On Saturday, June 29, 2019, one of our Eucharistic Congress breakout sessions at the BJCC will be given by Sister Bethany Madonna, SV. SV stands for “Sisters of Life.” This author has been a friend and fan of the Sisters of Life since 1995, just four years after the community was founded. Then-Archbishop of New York, John Cardinal O’Connor, established the community with Mother Agnes Mary Donovan and seven other women in 1991. The community exists to “protect and enhance the sacredness of all human life.” Since that time, the Sisters of Life have opened homes for unwed mothers, provided retreats and support for anyone suffering in the aftermath of abortion, opened a retreat center in Connecticut, taught sessions on the Theology of the Body and NFP, and now have sisters across the country and in Canada. Their sisters have worked in all sorts of other apostolates which promote the cause of human dignity. The number of vocations the community has attained in just these few years is nothing short of astounding. And they have earned a reputation as some of the happiest nuns anyone has met. In the yearbook of religious communities, they would be awarded most likely to be caught smiling when no one was looking.
Sr Bethany Madonna, who lives at the community’s mother house in NY and whose day to day responsibilities include the formation of new novices, has been a main-stay on the “Catholic Conference Circuit” over the last few years. While a student at the University of Central Florida, Sr Bethany experienced a profound encounter with Jesus that set her on a path to serving the vulnerable. She combines a delightful sense of humility (just self-deprecating enough without going overboard) with a deadpan sense of humor with a delivery that rivals even the great Bob Newhart. She focuses on real-life situations that demonstrate our need for God and for constant conversion in living the life of Christ. The stories she tells about the quirkier aspects of living in religious community, and also living in New York, are spellbinding. If you have any doubts you can watch videos of her speaking to more than 15,000 people at the recent SEEK2019 conference, hosted by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students; or you can ask any of the several hundred students and adults from Alabama who were there.
And what does any of this have to do with the Eucharist, or our Eucharistic Congress?
In keeping with Bishop Baker’s, “The Eucharist and…” rubric, Sister will be speaking on the topic, “The Eucharist and Social Justice.” In many ideological circles, those two things have very little to do with one another. But the Church, in Her wisdom, has always found a connection between the mystery of the Incarnation and the moral imperative to serve the poor and vulnerable, and to strive for justice for all men and women. And as Missionary Disciples, we learn from the Church that there is a deep connection between the Incarnation of Christ, and the Eucharist.
Two years ago, the bishops of the United States held a convocation in Florida. The impetus for this gathering was the acknowledgement that within the Church, there were two main bodies of people who were concerned with issues related to the dignity of the human person: those who were pro-life (and largely focused on abortion and end-of-life ethics) and those concerned with issues more typically associated with Social Justice in the political realm (rights of workers, immigration, racial inequalities, etc.). What the bishops were concerned with was bringing the two together to discover and appreciate in one another the one common essence and origin of all these positions: namely, that human beings are created by God in His own image and likeness, with inherent dignity that must be honored and protected at even the highest price. Such a price, that God Himself became man, like us in all things but sin. Jesus took upon himself our nature, to redeem it, to restore our place as adopted children of God and heirs to Heaven. Such is God’s perfect view of our human dignity, that He would take on our nature and unite Himself to us. In this way, we see the supreme dignity which belongs to each and every human person. And since God has paid such a high price for us while we were still separated from Him through sin, we now bear the moral responsibility to uphold and protect that dignity in each and every person; but most especially those who are weak and vulnerable and cannot protect their own dignity. This same imperative is what drives us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and fight for legal protection for the unborn, infirmed and elderly. There is not a dichotomy between the true Christian motivations behind either of these perspectives, but one singular knowledge that in His Incarnation Christ has first loved us.
At His Ascension in Heaven, Jesus promises us He is with us always, even until the end of time. The Apostles taught us that in a very real and tangible way, Jesus kept this promise explicitly in His true presence in the Holy Eucharist. If in a general and global way Jesus united himself to humanity through His Incarnation, He does so in an intimately personal way through the reception of the Most Blessed Sacrament. In this sacred mystery, Jesus unites Himself to the nature of each one who receives Him. The Incarnation speaks to us of the dignity of the whole human race, and the Eucharist speaks to us of the dignity of each human person. Jesus desires this intimate union with every human soul. His desire to elevate and redeem us did not stop simply at taking on flesh to unite to our nature but went so far as to provide a way to unite himself to the soul and body of each human being who believes and makes a worthy reception of Holy Communion. In a very mystical way, there is a deep connection between the Eucharist and the Catholic understanding of Social Justice.
St Paul tells us that true missionary discipleship is not simply the following of a program. He says it is actually about Christ living in us. This is the “sequela Christi,” the response to Jesus’ call to come and follow Him. All the work of the Christian life finds its source and strength in the Eucharist, where our bodies take in the life of Christ and our souls receive transforming grace to become, as St Gregory of Nyssa says, another Christ. When we work for justice and perform works of mercy, it is the Love of Christ which works through us, and it is Christ who is the object of our love in the disguise of the other person.
As we prepare for the Congress, we look forward to hearing Sr Bethany Madonna’s words on this mystical connection between our One, Eucharistic Lord and the many expressions He motivates in us as we seek to build a culture of justice and mercy.