“The Spirit moves us to see God in the littleness and vulnerability of a baby, yet we at times risk seeing our consecration only in terms of results, goals and success: we look for influence, for visibility, for numbers”. Pope Francis said this in his homily during Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica on Wednesday afternoon, 2 February, Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, and World Day for Consecrated Life. The Liturgy of the Eucharist was especially significant, as Pope Francis and Armenian Catholic Patriarch Raphaël Bedros xxi Minassian, celebrated it together. At the end, before the blessing, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, addressed the Holy Father. The following is the English text of the Pope’s homily.
wo elderly people, Simeon and Anna, await in the Temple the fulfilment of the promise that God made to his people: the coming of the Messiah. Yet theirs is no passive expectation, it is full of movement. Let us look at what Simeon does. First, he is moved by the Spirit; then he sees salvation in the Child Jesus and finally he takes him into his arms (cf. Lk 2:26-28). Let us simply consider these three actions and reflect on some important questions for us and in particular for the consecrated life. First, what moves us? Simeon goes to the Temple, “moved by the spirit” (v. 27). The Holy Spirit is the protagonist in this scene. He makes Simeon’s heart burn with desire for God. He keeps expectation alive in his heart: He impels him to go to the Temple and he enables his eyes to recognize the Messiah, even in the guise of a poor little baby. That is what the Holy Spirit does: he enables us to discern God’s presence and activity not in great things, in outward appearances or shows of force, but in littleness and vulnerability. Think of the cross. There too we find littleness and vulnerability, but also something dramatic: the power of God. Those words “moved by the spirit” remind us of what ascetic theology calls “movements of the Spirit”: those movements of the soul that we recognize within ourselves and are called to test, in order to discern whether they come from the Holy Spirit or not. Be attentive to the interior movements of the Spirit.
We can also ask, who mostly moves us? Is it the Holy Spirit, or the spirit of this world? This is a question that everyone, consecrated persons in particular, needs to ask. The Spirit moves us to see God in the littleness and vulnerability of a baby, yet we at times risk seeing our consecration only in terms of results, goals and success: we look for influence, for visibility, for numbers. This is a temptation. The Spirit, on the other hand, asks for none of this. He wants us to cultivate daily fidelity and to be attentive to the little things entrusted to our care. How touching is the fidelity shown by Simeon and Anna! Each day they go to the Temple, each day they keep watch and pray, even though time passes and nothing seems to happen. They live their lives in expectation, without discouragement or complaint, persevering in fidelity and nourishing the flame of hope that the Spirit has kindled in their hearts.
Brothers and sisters, we can ask, what moves our days? What is the love that makes us keep going? Is it the Holy Spirit, or the passion of the moment, or something else? How do we “move” in the Church and in society? Sometimes, even behind the appearance of good works, the canker of narcissism, or the need to stand out, can be concealed. In other cases, even as we go about doing many things, our religious communities can appear moved more by mechanical repetition — acting out of habit, just to keep busy — than by enthusiastic openness to the Holy Spirit. All of us would do well today to examine our interior motivations and discern our spiritual movements, so that the renewal of consecrated life may come about, first and foremost, from there.
A second question: What do our eyes see? Simeon, moved by the Spirit, sees and recognizes Christ. And he prays, saying: “My eyes have seen your salvation” (v. 30). This is the great miracle of faith: it opens eyes, transforms gazes, changes perspectives. As we know from Jesus’ many encounters in the Gospel, faith is born of the compassionate gaze with which God looks upon us, softening the hardness of our hearts, healing our wounds and giving us new eyes to look at ourselves and at our world. New ways to see ourselves, others and all the situations that we experience, even those that are most painful. This gaze is not naïve but sapiential. A naïve gaze flees reality and refuses to see problems. A sapiential gaze, however, can “look within” and “see beyond”. It is a gaze that does not stop at appearances, but can enter into the very cracks of our weaknesses and failures, in order to discern God’s presence even there.
The eyes of the elderly Simeon, albeit dimmed by the years, see the Lord. They see salvation. What about us? Each of us can ask: what do our eyes see? What is our vision of consecrated life? The world often sees it as “a waste”: “look at that fine young person becoming a friar or a nun, what a waste! If at least they were ugly… but what a waste”! That is how we think. The world perhaps sees this as a relic of the past, something useless. But we, the Christian community, men and women religious, what do we see? Are our eyes turned only inward, yearning for something that no longer exists, or are we capable of a farsighted gaze of faith, one that looks both within and beyond? To have the wisdom to look at things — this is a gift of the Spirit — to look at things well, to see them in perspective, to grasp reality. I am greatly edified when I see older consecrated men and women whose eyes are bright, who continue to smile and in this way to give hope to the young. Let us think of all those times when we encountered such persons, and bless God for this. For their eyes are full of hope and openness to the future. And perhaps we would do well, in these days, to go make a visit to our elderly religious brothers and sisters, to see them, to talk with them, to ask questions, to hear what they are thinking. I consider this a good medicine.
Brothers and sisters, the Lord never fails to give us signs that invite us to cultivate a renewed vision of consecrated life. We need to do this, but in the light of the Holy Spirit and docile to his movements. We cannot pretend not to see these signs and go on as usual, doing the same old things, drifting back through inertia to the forms of the past, paralyzed by fear of change. I have said this over and over again: nowadays the temptation to go back, for security, out of fear, in order to preserve the faith or the charism of the founder… is a temptation. The temptation to go back and preserve “traditions” with rigidity. Let’s get this into our head: rigidity is a perversion, and beneath every form of rigidity there are grave problems. Neither Simeon or Anna were rigid; no, they were free and had the joy of celebrating: Simeon by praising the Lord and prophesying with courage to the child’s mother. Anna, like a good old woman, kept saying: “Look at them!” “Look at this!” She spoke with joy, her eyes full of hope. None of the inertia of the past, no rigidity. Let us open our eyes: the Spirit is inviting us amid our crises — and crises there are —, our decreasing numbers — “Father, there are no vocations, now we will go to the ends of the earth to see if we can find one” — and our diminishing forces, to renew our lives and our communities. And how do we do this? He will show us the way. Let us open our hearts, with courage and without fear. Let us look at Simeon and Anna: although they were advanced in years, they did not spend their days mourning a past that never comes back, but instead embraced the future opening up before them. Brothers and sisters, let us not waste today by looking back at yesterday, or dreaming of a tomorrow that will never come; instead, let us place ourselves before the Lord in adoration and ask for eyes to see goodness and to discern the ways of God. The Lord will give them to us, if we ask him. With joy, with courage, without fear.
Finally, a third question: what do we take into our own arms? Simeon took Jesus into his arms (cf. v. 28). It is a touching scene, full of meaning and unique in the Gospels. God has placed his Son in our arms too, because embracing Jesus is the essential thing, the very heart of faith. Sometimes we risk losing our bearings, getting caught up in a thousand different things, obsessing about minor issues or plunging into new projects, yet the heart of everything is Christ, embracing him as the Lord of our lives.
When Simeon took Jesus into his arms, he spoke words of blessing, praise and wonder. And we, after so many years of consecrated life, have we lost the ability to be amazed? Do we still have this capacity? Let us examine ourselves on this, and if someone does not find it, let him or her ask the grace of amazement, amazement before the wonders that God is working in us, hidden, like those in the temple, when Simeon and Anna encountered Jesus. If consecrated men and women lack words that bless God and other people, if they lack joy, if their enthusiasm fails, if their fraternal life is only a chore, if amazement is lacking, that is not the fault of someone or something else. The real reason is that our arms no longer embrace Jesus. And when the arms of a consecrated man or woman do not embrace Jesus, they embrace a vacuum which they try to fill with other things, but it remains a vacuum. To take Jesus into our arms: this is the sign, the journey, the recipe for renewal. When we fail to take Jesus into our arms, our hearts fall prey to bitterness. It is sad to see religious who are bitter: closed up in complaining about things that never go right, in a rigidity that makes them inflexible, in attitudes of supposed superiority. They are always complaining about something: the superior, their brothers or sisters, the community, the food… They live for something to complain about. But we have to embrace Jesus in adoration and ask for eyes capable of seeing the goodness and discerning the ways of God. If we embrace Christ with open arms, we will also embrace others with trust and humility. Then conflicts will not escalate, disagreements will not divide, and the temptation to domineer and to offend the dignity of others will be overcome. So let us open our arms to Christ and to all our brothers and sisters. For that is where Jesus is.
Dear friends, today let us joyfully renew our consecration! Let us ask ourselves what “moves” our hearts and actions, what renewed vision are we being called to cultivate, and above all else, let us take Jesus into our arms. Even if at times we experience fatigue and weariness — this too happens — , let us do as Simeon and Anna did. They awaited with patience the fidelity of the Lord and did not allow themselves to be robbed of the joy of the encounter with him. Let us advance to the joy of the encounter: this is beautiful! Let us put the Lord back in the centre, and press forward with joy. Amen.