Each year on Feb. 2, the Church marks the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life. St. John Paul II established this observance in 1997 on the feast of the Presentation to thank God for the great gift of consecrated life, to promote greater knowledge of and esteem for it and to give consecrated persons the opportunity to renew fervently their total self-offering to God.
The Presentation was chosen because, on this feast, traditionally called Candlemas, Mass begins with a procession of blessed, lit candles, evocative of Simeon’s description of Jesus at the Presentation as a “light of revelation to the nations.”
Those in consecrated life, St. John Paul stressed, are those who reflect the light of Jesus’ total consecration to the Father and who, like the wise bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable, burn like lamps lit for the embrace of Jesus, the Bridegroom.
This year’s celebration has special resonance because it is occurring during the first Year for Consecrated Life in the history of the Church. Pope Francis inaugurated this holy year in November, on the First Sunday of Advent, and announced that it will extend to next year’s feast of the Presentation. It’s fitting that one of only 20 successors of St. Peter from religious orders and the first since 1846 would be the one to call and guide this 14-month observance.
There’s a practical genius and aim behind ecclesiastical holy years, because they focus the attention of the Church on an important aspect of Christian faith and life that needs to be more deeply understood, valued and lived.
St. John Paul II, who witnessed the importance of holy years in forming and strengthening people in faith under communist oppression in Poland, convened holy years to celebrate and give greater attention to our redemption (1983), Mary (1987), Jesus Christ (1997), the Holy Spirit (1998), God the Father (1999), the Incarnation (2000), the rosary (2002-3) and the Eucharist (2004-5).
Pope Benedict continued the practice, convoking holy years dedicated to St. Paul (2008-9), the priesthood (2009-2010) and the Christian faith as a whole (2012-3).
Now, Pope Francis has called his first, at the suggestion, he said, of Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz and Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, respectively the prefect and secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
He announced it to sustained applause at the end of a Nov. 29, 2013, meeting with the general superiors of communities of religious men, in which he said that consecrated persons are called in a special way to help the entire Church “wake up the world” by showing everyone that there is a different, better, more radical and joy-filled way of thinking, acting and living — in short, a more Christlike way of life — than most in the Church and in the world have adopted.
In his apostolic letter to all consecrated persons at the beginning of this holy year, Pope Francis said that this year has a triple aim of looking to the past with gratitude, living the present with passion and embracing the future with hope.
We need this Year for Consecrated Life first to thank God for the gift of consecrated life and for the vocations God has given to so many men and women throughout the centuries to build up the Church and to call us to a greater following of God.
Where would the Church be without Sts. Augustine, Benedict, Francis, Dominic, Ignatius, Vincent de Paul, Alphonsus Liguori and John Bosco? Or without Sts. Scholastica, Clare, Bridget, Angela Merici, Teresa of Avila, Jane de Chantal, Louise de Marillac, Elizabeth Seton, Frances Cabrini and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta? Or without the ceaseless prayer and the educational, medicinal and charitable works of so many consecrated men and women in every generation, including our own?
This year is an occasion to say thanks not only to God but to all those who have said Yes to God’s call to dedicate themselves to him as contemplative monks and cloistered nuns, as religious brothers, sisters and priests, as members of secular institutes and societies of apostolic life, as consecrated virgins, hermits and widows, and in so many new expressions of consecrated life by which the life, virtues and values of Jesus are daily made more visible, drawing us from the superficial to the sacred and from the ephemeral to the eternal.
We also need this year to bring about, in some areas, a passionate and much-needed renewal of consecrated life and a greater attentiveness to God’s calling others to embrace this way of life. Without this, Pope Francis’ aim of “embracing the future with hope” would remain sterile, saccharine optimism.
But this year is much needed as well to help the entire Church rediscover the essence of the Christian life and the meaning of our baptismal consecration. It is meant to startle all of us out of our spiritual stupor, so that we may, in turn, together with those in consecrated life, wake up the world.
Pope Francis, in his apostolic letter at the beginning of the year, said that he wants the whole Church to experience it as a “grace” by which we can all become more aware of the gifts we, too, have received. “The Year for Consecrated Life concerns not only consecrated persons, but the entire Church,” he stressed.
St. John Paul II gave us, in Vita Consecrata, his profound 1996 exhortation on the consecrated life and its mission in the Church and in the world, the fundamental reason why this year should be a real grace for all of us.
It’s because the consecrated life “is not something isolated and marginal, but a reality that affects the whole Church,” he underlined. “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 and the striving of the whole Church as Bride towards union with her one Spouse.”
The consecrated life reveals, he accentuated, both the essence of the Christian vocation in this world and the next. To understand the nature and purpose of the Christian life, to know the meaning of our baptismal consecration, discipleship and mission and to enter and live in God’s kingdom so as to live in it forever, we do well to turn to the consecrated life. Consecrated life reveals various paradigmatic elements that every Christian in whatever state of life ought to grasp and embrace.
So to mark this Year for Consecrated Life, I’m going to do a five-part series on what every Catholic can learn from consecrated men and women about how to live the Christian life as it deserves to be lived. We’ll ponder together what consecrated persons teach us about the nature of baptismal consecration and the calling to holiness and the primacy of prayer and authentic Christian community life, as well as finding our true wealth, love and freedom in uniting ourselves to Christ’s poverty, chastity and obedience and living for God and his kingdom as joyful, eschatological signs.
The Church needs this Year for Consecrated Life. We all need it. As we mark the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life within this unique year in Church history, let’s pray for consecrated men and women and for all of us in the Church, that we may experience it as a “grace” and live it radically.
Father Roger Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts,
and is national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA.
He provided expert commentary for EWTN
during the conclave that elected Pope Francis.