Consecrated Life Seen as a Gift of Faithful Commitment to an Anxious World
The 24th World Day for Consecrated Life Feb calls consecrated men and women to be the light of the world.
ROME — Consecrated life was celebrated by religious, clergy and laity worldwide on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ. Initiated by Pope St. John Paul II in 1997 following the publication of his post-synod exhortation Vita Consecrata, the annual World Day for Consecrated Life coincides with the holy day known as Candlemas, so that the Church can pray for those who choose to model their lives after Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, by formally giving themselves to a life of Christian service and prayer..
And this call to imitate the Son of God by bringing his “gaze of compassion” to every generation was reiterated by Pope Francis during the Mass celebrated on the eve of the celebrations in St. Peter’s Basilica with the members of the Institutes of Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life.
While warning against the tendency to see in other people “only hindrances and complications,” the Holy Father encouraged consecrated religious to bring to the world “a gaze that seeks out our neighbor, that brings those who are far-off closer,” “a gaze that does not condemn, but encourages, frees, consoles.” Such a gaze of compassion is, according to him, the “stooping down of Jesus towards each one of us,” that should remain the center of all consecrated persons’ vocation.
According to the Central Office of Church Statistics of the Secretariat of State, consecrated women in the whole world on Dec. 31, 2017, totaled 670,967 (648,910 professed religious and 22,057 members of female secular institutes), while consecrated men numbered 513,596 (414,582 priests; 46,894 deacons; 51,535 professed religious other than priests and 585 members of male secular institutes).
The Strength of a ‘Yes’
Consecrated life refers to any person formally committed for the sake of Christ to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, lived out in a life of celibacy. Such a commitment can assume very different forms, from monastic, missionary or apostolic religious life to societies of apostolic life, hermits, secular institutes, and consecrated virgins and consecrated widows. This variety in vocations confers a significant liberty to Catholic faithful willing to imitate Christ’s life, whether they decide to fully embrace religious life or to engage in lay celibacy.
However, for most consecrated persons, such a freedom is far more than a matter of options.
“Vocation is not a choice; it is a proposal from God that we are free to accept or not,” said Silvia Guidi, a consecrated laywoman and a journalist of the cultural pages of the Holy See’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, in an interview with the Register. “The choice was already made, by God, and accepting his proposal — whatever it is — is the only efficient antidote against anxiety.”
Guidi is a member of Memores Domini, a lay group whose members live the precepts of poverty, chastity and obedience, and whose field of apostolate is the world of work. In answering her own call, Guidi recalled that she initially had difficulties in facing all the implications that her vocation entailed. She said she was especially anxious about becoming part of a community she didn’t know fully, but that would become her family for the rest of her life.
“After the first ‘Yes’ to God — a ‘Yes’ that may initially be weak and uncertain, but explicit — the most fascinating and surprising adventure of life begins,” she said, adding that there are no recipes or directions for living a vocation to virginity. “A friend from my community once told me ‘You’ll learn how to say Yes to him by actually saying Yes to him every day.’”
At a time of deep challenges for the Church, and in a world that is increasingly hostile to lifetime commitments, this daily ‘Yes’ to God may sometimes become a challenge. However, in joy as well as in darkness, consecrated religious see Jesus Christ’s life as the absolute reference and polestar of religious life.
“Our life is all about applying the Gospel precepts that Christ gave us to draw us in his wake,” Father Johannes Lechner, a priest with the Brothers of St. John, told the Register, recalling that Jesus “lived in chastity first, as well as he lived in obedience of the Father and in interior poverty first.” Therefore, the vocation of consecrated persons entirely rests on the “application of these precepts to [every] generation, in their own time.”
A Providential Winter?
Father Lechner made the decision to accept God’s call to consecrated life 30 years ago — a decision that was, for some who knew him, difficult enough to understand at the time. But since that time, Father Lechner said, secular culture on the whole has become even more wary, if not downright hostile, to such commitments.
Beyond the loss of the sense of transcendence and the growing reluctance to make long-term commitments, the wave of scandals affecting the Church, especially that of sexual abuses, has played a major role in both the dramatic drop in the number of vocations and relative mistrust toward religious life in Western societies.
“We have entered a winter period in consecrated life, but such a crisis is an occasion of purification for us and the whole Church, and we must go back to the Gospel foundations, focusing on the roots,” Father Lechner said. “During winter, there are no fruits, no flowers and the tree branches are apparently dead; and yet something is at work at the root level.”
“This is what must happen to consecrated life,” he added, stressing the fact that it cannot become outdated, “no more than Jesus could ever become outdated.”
But rediscovering the roots of religious vocation also suggests that consecrated persons must be ready to undertake a constant search for Christ, with the awareness that He can never be owned. This “apophatic approach” of religious life — which highlights the inexpressible dimension and mysterious work of God — is, according to Father Lechner, essential to the renewal of consecrated life, as it brings its members closer to Christ.
In this sense, a vocation to consecrated life is comparable to a long path on which the follower of Christ is progressively strengthened moving forward. “As the years go by, as the journey progresses, you realize with amazement that you are more and more full of gratitude, you discover that you love in a truer and freer way, with a youthfulness of heart you would never have thought you were capable of,” Guidi said. “From the outside, to those who do not personally live the Christian faith, virginity seems an incomprehensible and meaningless sacrifice, but to those who live it, it opens their heart to a vastness and intensity that were impossible to predict beforehand.”
Testimonies of Eternity
In a world governed by immediacy, where most people are in search of instantaneous and effortless happiness, obsessed with control, power, performance and success, a vocation to consecrated life can be disconcerting. But while life expectancy and the quality of life have never been so high, and everyday life has never been safer in most Western countries, true happiness for contemporary secular culture does not seem to be forthcoming. The significant rise in antidepressant drug use in developed countries, the proliferation of experts on personal development, and the growing list of self-help books seem to confirm the elusive nature of earthly happiness.
“People crave for real meaning in their life and true happiness,” said Joan Kingsland — a consecrated woman from Regnum Christi, a society of apostolic life associated with the Legion of Christ, since 1993. “Someone leading a life like mine gives pause if people detect happiness, and even if they don’t always say it expressly their question is: ‘How could I possibly renounce the goods of this world through the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and yet be happy?’”
This thirst for meaning in today’s world is something that Guidi also understood through such recent worldwide cultural phenomena as the Twilight saga. According to Guidi, this remake of Romeo and Juliet, in which the threat comes from within the couple, aroused the passion of millions of readers because of the beauty of a “difficult love, for which it is worth taking risks” she said. “It is no coincidence that there is so much talk about vampires and romance: they are a convenient metaphor for talking about love and death, eternal life, sacrifice and the sense of sin without sinking into ridicule.”
Inspired by this privileged way of speaking about delicate topics such as faith or virginity, Guidi wrote Rosalina, a play that tells the story of Romeo’s first love, a young woman mentioned but not seen in the play who leaves Romeo to embrace religious life.
In this sense, both Guidi and her heroine embody the belief that consecrated persons truly are the light of the world, offering with their life a testimony of eternity.
Indeed, as Father Lechner noted, in a world diseased with instantaneity, consecrated life teaches patience, above all. “The real fruits of our life are for the eternal life, we live an expectation of heaven from now, and we will see the fruits later,” he concluded, mentioning Thomas Aquinas’ Homo viator (“the wayfaring man”) — never resting in this life, but always journeying toward his final destination, toward eternity. “Our testimony conveys the taste of expectation of eternal life and it can definitely bring relief to the contemporary man who lives under a huge pressure.”