Evening Prayer, Cathedral, Cape Town
This year 2013,as we know, was designated by Pope Benedict XVI as a Year of Faith. The quotation chosen for the Year of Faith was from the Acts of the Apostles: Chapter 14, verse 27, it states “They called the church together, and reported what God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith.”
Today in this Cathedral of Cape Town we recall with a deep sense of gratitude and humility those first Irish Dominican sisters who came from Cabra, Dublin in 1863, a hundred and fifty years ago, and all those who followed in their footsteps over those one hundred and fifty years – Irish and South African women. We give thanks for their faith, for how they responded to the gift of faith and how they were willing to share it with others. They have indeed opened the door of faith over many faith filled years.
I first visited South Africa in 1991 and among many things that impacted upon me then, was the magnificent beauty of the country – the mountains, the sea, and the flora, the birds and animals; this beauty and diversity contrasted sharply with the pain and suffering of the structured apartheid system. The other lasting impression was the vocation and life stories of our older sisters, of how they left their country to come so far away.
The origin of our Congregation stems from a robust, strong faith in a God who pervades history. It began in Galway, a small fishing village in the West of Ireland in 1644, at a time of great religious persecution which continued for centuries. To choose to be a Catholic, much less a vowed religious was akin to death, torture or exile, in the political and social structure of their day. We refer to those darkest days as the Penal Times because of the restrictions placed upon Catholics. They were not allowed to own property, practise their religion openly or speak their native language. Yet their faith survived and their belief in a faithful God.
Catholic Emancipation came in 1829 and the years following saw a great flourishing of the Catholic Church and that of the priesthood and religious Orders. It heralded in a blossoming of new Missionary Orders and many men and women going to countries all over the world to spread the Gospel. It was from this time that the first Irish Dominican Sisters came to South Africa. They came from a very small island, (one could today, drive the length and breadth of Ireland in a day)! I don’t know how many times Ireland would fit into your beautiful country? Many times I am sure. They came by boat, leaving their homeland forever, imbued with the understanding that their faith was a gift, a gift not to be hoarded but to be shared with others. Those early pioneers came from a tradition where their ancestors suffered in order to hold on to their faith and who had nothing else but a belief in a loving and compassionate God who would save them one day.
These women came not only with their gift of faith but also with their formation and education as Dominican women. They were trained in prayer, study, community living and ministry – ministry which was expressed in education – schools at all levels and schools for children who were deaf. over the last 150 years, the sisters have opened approximately 79 schools in South Africa and today there are 23 Dominican Schools. We can truly say with St. Paul “ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you.”
St. Paul not only gives thanks as we do this day but he prays for his hearers and we Dominican Sisters pray with St. Paul for all of you present here, for all who over the years have supported us, walked with us, in our schools, parishes, and in our works for peace and justice. We pray “that the God of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance and his incomparable great power for us who believe.”
Not only is this, the Year of Faith in the Catholic Church but we are also called to be participants in a New Evangelisation in a world whose rate of change is exponential and which has far reaching effects on us as humans,on our flora and fauna, on our environment, traditions and cultures, indeed on our very existence.
Our Baptism, as Christians, calls us to evangelise, it reminds us that we share in the life of God and we share in the mission of Christ. We are all co-creators with God. We are called to be generative, men and women who bring forth life in others and in the world around us, wherever we find ourselves. I like to think of Baptism as a signpost which sets us on a path of being attentive to God in our lives; attentive to a journey of self-discovery and God discovery. Meister Eckhart, the medieval Dominican, reminds us that we are “human with the seeds of the divine within us”. I heard Bishop Kevin Dowling, speak in Cape Town some years ago and he said that “apartheid has bred a very violent society in South Africa because as a system it showed no respect for human dignity. And yet it raised up a man who understood what it was to be human and who never allowed evil or suffering to extinguish his hope or his dignity – Nelson Mandela. Mandela, a man who knew himself and recognised the humanity in others. Meister Eckhart also said that “we know so many things but we don’t know ourselves” and yet here was a man who became an icon of hope, possibility and integrity for the world. A man who held up true human values which are the bedrock and inspiration of religion in its purity.
We give thanks today for those who have gone before us who in the Dominican tradition and charism tried to uphold the dignity of the person and her unique contribution. I am sure that with successes we also failed along the way and as a representative of the Dominican Congregation I ask pardon for failures and any wrong we may have done.
Today we pray that we “may know the hope to which God has called us” and like Mandela and our wonderful Dominican Sisters we may be a light shining in the darkness of ignorance, war and greed and we may speak a word of truth and love that will help to restore right relationships between God, people and the earth. We pray that we may keep the door of faith opened for ourselves and for others so that we may create a more human society. Let this be our legacy.
Sr. Helen Mary Harmey OP,