Today we celebrate the Solemnity of St Mary of the Cross Mackillop. We also bring to an end National Vocations Awareness Week; though, I hope it does mean we bring our awareness to an end. We also have entered into lockdown number 6. In each of these three subjects, think we can pray about the themes of 1) discernment and 2) faith in providence. We hear these in our readings, too.
As I am sure each of you have experienced in your own life, being in a position of leadership or responsibility, whatever it might be – being a parent, a teacher, a coach, an employer – this gives one a big insight into how little we know of other peoples’ lives. Having to make decisions and be accountable for them, while at the same time often being in possession of information that other people do not know about: this all adds up to needing to walk a fine line, but also realising that other people probably face similar challenges.
In being a leader, one needs to be responsible for the decision and therefore accountable to those who are affected by the decision. But being a leader also means not being able to pass the buck. I really do have to make the decision. I cannot offload it onto someone else. I cannot pass the burden of responsibility by doing what people want simply because they want it, if there is more to the story. Even serious advice does not absolve one of this task.
On the flipside though, this can lead to the temptation to arrogance, to elitism. The position of leader can make me vulnerable to always believing that I know better. “Other people don’t know all the facts.” “Other people don’t have my experience.” “Other people don’t have my training.” All this can lead to passing the buck in another way. This means I shirk the need to explain myself or the need to suffer criticism, justified or not. This means I am no longer responsible to anyone; and it gradually leads to a discounting of the lives of others. Their insight, their experience, most of all their suffering is not on the same level as mine, and so I can stop listening.
And so, taking responsibility is a constant effort to find the balance between being accountable while also doing the job. And so while we might struggle to understand certain decisions, we must also remember the serious task of making such decisions; most of all by praying for those who must make them.
And in such moments of great responsibility, anyone who has any sense looks for guidance. In such moments, anyone who has any faith prays. Here again we strike another balance of responsibility. What is my vocation? What is God’s Word to me at that moment? How much is up to me, and how much should be left in God’s hands? How much of the situation comes down to my initiative, and how much comes down to obedience? In the final analysis, can we actually clearly differentiate these spheres? These are not simple questions, and there are not simple answers. We can often confuse or conflate them. Indeed, we have been looking at this recently on the subject of divine freedom.
However, the life of St Mary of the Cross Mackillop can provide us with guidance. Her life shows true responsibility in a number of ways. Through her acceptance of the religious vocation – the taking on of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience – she adopts a position of radical responsibility in relation to God’s Word in her life. This is the ultimate faith in God’s Word that we hear about in today’s gospel. God really will provide.
However, the life of poverty, chastity and obedience is not one of passing the buck to God. Anyone who knows religious men and women of any stripe know how hard they work to make the best of what they have received from Christ. In the Mass, we pray “fruit of the earth and work of human hands”. Religious take this incredibly seriously. They see they are called to be co-creators with Christ, and so, because they are alert for God’s Word, they see gifts everywhere; and because they love the gift-giver, Christ, they do not let those gifts fall to the ground. This looks like initiative to us. It is obedience to them.
On Friday, we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration. You might remember in that Gospel, after Christ is Transfigured, after the Apostles see Moses and Elijah, after they hear the Father’s voice in the cloud, and when the cloud of God’s presence departs, the Apostles look up and all they see is Jesus. This is the religious vocation: to only see Jesus. To see him in the bountiful gifts and to see him in the overwhelming suffering. But mostly to see him, the Beloved Son of the Father. The one who goes ahead of us into death, conquers it and returns to give us his peace, a peace that the world cannot give. It is him, the one who has gone down into the darkest depths, it is him who tells us not to worry.
He does not tell us not to plan. He does not tell us not to use the talents he have given us. He definitely does not tell us not to look out for our brothers and sisters. But he does tell us not to worry. He does tell us not to be afraid. He does tell us that he with us until the end of time.
This is the Lord that St Mary of the Cross Mackillop knows intimately. This is the Lord she trusted with her life. This is the Lord who was with her in her struggles and darkest moments. And this is the Lord who inspired her to be freer than anyone else precisely through obedience. Her freedom for God, her freedom from herself, made her poverty a source of riches for others. It made her chastity pre-eminently fruitful for the Church in Australia.
So, as we struggle through this lockdown, as we struggle to work out what to do, as we struggle to listen for God’s Word in our lives and so live out our baptismal vocation faithfully, let’s take heart from the witness of St Mary of the Cross Mackillop and all other religious in Australia, who have taken on the radical witness of poverty, chastity and obedience – that highest of vocations. May we draw strength from them and in turn become a strength for our community, and so in some way share the peace we receive from Jesus.