Letter to the Religious in the Archdiocese of Southwark on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 8 December 2021

‘It is in Christ that we were claimed as God’s own, chosen from the beginning.’ (Eph 1:11)

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ

I extend to you every joyful blessing as we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Praying through the Scripture readings for this great Solemnity, I was struck by the number of times the words ‘chose’ and ‘chosen’ occur in St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. We are told that God ‘chose us;’ that God ‘chose us in Christ;’ that we were ‘chosen from the beginning;’ that we are ‘chosen to be for God’s greater glory.’ Our Blessed Lady was chosen in a most preeminent way, through the ‘splendour of an entirely unique holiness.’ She was ‘enriched from the first instant of her conception’ and preserved from original sin. (cf. CCC 492) This reveals an important truth about her. It also points to a truth about us. In our own way, we have each been chosen by God in Christ. But what might this choice mean?

We speak of a religious vocation and we share the stories of how God called us. I was with a group of sisters in our Archdiocese earlier this year and I asked them each to tell their personal vocational story. It was delightful to hear how God had ‘led them with cords of kindness and reins of love.’ (Hos 11:4) While this doesn’t always make for an easy life, or smooth journey, there is an irresistible tugging of the heart by a love that will not let go. In each sister’s story there were both differences and similarities. The Magnalia Dei, the wonderful works of God, were made real in their lives, in their flesh. God spoke to them to make clear his will. It was surprising to learn that not all the sisters had heard each other’s story of how they came to religious life. In this time of synodal discernment, how necessary it is to listen to, and hear, each other’s story. The story of how God has called us and of how God’s call continues. How we need to share what God’s call meant and means, how the gentle, and not so gentle, wooing of the Holy Spirit captured our hearts and captures them still for Christ and his Church.

In each sister or brother’s call there is a choice. God’s choice of you and your choice of God in response. Then and now, you may feel an unlikely choice for God. You may be aware of how much you still need to grow in Christ. Be reassured you are in good company, not least with your bishop. Whatever the challenges, remember you are chosen to be holy for the Lord, holy for his Church, and holy for his people. Isn’t it a remarkable thing to proclaim to the world that God has chosen you? It’s a most fundamental declaration of faith, faith in a living and loving God who chooses and calls not just generically, but specifically. God has found us and put a claim on our life. Now, before we become too full of pride, we know that God has chosen others too. Perhaps others like us, perhaps others very unlike us. How marvellous that God can call such diverse people to a common life and mission, even when this brings its inevitable ups and downs. In all the undulating experiences of religious and community life, God has chosen you. This is your particular school of discipleship, your way of charity, your pathway of witness.

In this beautiful season of Advent, we ponder and give thanks for God’s choice: God’s choice of prophets to prepare the way; God’s choice to send his Son into our world; God’s choice of Mary to bring the Lord Jesus to birth. We too must also ponder and give thanks for God’s choice of us. We too are part of God’s unfolding plan. The Lord is with us. His favour rests upon on. The Holy Spirit overshadows us. Whatever our fears, we trust that all things are possible to God.

I came across a prayer recently, written by St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). Her faithfulness to God’s choice cost her life in this world and gained for her eternal joy. As we continue to share our stories of God’s choice and call, it’s a prayer for our journey together:

O my God, fill my soul with holy joy, courage and strength to serve you. Enkindle your love in me and then walk with me along the next stretch of road before me. I do not see very far ahead, but when I have arrived where the horizon now closes down, a new prospect will open before me, and I shall meet it with peace. Amen

Dear sisters and brothers thank you for your ‘yes’ to the Lord and for your service of his Church and people. Please pray for me as I do for you. May Our Lady’s prayers, and this holy season of Advent, draw us more deeply into God’s love, ‘to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.’ (Eph 1:6)

With every blessing

Yours devotedly in Christ

+ John

The Most Reverend John Wilson

Archbishop of Southwark