National Catholic Register

Commentary

The Allure of Communities Filled ‘With Joy and the Holy Spirit’

When consecrated persons live with authenticity and transparency, they help promote future vocations

BY Jim Cosgrove

January 3-9, 1999 Issue | Posted 1/3/99 at 2:00 PM

 

Following is the second in a series of excerpts from the Statement of Conclusions issued regarding four days of recent meetings between the bishops of Australia and the Cardinal Prefects of the Congregations in Rome:

Consecrated life, as evidenced by its universal presence and evangelical witness, is not isolated and marginal, but a reality which affects the whole Church. Because consecrated life manifests the inner nature of the Christian calling and has contributed significantly to the vitality of the Church in Australia, she is committed to supporting it. Elsewhere in this document, the great contributions of religious, oftentimes as pioneering innovators and at great personal and community sacrifice, have been recognized.

VOCATIONS: ‘AUTHENTICITY AND TRANSPARENCY’

The Church in Australia is undergoing a difficult period due to the decline of vocations to the consecrated life. In light of this challenge, the Church must pray for vocations. The Lord always heeds the prayer which issues from the Church and, in responding, always far exceeds our expectations. In addition to prayer (cf. Matthew 9:37-38), and to heeding the invitation of Jesus to “Come and see” (John 1:39), a primary responsibility of all consecrated men and women is to propose the ideal of the following of Christ, and then to support the response to the Spirit's action in the heart of those who are called.

Consecrated persons need to show forth a life which is recognized for its transparency and authenticity, and this in regard to their spirituality, their ministry and their community living.

All must be able to recognize in them the fact that they are distinguished by an intense spiritual life sustained by prayer, especially by the Eucharist, by fidelity to the evangelical counsels and by ascesis. Consecrated persons are to be “experts in God,” and in his ways. Their whole being ought to be suffused with the divine presence. When people approach religious, they should find men and women whose lives bespeak union with God, and whose lives invite others into that union.

Consecrated persons express the person of Christ — Christ saving and redeeming, Christ forgiving, Christ healing, Christ teaching, Christ in every gesture of compassion toward those in need, Christ loving his people. But there is still more to the apostolate. As the apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata puts it: “More than in any activity, the apostolate consists in the witness of one's own complete dedication to the Lord's saving will, a dedication nourished by the practice of prayer and of penance” (n. 44). “The very purpose of consecrated life is conformity to the Lord Jesus in his total self-giving” (Vita Consecrata 65).

The authenticity and transparency of community life are a striking expression in our time of the fact that living together in grace, with one mind and one heart, is not merely a possibility, but a reality. The whole Church greatly depends on the witness of communities filled “with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52). Such authentic common living, where each one supports and forgives the other, witnesses to the presence of Jesus and speaks directly to the deep yearnings of the heart. For members of Institutes of consecrated life, community life is of the essence of their vocation.

When consecrated persons live their vocation with authenticity and transparency, they are an example of total commitment to the Gospel lived in the spirit of their Founders. This example, joined with constant prayer, is a very effective vocational promotion program. As Pope Paul VI reminded us, people of our age, especially the young, have become skeptical of mere words, and are convinced by words only when these are accompanied by example (cf. apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi 41). The example of consecrated persons evidently rooted in Christ is the best way to convince and inspire young people, inviting them to follow Christ in religious Institutes.

PROBLEMS: FORMATION

Formation, both initial and ongoing, is aimed at showing in the various moments of life that religious belong totally and joyfully to the Lord. Both formators and those being formed need clarity regarding the charism of the Institute. For this purpose, the establishment of structures to train those responsible for formation would be helpful. The whole person needs to be formed, in every aspect of one's being, human, cultural, spiritual, and pastoral.

Ongoing formation for every member is an intrinsic requirement of consecrated life. Institutes have made great efforts in this area. As a result, religious are often found in solidarity with the most marginal elements of society and in new ministries. In some instances, however, problems have arisen because the selection of formators or of centers for ongoing formation was not made in view of full communion with the Magisterium of the Church.

PROBLEMS: FRAGMENTATION

Because of a changing world and changing expectations, of a desire to be closer to the people or to one's work, or because of the cost of maintaining large buildings, a number of religious have, with permission of their superiors, opted to leave communities in order to live in apartments or privately. Such an option, however, fragments the life and witness of an Institute.

It is not enough that individual members of Institutes engage in employment in the secular sphere and find living accommodations singly. It is not enough that religious engage in any work whatsoever, even if they do this “in the spirit of the Founder.” Such general dispersal of members and of energies prejudices the corporate witness of an Institute which was founded with a specific charism for a specific purpose. Such charisms are given by the Holy Spirit for the good of the entire Church, and religious need to be faithful to them.

The fragmentation of Institutes is often accompanied by a practical redefinition of members. Various Institutes now have associate members or collaborators, who share for a period of time the Institute's community life and its dedication to prayer and the apostolate.

This needs to be arranged in such a way, however, that the identity of the Institute in its internal life is not harmed. Though the collaboration of associates allows works conducted by the Institutes to continue, it needs to be recognized that lay associates are not members of the Institute in the way that professed members are. Associate members are not an alternative to the vocations decline.

LIVING IN COMMUNION

Vita Consecrata expresses a rich mystery in simple terms: “The Church is essentially a mystery of communion, ‘a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’” (n. 41). This communion is expressed at every level of her life. It is communion that distinguishes her as a body from all other bodies, for communion is not mere regulation, but is an ordering of relationships, in charity, within the Body of Christ. Each member of the Body has a specific importance and role. The Church does not create her own ordering and structuring, but receives them from Christ himself.

In light of the Council's strong teaching about communion, “consecrated persons are asked to be true experts of communion and to practice the spirituality of communion. … The sense of ecclesial communion, developing into a spirituality of communion, promotes a way of thinking, speaking and acting which enables the Church to grow in depth and extension” (Vita Consecrata 46). Indeed, “the Church was not established to be an organization for activity, but rather to give witness as the living Body of Christ” (Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes and Sacred Congregation for Bishops, Directive Note Mutuae Relationes, 20). In the Founders and Foundresses we see a constant and lively sense of the Church, which they manifest by their full participation in all aspects of the Church's life and in their great cooperation with and ready obedience to the bishops, especially to the Roman Pontiff.

CONSECRATED PERSONS IN THE CHURCH COMMUNITY

Consecrated persons must be in communion with their pastors, and this at the level of both the particular Church and the universal Church. Consecrated persons are called to be mindful of the ancient dictum: sentire cum Ecclesia, to live and think and love with the Church. In this regard, Vita Consecrata is very explicit. “A distinctive aspect of ecclesial communion is allegiance of mind and heart to the Magisterium of the bishops, an allegiance which must be lived honestly and clearly testified to before the People of God by all consecrated persons, especially those involved in theological research, teaching, publishing, catechesis and the use of the means of social communication. Because consecrated persons have a special place in the Church, their attitude in this regard is of immense importance for the whole People of God” (Vita Consecrata 46).

The special place of consecrated persons in the Body is recognized by the Church when she erects the Institutes, confirms their Constitutions, entrusts an apostolate to the community and recognizes the profession of each member. Because the one Faith underlies the Church's life, all members must be in union with the teaching of the Church. In matters of the Faith, communion rules out such concepts as “loyal opposition,” or “faithful subversion.” The faithful strive to deepen their understanding of the Faith, not to oppose it or to subvert it. Institutions, especially in the field of education, which are under the authority of consecrated persons should assure that lecturers, both those who are on staff and those who are invited, serve, in union with the Church, to deepen the understanding of Faith.

LOYALTY TO THE CHURCH

While relations between the bishops and the major superiors have been, generally, good, with most problems resolved by dialogue and understanding, still several difficulties have emerged with importance for the Church.

Religious, by reason of their public state in the Church, are prominent in the eyes of the faithful and of the secular media. This prominence requires a more evident fidelity to the Magisterium than is required of ordinary faithful. What is true of all religious is even more true of major superiors, by reason of their office. What is true of major superiors is still more true of a conference of major superiors erected by the Holy See.

The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life has shared with the bishops several concerns about situations in Australia, and asks them to dialogue with the major superiors regarding such points as promoting prayer for ecclesial vocations, including those of consecrated life, and deepening both communion within the Church and assent to the Magisterium regarding such areas as the non-ordination of women to the priesthood, the theology of the Church and of the sacraments of faith, the theology of communion and moral problems.