Fr Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. in his address to the Major Superiors “Religious Life in the World that is Coming to Be” writes about the ambiguity of identity that has haunted consecrated life since the second Vatican Council. He tells his audience of when as a young religious, just like his contemporaries he would wear a T-shirt and a pair of jeans and on top he wore a thirteenth Century Order of Preachers’ religious garb. In this type of dressing, it was almost as the identity as a religious (represented by the religious habit) covers the worldly identity (represented by the T-shirt and jeans). By wearing these religious garbs, consecrated people are distinctly marked as a cluster, as a group. Religious garbs have a meaning. They point to a witnessing of a particular kind of life. Thus they also give those who wear them an identity.
Consecrated life and what it stands for finds itself also in a crisis of identity just as our modern society struggles with identity. Living in this society as religious, we are also faced with the same challenges that the society struggles with. As religious though we are not supposed to be worldy or of the world, we are in the world.
Fr T. Radcliffe brings up clearly the crisis of identity in religious people which flows from the fact of being in society. Religious life is engulfed in the identity crisis of the society. We are living in the society yet we are not supposed to be of the Society. He says that everyone is suffering from the crisis of identity as the society opens its space to this crisis. He reminds us that our vows need to push us beyond this identity crisis. Our identity must embrace the pathway to the Kingdom of God. That we must leave behind the usual signs of identity to embrace the unusual, Christ-like. That we “are a naked sign of human identity which will only be disclosed in the kingdom”. These are the tier fundamentals of pursuing the dream of belonging to the Club of Christ. But we must partake in the sufferings and pain, joy and celebration of humanity.
Therefore we as Missionaries of Mariannhill celebrate and affirm our identity on the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord which the Church celebrates on the 2nd of February every year. This feast marks our commitment of to a particular way of life as consecrated people, a particular identity as Missionaries of Mariannhill.
As usual, on this feast, this year also the young and old prepared themselves to recommit themselves to this identity, to the close following of Christ in His mission of healing, restoration of dignity, establishing His kingdom of love and care for all.
In the monastery in Mariannhill 8 young men from across the African Continent and South America embarked on their journey to embrace a new identity as Missionaries of Mariannhill. Being in the world they desire to distinctly separate themselves for the service of others in consecrated life. After their retreat they voluntarily asked to enter novitiate, a time of closely searching God’s will for oneself, a “desert time” with the Lord. As Missionaries of Mariannhill we welcome them into this serious period (one year) of reflection and discernment. It is our hope that they can wrestle with this crisis of identity (not only during this year but all their lives as religious) and that they will be able to live comfortably with this “being in the world but not of the world”.
Thirteen young men just finished their year of intensive discernment in Mariannhill and pronounced their vows for the first time, thus taking on a new identity as Missionaries of Mariannhill. Twelve of them pronounced their commitment in the monastery and one did the same commitment in the Eastern Cape, in Mthatha.
After pronouncing their vows, their dress code changed from a black cassock with a black cincture to a black cassock with a red cincture. They looked gorgeous as the Provincial of Mariannhill, Fr Bheki Shabalala commented to the audience and quickly reminding them that their new appearance (identity) should match with the inward disposition. He urged them to authentically live the new identity they had embraced through pronouncing their vows.
This day was particularly special to me as I looked back at the past year that I have journeyed with these young men. This marks a parting with people who had become part of my accompaniment in the life of constant renewal. It is not easy to let go of the close bonds we had established. Once again at a different level this is also for me a crisis of identity. I have to find a new face for myself with a new group and the newly professed confreres have to find a new face for themselves wherever they are sent. The crisis of identity is always with us though at different levels and with different intensity.
As we live in this world the crisis of identity is always with us but as Fr Radcliffe says, instead of identifying ourselves with material things of and in the society, as consecrated people we should strive for identity in the values of Christ and His kingdom. Living this identity faithfully will transform the world. This is what we profess on the 2nd of February as Missionaries of Mariannhill.