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Homily to the General Chapter

Fr. Timothy Radcliffe OP 

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'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me'


The Elective General Chapter of Providence
10th July 2001

'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.'

We have come to Providence from every part of the world. We represent the brethren who are present in 102 countries. And so, together with our guests from the Dominican Family, we have some idea of who are the poor who wait for the good news. Each of us has witnessed some form of poverty: the poverty of the barrios of Latin America, or of the bums on the streets in Europe. We know the poverty of those whose lives are without hope or meaning, the poverty of those caught in war, the intellectual poverty of so many in the West.

We have also seen the prisons that human beings build for each other, prisons of prejudice and ideology, prisons of impotence, prisons of fear, state penitentiaries here in the States where hundreds await the death penalty. We know the million forms of oppression that weigh upon humanity. Will the Spirit of the Lord be upon us to preach the good news? Will we find a word of grace for the poor? Will we come away from Providence ready to open the eyes of the blind and set people free?

When Jesus has read the text, he sits down. The eyes of all are fixed on him, and he says, 'Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing'. Today is the day of salvation, if they open their ears to hear. This is the day of grace, if they will but listen.

If this Chapter of Providence is for us a moment of grace, then we shall go from here renewed as preachers, with something to say to the poor and oppressed. We are not just here to make documents, to vote amendments, and to change the Constitutions. We are gathered here so that words of grace may be spoken and heard. Then we will be able to say, 'Today this Scripture is fulfilled in our hearing'. A General Chapter should be a time of grace.

This almost happened at Nazareth. It started well; they praised the words of grace that Jesus spoke. They marvelled at him. But then it all turned sour. They denounced him as just the son of Joseph, their neighbour. They knew him too well to hear what he had to say. They tried to kill him for his presumption.

That will be the first challenge that we have to face. For a General Chapter is, in a way, the home of the Order. Providence is, for these few weeks, our Nazareth. We may be tempted to think that we know each other too well to receive that word of grace. You may be thinking even now, 'Here is Timothy going on again. It's the same old stuff. At least in four days time, we will rid of him at last!' And you are right in this case: It is the same old stuff!

But will we be like the inhabitants of Nazareth, and let familiarity breed contempt, and close our ears to each other? When a brother from Latin America stands up to speak, will half the capitulars turn off their headsets and say, 'There is no need to listen. It will be the same old liberation theology, the option for the poor. I have heard it all before'. And if a more conservative brother speaks, will the other half of the chapter turn off their headsets and say, 'I know that he will say before he opens his mouth'. When Jesus begins to preach, they are astonished at his words of grace. I pray that we may be surprised by each other. We must let go our preconceptions and be astonished. Then the Scriptures will be fulfilled in our hearing, and the Chapter will be a moment of grace. Then we will have something to say to the poor and oppressed when we go home.

Each of us comes to this Chapter both rich and poor. We are rich because we each have something to say. When the moderator hands a brother the microphone, then the eyes of the Chapter will be upon him, to listen. It is true that there are always some brethren who are convinced that the Spirit comes upon them with great frequency, as they hold up their hands to speak again and again and again.

But each of us is also poor. Each of us lives in a world that too small for God. Each of us inhabits a prison. And our own brothers and sisters have the key to open the door and let us out. Each of us in some way blind, myopic. And for each of us, there is someone here who has the salve to heal our eyes and give us sight.

I remember eating supper with two brethren at a congress on the mission of the Order in Europe, many years ago. One brother from Eastern Europe had been imprisoned by the communists. The other, from the West, had been imprisoned for being a communist. Their political views were utterly opposed. But they opened each other's eyes. They lead each other into a larger space, the wide-open pastures of the gospel.

I visited a community in Latin America in which brethren and sisters lived together. And the brethren said to me, 'We never knew what it meant to have confidence in God until the sister taught us. They do not worry where the money will come from.' And the sisters told me, 'The brethren taught us how to open our minds to the Word of God as never before'.

For this mutual liberation to happen, then we need imagination and humility. We need the imagination not only to hear what the capitulars say, but also to guess why they say it. Iris Murdoch, the English philosopher, wrote that when you disagree with anyone, then ask of what they are afraid. What threat do they perceive to their profoundest convictions? Why do they speak so passionately about this? How can one understand that fear?

Above all, this Chapter will be an even of grace if we have the humility to listen. The last written words of Luther were 'We are beggars. That is the truth'. Veritas is our motto, so then let us recognise that we come to this Chapter as beggars, as those who hunger to know more of God. For as St Augustine said: 'God is always more'.

'Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing'. If we are attentive to the Word of God and to each other, then this Chapter will be a time of grace, a time of gifts. Then we will go back home with something to say to all those who suffer from multiple forms of poverty and oppression. We will be able to open the eyes of the blind and free the prisoners, because we have opened each other's eyes and set each other free here. Then we shall indeed preach an acceptable year of the Lord. puce

 

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