Sowers of a Seed - Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) Seventieth Anniversary of the founding of the Missionary Sisters of Service

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Sowers of a Seed

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary time (A)
Seventieth Anniversary of the founding of the Missionary Sisters of Service

The Parable of the Sower is a most apt Gospel reading for this celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Missionary Sisters of Service.

We are told that a sower went out to sow. He spread the seed in a range of different places – on the edge of the path, patches of rock, among thorns, and in good soil. Surely this captures the spirit and the experience of the Missionary Sisters of Service.

The Sisters went out to sow on “the highways and the byways”. There they met and related to people of all sorts of backgrounds and character. They were out among the people. This radically new form of religious life – ahead of its time – saw the need for Sisters to go out onto the highways and byways in order to meet people in isolated situations. They would meet all sorts of people with all sorts of needs – personal and spiritual. They went forth to sow the seeds of faith.

Since his earliest days as a priest Fr John Wallis carried a burden in his heart. He expressed it in these words in 1942: “One of the most distressing problems confronting the Catholic Church in Australia is that of the children beyond the reach of the Catholic school”. He adds, “Not only are there many thousands of Catholic children who cannot go to our Catholic schools but thousands of such children are sadly deprived of even the minimum of opportunities to learn their faith much less to practice it”.

In saying these words Fr Wallis was thinking of the many small and isolated rural communities scattered across Tasmania. He was aware of this particularly because of an appeal made to him on Bruny Island in 1933 by Kit Hawkins.
In responding to this evident need, Fr Wallis envisaged a new type of religious life. The sisters were to be on the road. They were to dress appropriately by wearing clothes more akin to a nursing sister. They were to meet people in their homes. Most of their ministry was more likely to be around the kitchen table than in a church or a school building. Theirs was a ministry among the people.

As Jesus used the parable of the Sower no doubt he was reflecting his own experience. He, like the Missionary Sisters of Service, had an itinerant ministry. He went about Galilee meeting fishermen mending their nets, speaking with farmers and engaging with people in the marketplaces. He taught people in ways they could grasp using images from everyday life. He was clearly in touch with the realities of their lives. St Matthew commented at one time that Jesus looked out on the people and saw that they were harassed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd. This comment captures the deep concern in the heart of Jesus for the people that he came across. It reveals his pastoral heart.

It was this same concern that stirred Fr Wallis and inspired the first women who joined this new adventurous project. This was the spirit of the first Sisters who were prepared to visit isolated communities and engage with people in the concrete circumstances of their lives. They wanted to assist children to know and love their faith, but their pastoral involvement with families and communities led to so much more. They brought Christian compassion to many in the midst of their struggles. They offered hope and encouragement to many. They drew many to a deeper faith in God and to embracing the Catholic faith.

For so many cut off from towns and their amenities, they were angels of mercy. They were greeted with joy and gratitude. They were the face of Church, a face of kindness and encouragement.

The genius of the charism of the Missionary Sisters of Service was that they visited people in their homes. This produced so much spiritual fruit.

The Missionary Sisters of Service are a unique product of Tasmania. They were formed with the needs of the Church on this island in mind. They were intended to meet a real pastoral need in Tasmania. However, it was not long that their charism, their gift to the Church, was recognised. They were asked to come to other dioceses with vast outback areas so that the isolated families and communities could benefit from their service.

Now the Missionary Sisters of Service have their headquarters in Melbourne and not Launceston where they began. I suppose just as the settlement of Melbourne was founded from Launceston so it is fitting that Tasmania’s unique gift to the Church is now centred in Melbourne!  Once again Melbourne is beholding to Tasmania.

Jesus said that a sower went out to sow. He carried the seed which had the potential for growing into a full plant and yield a harvest. This is the story of the Church: we are called to go out carrying the seed of the Word of God. This seed has great potential for fruitfulness when it is planted in the good soil of people’s hearts.

Today as we commemorate seventy years of response to the vision of Fr John Wallis, let us be aware that the issue that was burned on his heart continues to be a challenge for us today. In Tasmania today there still remain children in isolated places – and indeed in our urban and town centres - who do not have the opportunity to receive a basic formation in the Catholic faith. We have children who do not attend Catholic schools – thousands of them – who need to be given the opportunity to come to know Christ and live their faith within the Catholic Church. We still face a great challenge in transmitting the faith to every baptised child.

How we will continue to respond to the burning concern of Fr John Wallis? How will this generation rise to meet this need? Who will stand up and come forth as did women in the 1940s and 50s and 60s? Will we see new vocations coming forth from among the young men and women of the Church in Tasmania in a new century and a new millennium? There is a time now for the Church here to wake to the challenges we face. I particularly call young people to step forth and serve Christ and the needs of the Church.

The Missionary Sisters of Service have been sowers of the seed and for this we are grateful. There has been much evident fruitfulness from their efforts, even if much of what they have achieved is known only to God.

Today we celebrate seventy years since foundation. We salute the Missionary Sisters of Service for all that they have done, particularly in the isolated families and communities of Tasmania and on the mainland.

May this day be a day of true rejoicing.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Friday, 11 July 2014