Mass Celebrating the 175th Anniversary of the Founding
The Sisters of Christian Charity
November 4, 2023
Sirach 50:22-24; I Corinthians 1:3-9; John 17:20-26         

The context for today’s gospel passage from Saint John is his account of the Last Supper.  After Jesus shares his final teachings with his disciples before the events of his passion begin, he prays to his Father in heaven.  He prays first that he will bring to completion the work entrusted to him by his Father.  Next, he prays for his disciples that they may faithfully proclaim the word that he taught them.  And finally, in today’s gospel, Jesus prays for the future Church – ultimately for you and me – that we may be united – that we may live together as one people in the same love that binds Father, Son and Spirit together as one God – and that through the love that we share for one another, the world may come to know the presence, the mercy and the love of God.

Today’s gospel, which is really quite intense when you situate it in the context of Jesus’ life as he prepares to embrace his passion and death, gives us very clear insight into the nature of the legacy that Jesus would leave his followers following his death, resurrection and ascension.  Ultimately, the religion that would emerge through the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the lives of the apostles and the first disciples of Jesus would reflect nothing less than the triune life of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, bound together in a relationship of love. 

Jesus’ gift, then, is ultimately a community of believers – a people who derive life and hope from their relationship with God and with one another.  Listen closely to the words of Jesus, proclaimed just a moment ago.  They help us to understand the communal nature of the faith that we profess.  He prays to his Father for all believers – for us – “that they may be one, as we, Father, are one, I living in them, you living in me … that their unity may be complete.  So shall the world know that you sent me and that you loved them as you loved me.”

That spirit of unity among the members of the Church for which Jesus prayed is woven into all that we are about whenever we gather to celebrate the Eucharist as we do today.  …  It’s not by accident that we will pray in just a few moments not “my Father,” but “our Father, who art in heaven.”  …  And the sign of peace that will follow the Lord’s Prayer is hardly meant to be an empty gesture at the beginning of the Communion Rite, but rather a sign of the bond that we are meant to share as brothers and sisters in and through whom the risen Christ lives.

  Note well, however, that Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his followers is not an end in and of itself but is foundational to the Church’s mission. 

There’s an old song that was popular when I was a boy as Catholics first started to sing in Church following the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council.  It’s entitled “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love.”  …  Do you remember it?  …  It reminds us that the world will know we are Christians not simply because of where we worship on a Sunday morning and less because of the words that we profess in the Creed.  …  The surest way that the world will know of the living presence of God in our midst is when we – like Jesus – love selflessly and serve generously every soul that God brings into our lives.

It follows, then, that the revelation of God’s love is not only found in the Eucharist and sacramental life of our Church.  It is found in our relationships one with another.  Why?  Because Christianity begins with the relationship of three persons in one God.  …  It blossoms forth through the selfless, loving sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, offered for the sake of the people entrusted to his care.  …  And it continues whenever you and I open our hearts to Jesus and live his love – the heart of his gospel message – in unity and peace with one another. 

How beautifully the lives of you, the women whom we honor and celebrate this day, reflect the great prayer of Jesus and the heart of the mission of the Church – not merely in the title of their religious community, the Sisters of Christian Charity – but particularly in the service, mercy and love that you have so generously shared since their founding 175 years ago.

Personally, this anniversary celebration takes me back to my very first assignment as a young priest at Saint Mary of the Assumption Parish, Scranton. Saint Mary’s was blessed by the presence of the Sisters of Christian Charity who staffed its school.  In many respects, some of you who are here today became mentors to me.  You helped me navigate parish life.  You were listening ears as I struggled to find my place and role with the Church.  You prayed with – and for me.  Some of you even became partners in crime as together we hatched various schemes that, let’s say, weren’t immediately authorized by parish leadership.  And you became dear friends.  …  So, all of this being said, I would suggest that you bear some responsibility – good or bad – for what this local Church has had to endure in “yours truly.”

It was also during those formative years of my priestly ministry that I quickly became familiar with the life and ministry of your foundress, Mother Pauline von Mallinkrodt, who was soon to be beatified by Pope John Paul II a few months later on April 14, 1984.

Let’s reflect for a moment on her remarkable life.  It gives us insight into the particular charism of the Sisters of Christian Charity.

Born into a life of privilege, Pauline declined opportunities to marry and instead sought to fulfill a longing for a religious life.  With great generosity, she gave away her own material wealth and committed herself to caring for the suffering among the poor, the sick, the blind and the dying.  Eventually, with the encouragement of the Bishop of Cologne, a family friend and spiritual advisor, Pauline established a religious community on August 21, 1849, to ensure the continuance of her works of charity. 

While the Sisters of Christian Charity flourished in Germany in the years immediately following their founding, by the mid-1870’s, most of the congregation’s institutions were forced to close because of a government that was unfriendly to the Church.  Being forced into exile, Mother Pauline established a new motherhouse in Belgium and then set her sights on North and South America. 

In the United States, the first group of missionary Sisters of Christian Charity landed in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1873.  Later that year, Mother Pauline journeyed this local Church – the Diocese of Scranton – at the encouragement of Monsignor Peter Nagel, St. Nicholas Parish’s first resident pastor.  She was welcomed by the first Bishop of Scranton, William O’Hara, who gave her permission to establish the first motherhouse of the Sisters of Christian Charity in the United States right here in Wilkes-Barre.

While we give thanks today for the blessings of the Sisters of Christian Charity that have touched the lives of countless members of our Church throughout the world for 175 years, just look at the legacy of the Sisters of Christian Charity in this diocese alone.  Shortly after their arrival, the Sisters were given responsibility for Saint Ann’s Academy, here in Wilkes Barre, which was opened in 1878.  And in quick succession, in their earliest days among us, the Sisters assumed roles of leadership in schools connected to German parishes:  Saint Nicholas, Wilkes-Barre; Saint Mary of the Assumption, Scranton; Saint Boniface, Williamsport; Immaculate Conception, Bastress; and Saint Mary Magdalene, Honesdale.  In addition to their work in numerous schools throughout many of our eleven counties, the Sisters of Christian Charity also staffed Divine Providence Hospital in Williamsport.

While time and the reality of change associated with the passing of years have impacted so many aspects of our society and Church, our dear Sisters continue to minister to the People of God throughout our world and, thankfully, here in the Diocese of Scranton. 

Sisters, we have all been richly blessed by your presence in the Church for 175 years. Thank you for so generously embracing the gospel message of Jesus proclaimed this day – for your work in building unity among the members of the Church – and for the witness of your lives in selfless, loving service of God’s people in our land and throughout our world.

Blessed Pauline remarked often, “It is a great grace that God should permit us to assist in the spread of his kingdom.”  Dear Sisters, it is also a grace that we have been recipients of God’s mercy and love shines through your ministry for the past 175 years.