There are two lady friends of mine whom I’ve known for 27 years now: Maura and Marina. Both were accountants, with good jobs and a nice lifestyle; great party-goers and very popular. Then one day Marina announced to us all that she was going to leave everything and enter the Poor Clare convent. About two years later Maura did the same thing. The Poor Clares are an Order of contemplative sisters founded by St. Claire of Assisi. These sisters live a life of prayer and enclosure, meaning that they never come out except for things like going to the doctor. This meant that they would give up their job and salary, their independence and nice lifestyle, the chance to get married and have children. They will spend the rest of their lives in that convent praying and interceding for people, helping us by the sacrifice of their lives.
Every year quite a number of people decide to dedicate their lives to the service of God, in Religious life. There are also many married and single people I know who have changed the direction of their lives and begun to live more closely to God, trying to give time each day to prayer and to living out the faith that they believe in. They continue to work just as before, but they have begun to make a conscious effort to live by the Gospel they believe in. I’m sure many of you here are the same.
In 1999 Pope John Paul II invited representatives from 54 different groups around the world to come to Rome. These groups were all started over the last several decades and were all started by lay people, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To give you an example, some of the groups were the Focolare movement, Marriage Encounter, Cenacolo, Charismatic Renewal. All of these different movements within the Church have been started by lay people and are really about different ways of living out the Gospel in daily life. These movements have been so successful that most of them have spread all over the world. There were over 400,000 people present representing these 54 different movements. It was a celebration of what God is doing all over the world.
Why are people willing to give up their whole lives to pray or live apart from the rest of society? Some people say it is an escape. The Church says it is the highest calling that God can give to anyone. But what makes someone want to do this, or to become a priest, or to really try to live out their faith like in those many lay movements that gathered in Rome? They have found the hidden treasure, or pearl of great price that Jesus talks about. They have recognised that it is worth everything and so they have given up everything for it. It is what the Lord often calls ‘The kingdom of heaven’. It is the discovery or realisation that God is real and that what Jesus has told us about God is true. It’s as if this suddenly clicks into place and they can see it and it makes sense, so much sense. They realise that God isn’t just an optional extra, but that God is at the center and we are a part of his world. Our life only makes sense in relation to him and in relation to what Jesus told us about him. Apart from God, our life makes absolutely no sense and this is worth everything, because it is the truth.
Most people are not called to be priests or religious, in fact only a very small percent. Most people are called to continue on as normal in society, working, having families and giving witness to the reality of God by the way they live. That’s what most of us are called to. But the fact that some people are prepared to live a life dedicated to God, reminds us of the value of what we believe in. It testifies to the fact that what we believe in has a greater and more lasting value than anything we can know in this world. It’s a sign that we believe there is more to come and that it’s worth waiting for, it is worth making sacrifices for.
There is a lovely line in one of St. Paul’s letters which reads: ‘If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people the most to be pitied’ (1 Cor 15:19). The whole point of what we believe in is that not only is there a life after this one, but that that is what God has created us for and that is what we are preparing for.
Often when I’m finding it tough going and wondering why I’m a priest or what it’s all about, I think of my two friends in the Poor Clares and their witness makes me say yes, it’s worth the effort. This is the pearl of great price, the treasure which we have discovered.