Thank you Archbishop Richard Smith for the invitation to participate in this beautiful program of catechesis. It is always a joy to be with Archbishop Thomas Collins, the ordinary in the Toronto Archdiocese where our first Canadian foundation is located.
Archbishop Collins opened his catechesis this evening with a simple yet profoundly important statement, "The basic thing about being a Christian, is that a person has encountered Jesus Christ, and it shows."
In this Advent season, we live again in the eternal mystery of the Incarnation - the mystery which celebrates a God who is love and whose love could not remain contained within itself, but came to us in the person of the Son of God.
As Christians, we long for and wait upon God, who has come to us in innocence and love as a child and who comes to us by the grace of the Holy Spirit, "hundreds and thousands of times a day" (Father Matthias Sheben). It is the duty of those who claim Jesus Christ as the Son of God to live in gratitude and alive to realities seen and unseen. In the words of Pope John Paul II, "We are called to be sentinels of the invisible."
I have the delightful task this evening of remembering and recounting for you, the graces of Jesus Christ to which I have been witness. I will tell the story of some exceptional gifts God shared with men and women.
Some of these gifts were received by a trustworthy servant of God, not primarily for his own soul, but for the sanctification of the world - graces properly called charisms. Others are thoroughly personal graces which drew a soul to an encounter with God, in which the person simultaneously appreciated their own beauty and dignity. "And the soul felt its worth, a weary world rejoices."
Dachau: The birthplace of the charism of life. Nearly 19 years ago our founder, Cardinal John O'Connor, with the graces and inspiration of the Holy Spirit "put out into the deep" founding a new religious congregation - the Sisters of Life.
How did it begin? In the mid-1980s and before he was named the archbishop of New York, the-then Bishop John Joseph O'Connor, as part of a summer pilgrimage and vacation, made an annual retreat at the Carmelite monastery located on the perimeter of the Dachau concentration camp - the symbolic epicentre of violence, death and the darkness of evil that was part of the 20th century.
During those days of prayer, Bishop O'Connor received a life-changing, transformative grace which would direct his mission as bishop for the rest of his life.
He would recount the experience of grace in this way: While putting his hands in the semi-circular red-brick ovens of the crematorium, "I felt the intermingled ashes of Jew and Christian, rabbi, priest and minister."
Pierced to the heart, his soul cried out, "Good God, how could human beings do this to other human beings?" In an instant, the reality that each human person is a unique, unrepeatable divine creation made in the image and likeness of God was profoundly and newly impressed upon his soul. It was an instant which gave birth to the charism of life. And, "A light shone in the darkness, and the darkness could not overwhelm it."
From that moment forward, Bishop O'Connor vowed to do all he could to protect and enhance the sacredness of every human life, wherever it was most vulnerable.
In the years that followed, Cardinal O'Connor became the visible and leading churchman for the pro-life movement. He was a blessed apostle of the Gospel of Life. From the pulpit in St. Patrick's Cathedral he preached tirelessly and eloquently that each human person is a unique and unrepeatable creation of the Master.
He sought by the power of his teaching to right an injustice which denies the unborn child the right-to-life and, by denying this most fundamental right, opened the doorway to the practice of euthanasia.
LOVE AND JUSTICE
As his episcopal motto expressed, "There can be no love without justice." The truth of Cardinal O'Connor's words and the power of his faith resonated throughout our nation and beyond.
Founding of the Sisters of Life. Some years later, Cardinal John O'Connor, now the archbishop of New York prayed to understand why the efforts of the pro-lifers throughout the nation and world were not gleaning the results expected.
While meditating upon the Scripture passage from Mark 9.29, "This kind of demon can only be cast out by prayer and fasting," another, life-transforming grace was his. This time, though, the grace was not just a personal one, but a grace for the whole Church; it was the grace that gave birth to a new religious community in the Church: the Sisters of Life.
In 1990 Cardinal O'Connor authored a column in the Archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York, entitled: "Help Wanted: Sisters of Life."
On June 1, 1991 the Sisters of Life was founded, as its first eight members gathered round the Eucharistic Lord - its head and heart, with a view to becoming a religious institute of the universal Church. Our founder states in the Way of Life (the founding document of the community) this rationale for the Sisters of Life:
"Over the course of hundreds of years Almighty God has inevitably seemed to raise up religious communities to meet the special needs of the day. I am convinced that the crucial need of our day is to restore to all society a sense of the sacredness of human life. Basic to the worst evils of our day is surely a widespread contempt for human life. . . .
"My reading of the 'signs of the times,' (however), impels me to believe that the Holy Spirit, 'brooding over the bent world,' wants to inspire a religious community whose charism would be uniquely the protection and advancement of human life itself - a ministry of reverence for every human person, and most particularly the most vulnerable, beginning with the preborn infant in the womb.
LOVE THEM BOTH
"I can see this same charism urging a religious community to concern itself with the mothers of the preborn, especially the most needy, and even infants following birth.
"Moreover, the relentless attack of society on the life of the preborn has opened the door to an equally persistent attack on the life of the frail elderly, the long-term gravely ill and all those whose 'quality of life' is considered defective by society.
"Now it seems time for a religious community to engage in active ministries which will be an extension of contemplation."
(John Cardinal O'Connor, Way of Life, Rationale, pp. 1-2.)
Thirteen years from the date of foundation, the Sisters of Life were officially approved by the Holy See and established as a religious institute of diocesan right within the Church on our patronal feast of the Annunciation of the Lord - March 25, 2004.
On this momentous occasion, the charism of life given to Cardinal O'Connor years before was confirmed by the Church as an authentic and unique religious charism in and for the Church. At the end of the second millennium God gave the world a gift - a new charism for a religious community, with graces intended for the people of the whole world through the hands of a new religious family who pray and work to protect all vulnerable life.
We now number 70 women committed to God as postulants, novices and professed sisters living and serving the people of God in New York, Bridgeport, Conn., and Toronto.
This is God's work and to God be the glory. For no human acumen, no talent, even of a gifted founder, can explain the growth and vitality of the Sisters of Life. We are not nearly clever enough to accomplish what has been done. Admittedly, we simply stand in the path of grace.
Simultaneously and until today, other powerful graces have been at work among women strategizing in corporate offices, women teaching in neighbourhood schools, women devoted to accompanying adults with disabilities in walking their daily life, women probing the mysteries of life in science labs, at engineering tables, and in academia; other women are moved by the silent alchemy of love while standing at the bedside of the ill in hospitals and at home, and for some "the call" is heard in the heady days of university life. I speak of the grace to live for God alone.
I can now see clearly as a thread in the tapestry of graces which led me to participate in the building of the culture of life, my summons came more than two decades ago while holding an infant niece, Caitlin. She was the longed-for child of my 40-year-old sister - a child doctors advised be aborted because of the great age of her mother.
Holding this little girl who was unspeakably beautiful - with clear blue eyes which reached out to the world with eager anticipation, and bunches of blond curls. She was keen like her mother, and already in her affectionate ways, she showed the expansive generosity of her father.
Suddenly as if from nowhere came the thought - I now recognize it as an inspiration - which I addressed to the child's mother who was sitting across the table from me in my Manhattan apartment: "Cathleen, when Caitlin is 13 what are we going to tell her we did to protect the lives of the unborn?"
It was my summons. In that moment I had been recruited to the cause of the culture of life. I had received my summons to proclaim the truth of the dignity of every human life.
Every sister and every Sister of Life has such a story of grace. Over the past decade women have come in a steady, abundant stream to the convents of the Sisters of Life.
How does this happen? What is the secret? The answer is simply, totally in the hands of our incredible God. For only the compelling love of God could move bright, beautiful, mature and competent young women to surrender all of their lives - affections, possessions and will - for the glory of God, and through him to his people, especially the most vulnerable among us.
A MISSIONARY LIFE
The Christian life in its essence is missionary, that is, the one who has encountered God desired to become a conduit of God's love for others. Mary is our pre-eminent model for this. Let me read a few lines from Scripture:
"When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leapt in her womb. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried out in a loud voice: "Blest are you among women and blest is the fruit of your womb. But who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 1.41-43).
"How did Elizabeth know that Mary was carrying the unborn Jesus?" our founder would ask. "Remember how Mary had exchanged her word for the Living Word, the Son of God, who would be conceived beneath her heart? That same Living Word reached out and touched Elizabeth.
"She hadn't received any advance warning that Mary was coming, no telephone call or telegram, and there was no way she could have known that Mary was carrying the Son of God. But Elizabeth did know - she knew that Mary was the Mother of God because the infant in her womb leapt for joy."
CHILD IN MARY'S WOMB
That's the power of the Christ child within the womb of Mary. It radiated outwardly from that womb and penetrated the womb of Elizabeth, purifying John the Baptist as you and I are purified of original sin at Baptism.
Mary couldn't see this, she couldn't reach out and touch that grace. It's so important to remember. This is the power of carrying Christ beneath your heart. "Nothing would again be casual or small, everything with light invested, over spilled with terror and divinity."
What's happening with her? She just goes to see her cousin and this power comes forth from her. She herself then cries out, virtually sings from a combination of verses in the Old Testament with which she is so familiar:
"My being proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit finds joy in God my saviour, for he has looked upon his servant in her lowliness."
Let me tell you a recent story which is nearly a present day recapitulation of this New Testament event. As part of the 40 Days for Life, Janet and her friends, local faithful Hispanic women, witnessed before an abortion mill in Stamford, Conn., each week on their way to work.
A young woman, Maria, who came to the clinic for an abortion appointment, came over mistakenly to speak with one of them. In the midst of the conversation they realized that this woman did not want an abortion, but without support for herself and her child, she had surrendered in desperation.
CALL THE SISTERS!
In the midst of the conversation, Janet and her friends realized that they needed to leave to get to work and called the Sisters of Life to ask them to continue where they had left off and to help link this young vulnerable pregnant woman with the resources she would need.
Our only Spanish-speaking sister was on an errand away from the convent that morning and other sisters who were home when the call came in went hurriedly to pick her up, and to bring her to the convent so that they might talk to get to know Maria and to understand her needs.
Just that week, in the entrance foyer of our convent and retreat house a beautiful stained-glass window of Our Lady of Guadalupe, had been installed to mark the fifth anniversary of our retreat mission at Villa Maria Guadalupe. Our Italian sister from Brooklyn, launched into the use of her limited Italian, and another sister broke out Spanish she hadn't used since college telling the young woman in literal and poor Spanish: "This is the home of your mother."
They continued communicating using the only language they all shared - the universal language of love.
After some time our Brooklyn sister remembered the Spanish Bible in the library, and returned with it encouraging the young woman to read the story of the Visitation - Mary's visit to Elizabeth following the Annunciation of the angel and conceiving the Christ Child.
As the young mother read the story silently to herself, tears poured from her eyes as she exclaimed: "That is what happened to me as I looked at the window of my mother. The baby leaped in my womb."
How many were the channels of grace - the working mothers and wives who witnessed at the clinic and who reached out to Maria, the sisters who picked her up and brought her to the convent, the Knights of Columbus who commissioned this beautiful art - each played their part, but it is only God's grace radiating through the lives of his servants which convicts a soul of its worth.
That day, a soul was protected from the ravages and disfigurement of sin; and a child welcomed as God's gift. Yes, difficulties remain for Maria but they are seen through the eyes of faith and with the support of the family of the Church.
Each year our Visitation Mission in New York serves over 600 pregnant women vulnerable to abortion. This same work, is now the work of our newest foundation in Toronto and will serve to build the culture of life one heart at a time throughout this country.
WOMAN FROM EDMONTON
In fact, the first pregnant woman our sisters in Toronto served, was from Edmonton. With the quick and generous response of clergy, religious and the lay faithful of Edmonton, our sisters were able to link this young woman with practical resources she needed.
The local Church surrounded her in love throughout the months of her pregnancy and with her welcomed a beautiful baby girl into the world last spring. These Christians of Edmonton proved Archbishop Collins' point - that they have encountered Jesus Christ and it shows. (It is our hope that as part of our trip we will be able to meet her and her daughter tomorrow.)
This year our Christmas card features three of the more than 10,000 children whose mothers have had the courage to give them life with the support of our missions. The gifts and treasures our 10,000 Coworkers of Life bring to these missions has allowed the world to welcome these children into the human family. In truth, the sisters are a small but vital part of this magnificent work of God.
In the words of Pope Benedict, which inspired this lecture series, "There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him. It is beautiful and wonderful because it is truly a service to joy, to God's joy which longs to break into the world."