Consecrated life teeters on the brink of extinction, or so the story goes. Besides the raw data — vocations have plunged since the Second Vatican Council — some see the crisis as rooted in the nature of religious life itself. The logic is very simple. Religious life, the practice of consecrating oneself to God with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, is a throwback from an earlier time, a relic of the obscurantism that exalted the spiritual in contraposition to all that was “of the world.” But now the Church has at last outgrown its body-soul, spirit-matter schizophrenia and made its peace with the world.
In this new atmosphere of friendship and mutual appreciation between the Church and the world, the story continues, consecrated life no longer has a place. The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience reflect an antiquated mentality whereby the path to holiness lay in renouncing the world, conceived as evil. What is poverty, after all, if not a rejection of material reality? What is chastity if not disdain for human sexuality, a condemnation of the body and perhaps even a covert misogyny? What is obedience if not contempt for human freedom or an infantile groping for security through submission to another's will? Yes indeed, it is high time that the embarrassing blotch of religious life disappear from the Church's mantle.
The trouble is, nobody told the Pope. Just as some are posting the obituary notice, Pope John Paul proclaims the “Jubilee of Consecrated Life.” In his Jan. 30 Angelus message the Holy Father announced that that Sunday, Monday and Tuesday would be dedicated to preparing for this Jubilee, to be celebrated with a solemn papal Mass in St. Peter's Square on Feb. 2, on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. In his address the Pope called consecrated life “a canticle of praise to the Holy Trinity” and a “gift for the whole Church.”
Such thoughts echo John Paul's words in his 1996 apostolic exhortation on consecrated life and its mission in the Church and in the world. In that document, besides giving thanks to God for the gift of consecrated life, the Pope declared it to be “at the very heart of the Church as a decisive element for her mission,” emphasizing its value and necessity “for the present and future of the People of God” (No. 3). Far from forecasting the collapse of consecrated life, John Paul declared: “You have not only a glorious history to recount, but also a great history still to be accomplished!” (No. 110).
Many young people continue to respond to Christ's invitation to leave everything and “come follow me.”
So which is it: Has consecrated life seen its day or can we expect it to play a major role in the Church's life in the new millennium? Judging from the throngs of smiling consecrated men and women that flocked to St. Peter's for the Jubilee, many young people continue to feel the attraction of Christ's invitation to leave everything and “come follow me.” The reason seems to be that young people don't view consecrated life as a rejection of the world, but rather as an authentic vocation, a personal calling from Christ to follow him more closely and to serve their brothers and sisters.
The psycho-sociological analysis that sees religious life as an unhealthy flight from society, while rife with plausibility to the modern mind, falls flat when confronted with reality. Young people are embracing the consecrated life not as an escape from the world, but as a deeper engagement with the world in its most profound need: a true witness to Christ and his Gospel. Many embarking on the path of the “evangelical counsels” of poverty, chastity and obedience had plans for marriage and a family, held successful jobs and managed their lives with great independence. Then one day Christ issued an invitation that changed their lives. Like the first apostles, they left everything to throw in their lot with Jesus of Nazareth, not knowing where their decision would take them.
These young disciples of Christ don't conceive of their vows as disdain for the created world, but rather as a necessary condition to love Christ with all their heart and to devote themselves to their brothers and sisters in an unlimited way. Tough? Sure it's tough, and without a special grace from God it would be impossible. But as the Holy Father remarked in his letter on consecrated life, those who have been given the “priceless gift” of following the Lord Jesus in this extraordinary way “consider it obvious that he can and must be loved with an undivided heart, that one can devote to him one's whole life, and not merely certain actions or occasional moments or activities” (No. 104).
As they have done since the dawn of Christianity, consecrated men and women continue to present to the world a sign of contradiction and testify to the greatness of Christ's love. So if anyone has plans for the demise of consecrated life, he should probably tell the Pope first. Come to think of it, he should probably tell the Holy Spirit, too.
Father Thomas Williams is editor of the book Springtime of Evangelization.