8 December 2018, Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady
Your Grace, Reverend Fathers, Brothers in St Benedict, Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“Today, the rod has sprung up out of the root of Jesse; today, Mary is conceived without sin; today, by her, the head of the ancient serpent is crushed”.
Such are the words which the Church sings on this day. In the very act of her conception, from the first moment of her existence, Mary crushes the head of the ancient serpent, that is to say, the devil. In the conception of the Virgin, Almighty God exerts His omnipotent power to ward off, by anticipation of the merits of the Redeemer, all stain of sin in that little babe in the womb of St Anne. Unlike her Son’s, her conception came about in a natural way, but God intervened in such a marvelous way to preserve her from the stain of sin which had tainted all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve from the first ages of humanity and had submerged our race into the mire of sin, violence and death. It is because the Most Holy Trinity took pity on our race that He decided to step in, to put an end to evil, to introduce into the world grace, light and love. And it all begins here. The Conception of the Virgin is the beginning of our salvation, for it is the first step towards the preparation of Mary for the ineffable grace of the Divine Maternity: this tiny baby girl is destined to become the Mother of God, the Mother of the Eternal Creator. She will one day offer to Him the hospitality of her own womb, and she will bring into a dark world the Eternal Light, Jesus Christ Our Lord.
What more appropriate day to celebrate the grace of monastic profession? Indeed, how else can we describe what is about to take place here today than by calling it a Divine intervention. Each one of you, my dear Brothers who are about to pronounce your first vows, has been the object, the direct beneficiary of a very special and unique Divine intervention. Had not God stepped into your life, you would not be here today. Had not the Lord of all things knocked at the door of your heart, you would never have had an inkling as to what monastic life is about.
God stepped into your lives. He came to you, amazingly, in the midst of a world in which one constantly sees and hears the deafening sound of dissipation and the sad spectacle of greediness, a world in which the attraction of the triple concupiscence, that is the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, becomes day by day more imperative. The world you were born into is a world that has lost touch with God, and having lost touch with God it has lost touch with itself; it is a world that is abandoned to its own devices, or rather, to its own vices, and therefore can only propose recipes for destruction. Only God, the True God, the Triune God, the God who manifested Himself in Jesus Christ, could have made His voice heard in the midst of such cacophony. And he has left his mark upon you.
With a promising career at his finger tips, the young Benedict of Norcia too was about to set foot into the world; he pulled back and went to hide himself in the solitude of Subiaco, there to pray, to weep for the sins of the world and do penance, awaiting the hour of God. Like him, you have decided to set out on a path that seems foolishness to the world. You could have everything in the world; pleasure and freedom, personal satisfaction and gratification of every kind was within your grasp. And yet, you chose to give it all up, to turn your back on the world and walk resolutely in the footsteps of Jesus.
Our world bears much ressemblance to the one Benedict was born into: general corruption of morals, troubled political scene, the menace of the collapse of the existing social order. We find ourselves at a turning point in history. In many ways perhaps, our world is even worse off than Benedict’s. The ills of modern man are such that the most fundamental truths of our nature are denied with impunity and sins against our God-given nature are protected by law. There is no longer any doubt now that the world has turned its back on God.
But the answer that Benedict found is the same one that you have come to understand through prayer: to save the world, we must renounce the world. We must first descend deep down into the purifying fires of solitude and self-denial; only then can we rise as new men transformed by divine grace and become part of the reconstruction of the future.
In a few moments, you will pronounce what are called the vows of religion. A vow is a sacred promise made to God; it is a privileged way of binding oneself to God. Just as a man and a woman who wish to found a family, vow to each other their lifelong fidelity, so you have chosen to vow yourselves to Jesus Christ. You do so using the very words of St Benedict, by vowing “stability, conversion of ways, and obedience”.
Stability reminds us that our promise to God is not something abstract, it is concrete, it is here and now in this particular community with these particular brothers and this particular superior. Such a vow is diametrically opposed to the virtual culture in which one is continually passing from one new fad to another, seeking endlessly and never finding, because always seeking the wrong things or the right things in the wrong place. Stability focuses the monk on God, here and now, in these circumstances, for humans are all too good at imagining another place, another person, another career where all will, so we persuade ourselves, be well. By the vow of stability, you reverse the maxim and affirm that the grass is always greenest right there where you are. God, to whom you entrust your life, knows your needs, and He provides for them from day to day, through the father of the monastery who henceforth looks after you as his sons. Never forget that the stability of the monk places you irrevocably in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. There you will always find peace, courage, patience, and every other virtue.
Conversion of ways, in the mind of St Benedict, is a vow which obliges the monk to tend to perfection by living the conventual life which includes poverty and chastity. You are giving up a lot — a wife, children, a career. Is it possible, some might ask? Once again we go back to the Divine intervention. When God took our flesh and walked this earth in the Person of Jesus Christ, having been born of a Virgin, He lived a virginal life, He took no wife, He begot no children. He thus initiated a paradigm shift — the only one possible in Christianity and which therefore excludes all others: henceforth among the children of men God chooses some to manifest to the world the primacy of eternity in which there is no more marrying and begetting, for all the elect are united with God in the eternal nuptials they were created for. By your vow of chastity, you will proclaim to the world the salutary truth it does not want to hear: chastity is possible, it is fulfilling, it is the true sign of Christ and His Church, the seal of God’s presence among us. We are not abandoned to our whims, we can rise above the most powerful attractions of our fallen nature, we can become saints. That is a tremendous act of faith. It affirms the power of the crucified and risen Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, to transform us. God has stepped into your lives, He has intervened, He has called, and you have heeded the summons.
The third Benedictine vow is that terrible one which causes modern man to tremble even more: obedience. How can a man give up his freedom? How can he accept to hand over his life and trust the judgment of another man? How can he allow another to decide for him? By now you know the answer to that question: God has stepped into our history. Jesus lived a life of obedience to Mary and Joseph, to His teachers and guides. His food was to do the will of His Eternal Father. But does not everyone have to obey? We must all live by rules, for otherwise life in common would be impossible. But religious obedience is something else. It is the act by which a man hands over his entire future, his entire life, trusting that God, who has called and who has given authority to those who stand in his stead, will not allow a truly humble soul to be led astray. Religious obedience can be hard. It was hard for Jesus, who, as St Paul tells us, “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”. But the cross, as we know, leads to the glory of the resurrection. God blesses the humble and obedient soul.
And so, my dear sons, as you take these first vows under the vigilance of the Church who has in her wisdom imposed a certain number of years before one can make them definitive, turn your gaze to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. For over a year now, you have worn her livery, the white habit which honours her virginity. You have begun to experience the sweetness of holding her hand in times of temptation and trial, you know that she will not fail you. Remain always under her immaculate mantle, hold tight to her hand, and tell her often to make sure that, even if at certain times you want to let go, she will not let you go. Like the child who foolishly wants to run away to danger, but is held back by the firm grip of its mother, so may she always hold you tight and close to Jesus. There, you will find perseverance and will tread the path that leads, through the cross to the glory of the resurrection. Such is my prayer for you on this day.
Your Grace, Archbishop Julian, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you once again publicly for allowing this monastic adventure in Tasmania to begin. May these young professed Benedictine monks be only the first of many who will serve the Lord in this archdiocese for decades, and even centuries to come. And may they contribute to making this island an oasis of peace, in which God is praised and souls are saved.
And all of you who are here present, and who perhaps are witnessing for the first time a ceremony of monastic vows, let yourselves be astonished at what is taking place here. God steps into our world today, and proves that He is still God. Yes, in the 21st century, at the ends of the earth, while the world pretends that God is dead, you are witnesses that He is truly alive, He has not forsaken our world, He chooses your own sons, your own brothers and friends, to be the living channels of His grace, that grace which is waiting to touch your own heart. As you go away today, never forget that. God is here, He loves us, He wants to save us. All we have to do is let ourselves be loved. Amen.