Words from Bishop Nulty at Evening Prayer for Religious in Ossory

“New wine, fresh skins”[1]

It’s a great joy for me to welcome all of you, religious of the Diocese, to St Kieran’s College Chapel for our celebration of Evening Prayer this November evening. Ten months ago we gathered in St. Mary’s Cathedral for another celebration of Evening Prayer. It was the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, World Day for Consecrated Life. Some hours earlier Archbishop Dermot had been installed as the new Archbishop of Dublin vacating the episcopal seat in Ossory – sede vacante. I spoke that evening about the importance of the religious tradition here in Ossory. For me it was then an academic knowledge, the fruit of research; ten months later I am witnessing at first hand the gift and blessing each one of you are to this ancient See.

A diocese of huge religious traditions. I immediately think of Edmund Ignatius Rice, a native of Westcourt, Callan, the founder of the Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers. I think of Brigid Clancy, a native of Durrow who would in the neighbouring Diocese of Ferns become the foundress of the St. John of God Sisters. I think of Margaret Aylward, a native of Mullinavat, foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Faith and of Bishop Daniel Delany, native of Paddock in Castletown, founder of the Brigidine Sisters and Patrician Brothers, with a huge presence in my own Kildare & Leighlin.

The short scripture reading chosen for this ceremony comes from Mark and it formed the theme for the guidelines published by the Holy See around consecrated life and its ongoing challenges since Vatican II. These guidelines were the fruit of much reflection on consecrated life, particularly during the year of Consecrated Life in 2015. One of the phrases Pope Francis uses and which is repeated in that document is “evangelical discernment”[2]. It is letting the Spirit speak. And we will hear it many times in discussions around the synod and what synodality might entail. Discerning, reflecting, praying – you religious are the masters of these crafts. 

You don’t need to be a connoisseur of fine wines to understand Mark’s text this evening. I remember when Blue Nun and Le Piat D’or were the only labels available. Thankfully our taste buds have developed somewhat since.  The wineskins parable is not unique to Mark. It is also found in Matthew[3] and Luke[4]. The wineskin referred to in scripture is an ancient container made from goat or sheep skin. They were used to transport or store wine.

So what might be wrong with old wineskins? Apparently sediment would always remain in the older wineskin, and when the new wine was added, it fermented and burst the skins. Maybe we are no different when someone might offer us a fresh glass for a different bottle of wine, again the sediment of the earlier wine might affect the aroma of the next glass. It’s the same principle around a fresh cup of tea. “I’ll throw it out, and make you a fresh drop”.

So what is the message for religious life this November evening? I think it’s always good to go back to your founders and foundresses. They were the leaders of their day. They educated the poor; they provided healthcare to the sick; they sheltered the homeless and they spoke for those without a voice. And sometimes they used words but often it was a language of personal integrity. Schools talk about ethos, the ethos of St. Kieran’s College was so evident at today’s heart-breaking funeral Mass and burial of Harry Byrne in Gowran. While schools talk about ethos, congregations talk about charisms. Each of you know your own, but don’t be afraid to return to that charism.

Religious have an understanding and appreciation of community that has sadly long been lost to the diocesan priesthood. We live on our own and that can at times lead to a silo mentality; many of you live community and for those who don’t your understanding of community is deeply engrained. I think of my visit to the Presentation Sisters here in the city, enjoying hospitality with the Capuchins and Dominican communities, visiting the Christian Brothers out at Callan and the Mercy Sisters also in Callan, and dropping in to see the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart both in Ferrybank. Your care of your older colleagues is particularly evident. I know that St. John of Gods are currently celebrating 150 years of their congregation, a congregation with roots deeply embedded in this college and across this diocese.

At recent meetings of priests a number have commented on how the priesthood they were ordained for is very different today. Another shared about a recent funeral of a young soccer coach. The parish had completely come to a standstill. This was a man who coached underage soccer, most likely on a Sunday morning. The grief of parents and children was palpable at that funeral. Was the coach doing what the priest or religious did in the past? Was there a sense that the priest may need to reinvent his purpose, his role, his place in the community. And I imagine it’s a question religious too may ask. What is our role, our mandate, our mission today? We know what we were founded for, but what are we now supposed to be doing?

New wine, fresh skins”[5] suggests to me there is still a lot of runway to go. It is you the religious who show us how to care for the aging and dying, don’t be silent as this country embarks soon on an emotionally charged campaign to legalise euthanasia, labelling it as ‘dying with dignity’. It is you the religious who give us the example of community, of meitheál, an example so much needed in a time when too many live alone. It is you the religious who teach us generosity, always conscious of the weaker student before ever department assessments were heard of. And finally it is you the religious who model for us holiness, mastering and sharing the finely honed crafts of discernment, reflection and prayer. As we continue these early steps of the Universal Synod and the Irish Synodal pathway, a good question for religious to focus on might be ‘What is God asking of the religious today?’ ‘Are there groups no longer ministered to?’ ‘Are there charisms we have yet to uncover?’ Absolutely “new wine, fresh skins!”[6]

[1] Mk.2:22

[2] Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, November 24, 2013, ¶ 154

[3] Mt.9:14-17

[4] Lk.5:33-39

[5] Mk.2:22

[6] ibid

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