37th General Chapter Opening Address. H. Monica Joseph RJM
My dear Sisters,
There is a story told of an upright man seeking the key to the meaning of life. A guru tells him to set out on a journey to a faraway village. In the heart of the village he will find three shops and there the wisdom he seeks will be revealed to him.
So the man sets out, crossing rivers and hills, until he finally reaches the place. He goes into each of the three shops but is disappointed to find that in one they sell only wire, in another, pieces of wood and in the third, odd pieces of metal. His heart downcast he walks on to find a place to rest.
As night falls and the moon lights up the sky, he hears the most beautiful music fill the air. What instrument can produce such sublime sounds, he wonders. He sets off in the direction of the music. He is totally amazed to discover that this celestial music comes from an instrument made from pieces of wood and metal and wire – the same material being sold in the three village shops!
In that instant, he understands that the key to the meaning of life lies in recognising what we have already been given and bringing all of it together in harmony.
This is the mission that we hold in our hands now, my dear sisters, for the next few weeks… to bring together all that we have been given – our charism, our sisters and lay friends, our priorities, the needs of the world – and make music!
Take a moment now to be aware of where you are, how you feel and the mission that has been entrusted to you… We are “gathered together in the name of the Lord” to make music… You have been sent here… You are called to be here… The Lord and your sisters believe that you have music in your heart…
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine all the sisters of your Province or Delegation sending you out on this mission… Look into their eyes… Listen to their words… Feel their embrace… Broaden your vision and see all the sisters of the entire Congregation sending you out on this mission… See their different faces and colours and styles… Now broaden your horizons even further again and consider all of the people touched by the charism of Jesus and Mary throughout the world, the immense Family of Jesus and Mary spread across all of the continents… They too have sent you here…
Imagine too all of the people crying out for their lives to be touched by our JM charism… You are here for them also… And finally, see God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, together with Mary, Saint Claudine, Blessed Dina, Saint Ignatius… sending you out and supporting you on this mission…
How do you feel as you sense yourself being entrusted with this mission by the sisters of the Congregation? How do you feel as you sense yourself being entrusted with this mission by people already touched and by those waiting to be touched by our charism? How do you feel as you sense yourself being entrusted with this mission by the Lord Himself? What is the music in your heart this morning?
Part 2 I have a strong sense of this being a very significant moment… A moment rich in promise… A moment potent with possibility… A moment full of grace… I am reminded of “the beginning”, the deep beginning, when the Spirit hovered over the chaos… I sense us beginning today and I sense the Spirit hovering over our “chaos”, our unknowingness, our apprehensions, our anxieties… And I trust that that same Spirit who transformed the chaos into beauty, who transformed Elizabeth’s sterility into fertility, who transformed Mary’s young womb into the source of Life, will transform us too and bring to bear fruits beyond our wildest dreams and imaginings!
In 2016 when we held our General Conference here, it coincided with the Year of Mercy. On that occasion we walked through the Holy Doors of Rome, and probably you did likewise in your own places. This morning, while seated here in silence, let us enter deeply into this experience… Let us become truly present to being here… Let us walk through the Holy Door of this our 37th General Chapter…
If each time zone in the world were 1 hour apart, there would be 24 time zones in the world. However, several time zones are only 30 or 45 minutes apart and so the total number of different local times currently in use throughout the world is 37! 37 times in our 200 year history, Religious of Jesus and Mary capitulars have gathered “in the name of the Lord” to form the “supreme legislative authority” representing “the whole Congregation”. One time zone for every General Chapter that has been held! And we are the 37th! What time is it in our Congregation? What time is it in our world? What are the signs of our time that we are called to reflect on and respond to? What remains with you since your time in Tangier, or Port-au-Prince or Beirut?
Part 3 The theme chosen for our 37th General Chapter, Journeying in Hope as One Apostolic Family, is rich in mission and in meaning. Throughout the past year, with the help of the spiritual material provided to us, we have gradually gone deeper and deeper into the implications and invitation of this theme accompanied in a special way by Mary and Elizabeth.
This was done perhaps in a general way, through the lens of the Visitation but this morning, we stand on the threshold of our General Chapter, just as Mary stood on the threshold of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s house. It was there, on the threshold, that Mary was greeted and it was there that both women felt the power of the Spirit pulse through their bodies. Let us very consciously therefore sense ourselves standing on the threshold of this sacred event, our 37th General Chapter… Let us listen to the words of the theme as being words of greeting. And let us wonder, like Mary, what these words might mean for us…. So that like her, our hearts and minds, our bodies and spirits may be prepared to receive and bring to birth in new ways the seed of our charism.
Is there anything in particular that stays with me from the Spiritual Preparation? What might keep me on the threshold of this experience and prevent me from entering fully into it?
2. JOURNEYING Journeying is a common and apt metaphor for life’s path. We can recall with gratitude the bicentenary theme: Journeying with Claudine – a woman of faith, forgiveness and communion. So rich an image is it that we decided to continue this thread of journey through into our General Chapter.
And so I ask you: How was your journey? And you can interpret my question on many levels… How was your outer journey to Rome this weekend? How was your inner journey since being elected a capitular? How has your journey as a JM been over the past six years in your heart, in your community, in your Province or Delegation, in our Congregation?
“How was your journey?” we often enquire when we greet someone who has travelled a long distance to see us. We ask because we too have travelled and made journeys and we know that journeys are oftentimes exciting adventures filled with new people, places and experiences. We also know that at times journeys can be daunting, difficult and even dangerous.
When you are travelling to a place where you’ve never been, there is often a measure of uncertainty and anxiety as you make your way. But then, what joy when you arrive and as you look into a sea of unfamiliar faces, you suddenly see a familiar one! You see that someone is watching out for you, someone is waving to you, someone is waiting for you! And instantly your anxiety disappears and you open up your sense to new sights and sounds, new realities and relationships, new cultures and questions. Perhaps you experienced this in Tangier, or Port-au-Prince, or Beirut.
This was one step on our journey of preparation for Rome: to go first to the peripheries, to the margins, to fragile areas… How was your journey?
Although we took time in Morocco, the Middle East, and Haiti to begin to address Chapter agenda items, the deeper aim of these gatherings was to engage with one another there, in those places, listening to unfamiliar voices, looking at new realities, moving out of our comfort zones. The journey to the margins helps us to see the centre from a new place. Did you? And as a result of our journey to the peripheries, did you have to do some readjustments? Did you relocate the centre? (Mark Oakley, in his book, The Collage of God, for this reflection on the centre/margins).
A further step on our journey of preparation for Rome is the one that has taken six years. Since 2013, as individuals, as communities, as Provinces and Delegations, as a Congregation we have been on a journey – a rather unique one that included milestones such as the Bicentenary, the Global Apostolic Plan and the Economic Study of the Congregation.
In your Province Reports all of you have taken time and care to answer the question: “How was that journey?” As we enter into our reflections and deliberations here in Rome, let us pay careful attention to the responses to this question that each of you has given. The experiences you recount are the sites of God’s work in us over this time; the ground of God’s grace; the chaos the Spirit has hovered over and touched. These experiences represent the clay of our One Apostolic Body being fashioned and formed in the Lord’s loving hands.
We want to dig deep into that soil, turn up what is new and rich and plant the seeds of our future. We are not looking to measure success or failure, to duplicate one and avoid the other. We are looking for evidence of the presence and activity of the One who has promised to be with us. These are the arrows that will point us on the way for the next six years. The conviction of that presence and activity is music to our ears, “a light for our path.”
God, for us as apostolic religious, according to the American Jesuit, Fr. Joseph Tetlow, is the Way. In the midst of ever-changing situations, pressing needs and limited resources, the question in John’s Gospel resonates within us: “Lord, how can we know the way?” But we take hope from the answer, “I am the Way.”
3. HOPE I love what Pope Francis says: “The future has a name and the name is Hope. Feeling hopeful does not mean to be optimistically naïve and ignore the tragedy humanity is facing. Hope is the virtue of a heart that doesn’t lock itself into darkness, that doesn’t dwell on the past, does not simply get by in the present, but is able to see a tomorrow. Hope is the door that opens onto the future”.
200 years lived out in faith and hope have come and gone, and now we are at another milestone in our JM history. Sr. Carol Zinn says that Religious Life is a LIFE. That which has life follows a pattern, a natural rhythm of birth, growth, stability and then death. As Christians we believe in the Paschal mystery. We know that death is not an end in itself, but rather a way into a new life.
As a Congregation we have passed through these stages: being born on 5th October 1818; growing, through the rapid expansion of the Congregation in the subsequent 50 to 100 years; and now we are in a different stage – stability for some, decline for others. In hindsight we see that when we did not adapt to the vagaries of climate and culture, death ensued. Adaptability to changing times and circumstances is hence crucial to life, birthing new life.
But we look in hope for signs of new life. We have before us a beautiful image that fits perfectly with our journeying theme, and also embodies the hope-filled spirit in which we want to travel: “Mary set out….” It is her cousin Elizabeth who tells us why Mary is our model for hope: “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!” (Luke 1:45). We know that Mary questioned the things spoken to her: “How can this be?” and we know that the answer to her question included the assertion: “Nothing is impossible with God.” This is what fuels our hope.
Throughout her life, right up to the foot of the Cross, Mary clung to this hope-filled promise made to her in her youth. Her Magnificat is a celebration of the hope generated by that belief. It is a rugged and muscular hope that goes beyond the boundaries of her personal experience and reaches out into the world. It affirms that what God wants for the world, God will surely bring about. Mary sings hope for the poor, the lowly, and the hungry, who will be fed and raised up and honoured. She sings hope for all humankind, because “God remembers the promise of mercy”.
4. ONE APOSTOLIC FAMILY We are sent into the world as One Apostolic Family, with the mission of helping to bring about the vision of Mary’s song. It is together, in communion as RJMs, with our lay associates, with others, with the entire human and cosmic world, that we are seeking to strengthen and deepen, to bring fire to our charism as one family sharing a common home.
We needed some common guidelines/a common roadmap for our journey and our last General Chapter offered us tools for just that. The 3 Priorities gave a common focus and direction to our mission. In every part of the Congregation, these priorities were received and taken up with enthusiasm. They were lived out at personal and community levels as well as in our various institutions.
The commitment to forgiveness, reconciliation and healing, our first Priority, is a commitment to let nothing permanently rupture our communion with one another. Over the past six years we have felt more deeply the relevance and challenge of this Priority. Certainly, we are shaped and moulded by the people and circumstances of our lives, just as Claudine was. Our world mirrors hers in its compelling need for reconciliation and healing, and we often feel powerless in face of that need.
Through our 2nd Priority, we called on one another to keep our gaze focused outward. Religious of Jesus and Mary look out on five different continents; we see different faces and landscapes, but we committed ourselves to a common focus: to Look with the Eyes of Claudine. We know that the eyes of Claudine were drawn to “the poorest, the weakest, the most deprived.” We know that the charism of Claudine empowers us to respond to what we see. (C. 4)
Finally, our 3rd Priority made more explicit our commitment to Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. Initiatives in these areas were shared via websites, Facebook, Skype and Zoom.
5. CONCLUSION My dear sisters, there are many people, like the man whose story we began with, searching for meaning in their lives today… We can reach out to them with the pieces of wood and wire and metal that we have… We have our charism, dedicated sisters and lay friends, the 3 Priorities, the needs of the world, the Holy Spirit… These are the materials that we hold in our hands and that we can use to create beautiful music that gives people a sense of meaning, a sense of direction, a sense of the Lord…
I have already said it – this is the mission that we hold in our hands now, my dear sisters, for the next few weeks… to make music! While remaining faithful to our roots, we are challenged to be creative with our wings! Dvorak composed the New World Symphony. We can do the same! We can create a new symphony with our charism for today’s world. Each one of us here today is responsible for the creation of this new symphony. Responsible (response-able) – able to respond, asked to respond, trusted to respond… Each one of us here today is responsible for making beautiful music by listening, sharing and praying; by discerning, speaking the truth and letting go; by taking risks, embracing ambiguity and making decisions.
Each one of us here today is committed to the creation of this new symphony. Committed from the Latin “committere”: com means “with”, “mittere” is to send. We are sent with, we are sent together to form relationships across diversity.
(Janet Mock, CSJ, Common Journey Through Diverse Paths: Developing Right Relationships in Conflictual Situations; and Pat Farrell, OSF, A Tapestry of Contrasting Colors: Living with Polarization, Differences, and Impasse. Both are found in However Long the Night: Making Meaning in a Time of Crisis, edited by Annmarie Sanders, IHM (LCWR: 2018).
As we begin our time together here, we are forming a community of study, of reflection, of decision- making – all important components of our common task, the commitment to communion is at the heart of what we are doing. By saying that, I don’t mean that we are to avoid disagreements or to shy away from conflict. We are sent to move through difference and divergence, in order to find a common ground.
Therefore, we are committed to listening to one another, so that my entire reason for listening is to understand the other person, to hear her on her own grounds, to let her words mean what they mean to her, not what they mean to me.
We are committed to speaking, not in order to convince or impose, but to give another person her best chance for understanding me.
We are committed to staying with ambiguity, to resting in the grey areas, to not seeing clearly immediately, to keeping the conversation open, to seeking a way forward together.
Ultimately, we are committed to discernment, to listening out for the music God dreams for our charism for today’s world. It is so easy for us to fall into arrogance and righteousness; to stubbornly maintain a myopic perspective. Let us rather be aware of and attentive to the movement of graces received and graces refused among us. If we are genuinely seeking the movements of grace, then, as the hymn proclaims, “Grace will lead us home.” Amazing Grace [from the hymn, Amazing Grace.]
Our Constitutions tell us that we are “gathered together in the name of the Lord”. We are invited therefore to come with open hearts, minds and wills; to let go of prejudices, judgements and fears; to listen to the music of He who promises to be with us.
When we were in Tangier and Beirut, steeped in Arabic culture, we noticed the beautiful mosaics that surrounded us. As I consider us as a group, as a unique community gathered to make music together, I am reminded of those magnificent mosaics. We are a mosaic of faces, a mosaic of hearts, a mosaic representing the richness and diversity of the Congregation of the Religious of Jesus and Mary journeying in hope as one apostolic family today.
The diversity of each individual piece, the particular tone or shape, the unique shape or texture is what gives splendour and beauty to the mosaic. Just as each note, each chord, each silence even, gives harmony and beauty to a piece of music.
My dear sisters let us make music, let us create a new symphony, let us sing aloud knowing that the Lord is with us.
That is the promise: He is in our midst.
His presence is “The Way” for our Journey. His presence is the ground of our Hope. His presence will bind us together as One Apostolic Body and send us forth. As women of faith, like Mary, let us believe His promise.
Let us take a moment of silence, to invite the Spirit into our hearts, to be aware of Mary our Mother and our dear St. Claudine, Journeying with us in Hope as One Apostolic Family. Amen.
PRAISED FOREVER BE JESUS AND MARY