The Year of Consecrated Life – Anthony F. McSweeney, SSS (second part)

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Anthony F. McSweeney, SSS



Interiority: Etty Hillesum, a Prophet from Outside


ETTY-ILESUM-2The priority of prophecy. God does not fail to send us prophets, even though, at times, they come from outside, so to speak. God is always free faced with the narrowness of our concepts. I was especially struck by the experience of one of these prophetic figures of our time – a Jewish woman who was truly extraordinary named Etty Hillesum.

Her spiritual itinerary has only been discovered in recent years. Etty Hillesum worked as a social worker and nurse at the Westerbork camp in eastern Holland which contained Jews who had been captured during the Nazi round-ups. From there every week trains left full of Jews – children, boys and girls, men and women – for the concentration camps and gas chambers of Auschwitz where in 1943 she also died at the age of twenty-nine. Her diary and her letters tell the story of an extraordinary spiritual journey experienced amidst dehumanising horrors.

Even though she was tired because of her stressing daily work, every night Etty worked on her diary, as though in a slow firing in which the agony of her people, their desperation and terrible resignation, their hatred for their exterminators, and their not wanting to know or think about the horrors that they could not bear to contemplate, were all painfully but tirelessly transformed by love. Realising that the evil that oppressed her people was also after a certain fashion in her heart, she struggled night after night to free herself of its dangerous traps. From the abyss of violence and evil in which she was submerged, every day she looked for and kept as a treasure something that was beautiful, shining and true: ‘Against every new crime and horror we must oppose a new little piece of love and goodness that we achieve in ourselves. We can suffer but we must not succumb. And if we survive this time intact, in body and soul but above all in soul, without bitterness and without hatred, then we will also have the right to speak at the end of the war…The rottenness that is in other people is also in us and I see no other solution, truly I see no other solution, than that of gathering up in ourselves, and tearing away, our rottenness. I no longer believe that one can improve something in the external world without first doing our part inside ourselves. That is the only lesson of this war: we must look in ourselves, not elsewhere’.

Etty, I believe, was a prophet who had something very valuable to teach us during this difficult moment in the history of our vocation as consecrated men. The daughter of Jewish prophets and an impassioned reader of Christian saints and mystics, Etty knew that she had to address the drama of her time and the tragedy of her people not only outside in the world that surrounded her but also in the depths of her being.

Instinctively, it seemed to her that she had the mysterious truth that says that the deep evil of the world, the ‘sin of the world’, had, after a certain fashion, to be taken upon oneself and defeated in one’s heart. As the Letter to the Hebrews says: ‘Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself [Jesus] likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage’ (Heb 2:14-15).

This, I suggest, is the level of interiority that we are called to dwell in so that our vocation, our charism, can be reborn perfectly in us. For that matter, we must certainly continue to work, we must do all those things that should be done, lead meetings, engage in programmes, administer our institutes, and day after day exert ourselves for people. But the most important work is done at another level, where we can look at our shortcomings and our errors with a clear and a resolute outlook and accept them without becoming discouraged. Thus we can learn wisdom and perceive that whereas our history seems today very often to be a scorching disappointment, God is not absent from it. Our bread can at times be bitter and our water salty, but God can, if we consent, make use of our apparently useless efforts to make something new be born: ‘And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,”, when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left’ (Is 30:20-21).


The Centrality of Jesus Christ


The challenge that emerge it seems to me is to know how to think of everything starting with Jesus Christ and not only from the doctrine that we deduce from his teaching eucaristia04but first and foremost knowing how to judge situations in the light of his way of being, his vision of existence. This requires much more than a cosmetic operation which involves adding some reference to him to the options that have been decided, so to speak, somewhere else.

In this context, the weakness of the mystical-sacramental dimension in the unfolding of the congress was significant. Although in the reflections on vows, for example, there was an absence of a Christological reference, even more worrying is the fact the great non-presence in the congress was the Eucharist. The Prefect of the Congregation for Consecrated Life was the only person to talk about it! This neglect should also lead us to ask ourselves about the fact that this omission was so little commented upon.

Indeed there was a move from the reflections on Jesus to today’s commitments without a real continuity and omitting sacramental mediation. And yet it is precisely the Eucharist, according to Benedict XVI, that ‘powerfully illuminates human history and the whole cosmos’ (Sacramentum Caritatis, post-synodal exhortation, n. 92).

For the Pope what is most critically at stake for the Church of our time is specifically an exact and integral understanding of Jesus Christ and his role in the unfolding of the history of salvation. Christology is at the centre of the contemporary debate in two fields of vast significance: that of the struggle for justice whose centre has been Latin America and that of inter-religious dialogue which is taking part in Asia and in particular in India. The response of Benedict XVI, which is rather singular in the context of the modern papacy, was the publication of his book on Christ. Not a papal encyclical but a book of witness of the believing theologian – Josef Ratzinger!

The questions is also posed for you in this Chapter, with your choice in favour of justice and solidarity in the field of health care. This is a subject of great contemporary relevance which places you before vast and complex problems. Questions that are not easy are also posed to us. How to live, for example, the struggle for justice together with the gospel injunction ‘Do not resist one who is evil’ (Mt 5:39). Solidarity with victims necessarily leads to separations, of a painful kind as well; how should these divisions be lived, how should one align oneself without forgoing universal love?

Faced with choices that spring from such an option it does not seem to be sufficient to appeal to the ‘values of Jesus’, even though such an appeal is useful, indeed necessary, in the field of cooperation with other people of good will in the shared struggle for a more just and fraternal world. The requirements of discernment oblige us to go deeper in the attempt to reach the consciousness of Jesus, his way of drawing near to reality, of judging situations, and of acting. This is what Paul called in a context of discernment the transformation of the mind.[1]

And it is precisely here that the Eucharist has an important role. The sacramental mediation of the Paschal Mystery aims specifically at creating in us a new consciousness. In the view of the Pope, ‘The eucharistic form of life can thus help foster a real change in the way we approach history and the world’ (Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 92).

It seems to me that here there is a great challenge for us religious at the present time, if it is true, as a critical reading of the congress would suggest, that thinking about everything starting with Christ is an element to which we have not in recent years given sufficient attention.

Our Vows as a Setting for the Presence of Christ

Joáo Batista Libanio, a Brazilian Jesuit, suggested that religious life is not defined by the three vows but, rather, by three structural elements, which are: a) a founding experience of God; b) communal life; and c) mission. The vows, he stressed, should not be seen as constitutive elements of consecrated life: they should be understood in relation to these three elements.

There is truth in what Libanio asserts but we would be mistaken if we underestimated the dimension of vows in our lives. It is true that we have spoken a great deal about noli me tangerepoverty, but almost exclusively in social terms and in relation to the option for the poor, insertion, etc. – subjects which are very fine, it is true, but which do not touch the real basic problem. Would it not perhaps be right to say that at least in their inner and deep personal dimension, vows have taken second place in our consciousness?

I would suggest that we could to advantage try to read anew the challenge of our present time, as I have tried to articulate it here, in the light of our vows.

What is the obedience that God expects of us today? Is it not to enter with Christ the pain and the current oppressions of man so as to encounter the paschal Christ who teaches us to see things in the light of his Easter mystery?

For many of us today our ‘poverty’ is not so much a material reality as something that is more radical, existential, amounting to a powerlessness in the face of the resistance of reality – the absence of vocations, seeing that the culture passes by on the other side and we are pushed to the margins while other actors take our place? The challenge is certainly to descend into our poverty and not to flee from it through discouragement and or voluntarism; we must learn a kind of active passivity, a profound expectation, a patient waiting.

Our vow of chastity leads us to look for the Spouse, to hear his voice, like Mary Magdalene, and turn to him, holding onto him until we hear him say to us: ‘Go and tell my brothers and sisters that I have won, that life is stronger than death’. We must be sent out by the burning bush, by the empty tomb, and sent by the mysterious presence of the Risen Christ to the table where the bread of tribulation and defeat has been broken and found to be, in reality, the healthy and wholesome bread of joy and life.

It will only be then, when our eyes have been purified by that fire, our hearts freed and broadened by that voice and our sadness transformed into that broken bread, that the passion of the Lord for his people will truly dwell inside us. It will be then that people will feel touched by the witness of our love. a love that is essential terms is not ours but the true love that God has brought to be born in our broken hearts. It will only be then that our words will have weight; only then will our presence be a mysterious communication of joy – a joy that confers peace and strength, which heals, reconciles and frees.

The reality that we live leads us to a new cruder and more radical experience of the true sources of our charism. While we complain about our limits – we feel pity for our inability to infuse new life into our institutes in order to go back to retrieving the enchantment of our vocation so that it can speak to the hearts of young people and ignite their enthusiasm – we constantly lose our compass points. We err in not perceiving that it is specifically inside this meaning that we experience failure, this real powerlessness, this very humiliation: the setting of rebirth.

Here lies the importance of Exile, as it was lived in the experience of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. From the deepest hopelessness was born the hope of a new covenant. In the same way, Jesus led the Samaritan woman inside her broken interiority and her alienation – her five husbands – until she realised what she had really been wanting at a deep level for a very long time. This meant that she gave to her words an energy that was so convincing that all her fellow citizens felt pushed to look for the gift of God, of a hated Jew as well. They then discovered the well of living inside themselves: ‘It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world’ (Jn 4:42).

Our time is certainly a time of pruning; a time to cut branches that no longer bear fruit. This is the time of repeated attempts to re-invent, or to put it better to re-vitalise our way of living; a time of trial and error and of drawing up plans for renewal only to then throw them away one after the other. And more decidedly it is a time of losses, a time that is apparently chaotic; our efforts are often inconclusive and fragmentary.

Will it still be a time of a new and transforming encounter with Christ? Will it be a time as though God were reborn in our hearts? This, I suggest, is a question which in the final analysis is important – the only question that really counts.


[1] ‘Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’. (Rom 12:2).