Ten years of evangelisation in the monastery

On Saturday 26 August the Malta-based international evangelising organisation, ICPE, celebrated 10 years in New Zealand. We reprint Fr Brian Wysocki’s homily for the event.

Fr Brian Wysocki

John 12:24-32

In the year 1988 a momentous event occurred which startled the Catholic Community and even the city of Wellington. As a result of much soul-searching and discussion, the Redemptorist Fathers decided to withdraw from this site of their church and monastery in Hawker Street and leave the Archdiocese of Wellington. I say that this was startling because, in those days, such an event was very rare. Did we know it at the time, it was to be the first of many such corporate departures of religious orders and congregations. The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (as the Redemptorists were called) had worked in this city since 1884 and had opened a house in Evans Bay in 1905. A year later this present site was purchased and the Monastery and Church of St Gerard were blessed and opened by Archbishop Redwood in 1932.

I was among the thousands who loudly lamented the departure of these zealous and sometimes, very colourful preachers. For a long time, they had been very much part of the church of Wellington. Their monastery, built on the hilltop for all to see (following the scriptural injunction: Mt 5:14) was a sign, to the city and everybody else, of the truths that we all lived by. But in the 1980s few of us were equipped to deal with this sort of challenge. Up till then, when a religious house was closed, it was normally in the expectation that something bigger and better would replace it.

Of course, scripture states that out of death new life will emerge. John records those words of Christ in today’s gospel: ‘I tell you most solemnly, unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest’ (Jn 12:24).

The only problem was that in the 1980s we were ill-equipped to deal with this sort of death and to realise the true spiritual implications of it all. One must acknowledge the great sensitivity with which the Redemptorists dealt with this situation. For all that, it was an experience which was sad and threatening for many people. At the time, one priest described the whole thing not as a death but as a ‘rather messy divorce’.

In the years following 1988, the complex here went through a series of would-be owners. All of this added to the sense of loss which so many people felt. The prophets of doom said that St Gerard’s had lost its spiritual glory and the place would never be the same again. Of course, it was true that the place would never be the same again but this did not mean that it could not serve a useful purpose – but a different purpose from its original one.

Today’s gospel give us a lead to the future: ‘If anyone serves me, he must follow me, wherever I am, my servant will be there too.’

In the interim period of the unoccupied monastery, the Catholic Institute for World Evangelisation [ICPE] held a School of Evangelisation in 1988. It was highly successful. The building had possibilities. However, for realists, where would a small but zealous apostolic organisation find enough cash to even approach the $3.2 million government valuation on the building and complex? For people who have faith, nothing is impossible – especially when they are dealing with the things of God. True people of God are also men and women of action. A vigorous fundraising scheme was embarked on and a donor in Europe added considerably to this. By 1993, the ICPE was in a position to purchase the building.

The new life that sprang from this dead seed is hard to calculate. As the Spirit blows where it will, so those moved by the Spirit are likely to exercise their influence in a variety of ways. Not merely is this place a venue for courses, schools of evangelisation and corporate prayer but the outreach from here to parishes within New Zealand and projects overseas is truly remarkable. The death of the seed has given rise to new life. This environment also nurtures the spiritual life of all who work here. Every member of this community knows the great truth that if one is to bring Christ to others, it is first of all necessary to know Christ oneself. That is the quest of all who are Christians; it is the specific quest of all who live and work here.

So today, 10 years since the first beginnings of this project, is a time of thanksgiving to God for all the graces which have come to so many people and to many apostolic initiatives which have flowed from this place. It has not always been a smooth journey but all know that all truly apostolic work is always carried out in the shadow of the cross. Christ Jesus lived his earthly life in such circumstances and we are the modern disciples of Christ. Therefore his experiences are a pattern for our experiences. What is more, sometimes problems and challenges will call forth from us the exercise of talents which we did not know we possessed – therefore these events are really experiences of affirmation and of self-worth.

ln acknowledging the work and goodness of so many, it is only fitting that I make mention of Silvana Abela, the first ICPE Director resident at St Gerard’s 10 years ago. Today from Rome, at the ICPE International House at Via Stazione Aurelia, she sends us greetings. Then there are those couples who were closely associated with the challenges, joys and disappointments of those early formative years – the Bergmans, the Copelands, the Hannafords, the Powells, the Romanoses, the Woodnuts. Mention must also be made of the Redemptorist Fathers who did all in their power to make the transition as smooth as possible. Today we acknowledge Fr Humphrey O’Leary, a former provincial superior, who is present among us today and we also recall Fr Bruce McGill.

I should hasten to add that during all this time of this new ICPE Foundation, I was out of the country. I followed progress from afar, usually through the pages of Wel-com. If, in ignorance, I have omitted anyone from this modern Litany of the Saints, my sincere apologies.

So here we are, well over 3,000 days from the beginnings of this project. All of us can appreciate that the death of the seed in 1996 has led to new life which has borne great fruit.

When Pope Paul VI gave the church his apostolic exhortation on Evangelii Nuntiandi (Proclaiming the Gospel) over 30 years ago, he wrote as follows, ‘Those who sincerely accept the Good News of the Gospel … gather together in Jesus’ name in order to seek the kingdom, build it up and live it. They make up a community which is in its turn evangelising. The command to the twelve apostles to go out and proclaim the good news is also valid for all Christians, but in a different way … Those who have received the good news and who have been gathered by it into the community of salvation can and must communicate and spread it.’

We give God thanks on this day that these words of this wonderful pope have found concrete expression in this place. May God bless all who are associated with this great work of evangelisation and may Christ our redeemer continue to bless St Gerard’s and all who live and work here.