On December 15, 2023, Very Reverend Brian F. Terry, SA, Minister General of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, gave a homily on the 125th Anniversary of the founding of the order.
He told those in attendance the story of the founding of the order, and he implored them to open themselves to God’s mission, even if it is unpopular in its time. He also encouraged attendees to persevere even in hardship.
“The mission of the Society of the Atonement is not an abstract idea,” he said. “It is the way the friars and sisters and associates and tertiaries and lay collaborators have made incarnate the will of God, the whisper of God, that all may be one. Imagine the faith lived day by day for 125 years of so many who have gone before us and the wonderful witness to love of God made by their very lives. They were drawn by the life in mission of Jesus’ at-one-ment. They had hope. Sometimes in the trials and tribulations, pandemics and depressions, that may have been all they had. But it had sufficed in the past, God had not changed his mind in the past and God was not going to start now. It was covenant. God does not go back on a covenant.”
Homily of V. Rev. Brian F. Terry, SA
Society of the Atonement 125th Anniversary Mass
St. Patrick’s Cathedral ~ December 15, 2023
Celebratory greetings. There is so much to say.
We often look to God in our lives. And we want God to send big clear messages of how we are to be disciples What are we to do? But as we hear in the prophets, our God is a god of inspiration. Isaiah calls us to be healers of the breach, but how was he inspired? We remember how Elijah went looking for God in the wind and earthquakes and fire. God was found in a delicate whisper. And, when our Founders heard a delicate whisper, they were inspired. They took in a deep breath. Not any breath, but the very breath of God. It is creative. They breathed in the very breath of God to make it their own for a lifetime. They became dedicated to the very words Jesus breathed at his last night with friends. Jesus prayed, that all may be one.
Today we mark when the whispers of God became a reality in two servants of God. We mark when 125 years ago today, Mother Lurana Francis White and a handful of sisters arrived at the “howling wilderness,” a snowy, blizzard covered small field near a site which would later be called Graymoor. They began their lives together as Franciscan Sisters in the Society of the Atonement. One has to start an adventure with God at some time, in some place. It was there.
By divine grace, Mother Lurana and the sisters fully trusted the vocation God had given them to bear witness to at-one-ment through a life of Franciscan corporate poverty and devotion to the Holy Eucharist. From the drafty, humble beginnings of rented rooms in the Dimond House, that original community of prayer at Graymoor would become a sacred place of contemplation, study, spiritual enrichment, healing and hospitality that it is today.
Fr. Paul James Francis Wattson would arrive late in the spring of 1899 and take shelter in his own drafty paint shack. It was loaned to him by a local farmer. It was a gift, and he was profoundly grateful to God. He referred to it as the “Palace of Lady Poverty,” the Portiuncula of the Society of the Atonement. It was evidence to him of his own sacred, little, gentle whisper he had heard from God. He had unending faith in a God who would provide a future for this little Episcopal Franciscan congregation. As St. Paul writes, “It is when I am weak then it is I am strong.”
The Founders had been called earlier in 1898 to what they experienced as a covenant with God, who had also called Francis of Assisi to “rebuild my home, which has fallen into ruins.” Fr. Paul said many times, this Society is of God. It is of God.
Mother Lurana and Fr. Paul’s response was to empty themselves of the treasures of this world and fill themselves only with God’s inspiration and the desire, the mission to live and preach hope, healing and harmony in Franciscan poverty. They were determined to boldly embrace what Jesus himself had experienced. Jesus gave up being only God to embrace the self-emptying transformation of the at-one-ment, the moment where all of creation was made one with God.
Philippians chapter 2 verse 5 reads, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” That holy birth… it is a holy time. It is so fitting the Society of the Atonement was founded in Advent, the watching and waiting for the glorious moment of the incarnation, the self-emptying of God. That moment in history where, finally, the dream God had dreamed of since the first whispers of creation was about to come to life. The Christ child would unite God and humanity in a way never before seen in history. Glory!
Fr. Paul and Mother Lurana too sat before their moment in history they had dreamed about with God. The incarnate Christ, crucified and risen was their stronghold. They put their faith in this incredible risk, a risk not only to try it out for a while, but the risk of a living a totally new life. It is the risk of hope and hope does not disappoint. When you hope, you usually don’t hope for the same thing, you usually hope something will be different.
So, while we are celebrating the occasion of a date in history, we also celebrate our same commitment to bear witness to the mystery of at-one-ment this very day, no matter what comes. Think about the struggles faced in the early days: a tiny group of Episcopal religious women and men, simply relying on the generosity of God and the charity of benefactors, who were committed to the reunion of Catholics and Anglicans, not popular at the time, because it was centered on an embrace of the Pope and papal authority. Very strange for the time.
But God’s call to holiness and mission are not always popular and can be seen as strange while growing. The whispers of vocations are always small. But, as Jesus’ prayer that all may be one was prayed, through prayer, missions grow and change the world. For example, Mother Lurana and Fr. Paul’s witness to the Gospel call for unity was doggedly adhered to and they sought all means to promote Jesus’ prayer. In Graymoor’s magazine, The Lamp, the founders began in networking with other Anglo Catholics in a greater and greater circle of prayer. In time, the prayer grew so much they established in 1908 what would be called The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This prayer led to mission and action. A second gentle whisper of grace would lead the Society to a prophetic moment, as all the members sought full communion with the Catholic Church and it was joyfully granted by Pope Pius X in October 1909. For the founders, this was another act of absolute trust in God’s will and a witness to humility as all in the Society came under the obedience of Rome. It led to hardship as they departed from the very independent Episcopal Church, always remembering her as a place of nurture, a place of preparation. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the sisters and friars simply went forward. It was not popular to some — they were Episcopalians who became Catholic — so not really Catholic, and separating from the Episcopal Church they were no longer Episcopalian. But, even with a lack of initial popularity, the new path was blessed by God as slowly the Society itself began to grow in numbers and too the Society saw a growing following of what Fr. Paul would call “children of the atonement”. And people started to come to Graymoor. Some to pray and some with great need. God was sending the poor and broken to Fr. Paul and Mother Lurana. The at-one-ment was to be a healing force in our world. All peoples still come to Graymoor. All are welcome.
Many of us can call to mind the zealous ministries of sisters and friars who came in the generations after our founders. Hundreds of sisters and friars have been called to our Franciscan Atonement way of life and ministered well in the work of Christian unity, healing the broken and addicted, teaching the young in poor missionary parishes all over North America, Japan, Brazil and Italy, evangelizing the world by radio through the Ave Maria Hour, providing places of retreat and in pastoring missionary parishes in North America, Japan, England, Ireland, Brazil and Jamaica, and recently establishing communities of formation in Italy, Peru and the Philippines.
The mission of the Society of the Atonement is not an abstract idea, it is the way the friars and sisters and associates and tertiaries and lay collaborators have made incarnate the will of God, the whisper of God, that all may be one. Imagine the faith lived day by day for 125 years of so many who have gone before us and the wonderful witness to love of God made by their very lives. They were drawn by the life in mission of Jesus’ at-one-ment. They had hope. Sometimes in the trials and tribulations, pandemics and depressions, that may have been all they had. But it had sufficed in the past, God had not changed his mind in the past and God was not going to start now. It was covenant. God does not go back on a covenant.
And for the present, we are small, but in respect to some religious orders, we have always been small. Today, many of our other sisters and brothers in religious life find themselves in small communities. But God’s gentle whispers are sometimes small. The witness of utter humble reliance on grace is as imperative in our time as it has been. So, no excuses. Let’s get to it. All we need to do is look back for proof of faith: all the great numbers and works were not of our own making. That’s where we might get it wrong. God has enlivened generations of sisters and friars to become instruments of the gifts of God in order to join in Christ’s reconciliation of humanity with God in the mystery of the Atonement.
Right now, God uses the few to do more. So be it. It is our new poverty.
Our hope is not in guarantees we can see fulfilled. Rather our hope is in the promise of reconciliation and unity, at-one-ment, which remains a work of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. So, we friars and sisters need to challenge ourselves as the whole church is challenging itself in a world which is terribly tumultuous. Dare we risk and continue the adventure with God? Isn’t it just easier to abandon God’s promise because it isn’t lining up with our expectations or it’s too hard? Or do we thank God for the little whisper in the wind. Even when it is wrapped in the winter chill that comes through cracks in a paint shed and freezes the dish towels trying to dry from washing the dinner dishes?
We Joy in God. We Joy in who and what God sends us. We give profound thanks to God for our vocations. Thanks be to God who has born us up on eagles’ wings for 125 years. Thanks be to God who keeps the promises to his faithful for all time to come. Keep hoping, keep trying, keep risking, keep praying.
If the Sisters who first huddled together and prayed in a blizzard could see us celebrating mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. If Fr. Paul, who slept in a paint shack and welcomed homeless men to stay in the chicken coop which one day would become St. Christophers Inn, could see us with a state-of-the-art treatment center and recovery community. If our founders could know of the schools and ministries in Japan; ecumenical centers in Rome (Centro Pro Unione) and in New York (GEII) and Brazil; the recovery ministries we help support in Ukraine and in Russia; blossoming new foundations in Puerto Rico, Lima, Peru and the wonderful increase in vocations. What would they say?
All who joined us here today are children of the Atonement. We humbly thank you for walking with us. For being the instrument of God’s hope, healing and harmony. We just had a conference a few weeks ago in Rome in which there was a renewed call for the prophecy of hope.
You here are hope that is more than hope. The world need hope. Let us bring hope. Let the whisper of God fill us. Let the breath of Jesus be ours as we pray as Jesus prayed the night before he went to the cross to show us the power of the at one-ment.
Min’na ga hitotsu ni nareru yo ni.
Para que todos puedan ser uno.
Che tutti siano uno.
That all may be one.