VATICAN CITY — On Feb. 2, all was dark inside St. Peter's Basilica. Only the reddish light of the sunset dimly filtered in through high windows.
Then, thousands of sparkling candle flames gleamed in the dark. They shed light to thousands of black cassocks and brown habits as well as to white, blue, black and gray veils.
The liturgy of the light at the Presentation of the Lord Mass had begun — the yearly Eucharistic celebration for the Church's religious and consecrated people.
Cardinal Martínez Somalo, president of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, celebrated the Eucharist, while Pope John Paul II presided over it with glittering yellow vestments, sitting to the right and below the main altar.
“Today's liturgy,” the Holy Father said in his homily, “opens with the blessing of the candles and the procession to the altar in order to encounter Christ and acknowledge him ‘at the breaking of the bread,’ waiting for his glorious return.”
I was in front of the Pope and saw him earlier smiling. He was looking at his own candle. The assembly was singing an Italian version of Cardinal John Newman's poem: “Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling glooms. Lead Thou me on! The night is dark and I am far from home — Lead Thou me on!”
I believe the Pope was looking into his own life — a life marked by dark suffering but led joyfully by Christ's light. The light of his candle symbolized Christ; the candle wax represented his life consumed by toils and sorrows.
It was the worn-out life of a consecrated man.
I think John Paul sees himself as a religious. He never emitted the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in a congregation, order or institute. Yet he always faithfully followed the Gospel counsels.
As a clandestine seminarian in Krakow, Poland, Karol Wojtyla seriously considered joining the Carmelites. As a priest, he chose an austere lifestyle. As a Pope, he was very close and a devotee to some of the large number of religious he has beatified and canonized — think of Maximilian Kolbe, Faustina Kowaslka, Padre Pio and Mother Teresa.
Throughout his pontificate, John Paul has paid a lot of attention to the Church's consecrated people. He has given hundreds of addresses at the general chapters of different religious orders, written letters to many orders and institutes, organized encounters with the consecrated people in many of the nations he has visited and developed a series of teachings on religious life.
The Holy Father inaugurated the tradition of celebrating or presiding at the Mass for the members of the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life every Feb. 2. During the celebration all present renew their vows or promises before the Vicar of Christ and together with him.
In 1984 the Pope wrote the apostolic exhortation Redemptionis Donum (The Gift of Redemption) to all religious men and women about their consecration in the light of the mystery of salvation. Four years later, he addressed them with another letter on the occasion of the Marian year.
In 1994 he dedicated the Synod of Bishops to “the consecrated life and its mission in the Church and in the world.” Two years later, he published the postsynodal apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata (The Consecrated Life).
“In effect,” he said in No. 3 of the exhortation, “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 toward union with her one Spouse.”
On Jan. 6, 1997, he established the World Day for Consecrated Life celebration. Three reasons moved him to take this initiative, as he states in his January message.
The first reason was “the intimate need to praise the Lord more solemnly and to thank him for the great gift of consecrated life, which enriches and gladdens the Christian community by the multiplicity of its charisms and by the edifying fruits of so many lives totally given to the cause of the Kingdom.”
The second reason was “to promote a knowledge of and esteem for the consecrated life by the entire People of God.” The third was to invite the consecrated persons themselves “to celebrate together solemnly the marvels the Lord has accomplished in them, to discover by a more illumined faith the rays of divine beauty spread by the Spirit in their way of life and to acquire a more vivid consciousness of their irreplaceable mission in the Church and in the world.”
Within the first month of his pontificate, on Nov. 16, 1978, John Paul addressed the general superiors of women's religious orders and called consecrated men and women “the light for the Church and for mankind.”
No doubt, the Pope himself is a “light for the Church and for mankind” — first as a Vicar of Christ but also as a consecrated man.
When he held his candle at the beginning of the Feb. 2 Mass, he was renewing his consecration to God and presenting his life as a light for the Church and for mankind.
His flame burns on while the candle of his body is being consumed.
In fact, his flame lighted the first candles that would light the rest of the assembly's candles. On my left and right there was an Irish family with five children, ages 1 to 9. The four oldest kids — Lucy, Phillipe, Mary and Leo — were thrilled to be among the first to kindle their own candles and pass the light on to others.
Wasn't it what the Holy Father has done throughout his consecrated life — to pass the light of Christ on to others?
If I am ever asked to sum up John Paul's consecrated life, I would use the simple words of the 7-year-old Irish girl who sat on my left in front of the Pope.
After the liturgy of the light, before the readings, we all blew out our candles. The girl didn't.
“Why don't you blow out your candle, Mary?” I asked her.
“Because,” she replied, “I want to keep it on for Jesus.”
Legionary of Christ Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome. firstname.lastname@example.org