Published below is the official text of Sr. Conchita McDonnell, as delivered on Day 4 of the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin.
In his talk this afternoon Archbishop Miller highlighted the vital importance for every priest of an intimate relationship with Christ. Quoting Pope Benedict he described this relationship as not a mere intellectual knowledge but a profound personal relationship – a knowledge of the heart so that the priest can speak of the Lord to others from this experience.
These words have a particular resonance for all those who live the Consecrated Life.
Christ is not only central to the life but gives it meaning. My personal testimony today flows from the living of that life for the past fifty years.
My call to religious life took root in the community setting of my own family. I was the eldest of three children of a devout father and a questioning mother. I lived in a home where family prayer and the Eucharist were highly valued. My first image of God as a little child was of going for a walk with my father and wanting to be carried home. In order to encourage me to walk my father said “ Let us see what gift God has for you” At a gorse bush to which I ran I found a barley sugar sweet which my father succeeded in dropping through the bush. The memory of that simple event has stayed with me over the years forming my image of God as a loving, giving God waiting to be gracious to us. In later life I came to see the Eucharist as God’s unparalleled gift to me and to all humanity.
Another formative memory from childhood were words often spoken by my father “The greatest gift God has given you is the gift of faith” This I only dimly understood until my early twenties (20’s) when I came to the awareness that I was being called to religious missionary life to share that gift with others as I had been gifted. As a result I joined the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary in Killeshandra Co. Cavan, where I received a formation which deepened and expanded my faith and prepared me for the rest of my life. I was left in no doubt that my effectiveness as a missionary depended on my fidelity to prayer and that my life was to be modelled on that of Jesus. The call to Consecrated Life is above all a gift totally unmerited. There is always a mysterious element to the call – why me and not someone else who is much better, more prayerful, more virtuous?
In my own experience of living religious life I have come to the conviction that I needed a community to keep me living in the truth of who I am and who God is. One’s prayer can be delusional and requires testing in the ups and downs of life and most especially among those with whom we live in community. The closeness brings out the raw reality and directs us back to the Eucharist for the forgiveness, strength and inspiration needed to fulfil the mission to love. The emphasis on the common life and the common good challenges our innate self-centeredness and urges us to live and to witness to communion.
Living in community with women who not only share the same faith and the same values but also live them in the concrete was pivotal for me. All my life I have thanked God for the two Holy Rosary Sisters with whom I first lived in community when I was assigned to Nigeria in 1966. Their love and care was evident in their relationship with the people among whom they lived. Their inclusiveness, generosity and respect for the dignity of all was evident in everything they did. No wonder then that when we were engulfed in the Biafra war the chief and elders of our area (most of whom were not Christian) came to say that we would be protected as one of themselves because we were a single group which showed no distinction of colour, religion or lifestyle. This was true communion – community at its best.
The community we lived together as religious sisters was nurtured and sustained by the celebration of Eucharist which had to be lived each day. St Paul links community and Eucharist and suggests, as a recent writer Daniel O’Connell put it, that a unified community is the necessary basis for a proper celebration of the Eucharist. He goes so far as to say that a divided community is an affront to any celebration of the Eucharist. This was vividly illustrated fro me by an African priest who told me of having removed the Blessed Sacrament and stopped celebrating Eucharist temporarily for a religious community which refused to attend to extreme dissension and disunity among them. Like St. Paul he saw the divided community as the antithesis of all that Eucharist signifies.
In contrast to how the synoptic Gospel writers present the story of the Last Supper by concentrating on the words of institution, the writer of John’s Gospel tells the story of the ritual of washing the disciples’ feet. The Church chooses that reading on Holy Thursday to highlight the meaning of Eucharist in how we live. We have heard Archbishop Millar refer to Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. Another Canadian Ronald Rolheiser OMI states in his recent book ‘Our One Great Act of Fidelity’ “The Eucharist is both an invitation that invites us, and a grace that empowers us to service. And what it invites us to do is to replace distrust with hospitality, pride with humility and self-interest with self-effacement so as to reverse the world’s order of things”. It is clear that Jesus identified the true disciple, not by special privileges or position or talents but by conscientious fidelity in the day-to-day routine of life and service, expressing compassion, forgiveness, and love.
There are communities of men and women living the Consecrated Life, sharing the lives of the poor, who are living signs that no human life is destined to end on the rubbish dump. One of our sisters who entered with me in Killeshandra 50 years ago sleeps on the streets in Brazil with the dispossessed and vulnerable of this world. They are her community as indeed is the Holy Rosary community to which she belongs. One community nourishes the other and is deeply challenged in return. In his book ‘Tomorrow’s Catholic’ Michael Morrwood MSC writes “The effective power and compassion of God has to be embodied and Eucharist proclaims that we will be this presence”.
Despite all that has happened in Ireland in recent years it is clear that our witness is not ineffective but rather can have a lasting effect on the lives of people. While attending funerals of religious throughout Ireland since the recent reports on child abuse it is striking how much the individual religious is loved and cherished and his/her contribution to the local community referred to in loving concrete terms. At the funeral of one particular Sister, whom I knew, the whole town shut down as a mark of respect because she was a revered member of their community.
Monastic and contemplative communities also are embedded in people’s lives as they live in communion with an amazing variety of people including Travellers, the distraught and the poor. Hospitality is extended to all and for some it is the only experience of communion and love in their lives. In her reflection on the Cistercian film ‘Of Gods and Men’ Sr Marianne O’Connor, director general of the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI) writes “The film shows community life at its best where difference is seen as gift and not threat, where individual struggle is acknowledged and given space before a communal decision is reached and where tender, brotherly love is beautifully portrayed. While it says much about life within a community, it also speaks to the relationship of that community with those around it as the monkswitness to their belief in being ‘brother to all’ – the Muslim villagers, the fundamentalists and the political authorities”.
It was commented on more than once after Vatican II that one of the positive changes which resulted from the council was that religious orders were no longer in competition with one another. Shortly before that the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI) (under a different name) was founded. Through it there has been remarkable collaboration on the part of the religious congregations of this country on issues of education, health and justice. The Conference is inclusive of all religious communities of women and men, apostolic, monastic and contemplative. This communion has given strength, solace, mutual support and compassion especially during the past ten years of suffering. In the public acknowledgement of our corporate sinfulness we embodied Eucharistic brokenness but not fragmentation. During those difficult years our collaborative ministerial outreach was intensified as communities tried to meet the evolving needs of an ever-changing society, allowing even our wounds to become radiant sources of compassion as communion with the marginalised and with each other deepened.
Another significant development since Vatican II has been a new openness and communion with people of other faith traditions. This has not been lost on the media, evidenced by the picture carried in the papers of the Catholic and Protestant Archbishops of Dublin leading a Good Friday procession through the streets of Dublin. As a refugee in Cameroon during the Biafra war I was greatly enriched by my friendship with another missionary refugee of the Scottish Presbyterian tradition. A welcome visitor to my religious community she, on one occasion, asked me about the significance of my ring. Gladly I spoke of receiving it at my final profession as a symbol of my life commitment to Christ and his mission in the context of community. Her response expressed a longing that her faith tradition might have a similar recognised structure which could afford her the same opportunity. The exchange brought the realisation that the formal life commitment was one further gift in my life. For me the ring has always signified the absolute centrality of self-giving love in consecrated life.
There are many expressions of communion. In my early years as a religious while teaching religion in a Teacher Training College for young men, I was approached at the end of the year by one of the students who, to my amazement, wanted to be baptised. I had taken it for granted that he was already a Christian. When I asked why he wanted to become a member of the Catholic community, he replied “Because your God is a God of love”. He then insisted that I suggest a Christian name for him and my mind returned to the initial seed of faith in my home so he was called Thomas after my father. Another student felt the call to priesthood and many years later became a priest. I had the joy of being present at his ordination. The evening before while sitting on the veranda I asked him what I had said that was so significant for the students. He said it was not so much what you said but how you were. Communion takes place at the unrecognised deeper levels of our lives.
Today we live our lives in a society which is increasingly fragmented and lonely but in spite of all the cynicism that would deny its validity our Christian hope affirms and confirms as do our expressions of communion, the absolute gift of the consecrated life to the Church and to the world.
For my own part I would not exchange my life as a Religious Missionary Sister for anything. It has enriched the very act of living and knitted me into the hearts of hundreds throughout this world leaving me with a profound sense of gratitude and communion with God and so many others.
Credit: Joshua Lanzarini, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation