The Institute on Religious Life (IRL), headquartered in Libertyville, Ill., has twice the reason to rejoice in 2014: Its 40th anniversary coincides with the start of the Year of Consecrated Life declared by Pope Francis (to begin in November).
The institute is perfectly positioned for both of these events, as it serves more than 170 men’s and women’s religious communities.
Membership also consists of bishops, priests and several thousand laypeople who wish to support and promote the consecrated life — as well as Catholic colleges of like mind and heart. Members encourage religious and priestly vocations and financially support the apostolate.
In the years after the Second Vatican Council, religious communities were in turmoil. To turn the tide, Servant of God Father John Hardon, at the request of Pope Paul VI, founded IRL in 1974.
Father Hardon recruited bishops, religious superiors and laymen and women to support him in building the institute into a national organization meant to affirm the vocation to authentic consecrated life, especially vowed religious life, and to promote vocations.
Household names quickly became supporters, including Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Blessed Mother Teresa, who spoke at IRL events.
"They were two very different people who recognized how important the work of the IRL was over time," said Anne Tschanz, a longtime lay associate and member of the board of directors.
IRL supporters include recipients of the institute’s Pro Fidelitate et Virtute Award — given to those who live religious life in an exemplary fashion — such as Cardinal Raymond Burke. Another recipient is Mother Angelica, who came to the IRL more than once and was recognized for her "astonishing works against all human expectations" for founding Our Lady of the Angels Monastery and the Missionaries of the Eternal Word, in addition to Eternal Word Television Network.
"Astonishing" is also a good way to describe Father Hardon’s success with IRL. Benedictine Emeritus Abbot Edmund McCaffrey, who is an IRL co-founder and now part of the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., sheds light as to why.
"He didn’t want to miss a moment of evangelization," said Father McCaffrey. "He used every moment to evangelize."
Michael Wick remembers the time he bumped into Father Hardon at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
"He gave me a great appreciation and understanding of consecrated life," Wick recalled. Today, Wick is IRL’s executive director, a post he assumed 14 years ago.
"The IRL’s purpose has been to implement the vision of the Second Vatican Council on the authentic renewal of religious life," Wick explained, adding that Father Hardon "saw a need in the Church and would work toward a solution; the IRL is one expression of that."
IRL’s national director, Norbertine Father Thomas Nelson, emphasized that mission: "We’re trying to communicate to various religious communities the authentic teachings of the Church on consecrated religious life."
To spread the word, IRL distributes books, CDs, DVDs and a bimonthly magazine; it also hosts national and regional meetings and the summer Vita Consecrate Institute at Christendom College. The institute also hosted an EWTN TV series — Answering the Master’s Call — in which those in religious life shared their stories.
When IRL surveyed members a few years ago, asking, "How can we best help you?" the answer was clear: "Vocations. That’s when we really committed ourselves to put time in our website presence," explained Wick, adding that, for many young people, "it’s the digital deep of the Internet where they begin their discernment process."
Now, the IRL oversees its main website of ReligiousLife.com, as well as CloisteredLife.com, ReligiousBrotherhood.com and VocationBlog.com. IRL is also online via social media. In addition, IRL offers free audio "downloads of the month," in cooperation with Lighthouse Catholic Media at SpeakLord.net.
Another way to introduce youth to religious life is IRL’s three-day national meeting at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill. The meeting is held annually on Divine Mercy weekend (April 25-27 this year). This year’s keynote speaker, Mother Dolores Hart, will share her vocational journey and the spiritual wisdom she has gained as a consecrated spouse of Christ.
"A number of young women who have come in and persevered" in our order "met us at the annual meeting," shared Mother Marie Julie, superior general of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady, Mother of the Church (SistersofCharity.com), who will also speak at the meeting.
Mother Marie Julie, who is a member of the IRL board, also emphasized the prayer support from IRL’s laity: "They are faithful to the Church and love the consecrated life. They are powerhouses of prayer."
As Wick looks back on 40 years, he affirms, "We’re beginning to see the fruits" of all of the religious vocations.
Father Nelson is also pleased with IRL’s success after four decades. "The IRL has a good reputation in the Church to fidelity to the Church," he said. "Therefore, communities become members because it’s a stamp of approval, in a certain sense, [that] they are faithful to Church teaching."
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.
ReligiousLife.com or (847) 573-8975