans being followers of St Francis – St Francis wouldn’t be at all pleased with us if we didn’t do something to help these unfortunate people.”
This has encouraged him throughout his life, he says, adding that his life as a religious has empowered him to help others.
“For me without prayer life, it certainly wouldn’t be possible for me to do what I’m doing, and also from the generosity and goodwill of people who have helped me along the way to provide food and the means for what we’re doing here in the centre to help them in many ways,” he says.
Fr Peter McVerry similarly says his life as a religious, and in particular as a Jesuit, allows him to dedicate himself to a remarkable degree to Ireland’s poorest.
“From a practical point of view, being a Jesuit you’ve a freedom to work in a way that you wouldn’t be free to work if you had a family to look after and a wage to earn,” he says.
“So I’m free – I’m available 24/7, I can live in Ballymun, I don’t have to worry about the kids growing up and getting into negative peer pressure. Being a Jesuit gives me a freedom to work in a way that I wouldn’t be able to do if I wasn’t a Jesuit,” he says, adding that it must be recognised that many people do social justice work with huge commitment without living lives like his, “but obviously if you have a family and you depend on income, you do that in a different way”.
The Ignatian focus on Christ himself is key to what drives him in his work, he explains.
“From a spirituality point of view I have an understanding of the Gospels and the mission of Jesus – I wrote a book called Jesus: Social Revolutionary,” he says. “For me Jesus had a dream and he dreamed of a world where no one would be hungry and not be given food, where no one would be thirsty and not be given water and so forth. So for me the reaching out to people, revealing the God of compassion by being the compassion of God is at the heart of my spirituality as a Jesuit.”
Sr Phyllis Moynihan, vocations director for the Southern and South-Central provinces of the Sisters of Mercy, makes a point of looking back to the example of Catherine McAuley in explaining her work in the Limerick of today, pointing out that other orders of Irish women can tell a similar story.
“The Sisters of Mercy were started over 150 years ago, and at the time Catherine McAuley set about responding to the unmet needs of her day, when there was great poverty, and one of her main concerns at the time was education for women and children.”
Over the years, she says, the sisters have maintained a focus on disadvantaged people on the margins wherever they live and work, and though they have generally moved out of education and nursing they remain side by side with the marginalised in Ireland.
“You will always find us living with the people in parishes, working with them,” she says. “Here in Limerick we’re working with prisoners and their families, and with Travellers. You will find us under the radar working away and being with the people in various areas regardless of age.”
The congregation may be aging, but that doesn’t necessarily stop them, she stresses, pointing out that the sisters currently have two women in their 90s who are still actively involved in ministry, and speaking with pleasure of how a new sister, Maire Hearty, made first profession just in October and is currently studying theology and spiritual direction while getting pastoral experience in the Darndale in Dublin.
Care for the poorest isn’t simply a matter of social services, Sr Phyllis explains, citing Catherine McAuley’s observation that “our centre is God, from whom all our actions spring as from their source”. The order continues to matter, she says, “because people are always in need of mercy and compassion”.
Similarly based in Limerick, Sr Margaret Lynch of the Good Shepherd Sisters explains that apostolic religious life is characterised by the centrality of their distinct mission to our lives, and with her congregation focused on women, with a mission of reconciliation and compassion.
“For me this means that it is a mission to bring to wholeness,” she says.
“Just as the Good Shepherd leaves the 99 to go in search for the one, we seek to ensure that no-one is excluded, no one is left behind. It is a call to life, the life of radical inclusion that Jesus lived as he ate with tax collectors, touched lepers, and spoke with women, which was unacceptable for a good Jewish man at his time.
“For us as a congregation this leads to work with the homeless, the refugees, to work in prisons, with people suffering from addictions, with people all over the world who are considered outsiders from their society in any way. We live this mission out of our own experience of a God who loves us and calls us into wholeness ourselves as he teaches us to love and accept ourselves, integrating all our weakness as well as our strengths.”
Describing this form of consecrated life as “an integral part of the Church’s life”, she says it’s a way consecrated religious can preach the Gospel with their lives to people of all religions and none.
With apostolic religious in Ireland now having in the main left their roles in hospitals and schools etc, as the State has now taken up that baron, Sr Margaret says that in seeking to serve new needs they increasingly are called to work in advocacy and justice work, “naming the injustices in society that keep people marginalised and excluded and calling for change at every level from poverty, to global warming to the call for women’s voices to be heard at every level of the Church”.
Not everyone is called to such a life, of course, and there are those who are called to live lives serving God largely separate from the world.
Sr Marie Fahy, abbess of the Cistercian community at Co. Waterford’s Glencairn Abbey explains that her community, in following the Rule of St Benedict and the traditions of the Cistercian Order, “continue a long line of monastic living from the Desert Fathers, Celtic monasticism and 12th-Century Cistercian life right up to the present day”.
“The point of monastic life is to seek God’s face, to know Christ Jesus, to be conformed to him, and so become our true and best selves,” she explains. “The means offered by monasticism to attain this goal are: silence and community; liturgy and lectio divina; manual labour and creative industry, with a strong emphasis on hospitality.”
In explaining how people might feel called to such a life, she says: “God takes the initiative and touches the individual person so that this desire for intimacy with God is born in their hearts. Then the person looks around for a place where they feel they can best respond to God’s call to a deeper love and fuller life.”
Such lives, dedicated to continuous prayer and continuous conversion, contribute profoundly to the life of the Church, she maintains.
“Growth in holiness enhances the whole Church in a hidden way,” she says, adding: “Monastic life also offers a witness of stability, simplicity, chastity, care of the environment, and provides a place of prayer for all who come.”
Bro. Martin Browne of Co. Limerick’s Glenstal Abbey makes a similar point, noting that the classic definition of Benedictine life is that it’s the search for God under a rule and an abbot. “The regulation, literally, the application of the Rule, is about providing some sort of scaffolding for that to happen,” he says.
Different monasteries do this differently, he says, with different monks having a range of different tasks.
“Some people in a monastery are engaged in very public ministerial work, some are involved in pretty mundane administrative and operational things inside their houses, some – obviously – are old and retired and do little formal work, but for us the Hours of the Divine Office that we sing during the day are described by St Benedict as the Opus Dei, the work of God.
“So that is our first work; regardless of what other tasks we might have in the monastery or what works or ministries the monastery might have, our fundamental job is to be in the choir several times a day, singing the Psalms together,” he says.
“Clearly it isn’t something for everybody – it’s a particular calling,” he continues, dismissing the notion that monastic life is a flight from the world and pointing out that today’s monks tend to be very much in touch with people in the world at large.
“By being here and praying, first of all we’re saying that God is important and that giving time to God is really important,” he says. “I think that’s a really important witness for modern society, where God is easily forgotten and the idea of taking faith seriously can seem less reasonable and less obvious than it did in the past.
“So, there’s an importance about the fact that there are people who are literally consecrated to pray.”
Everything else the monks do to fund their lives is simply to enable them to fulfil that task, he says, adding that the vow of stability is an important witness too.
“One of the vows we take is a vow of stability: we bind ourselves not just to consecrated life, but to consecrated life in this place, and again in the modern world where lots of things are transitory, there’s an important witness there, in binding ourselves to this place, in sticking at the life, in sticking at being here at a time often when culture tells you to move on more often and to move on if things become challenging.”
Monasteries have always been places of hospitality, he adds, pointing out that today’s emphases on mindfulness and meditation testify to a deep need for places of quietness and stillness, where attentiveness matters.
“Monasteries have always been places of stillness and attentiveness,” he says. “The first word of St Benedict’s Rule is ‘listen’.”
Sr Louise O’Rourke of the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master is a member of a pontifical congregation that has a Benedictine spirituality but is driven to be communicators after the fashion of St Paul.
“We are Benedictine in inspiration in that we follow the Benedictine motto: ora et labora, work and pray,” she says. “But our family is part of the larger Pauline Family, inspired by the figure and teachings of St Paul. We’re called to be communicators to the people of today like St Paul was in his time.
“Our form of consecrated life is that we are an apostolic congregation but with strong contemplative tones, we like to say we are contemplative in action, and active in contemplation.”
The sisters were founded in 1924 by an Italian priest, Blessed Fr James Alberione, who had seen the power of media in the world of Mussolini, and who over time established 10 different religious families – “so there was something for everybody, but the main issue was to bring Jesus through the most effective and fastest means of communication”.
Tasked especially with Eucharistic adoration and with an emphasis on liturgical beauty, the sisters have a special role in praying for the more active religious and clergy, Sr Louise says.
“The beauty, I suppose, of religious life is that there’s something for every mission of the Church, and the Holy Spirit always rises up a group be it big or small for some kind of need in the Church,” she says, adding that “as Mary walked with Jesus, we were called to walk along with priests”.
Nowadays, she adds, it tends to be recognised that priesthood is not simply a clerical role but is a baptismal calling shared by everyone.
One especially attractive feature of the order, she says, is how close it is to its roots: new members study in the formation house in Italy, and even now can speak to older sisters who knew Blessed James, who was alive as recently as 1973.
“I know that people have this thing at the moment of trying to discover and retrace your roots, but for us it’s very easy because we have it all at our fingertips in Italy,” she says. “We try to keep out students together because, again, in having a peer group you can live together and pray together and form each other.”
If the Disciples of the Divine Master has the advantage of being able to remain in such direct personal contact with their founder, Ireland’s Dominicans, meanwhile, can point to a heritage stretching back over 800 years.
Fr John Walsh OP, prior of the Irish province’s student house on St Saviour’s on Dublin’s Dominick Street, notes how the late Dublin-born Archbishop William Barden of Ispahan in Iran, used to say Dominican life was like walking on a tightrope.
“It’s a tightrope between the contemplative and the apostolic life,” Fr John says, “because the daily life is the monastic element – dedication to the choral office, the observances in the house, the cloister, the habit, refectory prayers, silences, and there’s study and contemplative prayer, that pushes us out to preach.”
This life of study and prayer pushes Dominicans out to preach in the world, Fr John says, explaining that the monastic regular life at home is a key way in which Dominicans differ from Jesuits and others.
There’s a real need for such vocations in the modern Church, he says, contrasting this with the ‘Benedict Option’ as famously promoted by American author Rod Dreher.
“We’re the reverse of what he was saying: we’re the contemplatives in the city,” he says. “We’re at the coalface of the city: St Benedict went away from the sin of the city, but St Dominic went into it, and brought the elements of the monastic life into the heart of the city.”
Maintaining that the monastic structures equip young men of today to engage with and respond to modern ways of thinking, Fr John says “there’s a Dominican option”.
There are Carmelite options too, and Vincentian ones, Oblate ones and Pallotine ones, and many more.
Consecrated life in Ireland is a mosaic, and even now it’s a mosaic that shines.