Pope Francis has asked that this coming year, beginning on the First Sunday of Advent, be a year dedicated to the Consecrated Life. In doing so, the Holy Father has called the whole Church to reflect on the gift that Religious and Consecrated women and men bring to the life of the Church, and ultimately to the wider world.
More particularly the Pope invites those who have consecrated themselves to the Lord in this way to embrace more deeply the charism of their own Institute or Order, and discern with great fidelity what is Christ’s will for them in the very different and challenging circumstances of the twenty-first century.
The fruitfulness of the Church can be observed in the diverse range of Religious Orders and communities which have grown up in the long history of the Church. We are familiar with many of them, and in the last number of decades since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) there is the phenomenon of the new orders, expressions of community life and the so-called ‘new movements’ which are such a feature of church life today in so many parts of the world.
We will be aware that the three evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience are the vows that are professed by members of religious congregations. Together, they form the basis for living a life of radical consecration to God for the good of the Church.
The vow of chastity frees the Sister to give herself in love totally to Christ and His Body and is marked by aliveness and a spirit of joy.
The vow of poverty frees the Sister to detach her possessions in order to grow into a deeper spirit of self-giving. In living the vow, the Sister depends on the community for her needs as all things are held in common.
The vow of obedience frees the Sister to do the will of God as expressed by her superiors who seek always what is best for the Sister and for the community as a whole.
Pope John Paul II in his Vita Consecrata describes the evangelical counsels in light of the Trinity:
“The chastity of celibates and virgins, as a manifestation of dedication to God with an undivided heart (cf. 1 Cor 7:32-34), is a reflection of the infinite love which links the three Divine Persons in the mysterious depths of the life of the Trinity, the love to which the Incarnate Word bears witness even to the point of giving his life, the love ‘poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 5:5), which evokes a response of total love for God and the brethren.
Poverty proclaims that God is man’s only real treasure. When poverty is lived according to the example of Christ who, ‘though he was rich … became poor’ (2 Cor 8:9), it becomes an expression of that total gift of self which the three Divine Persons make to one another. This gift overflows into creation and is fully revealed in the Incarnation of the Word and in his redemptive death.
Obedience, practiced in imitation of Christ, whose food was to do the Father’s will (cf. Jn 4:34), shows the liberating beauty of a dependence which is not servile but filial, marked by a deep sense of responsibility and animated by mutual trust, which is a reflection in history of the loving harmony between the three Divine Persons” (par 21).
Each religious congregation or institute is blessed by a unique gift of the Holy Spirit called a “charism” which is an expression of the way the congregation is called to follow Christ. A religious community’s charism is expressed in its way of serving the Church in mission, its particular way of living community life and its distinct “culture”. A myriad of charisms forms a fabric of ministries and apostolates within the Church to meet multitudinous needs.
Within the Catholic Church there is a variety of spiritualities stemming from spiritual leaders of the past. Dominican, Franciscan, and Marian spiritualities are three of the many that are known within the Church. Many Orders use the Rule of St Augustine of Hippo! These specific spiritualities refer to systems of values, ideals and a unified manner of life passed down through the ages from St. Dominic, St. Francis and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Each spirituality focuses on specific virtues or spiritual priorities which characterize the way of life of those living within the legacy of the particular spiritual leader.
The spirituality of a religious congregation makes present in a lived and vibrant way the spiritual values passed on to each generation from the original source. There are numerous spiritual approaches to living the truths of the Catholic Church and the vows of religious life. Devotions, ways of prayer, priorities of mission and lived expressions in daily life are manifestations of the spirituality embraced by a religious community.
Among numerous and relatively recent movements for example, are the Focolare, the Neo-Catechumenal Way, Opus Dei, and here specifically in our Diocese of Lancaster new congregations; the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan in Preston, and newly arrived in St. Walburge’s, Preston, the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest also in Preston. We also are blessed have instances of consecrated virgins and widows.
As with the traditional Religious Orders, not all of these New Movements and their own form of spirituality will necessarily appeal to everyone, but they each possess their own charism or gift of Christ’s grace within the body of the Church and as such are to be nurtured and treasured. They are also signs of Christ’s continuing and active presence among his people, in accordance with his promise: Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Mt. 28:20).
By devoting the coming year to the ‘Consecrated Life’, Pope Francis is calling upon all consecrated persons to engage in a re-examination of their way of life, and to discover anew how their particular charism can be of service to the Church and world of today.
In forthright language the Pope speaks to consecrated people of the necessity of branching out, of leaving one’s comfort zone, and moving to those on the margins, if necessary, where the message of Christ needs more than ever to be heard.
Only last Monday, I joined the Bernardine Sisters of Hyning, with many others friends and priests, for a concelebrated Mass of Thanksgiving for their forty years in the diocese of Lancaster. I observed in my homily how a monastery and its community provide an oasis today to so many people, searching for spiritual meaning in their lives, which is ultimately a quest for God himself.
I pray that all those in consecrated life and institutes, both new and old, who form such a vital part of our diocesan family, will continue to flourish and be blessed by Christ. With the assistance of all our prayers, may this year dedicated to the ‘Consecrated Life’ be a year of grace, peace and renewal for all of them.
Until next week – I remain,
As ever in Christ,
+Michael G Campbell OSA
Bishop of Lancaster