Foundation Day Anniversary
On this 65th Anniversary of our monastery's foundation, we bring you the text of a homily by Fr. Joseph Mills, Passionist Oblate and a dear friend of our community.
Homily at the Mass celebrating 60 Years of the Passionist Nuns presence in the Owensboro Diocese - October 15, 2006
In 1946, a loaf of bread cost ten cents. In 1946, five Passionist Nuns moved to Owensboro from Scranton, Pennsylvania. In 1996, the Passionists in Owensboro moved from Benita Avenue to the outskirts of Whitesville. There was no time in 1996 to celebrate the fifty years of this community's presence in our diocese. Today we gather to celebrate sixty years in the life of this community. Needless to say, this is an important milestone in the life of this Passionist Community, and indeed, of the Diocese of Owensboro.
My own connection with the nuns starts with a lawnmower, or rather, with Bishop Cotton, our founding bishop, who told us seminarians to contact the Nuns and ask which night would be best for the seminarians to come and take care of their lawn at Benita Avenue. We would borrow a couple of pick-up trucks, load them with lawnmowers, brooms and such and gather there on Thursday evenings during the summer months. We kept the grounds manicured, and it helped to build community among us seminarians. Afterwards, we load up our truck, stop by and pick up a watermelon, and perhaps go to some pond or lake where we could enjoy a swim.
We never saw the nuns. Well, one night Father Calhoun recalls working with a mower that had broken down. As if by magic, the gate opened and one of the Sisters pushed a mower out to him. She immediately retreated behind the walls. Another time, one of the seminarians announced that he had spotted one of the nuns peeping out from behind one of the curtains, just for a second. It could have been Sister Mary Bernadette, the only member of the five surviving to this day. We began cutting the grass probably the year after their arrival in 1946. In 1953, God called my own sister, Ann, to join this community, another reason for my being here this afternoon in this spot. I thank God every day for her many years of dedication to this Passionist vocation. Her fidelity, prayers and love have inspired and supported me and many others over the years. Thank you, Sister Ann Miriam!
The Passionist Nuns were founded by St Paul of the Cross in 1771 in Italy. The nuns first came to this country in 1910. In the forties, the Passionist community at Scranton, PA had grown rather large and they felt called to help found another convent. Seeking some direction and guidance, Mother Mary Agnes Roche wrote to twenty-one dioceses across the country. Bishop Cotton quickly responded to her letter and invited them to come to Owensboro. In the letter he wrote back to Mother Mary Agnes, he asked "How did you know there even was a place like Owensboro?" I'd say that in these past years, you Sisters have helped put us on the map.
As background, Mother Mary Agnes Roche, the superior of the Scranton Convent, tells how she had pondered over and prayed about a future location, about a diocese that would invite them to come. The archives preserves the prayer she wrote to St Joseph. She records 'I spoke to him 'What am I to do?' They want me to make a new foundation and I don't know where to go or what to do. But, dear St Joseph, if you take over, I'll follow the counsel of those who have right to advise me." We here today thank God for the faith that Mother Mary Agnes had in St Joseph. St Joseph continues to provide for and protect this local Whitesville community.
In the late 1980's, the Benita Avenue home was becoming more and more crowded, and ever more surrounded by the noise and busyness of the city, making peace and quiet almost impossible. It was also part of the dream the sisters had to begin having retreats for women, but they had no more room. The Sisters met in council as a community and after much prayer and deliberation put to the vote the question of whether they should consider moving to a new location. When the final tally came in, all eighteen of them voted to support a move. Many on the outside would say "It's got to be the work of the Holy Spirit (and St Joseph) - that eighteen women could agree on it." When the word began to leak out, that the sisters were going to move the monastery, people then began to say "What on earth do these cloistered nuns know about property, new construction, and especially finances?"
Well, the Holy Spirit and St Joseph were also committed to the move. Divine providence would also touch many other hearts, lots of them, Catholics, and people from other Christian communities came forward with their time, their talents, and their financial commitments. Notice the many plaques, and the thick book of donors out in the lobby. These and many others besides pitched in and supported their move to this beautiful place in the country. The Sisters here speak of these "St Joseph's Helpers." They call this an on-going miracle of divine providence, as well as the faithful care of good St Joseph for whom this monastery is named. The deep faith of these sisters and the support of many friends along the way continues to sustain them.
Mother Catherine Marie says that this celebration is to thank the countless people - our bishops, priests, families, relatives, Oblates, benefactors and friends- who have made these 6o years possible for us and who continue to do so through their prayers, spiritual assistance and encouragement, as well as financial help and volunteer service. Gratitude to benefactors was always an important part of the life and mission of St Paul of the Cross, our founder, and we have inherited this commitment to love and pray for those who express their faith in the value of Passionist contemplative lie by helping us to continue it.
Sisters, all of us, on this side of the water channel, want to thank YOU for your life of dedication, love, and yes, your commitment to the Passion of Jesus Christ. We are so grateful that you have reached out to all of us. We feel privileged to be among your friends and supporters. We all need one another, don't we? This water channel represents the sacrament of baptism which does not separate us, but unites us.
As Passionists, you Sisters have vowed to God to make the Passion of Jesus Christ the center of your lives. You commit yourselves to celebrating the Passion and death of Jesus, not just as an historical event, something that happened in the past, but as a reality that is being lived out in the lives of all of us day after day, and yes, in the lives of men and women around the world who are today being "crucified" by the many injustices, abuses of all kinds, by the warring faction between nations, by hunger and starvation, by the exploitation of poor nations by the rich, by their deep-seated hunger for life, for hope, and truth and love.
Being cloistered means that you choose to live a life apart from the outside world, cut off from the hurly-burley of the secular, allowing yourself quality time to be alone with your God, with the Suffering Jesus and the Sorrowful Mother, Mary. This is critical to the living of this particular vocation. However, by your baptismal commitment, you are members of the whole Church, the Body of Christ. Whatever concerns the body of Christ concerns you.
One of my favorite quotations from the Second Vatican Council comes from the document "The Church in the World Today." It begins:
"The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, those too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the followers of Christ."
Years ago I would have hesitated to utter these words in a cloistered community, but I'm convinced that they fit in perfectly with this community and this occasion.
The Holy Father Pope John Paul II in his Letter on the Eucharist says that every Mass is offered on the altar of the world. When you Sisters gather at this altar, it is in the confines of this beautiful chapel, but the influence and the grace radiates out to all the world.
Father Barnabas Ahern, the Passionist Scripture scholar once said that "the cross of Christ looms large on every page of Christian history. It bathes the whole world with life and light and warmth. Every believer in the Crucified Son of God is aglow with the radiance of His glory on Calvary, and so St Paul gives us the assurances that "we all, with faces unveiled, are reflecting as in a mirror the glory of the Lord." (2Cor 3:18)
Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta prayed 'Lord, crack open my heart and let the whole world fall in."
From the office of Readings, on the feast of St Paul of the Cross, we hear him saying "Conceal yourselves in Jesus crucified, and hope for nothing except that all men be thoroughly converted to his will." You have been lured into these holy grounds. You have a mission to peer ever more deeply into heart of Jesus, yes, and of our Sorrowful Mother, Mary. You have a cloister to enclose you. But in some way, in the mind of Christ and the Church, your cloister is as wide as the world itself, the world that God's Son came to redeem and return to the Father. You are playing a vital role in God's plan.
The Passion of Jesus is something that is ongoing. The Gospel writers help us draw closer to the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, in Jerusalem and on Calvary. But the Gospels are theological reflections on what happened in the life and ministry of Jesus and what is continuing to happen in the life of the Church, way back in the first century and today in our twenty-first century. The Passion of Jesus is a NOW event, as well as THEN account. You Passionist Nuns keep us mindful of this fact in our faith lives. You help us to see a deeper meaning to our own lives, and in the lives of all neighbors in all the world, in the lives of all God's people, all 6.5 billion of them. Sisters, you've come to this place apart, "to conceal yourselves in Jesus crucified." You've entered ever so deeply into the heart of our Suffering Jesus. He suffers for all the human family.
Fr Don Senior, reminds us that through a study of the Passion of Jesus, we have the opportunity to probe the heart of his entire Gospel message. The first things the evangelists wrote were the account of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospels do not so much explain the death and resurrection as do the death and resurrection explain the gospels. The accounts of the Passion, death and resurrection of Jesus are a kind of window into all the scriptures, and yes, into the whole of our lives too.
The death and resurrection of Jesus explain the Gospels, why they were written, why they have been preserved and made available to us who live two thousand years after Jesus' time on earth. You Sisters keep before yourselves and all of us the profound meaning of suffering we all experience from time to time and you say to us 'Nothing of our own sufferings need ever be wasted, ever be lost." We here in Whitesville, KY today need this message. The entire world needs to know and be taught the deepest meaning of suffering as it is experienced anywhere in the world. No one wants to actively pursue suffering. Even Jesus asked the Father if this cup could be taken away from him. Sisters, part of your vocation is to continue to probe this mystery of human suffering, to share with all of us some of the lessons you've learned from your time at the foot of the Cross.
St Paul of the Cross was very familiar with the words of Hosea in our First Reading: "I will lure her into the desert and speak to her heart."
In our Gospel today, Jesus says "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies it produces much fruit..."
In giving this teaching about the grain of wheat, Jesus was really talking about himself. One spiritual writer says that in "God's mighty agriculture," the death of Jesus will feed whole nations with the bread of life." Like a single grain of wheat that dies, and then brings froth new life, Jesus will burst forth from the ground with enough power to feed all the hungry souls on earth. But before that grain of wheat can become fruitful, it must first die. It must, as it were, deny itself.
But who wants to die? There's something deep inside each of us which says "I don't want to die; I don't want to be buried in a dark earth, all alone, so cut off from the world. Is there any way I can get out of dying like this? In the vocation of all of us there are periods when we find ourselves buried, as it were, in the dark earth, alone and isolated. Jesus says "If you want to be my disciple, you must follow me. If I am that grain of wheat buried in the dark earth, so must you be prepared to be buried, to die, and then you will produce much fruit. You and I are in this together, Jesus says. In fact, my dying, your dying are intermingled. We die together, in order to produce much fruit."
These words of Jesus to us from this Gospel are not just for Passionists. These words are spoken for all of us, each one in our particular vocation: vowed religious, married, single, ordained, young and older, all of us.
When Pope John Paul II helped celebrate the 44th General Chapter of the Congregation of the Passion, in August of 2000, he wrote the following:
"Considering the good that you (Passionists) have done, how can I not ask you to continue being teachers of prayer and special witnesses to Christ crucified, drawing from the mystery of the Cross the strength to cultivate a passion for life, especially through dialogue and sharing in your communities? How can I not remind you that such a mission demands courage and joy facing the problems of religious life in every particular historical moment?"
Ten days ago, Mother Catherine Marie received an email from retired Passionist Bishop Paul M Boyle, who is participating in the General Chapter of the Passionists around the world, going on right now in Rome, in these October days. He notes that Pope Benedict XVI is encouraging the Passionist Nuns to take a realistic look at present-day needs and to make necessary modifications in their lifestyle and structures. Bishop Boyle concluded "Since your community has done this so well, I thought these words would be a comfort to all of you."
I can imagine St Paul of the Cross, in the communion of Saints, is standing nearby and winking at you Sisters "I'm proud of you, Sisters."
Again, back in 2000, Pope John Paul spoke in an affirming way about the efforts of the Passionists to share their charism with the laity. He notes that this "represents a sign of growing ecclesial vitality which should be welcomed and developed." A year before this, much to your credit, you Sisters initiated the Passionist Oblate program, which Tom and Debbie Carter had proposed to Mother Catherine Marie. Today the Oblates number 40 members. Thank you, Sisters, for sharing your charism with us in this way, for helping us also to keep the Passion of Jesus always in our hearts.
On Tuesday of this week, we will be celebrating the feast of St Ignatius of Antioch. Recall that St Ignatius, in the year 107 was being transported to Rome where he was facing execution in the teeth of the lions. He wrote to his people: Please, don't try to interfere. "I am God's wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ's pure bread."
In whatever way the Lord Jesus might touch us individually and as a community, we are now celebrating this incredible mystery of faith, the dying and the rising of Jesus Christ. We compress all the years that have gone before and all the years that lie ahead as we utter these words of Jesus "This is my body which is broken for you. This is the cup of my blood which is poured out for you."
I told you that a loaf of bread cost ten cents in 1946. What I meant to say: Becoming God's bread costs us lots more than ten cents."