COMMEMORATION OF A FOUNDATION
THE 150th ANNIVERSARY OF THE FOUNDATION OF HOLY FAMILY CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE
There is nothing extraordinary about celebrating an anniversary … even if it is the 150th anniversary of a group. What is important is where this celebration leads us and where it will lead the contemplative sisters and their friends.
We often celebrate anniversaries – in our families, at school, in our communities. It is a time for sharing a meal together, a time when the people who are celebrating become the centre or focus. It is a time for present giving, for taking photographs or films that will become souvenirs of the event.
Businesses often celebrate their anniversaries. Usually the aim is the promotion of the commercial interests of the business. The clients are invited to the party and business is promoted!
Countries also celebrate their anniversaries. They celebrate a founding event (14th July), saving or liberating events (11th November, 8th June). All citizens are called to the celebration. These anniversaries are the “common memory” and their aim is to unite the nation in the forging of a common identity.
Today, as we gather together for this celebration, we are going to remember the story that has shaped the identity of the Holy Family Contemplative group such as we know it today.
It is also the story of a man: Pierre Bienvenu Noailles (1793-1861); the story of numerous women, many of them unknown to us, solitary sisters and “superiors” who were not solitary sisters but who were called to make decisions in the evolution of this “branch” of the great Holy Family tree. By sharing the story of our Contemplative Sisters, we will come to know them better and we will understand their lives a bit better, at least that is what I hope…
“Remember”: this injunction was often addressed to the Hebrew people reminding them never to forget their identity as the chosen people. “Do this in memory of me” said Jesus at the last supper – a reminder to us to deepen more and more our identity as Church.
TO COMMEMORATE A FOUNDATION IS TO GO BACK TO A “FOUNDING EVENT”
The word “event” could mislead us if we take it literally – something that happened in a determined place at a determined time. A “founding event” is rooted in a series of events. Even more. This “event” is the fruit of a quest for the will of God. Therefore there is a call and a response, not only on the part of a single person, Pierre Bienvenu Noailles, but also on the part of those who responded to the inner call of the Lord and who formed the first community of Solitary Sisters.
The adventure begins long before 1859. Without dwelling too long on this part, let us return to 1837 and let us listen to what Pierre Bienvenu Noailles wrote to the Vicar General of Chalons-sur-Marne (today called Chalons-en-Champagne).
You spoke to me of a contemplative congregation. That is what our Association lacks. While many of the members of the Society are devoted to exterior works, it would be good if we could count among them some angelic souls, completely devoted to solitude who by their prayers would call down from Heaven, abundant blessings on the works of the Association.
In 1839, Mother Chantal Machet, who not only knew of the Founder’s wish, but also desired this form of life for herself, wrote:
Found the first house of the Solitaries of the Holy Family, Good Father, and you will see what the good Lord will do for all the other works.
It was not until 1856 that the Founder made a decision. We can guess how the Spirit worked during these long years, the humble seeking of God’s will through events, the trusting waiting of hearts and spirits. A founding event does not depend only on human will.
In April 1856, the General Administration returned to Bordeaux. The Solitude became “free”. This was the “trigger”. Pierre Bienvenu Noailles wrote to his Council:
I intend to found a small group of Solitary Sisters. To begin this work, I have chosen those who have shown an attraction for a life different from the ordinary and who have the necessary qualities for this experiment… and to Mother Bonnat: I am waiting for you to help me to found the Solitaries to complete the work that still keeps me here on earth.
Two years later, he presented his work to the Ecclesiastical Authorities, asking for the Church’s blessing, anxious to have the seal of approval on a work which was born in secret.
In June 1859 the first community of the Solitaries came into being. There were five of them residing in this place where we are today. These Sisters are still with us today. We remember them; they are present to us because we owe to them the presence of our Contemplative Sisters today.
Father Noailles wrote to Cardinal Donnat, the Archbishop of Bordeaux:
This group is the indispensable complement of all the works of the Associationand again: It is the latest development given to the Holy Family and which its organisation has, for a long time, called for.
This affirmed the place of this new branch in the Association.
And he outlined this place to the Sisters in the rules that he gave them:
Sisters of the Holy family should above all, strive to imitate the lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the mission of Nazareth: a life hidden in God through recollection and prayer, a life of love and immolation through the practice of obedience, a life of self-renunciation and of zeal full of ardour for the salvation of the neighbour.
Situated in the midst of the works of the Association like angels of prayer, they never cease praying for all the graces and blessings that are necessary for the sisters employed in the active life and for the missions that have been entrusted to them.
The Solitary Sisters will, in their liturgical offices, give particular importance to the perpetual adoration of Our Lord in the Holy Sacrament of the altar. This Divine Master has miraculously blessed our Association since its birth … therefore we owe to him perpetual acts of thanksgiving for such a great favour and continual supplications for all the spiritual helps needed in our different works. It is therefore natural that some of our Associates should represent the whole Family in the accomplishment of this double duty and that is the mission entrusted to the Solitary Sister
1837-1859: The project is born; the seed is sown; the founding event takes place … a story begins.
TO COMMEMORATE IS TO RECALL A STORY IN ORDER TO MAKE THE PRESENT PART OF IT.
How can one recall 150 years in such a short space of time? And yet the Sisters who have gone before us deserve to be remembered, to be present in our minds and hearts, as well as the different “superiors” who guided the new Work and all the other superiors who accompanied the community for many years. The Founder’s death occurred not long after this last foundation.
To facilitate my task, I will divide these 150 years into 4 stages:
I think that it is important to draw attention to the political context: the war of 1870, the fall of the Empire, the establishment of the 3rd Republic. Although it was not particularly significant for the life of the community, the community was not totally unaffected by it. But it is clear that the evolution of the community was affected by “interior” needs.
On 8th December 1860, a property was found at Talence, and it was purchased. The Good Father called it Saint-Pierre and drew up the plans of a monastery that was to be built according to the needs of the life of the Solitary Sisters. The move took place in 1861 and the Sisters were installed in the property such as it was – a first move!
The reports from 1863 speak of two important concerns:
The work of the Solitaries has had little development. Since moving to Talence, there has only been one suitable postulant
Another concern was that of the cloister. This seemed to be in apparent contradiction with the secular character of the Association; even more, there was a fear of conflicts with the Bishops of the area who normally had jurisdiction over enclosed convents.
A solution was proposed:
The Sisters would observe the cloister in their hearts; the work proper to the Solitary Sisters was that of managing a retreat house.
The Good Father had envisaged that the Solitaries would offer to the Sisters of the Family and to other ladies who so desired, a place of peace and prayer.
In 1870 this situation gave rise to a burning question: should the Solitary Sisters be considered as a distinct congregation or a retreat house? The response was clearly given: We must preserve the thinking of the Founder in its entirety – it was to be a congregation entirely apart, founded like the other congregations before them and having their own life. This would not prevent the Sisters from having a “retreat house” as part of their aim. In January 1871, this led to some adaptations being made to the first rules.
While waiting for the creation of this “retreat house”, the Solitary Sisters were given the mission of caring for the sick, which meant that sick sisters and nurses were sent to Saint-Pierre. Did they have a contemplative vocation?
We note too that when the Republic was proclaimed, the community took refuge in Rue du Mirail (only a two week stay) and that on returning to Saint-Pierre, they took up the work of caring for the war- wounded in a field hospital in the district.
During all of this, the essential elements remained: a simple life like that of Nazareth, thanksgiving, perpetual adoration (this continued even during their two- months stay in Rue du Mirail), intercession, which one can guess was not just centred on the Family.
The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th saw the beginning of a period marked by industrialisation with all its consequences: education for all, separation of Church and State, the crisis of modernism, a new war. And the Sisters experienced the disappearance of the Good Father’s closest collaborators – the founding Sisters.
The property of Talence was vast but the living spaces were inadequate since they were shared with the Sisters of St Martha; so the place was not suitable for either community.
The rules of 1851 defined the aim of the work as thanksgiving for the Miraculous Benediction accorded to the Holy Family and perpetual prayer for the Superiors and members of the Holy Family. And yet this “latest born” branch did not seem to be very well understood by the members of the Branch of Mary which is why, in 1874, Mother Couteau, then Superior, wrote the following:
Our dear Sisters who are in the active life think perhaps that we have a lot of leisure; that is not the case. Our occupations are multiple and varied. In the intervals between exercises of piety, our Sisters are busy, according to their aptitudes, with all possible kinds of manual work: Church vestments, embroidery, and artificial flowers … But their main occupation is prayer, Divine Office, perpetual adoration day and night.
The reports of 1884, 1888, 1890, 1896 took up the questions that had already been asked and which became recurrent: the development of the work, the location, the personnel…There was even the thought of restricting the Solitaries to one single community. However the Founder’s wish remained firm – that the Solitaries should be a Work like the others and have its own development.
It was also stated that the unsuitable location and the lack of formed personnel did not favour the setting up of a retreat house.
The decision was then taken to build a monastery following the plans sketched out by Pierre Bienvenu Noailles: the house should be suited both to the life of the community and to the work of retreats. On the 24th June 1899 the blessing of the foundation stone took place.
The Solitaries left Saint-Pierre and settled in the villa of Suzon. It was the third move in three years. They would return to a brand new monastery in 1902.
Other important changes were to await them. The beginning of the 20th century was a particularly difficult one for the Church in France and for religious orders. There was the secularisation of the Sisters of Conception, the closing of numerous houses, the moving of the General house to the Spanish border, the confiscation of property. This series of events had important consequences for this new branch which had not yet established itself.
This was a turning point for the work of the Founder. It is impossible here to go back over the story that these difficulties led to.
The Holy Family was recognised as a Religious Institute and therefore the Constitutions had to be changed. These were approved on the 18th December 1903. I here quote, a little at length; Mother Nativity Lionnet’s circular of 24th December where she presented the new Constitutions:
I use the word ‘new’ on purpose, my dear daughters, in order to help you understand that, if, as each one of you does, we wish to keep the Founder’s work intact in all its integrity, then we must resign ourselves to make some changes without which the Constitutions would not receive the approval of the Church. What is more, the Good Father himself would have joyfully accepted these changes
I am happy to point this out to you; if these modifications introduce some inevitable changes into the legislation of the Holy Family, they will not alter in any way the fundamental spirit of our Institute. The Branches have been reduced to three. Therefore, the Solitaries are no longer a separate Branch.
In January 1904, the Good Mother informed the Solitaries of the new situation.
The Solitaries are not officially mentioned in the Constitutions. The Holy See has wished them to be, through their prayers, the soul of the Institute; light for those who direct it, support and strength for those who work in it, life-giving warmth drawn from the heart of Jesus before whom they spend their lives – a life and warmth which they communicate to all. That is why the Holy See believes that they should, like the General Government, be separated from all the Branches and should belong to all through the powerful collaboration of prayer and sacrifice.
Certainly this new situation resolved the difficulties encountered with regard to enclosure, exterior work, and recruitment of vocations…
However the question of personnel returned in the report of the General Chapter of 1911, concerning the period 1905 – 1911.
The personnel are not meeting the needs of the work, which though not active, nevertheless requires subjects to achieve its end.
Ensuring perpetual adoration and the tasks required by community life needed personnel!
A succession of events was then to affect the life of the community. The “big house” was deemed to be too small. In fact on 8th March 1904, the Sisters who were living at the Solitude arrived at Saint-Pierre. The fact that they were no longer there saved the property from possible confiscation – a threat that faced religious congregations.
Royaumont (L’Ile-de-France), where the general novitiate was located was confiscated. The novitiate was moved to Belgium … but the 1914 war meant that it had to be transferred to Woodford in England. From there it seemed best to transfer it provisionally to Saint-Pierre. On the 11th November 1914, novices and postulants arrived … and in February 1915, a Red-Cross field hospital took over part of the property.
Sisters organized their lives as best as they could but it was clear that the situation could not remain as it was. In 1920, the question was asked: To where should the novitiate be moved? The question rapidly became changed to: should a new property called Sainte-Helene be bought so as to leave the whole house of Saint-Pierre to the novices and postulants?
On the 14th June 1920, a group of Solitary Sisters left for Sainte-Helene; the group of older Sisters later joined them
A new stage … a fourth move. The Sisters were to become very fond of the place but they knew that what gave meaning to their lives, what was at the heart of their lives, was God’s call and their response in a simple, daily obedience to the events of everyday life.
Since 1910, the vocation of the Solitary Sisters has been recognised as such; their particular directory expresses it as follows:
There are souls that the Lord, through love of him, calls in a more special way to live solitude and penance…
This life was to be a witness for all Christians and had its place in the heart of the Holy Family. Their mission was three-fold: a mission of prayer, reparation and thanksgiving.
This is the first time we see the word reparation appear. It is easy to understand why it appears in the difficult context that we have evoked. The directory adds:
The Contemplative Sisters of the Holy Family add to the triple aim of their Institute, the mission of opening their house to pious people who wish to make a retreat of several days and offer to them means of following these holy exercises.
This was the life rhythm that the Sisters followed for 10 years, helped by their personal and community fidelity to the means available to them to live their lives even in new premises that had still not been adapted for them.
Did the Sisters have any idea as to when this temporary arrangement would end? We now know that it would last for 46 years and that they would never see the “monastery” that was to be built for them according to the plans of the Founder.
During this half century of political, social and church events, it was what happened within the community that affected them most. Social conflicts had no direct effect on the Sisters although we are sure that these would have figured very much in their prayers of intercession.
This period began with a joyful event. On the occasion of the centenary of the Miraculous Benediction of the 3rd February, Cardinal Andrieu authorized: the Solitary Sisters of the Holy Family to have exposition so that their prayers of adoration, would take place before the Blessed Sacrament exposed rather than before the tabernacle as was the case before then . The only condition was that: two sisters will assure adoration for the greater part of the day.
On the 23rd June 1922, Mother Gonzague de Marie shared this happy news with the whole Congregation:
A new favour has been given to us on the occasion of this centenary – a favour which will benefit the whole family. For me it is a great consolation that we share in this. You know the mission of our dear Solitary Sisters, founded by our Good Father to be a living thanksgiving for the miracle that we are now celebrating: as well as offering thanks, our Sisters offer to God their prayers of intercession for all the members of the same Institute. They, in solidarity with sisters in the active life, offer their prayers and sacrifices to make up for our shortcomings.
Daily exposition began from 5th March 1922. This permanent presence before the Blessed Sacrament throughout the day was to “direct” the life of the community.
The question of personnel was again raised. Perpetual adoration and the different tasks to be done in the community required a certain number of Sisters. In 1934 there were 28 Sisters in the community, 5 of whom were lay sisters.
In 1939, war broke out. In December 1939, the German army occupied Bordeaux. The community, which was international, was directly affected. Ten Polish Sisters had to leave Bordeaux: a Canadian Sister was sent to the camp at Besançon; only two Irish Sisters were permitted to remain because of their age and infirmity. The community was reduced to 12 Sisters!
Between 1942 and 1944, 4 Sisters joined the community. Perpetual adoration was not interrupted. During the day a single Sister remained in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Some months before the end of the war, adoration was interrupted between 3 and 5 in the morning.
At the end of the war, some Sisters who had had to leave were able to return. There were some new vocations. Between 1945 and 1948 there were 25 Sisters in the community, 5 of whom were lay sisters.
Since the arrival of the Sisters in Sainte-Helene in 1921, a community room had been set aside to be used as a chapel. So the Sisters were filled with joy when, in 1949, on the occasion of the Good Mother Marie Raphael’s golden jubilee, they read that an appeal had been made to the generosity of communities:
to give to Jesus in the Eucharist a more fitting dwelling and to our\ dear Solitary Sisters, a setting that would be more adapted to their mission of adoration and reparation.
The appeal was heard and on the 13th May there was the blessing of the first stone of the chapel which would be opened on the 12th September 1952.
This was a great consolation for the community which was now reduced to 19 members on account of the Sisters’ health problems. And still the same tasks had to be done – work, prayer, community life, perpetual adoration. In the case of adoration some night hours had to be suspended because of smaller numbers.
The General Chapter of 1951, with the aim of facilitating a deeper prayer life made some modifications to the Directory – and there were also changes in some customs and practices. With all the Sisters, the Solitaries entered into this evolution. However there were no changes for them with regard to the use of the radio, contact with their families and making their profession in public. These kinds of changes did not seem to be compatible with the cloistered life.
On the other hand, the movement within the Church and which was to lead to Vatican II was making itself felt. There was a movement to place more emphasis on the reading of Scripture, to reform the liturgy; there was a deepening of the meaning of work and greater importance was given to the need for information. A new “spirit” was blowing. But external changes had no meaning unless rooted in the deepening of the truth of one’s own vocation.
In the 1957 Chapter, the Branches were suppressed and the Congregation was organized into Provinces. The Solitaries found their place in the Constitutions.
Furthermore, the Sisters of the Holy Family who wish for a contemplative life, will, with the authorization of the Superior General, be able to realise their desire by consecrating themselves, in the solitude of the cloister, to prayer and self-sacrifice. Thus they will draw down abundant graces on the Church and the apostolic works of the Congregation.
At this same Chapter, the question of founding other communities of Contemplative Sisters outside France was raised. This was something to be fervently desired as we can see from the circular letter of 29th June 1958:
May the Lord give us a greater number of vocations so that we can form other cloistered communities in the Congregation. These fervent centres, devoted to prayer and thanksgiving, for the glory of God and the good of holy Church will give spiritual strength to those who struggle for charity and devotion.
And again we read in the minutes of the Chapter:
May this be done wherever it is possible, as there is no need to have one single house for all the Solitaries. These houses need not necessarily be located in Bordeaux.
There was only one condition: that there should be a sufficient number of sisters to form a community.
This desire was not realised … the chapter came back to the subject of closed retreats… here nothing was done either.
The Solitaries welcomed all these declarations with joy. However what was important for the community was their daily life, which was marked by different changes.
There was a concern that the Solitaries should participate in the life of the Congregation while at the same time safeguarding the reality of the cloister. As an exception the cloister was opened for the celebration of the centenary of 1959; the Solitary Sisters took part in the celebrations marking the centenary of the death of the Founder at the general house in 1961.
In Sainte-Helene, the Solitaries received Sisters who wished to make their retreat and who wished to benefit from the atmosphere of silence and recollection. There was no question of these sisters sharing the life of the Solitaries. There was a concern also that the Solitaries should participate in life outside the cloister through listening to the news; that they should attend conferences and formation sessions so as to be more in tune with the life of the Church. There was also the need for remunerative work, which meant organizing perpetual adoration. The community was also called upon to study consecrated life in preparation for the General Chapter and to study their own life with a view to the revision of their particular Directory.
The 1963 Chapter planned the transfer of the community to the Solitude. This was for a number of reasons: the desire to see the Solitaries return to their place of origin, the concern to avoid the costs of the upkeep of a house and providing the Sisters with the possibility of taking part in retreat work.
On the 29th April 1964, the General Council decided that the transfer should take place as soon as the work to equip the place was done. However this work was still not completed on the arrival of the Sisters on the 29th October 1966.
I am recalling these years quite rapidly because we have here direct “witnesses” of this period and sisters who were very much involved in the evolution of the group. I am sure that they will be available for questions if you wish to know more!
I now focus on 1987 which saw an important change of structure – we no longer spoke of a branch but rather we spoke of the Vicariate. From now on the Institute was a religious Institute of two vocations. What we call in history “modern times” dates from then. Once again the community was living in transition. The adoration chapel was completed in May 1968 and the Notre Dame des Graves chapel was inaugurated on the 8th December of the same year.
When the Solitaries arrived, the house was not empty! An apostolic community saw to the reception of visitors to the Pavilion Notre Dame, some sisters worked in the school in the village of Martillac and others took charge of the property and the farm.
Adjustments had to be made … a single community … but the rhythm of community life would be different for the two communities…two communities with one superior…in 1968, the school sisters went to live in the village … again a single community. But not all the sisters felt called to the contemplative life and the work on the property and the farm was not always compatible with the hours of Divine Office!
In 1972, the sisters were asked to make a choice of life: either they stayed at the Solitude and entered the Contemplative Life or they rejoined an apostolic community. In the meantime, the flocks of sheep were no longer there, but there was still a very large vegetable garden and the hen houses. The question of the property would take longer to resolve.
All this did not change the truth of the contemplative life but a rhythm had to be found which would be compatible with the demands of the work involved in the reception of those who came to the Solitude.
Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament took place in the morning after Mass and continued until Benediction in the evening after Vespers. Little by little the cloister was established.
Post-conciliar renewal saw the need for formation, especially Biblical and liturgical formation. Preparation for the 1969 Chapter required a return to our sources, to the charism of each Institute. For the Contemplatives this meant trying to clarify their identity.
This was a time of research, of adaptation in the strict sense of the word, of evolution in the Church and with the Church so as to be a meaningful presence in the world.
The 1969 Chapter gave “Recommendations and Desires” which opened a new page in the history of the Contemplatives. We recall today the three principal ones that were put into practice:
That Holy Family monasteries be opened in those countries that desire a foundation.
That Provincials who are aware of Sisters who are seriously seeking contemplative life should inform the Superior General. That these sisters should be able to meet…
That the General Council study a text summarising the main orientations of the Founder’s spirituality and that this text would serve as a basis for the drawing up of a “Book of Life” for contemplatives.
One can easily understand the stir created by such recommendations.
In 1970 a basic text was given help in the discernment of vocations to the Contemplative Life. Many apostolic sisters who from their entrance into religious life, had desired the cloistered life, still wished for that life. Others felt a “new call”. So, what one could call, discernment communities were formed in Belgium, Canada and Spain.
A first gathering of these sisters took place here at the Solitude in 1973. Sisters from the Provinces of Colombo and Jaffna joined them. As a result of this meeting a “Book of Life” was produced. It was important to channel life, to create a common basis of reflection for these “young” communities, to give some common reference points for daily living. Before founding communities, it was important to discern vocations and that could only be done only in the concrete experience of life and in time. Certainly that brought a lack of stability in the communities.
In 1974 the first foundation outside France was made in La Carolina, Spain. This was a prayerful presence in a dechristianised region. Then followed Hoboken in Belgium, Roma in Lesotho, Madrid and Villava in Spain, Bolwalana, and Manipay in Sri Lanka, Aylmer in Canada and Labéraudie in France.
The situations in the various countries were different, but it was always the same Holy Family Contemplative Life: the quest for God in silence and solitude; life in the Church and for the Church according to the mission proper to each community in towns, in the country, in dechristianised areas, in Christian countries or in countries where the majority is non-Christian; forming part of an Association keeping its specific mission of adoration and intercession for the whole. The rhythm of the day remained the same: prayer, Eucharistic adoration, reading of the Word of God, Eucharist, work … There was nothing new; just living Contemplative life in a different reality.
Work has always been part of life in the cloister but it is difficult to find part-time remunerated work which respects time given to prayer and community life. Of course there is the cloister of the heart … but one must give the cloister its true place and all its meaning in a life that requires going out more and involved more contacts with people outside the monastery.
Time was needed for the different orientations to be lived and revised. The deepening of one’s life was achieved through different kinds of international meetings where dialogue and mutual questioning could take place. In 1976 the “Book of Life” was produced. This defined Holy Family Contemplative Life more clearly, ensured a unity of life among the different communities, gave guidelines for formation, and strengthened relationships among the different groups of the Association.
Up until 1979, communities had been accompanied and helped by the apostolic councillors who received that mission. At this date a new structure came into being: three contemplative councillors joined the three apostolic councillors. This “council” prepared the chapter of the contemplative group in October-November 1980.
Up until the end of the year 1984, an apostolic Sister with 4 contemplative councillors, one from each continent, took on the responsibility of the group. This was a stage when contemplative life became more profound and unified.
At the 1981 General Chapter it had seemed possible for the Good Father’s work to be accepted in its originality and that the Holy Family Association be recognised as such: each group would have received canonical recognition. The Sacred Congregation for Religious, charged with approving the Constitutions, was not able to give this “global” approval. We then had to seek separate canonical status for the contemplatives and for the seculars.
It is impossible to recount all the work that went into this: consulting experts and the members of the two groups concerned, information gathering from other institutes to learn from their experience, consulting the Sacred Congregation itself, meeting up with the three councils of consecrated life …. Quite quickly, the Seculars decided to form a Secular Institute which implied juridical autonomy. However, their links with the religious group would not be severed nor would there be any break with the common spiritual heritage. The Contemplative group took more time to draw up a structure specific to their life and to unity.
At the 1987 Chapter, the Institute of Two Vocations was presented as it is today:
The Religious Institute of the Holy Family, a Religious Institute of Pontifical Right was approved in 1902. It is organized today into Provinces and Delegations in the case of the Apostolic Sisters, and into a Vicariate in the case of the Contemplative Sisters.
Present in a diversity of countries and cultures, all the religious live in community and live the spirit and aim of the whole Family. United by the same consecration, they work together to make Christ known in the world and to extend the reign of God. They are responsible for the unity and vitality of the Institute. The Apostolic Sisters in their different ministries, continue the mission of the one who went about doing good; the Contemplative Sisters prolong, in silence and solitude, the praying attitude of Jesus turned towards the Father. They support one another mutually in their gift to God and to others. They give witness, at the heart of the world, to the primacy of God.
3 . TO COMMEMORATE IS TO SPEAK OF THE PRESENT AND OF A RECEIVED HERITAGE AND OF THE WAY THAT IT IS NOW LIVED
I will not elaborate on the different situations and decisions, which, since that date, fashioned the face of the Vicariate today. The Sisters will be able to provide you with all the information you need. I simply note the present houses that have been opened: a community in Latin America (Posadas); a community in Sri Lanka (Nagoda); a community in Spain (Oteiza); a community in France (La Solitude).
I wish to speak briefly about the legacy received from the many years of life that we have recalled. I wish to commemorate, even if for the most part their names are unknown, all those sisters who have given their time, their concern, their fidelity (I think of the different superiors) so that this “last born” of the Association might grow and develop. I wish to commemorate all those who lived Holy Family Contemplative life and who by their hidden humble lives, shaped the face of the Contemplative group today. They are present to us in a very special way today.
Like me, I think that you feel that these consecrated women were filled with complete confidence in the call of the Lord and total faith in Holy Family Contemplative Life.
There were few vocations, insufficient personnel, unsuitable premises, changes of houses, of their canonical situation … No matter; the flame burned; life continued; in the depths of their hearts, personally and together, they were sure that they were fulfilling God’s will.
This “obedience” to the events of every day and this openness to the signs of the Spirit lasted all these years. The mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus was lived by each one and by the entire community. In this way they have been able to bequeath to us the truth of their vocation. Because at the heart of their lives, there has been continual prayer, adoration (you have noted that as well as adoration, reparation has been added), thanksgiving for the Miraculous Benediction, intercession for the Family and for the world, desire to share their own life within the “protection” of a cloister that is indispensable for a life of silence and solitude like the life at Nazareth.
This inheritance is fully accepted, it seems to me, even if it is expressed in different ways. I remind you of some articles from the Constitutions of the Contemplatives.
We are called to imitate the life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the home of Nazareth – a life of silence and solitude hidden in God, a life of love in obedience and selflessness. (art. 161)
In the Church we continue the prayerful attitude of Jesus turned towards his Father in adoration and praise, in thanksgiving and intercession. (art. 162)
Our communities are part of the local Church which welcomes them as Contemplative Sisters. (art. 163)
At the heart of the Family of Pierre Bienvenu Noailles, we keep alive the memory of the Benediction of 1822, offering continual thanksgiving and supplication to the Lord. (art. 164)
The communities welcome simply and sincerely those who seek the Lord in silence and solitude. These visits are both a call and a grace for the community itself. (art. 199)
I could quote many other articles which speak of the “heart” of life, the breath that animates it, the means that support it. I will confine myself to reading to you an article that is common to all the Sisters of the Institute and which gives us the meaning of our religious profession:
United to the sacrifice of Christ, we live out the offering of our whole being by letting ourselves be transformed and renewed by the love of God and of our brothers and sisters. With Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we learn to live no longer for ourselves but for God Alone in the service of the Kingdom. We rely on God’s faithfulness, sure of his love, his light and his strength (art. 9.)
The Chapters of the Vicariate have emphasised both aspects. Life continues in the same direction.
The 1998 Chapter defined a priority: “Make of our communities another Nazareth” The following commentary throws light on this statement.
Nazareth is daily life. The Nazareth that we live is that of the “absence” of Jesus. It is to live in faith waiting for the return of Jesus the Lord. Nazareth is a place of communion with human beings living in different circumstances: absences, fears, suffering, separation, joys, hopes etc … We can only understand Nazareth in the light of the Resurrection; we can only live it in an ecclesial perspective otherwise we risk reducing it and closing ourselves up in it…
The 2004 Chapter takes up the same priority asking communities:
to be communities of disciples on mission, full of passion for God Alone and God’s Reign;
learning from Jesus to:
remain in the depths of God’s mystery of communion and to give oneself to the end in the ordinariness of everyday life.
And to comment on that statement:
At the school of the Eucharist, Jesus invites us to make our own his own feelings of love and humble service: it teaches us how to give ourselves for the salvation of the world, making of our lives a Eucharist.
I truly think that the first Solitary Sisters would recognise themselves in this.
4.TO COMMEMORATE IS TO OPEN ONESELF TO A FUTURE WHICH HAS ITS SOURCE IN THE PRESENT, ILLUMINATED BY THE PAST AND OPEN TO THE SPIRIT WHO LEADS US ALONG GOD’S PATHS.
Every future is rooted in the here and now, the only place where each person exists; the only place where the future is built day by day. Did the first Solitary Sisters imagine what today would be like? Did they have concerns about it? And, at the celebration of the centenary, could they have imagined the existence of a Vicariate?
Today is rich because of the 150 years of life that have passed. The commemoration today has helped us feel the richness received from lives that have been given and offered in the humble day-to-day living out of their consecration.
In looking towards this future (and who knows what it will bring?), I like to recall the hymn that opens the office of Lauds in the first week of ordinary time.
A new day begins, a day received from you Father
We place it in your hands just as it is.
The verses that follow speak of how that day received and offered will bring about a future where we will marvel before God, welcome God’s love, desire to live in God’s presence, be open to and hope in Christ who conquers evil and death.
For me, those are the deep attitudes that will enlighten the newness that comes each day. In welcoming this daily newness we open the entire group to the future.
This is another way of expressing what Margaret said at the opening of the Contemplative Chapter last January:
Your history continues, and change and newness are inevitable because that is life … The story of the universe and the story of Jesus, God in this story, teaches us that every life passes through a process of evolution, adaptation, change, growth, death or letting go so that newness can spring forth.
There has been a great richness in the evolution of these 150 years.
In saying that we place the future in God’s hands, we do not mean that we are passive. Rather we commit ourselves to hope for a future in the light of what is possible today. That is why I thought it good to share with you all the journey of a group for whom the paths of life they followed were ways of life for the future.
I emphasise the profession of faith that came in a recommendation from the Chapter:
We believe that our Holy Family Contemplative Life has something specific to contribute in the service of the mission of Jesus in the world today and more realistically:
Our reality is made up of poverty, fragility, weakness and vitality and at the same time we have a great desire to choose life in view of the common good of the Vicariate.
On that fundamental basis, I could say that the way is open, anchored in the present, turned towards the future. It leads the Vicariate to the celebration of 150 years of life, as we await the 200th anniversary of our foundation. Perhaps some of those who will be there will remember the wish of this 20th June 2009!
Sr. Cecile Mallet
Martillac 21st June 2009.