Witness of Consecrated Life


This talk was originally given at the National Religious Vocation Conference in October 2010 and is a reponse to a talk given by Bro. Sean Sammon, FMS, entitled “Forward in Hope,” available on this website. 

Untitled-1.jpgMy thanks to Brother Sean Sammon, FMS, for drawing us into a deeper reflection on the challenges and opportunities inherent in religious life in the United States today (published in Jan. 25, 2011 issue of this online magazine). By way of response, I would like to address two questions: What have we learned from the journey of the last fifty years? And what is the problem we’re trying to solve?  Stating the problem accurately sets us in the direction of the solution.

What have we learned from the journey of apostolic religious life in the United States over the last fifty years?  First of all, not every circumstance which brought religious life to its present state was within our control. The dramatic decrease in the size of the average Catholic family is one example: parents with two children are not as eager and proud of having one of their offspring embrace a celibate way of life, as were parents who had six or eight children.


Also, the changing role of women in society provided young women with far more career opportunities than previously.  Further, the prevailing culture of secularism and materialism, the strains of post-modernity such as individualism and skepticism about over-arching narratives, are part of the air we breathe. We can—and do—try to live lives in opposition to these cultural messages, but we can’t escape contact with them.


Changes Flowed From Obedience

Untitled-2.jpgA second learning is that the Church at large has little or no idea what prompted our changes. The short explanation is that we embarked on a process of change because the Church mandated it in Council’s Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of the Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis) and the associated Norms for its implementation.

We didn’t change out of defiance, but in obedience to the Church’s direction. Many of the practices and customs prior to Vatican II encouraged immaturity, contributed to a public image of naivete and irrelevance, and were even psychologically harmful.  However, looking back, we can see that we were so taken up in the changes we were making, that we rarely thought of trying to explain them to the parishioners in the pews. 

A third learning is that the model of experimentation which was mandated by the Vatican documents was never effective.  In any social science experiment there is an experimental group and a control group. At the end of the experiment the impact of the two groups can be assessed and thus the experiment is evaluated. But in the case of experimentation in religious congregations, we were all mandated to participate.

Thus there was never a control group to permit evaluation.  And if, after three or five years of the new practice, e.g., driving cars or going out without a companion, the results were not exactly what had been intended, it was impossible to return to the status quo ante. I think it’s safe to say that our ‘experiments’ were never subjected to the rigorous evaluation which the term implies. There were unintended consequences which would also have figured in any assessment.  There is much more that could be said about our learnings, but let me move on to the second, and more important, question.

Focus on the Proper Question

Untitled-3.jpgWhat is the problem we’re trying to solve today, the question we’re trying to answer? It’s not how can we increase the number of new recruits for our religious congregations. That is a self-serving question which focuses on the needs of the existing congregations and which only has the potential to engage the energy of present members.  Rather, the question is how can we strengthen the witness of consecrated life within the whole Church?  Put this way, the question has the potential to engage the energy of the whole Church (and justifies the representative cross-section of the Church which is present here this weekend). 

In his 1994 Apostolic Exhortation on Consecrated Life, Vita Consecrata—which he addressed to the whole Church—Pope John Paul II cites in several places the gift which this life is to the Church: “In effect,” he says,” the consecrated life is at the very heart of the Church as a decisive element for her mission, since it ‘manifests the inner nature of the Christian calling.’” He adds, the consecrated life “is a precious and necessary gift for the present and future of the People of God, since it is an intimate part of her life, her holiness and her mission.”   So what is at stake here is something which contributes in a unique and irreplaceable way to the life, the holiness, and the mission of the Church.

Untitled-4.jpgA  Radical Gift of Self

What does consecrated life signify and contribute to the People of God by its very existence?  Let me suggest three unique proclamations which consecrated life makes.  The first is that God is worthy of the total gift of oneself. In the words of Paul VI’s Evangelica Testificatio (June 29, 1971), religious life presents the Church:

“with [a] privileged witness of a constant seeking for God, of an undivided love for Christ alone, and of an absolute dedication to the growth of His kingdom.  Without this concrete sign there would be a danger that the charity which animates the entire church would grow cold, that the salvific paradox of the Gospel would be blunted, and that the ‘salt’ of faith would lose its savor in a world undergoing secularization.” (#3) 

We need to make visible that, because God’s love for us is so compelling, we want to commit ourselves totally to God in a life of celibacy, poverty, obedience, prayer, ministry, and community. 

Many Diverse Charisms Blossom

A second truth we proclaim is about the Church, namely, that the Church includes a diversity of charisms within the one communion. After reiterating the common call to holiness of all Christians, Vita Consecrata goes on to assert that diversity is also a work of the Spirit.  “It is the Spirit who establishes the Church as an organic communion in the diversity of vocations, charisms and ministries.”

Untitled-5.jpgThe vocations of lay, clerical, and religious life are described as paradigmatic choices, “inasmuch as all particular vocations . . . are in one way or another derived from them or lead back to them, in accordance with the richness of God’s gift.”  (#31)  The diversity represented by these three fundamental options corresponds perfectly with the idea of the Church as communion, which is the premise of post-Vatican II ecclesiology.

Diversity is also present within consecrated life, as well as among the three fundamental states of life.  Religious institutes may be clerical, non-clerical, or mixed; monastic, mendicant, evangelical, or apostolic; contemplative or active; pontifical or diocesan, ancient or modern. New institutes arise and old ones pass away.  Whatever the canonical form or historical situation, religious life is inherently counter-cultural. It will always be the choice of the few rather than of the many.

However, it is an enduring way of life that seems to flourish in one epoch or cultural milieu and diminish in another, only to revive again with new vigor.  In either case, its enduring presence serves to remind us of something essential to the nature of the Church, namely, its wonderful God-given variety within profound unity.

Human Goodness With God’s Grace
A third truth which religious life represents is the reminder of the possibility of human goodness under the action of God’s grace. The previous two points referred to revelations about God and about the Church; this is a truth about ourselves, namely, that, with God’s help, we Untitled-6.jpghuman beings are capable of living in a genuinely counter cultural, selfless, God-oriented way.

This presumes, of course, that our community life and good works have some degree of visibility and that we are able to give words to the faith and hope and love that is within us.  Our human weaknesses and failings are all too evident; it serves no purpose to deny them.  Our good works should be even more evident, as we address the pressing needs of God’s people today.

Renewing the vision of consecrated life laid out here will ask a great deal of present-day religious. Beyond commissioning vocation directors and using modern media, we have to have vibrant local communities to which we can invite young people to share our prayer and observe our life together. We have to show them not only what we do, but how we live. The locus of choice and change will be each individual institute. 

The leadership conferences—LCWR, CMSWR, and CMSM—have no authority to mandate change. An individual member can make choices in favor of greater visibility, but she can easily be marginalized. Institute-wide change will require leadership, a willingness to ask hard things of ourselves. 

Untitled-7.jpg[We might look for encouragement to the lay ecclesial movements which have proliferated in the 20th century, particularly in Europe and Latin America. Their growth has been phenomenal, numbering in the hundreds of thousands.  Contrary to what we might assume, membership in one of these movements, e.g., Focolare or the Neo-Catechumenate, is very demanding, beyond the commitment some of our members would be willing to make.] 

I have a fear that some of our commitment to participative decision-making has the unwanted effect of leading us to decisions which everyone can embrace, and no one is left out.  We need leaders who can issue bold challenges—not about our action on some public policy or social justice issue, although these can be appropriate—but about our life style and ministry.

Renewing the vision will also require support from bishops and clergy (beyond an apostolic visitation with its elements of suspicion and implied correction). And most of all, it will require support from lay women and men who believe in the vision, who support it in the classroom and in their families, who understand the present day challenges to the vision, and who unite in prayer for its ongoing vigor and renewal.

For the full results of the “NRVC/CARA Study on Vocations”