Your Eminence, my dear Sisters whom I have known so long, brothers and friends, if I might be permitted a personal apologia as we turn to reflect and share thoughts about the prophetic voice of Saint Marie Eugénie, may I say this has been one of the most difficult sermons to put together. Not because of Marie Eugénie, far from it, her voice has been strongly heard in my thoughts these past few days. Sister Maureen so graciously gave me many pieces of detail, autobiographies, writings, articles about Marie Eugénie, but strangely they kept on disappearing, books got mislaid, papers kept going missing and on one occasion one of my students was given one page of this sermon in the middle of an essay, I wonder what they thought ? This puzzled me, until I began to make connections, to link it with what was going to happen today. I had to listen not to the voice of others but the voice of Marie Eugénie in my heart, she was telling me that in this ministry of preaching, looking to the past was all very well, but it is the future that matters. She was trying to say to me. Look ahead ; find what I can give for the future because each age must interpret the voice of Christ in the Gospel so that new Disciples of Jesus may hear his call through us, through Marie Eugénie !
1.Dare to be Holy !
One of the greatest gifts our new saint has given to the Church is a vision of informed and intelligent faith that seeks to dialogue with the world and its culture, rather than hide from it !
It is her own sense of vocation that challenges us to be good Christians, to take up Saint Paul’s reminder ; that through Baptism and Confirmation we, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, are called to holiness. (Romans 5:5) She challenges us to, ‘dare to be holy’, and in another phrase of hers, to live lives, ‘fully lived and changed in Christ’. In fact when reading that wonderful document of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, with its sense of the Church as the ‘People of God’ on Pilgrimage, where each one of us( in that Pauline theology of the Mystical Body of Christ) contributes to the growth of the whole, and to the Kingdom of God, finds echoes in the voice of Marie Eugénie. This we can discover in her writings, to Sisters, friends and confidants a hundred years before the Council. But it is my contention that in this sense she is one of the Prophets of the Second Vatican Council, and it is timely for her to be canonised in this century, as we continue to forge ahead with the work of renewal in the vision of that Council. This is true ‘aggiornamento’. She is important to us because she challenges us to renew ourselves in that vision of the Holy Spirit, ‘blowing through the open windows of the Church’.( Blessed John XXIII)
What then can we learn from Marie Eugénie ? What gift does she give us as we celebrate her canonisation ?
A canonisation can in one sense be problematic. Not everybody loves a saint ! The communities that take their inspiration from her teaching and charism will long have been used to talking about Marie Eugenie the woman, the religious, the friend, Mother Foundress, (with all that this entails), ‘la Dame formidable’ and so on ! There is a family connection and an intimacy, part of this is wonderfully represented by the family of our saint with us today ! Does canonisation break this bond ? Does it place the new saint on a pedestal ? True catholic tradition says ‘No !’. Despite the pious hagiography of particular times, the saints remain part of us, they are still human, but canonisation extends the relationship a saint has with others. It places them as part of that great cloud of witnesses before God but also right at the heart of the Church ! They belong to its mission and ministry, now and in the future. Their heavenly birthday is now our ‘feast day’, their lives now known throughout the world. As one of your Sisters put it so well, it makes ‘universally relevant the joy, the connection each one may feel personally towards the new saint’. In other words it enables you , my very dear Sisters, friends, past pupils of the Assumption, Staff and past students of Maria Assumpta and all the connections linking back to her, to give her as YOUR GIFT to a hungry world as a sign, prophet and pointer to the work of God revealed in her life. In a very real way she becomes your gift. You have known her, loved her, taken inspiration from her. Now as she takes her place in the calendar of saints, take her torch for Christ and light up other lives with the love she had for the Church and the world.
Her real insight was to challenge pre-conceived norms. The trials and difficulties of her experience were essential for her eventual success, as it is for all of us. If we are to follow and learn from her gift, it is surely ‘ pour encourager les autres’ , that is to enable all members of the Church to work towards freeing the world from oppression and transform society through education, using the Gospel as THE foundation for learning !
3. Liberté, Fraternité, Égalité !
There are many strands in the vision and gifts of Saint Marie Eugénie, but in praying with her and thinking of her, one cry emerges in startling clarity ! As with some of you, I share in a Gallic background of which I am quite unashamedly proud. Whatever we may think of the French Republic the motto, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité stands out clearly ! Somehow in these words our saint inspires us to rescue them and transform them into Gospel virtues.
Let me try to shape what I think is her gift in this way :
a. Liberté, liberty is the freedom to be truly the children of God. This is a vision based deep in our tradition, where in Christ there is no male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, only one people equal in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.27-28) That is part of her gift too, seen in the huge variety of people in her life, a reminder that the disciple of Jesus cannot discriminate. As Archbishop Vingt-Trois said in his homily on her canonisation : ‘ She reminds us that true liberty...the kind of liberty that no one or nothing can take away...is that of the person, of the heart which only Christ really touches and liberates. There it is the freedom of Christ in the Spirit’ ( Rome , June 6th 2007).
b. Égalité, equality. Marie Eugenie, living in a torn, fragmented and dysfunctional society, felt deeply many of the problems which beset our own families and society. In her life she recognises family breakdown, the inequality between rich and poor, the inadequacies of the State and its provision, she lives through a concerted attack on religion and personal faith. Her vision comes through all this accepting and facing head on the trials and challenges. As a woman in 19th century France and as a faithful daughter of the Church she knew the constraints of a male, hierarchical model. She fought for women( and men)so that the importance of the person became clear. Like Thérèse of Lisieux, she envisions a time when perhaps women may take a stronger role in the ordained ministry, this is yet to come ! She was no dualist, for her, all the Earth ‘is a place for the glory of God’. This passion for knowledge and the desire to educate is the means to equality and empowerment. Again this is the vision of the Church. Contrary to our contemporary stress on individuality, Marie Eugénie places the person in this context, as a member of the Body of Christ, where the individuals well being is also dependent on their full participant membership of Christ’s community !
c. And fraternité ? Her religious community and the associated communities and people bear ample witness to this part of her vision. In her own life she was unafraid of love, of Christ’s love, expressed in deep friendship for men and women. We can witness to this in the procession of different people to the convent parlours and the many letters she wrote to different people. This love extended beyond people to embrace her work, her culture and her time. She was in the real sense of the word a ‘liberal Catholic’ open to the promptings of the Spirit, embracing that command of Jesus to love God and neighbour as oneself. She was as many lovers of God are, ‘a breaker of moulds’ !
It is no accident that the Rule of St. Augustine was her choice for the Assumption community, and it is with him I end.
Marie Eugénie echoes in her life and witness the greatest of Augustine’s visions, that the foundation of mission, life, community, family must be rooted in the encounter with God. For her that was private prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Churches’ prayer and for us as Catholics in that ‘ fons et origo’, the Eucharist. In her devotion she turned to an ancient understanding of the Virgin Mary as Theotokos, a theology of Mary that comes from the Eastern Church, which sees her always connected to Christ.
If Augustine’s great sigh, ‘Too late have I loved thee, O beauty at once so ancient and yet so new’, was his comment on his own search for God, yet even he knew enough to realise that. ‘You were within me, and I out of myself, and there I searched for you’. (Confessions 10:27). With him Marie Eugénie points us back to God as our source, but running ahead of Augustine she tells us that we can find God NOW. It is today, here, where we are that God can find us and love us. ‘Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee’. (Confessions. 1:1) For both of these great saints it all comes back to what the human family must learn, that it is in love we are fashioned and made.
Augustine wrote, ‘diliget et quot vis fac’, mistranslated as ‘love and do what you will’. But there is a better translation which sums up Marie Eugénie so well ; ‘ love and then what you will, DO !’
‘May the example of Saint Marie Eugénie invite men and women of today to transmit to the young the values that will help them become strong adults...May young people not be afraid to welcome these moral and spiritual values, to love with patience and fidelity’. (Benedict XVI, Canonisation Homily)
Father Robert Philip Gibbons,
Kensington, October 13 MMVII.