On the first Sunday of Advent – which is tomorrow, so happy new year – the Year of Consecrated Life begins in the Church. Although in the Netherlands the presence of religious communities varies per area – from virtually none in the north, to numerous in the south – it is good to remember that they are there, often hidden from view, praying and working for all of us and for the Lord.
Bishop Frans Wiertz opened the Year in the Diocese of Roermond (which is home to some 900 religious) and spoke the following homily.
“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.” With these words Pope Francis opens his apostolic letter Evangelii Gaudium, which has already impressed so many people.
A central element of the words of the Pope is the message that it is Jesus Christ who can fill our hearts with joy. Not a temporary joy or cheap sense of fun, but deep joy which we shall feel through the personal encounter with Christ. The desire for that encounter is something that we may experience once more in the coming weeks. Advent is a time of expectation, a time of hope; a prophetic time too, which lets us look forward to the encounter with the Christ child. “But in my trust in you do not put me to shame,” the Psalm of this first Sunday of Advent tells us. In those words the hope and expectation already resound, which we also hear in the words of Pope Francis when he says that “with Christ joy is constantly born anew”. Every year we experience this expectant time again, in which we go from dark to light. Towards joy.
At the same time we may perhaps consider Advent to be a metaphor for everyone who dedicates his or her life to the service of the Kingdom of God: sisters, brothers, monks and nuns lead a life of Advent. A life in hopeful and prophetic expectation of the encounter with Christ. A life on the way to the light. And therefore by definition a life of joy.
“Where there are consecrated religious, there is joy,” Pope Francis says in the preparatory texts for the Year of Consecrated Life that we open today. With that he does not mean, of course, that every religious per definition leads a joyful life. Because in a sense a consecrated life is choosing a voluntary martyrdom. Your choice for life in a religious community is a radical one. You deny yourselves much: married life, a family, a career in society. In some parts of the world religious even live in very difficult circumstances. These are certainly not to be envious about.
And yet they choose to continue that life. Because they want to life according to the Gospel with the people around them, and so manifest something of the coming joy of the Kingdom of God. I am grateful that there are always people, also in our part of the world, who decide to dedicate their life completely to God.
Our society doesn’t always understand this. Perhaps it can’t be understood when you are not looking forward to God in your own life. When you can’t live from the hope of the coming joy of the encounter with Christ. When you can’t live in Advent. That is why I have great respect for those who do make that choice. Especially for young people who today – against all trends – choose a life that is completely dedicated to God.
In the Gospel of today we are called to be vigilant. This can be interpreted in all sorts of ways. In the context of this celebration I would say: Let us be vigilant that we do not lose the charism of the religious life in our diocese and beyond. The Church needs religious. Throughout the centuries the renewal and the renewed evangelical zest has always been initiated out of religious movements. This will also have to happen now. Whether they will be new movements, foreign religious establishing themselves among us, or perhaps a revival of classical orders and congregations, that is something the future will show.
But it is our task together to create such a climate in which religious life remains possible. A climate in which people can choose a life in Advent, in imitation of Christ and towards the encounter with Him. I invite you to be open to initiatives which allow the joy of the Gospel to be constantly born anew, as the Pope says.
A logo has been designed for the Year of Consecrated Life which includes three words: Gospel – prophecy – hope. Life the Gospel, be prophetic and keep for us the hope, so that many will experience the hope you carry in your hearts. Amen.
+ Frans Wiertz
Bishop of Roermond”