“Friend, Spouse and Lover: the Vocation of the Missionary of Charity”
Homily for Final Vows of Missionary of Charity Sisters
May 24, 2023
Readings: Isa 44:1-5; 1 Cor 1:22-31; Jn 15:9-17
For those who watch television, usually the commercials are not very memorable. But in my childhood, when I was more given to such things, there was a series of commercials that still stands out in my mind. They were not advertisements of the usual sort of thing, trying to entice you to purchase one thing or another. Rather, they were spiritual messages produced by a group of Paulist priests called “Telespot” messages. One in particular still clearly stands out in my memory after all of these years.
The camera opens up to the scene of a nun in a white habit bent over caring for an elderly sick man in what is apparently an impoverished African village. The voice of the narrator comes from behind the camera and engages the nun in conversation. He asks her questions about where she is and what she is doing, and other such like things. She explains that she is caring for this sick elderly man, who has no one else to care for him in this poor village. She explains the lack of resources and how needy the people are, and the squalid conditions in which they live. He asks her how long she will be there, and she responds that she is living with the people for as long as they need her. He then says, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” At that point the nun pauses, stands upright and turns and looks into the camera and says, “I wouldn’t, either.”
The nun’s response of three words sums up all of the wisdom of the Bible and the essence of our Lord’s teaching. It is the teaching of love, the only true joy to be found in life. It is a teaching to which Mother witnessed with her whole life, and that you, her spiritual daughters, continue to model for us, the entire people of God.
In this ritual Mass of religious profession, our dear sisters have responded, “Lord, you have called me.” This response has a twofold meaning: that to which the Lord has called them, i.e., the consecrated life in the Religious Institute of the Missionaries of Charity, their vocation. But it also signifies what he has called them – and all of us, his baptized faithful, for that matter. The words our Lord speaks to his apostles in his farewell discourse at the Last Supper he speaks to all of us: “I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” And notice the connection he makes here between friendship and love: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
It seems we have lost this deep sense of friendship in our society today, where the concept of “friend” is simply a matter of clicking on to someone’s Facebook page. To “friend” someone in such a way has nothing to do with love, and everything to do with the fleeting emotion of the moment. We show that we are friends with our Lord when, as he says, we do what he commands us: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Obedience to our Lord’s command naturally flows from being loved by him. That is, it is not our doing to make ourselves his friends, but we show that we are by loving one another as he has loved us; otherwise, we can lose that friendship with him.
It is only with such agape love that friendship and servanthood can be blended together. Yes, he says that he no longer calls us “slaves” (“servants”), but we should not take exclusion of the servant status too literally. Christians think and have always thought of themselves as servants. Indeed, the very fact that we address Jesus as “Lord” implies that we his servants, and Jesus himself tells us that he came not to be served but to serve. In New Testament thought the Christian remains a servant from the viewpoint of service that he should render, but from the viewpoint of intimacy with God he is more than a servant.
Is this not how intimate friendship works? Do not true and deep friends want to do everything possible to please each other? Such service to the other is not a burden but a source of joy. It goes beyond commandments or instructions; instructions are not necessary, for the lover who knows his beloved knows what pleases his beloved and it is his greatest joy to do everything possible to please.
In the case of the consecrated religious, this status of the servant friendship is taken to a whole deeper level in a singular way. This is a friendship that is emblematic of spousal love, and today our dear sisters become spouses of Christ. Indeed, they have just professed: “We ask that we may follow Christ our spouse and persevere in this religious community until death.”
Spousal love in the family of the Missionaries of Charity, until death do them part. The only way there is to obey our Lord’s command, learning that lesson over and over again, in big ways and, especially, in a myriad of small ways: there is “no greater love than … to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” How contrary this is to the world today, which seeks only immediate personal reward: “What am I going to get out of it?”
This is not spousal love. Spousal love is the love of mutual surrender. Our Lord can give us this commandment because he first fulfilled it himself, laying down his life for us, whom he calls his friends. Our beloved sisters will now lay down their lives for him, in a mutual surrender of agape love in which service is transformed into the love of friendship, opening the possibility for communion with God. This is what God has created us for, and the way of the world, which seeks all for oneself, deprives us of this joy that our Lord wants for us. Any wonder, then, why there is so much anger and depression in the world today?
My dear sisters, today you profess yourselves as spouses of Christ, his deepest, most intimate friends, in the community of the Missionaries of Charity. Your Mother has modeled so perfectly for us this way of friendship: the path of agape love which leads to an intimacy with God that is the mystery of joy in the midst of suffering, in the midst of serving those who suffer and are the poorest of the poor.
No sum of silver or gold could possibly quantify or come close to the joy it delivers, not even a million dollars. Dear sisters: such joy is infectious, and we are profoundly grateful to you for taking up this path today as you become our Lord’s deepest, most intimate friends, his spouses. May he grant you the grace to persevere in this call, that your consecration today to the life to which he has called you may manifest for all of us the meaning and desire of being his friends.
Photo by Michael Collopy.