Why the Catholic Church Celebrates Consecrated Life

Instituted by Pope St. John Paul II in 1997, the World Day of Consecrated Life recognizes religious and members of societies of apostolic life on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.

Joyful nuns attend the March for Life 2024 in Washington, D.C.
Joyful nuns attend the March for Life 2024 in Washington, D.C. (photo: Courtesy of Jeffrey Bruno)

ROME — Celebrated annually on Feb. 2nd, the World Day for Consecrated Life is intended to “help the entire Church to esteem ever more greatly the witness of those persons who have chosen to follow Christ by means of the practice of the evangelical counsels,” as Pope John Paul II explained when implementing the day.

Within the Church, consecrated life points in a special way to heaven, as a sign of the mystery of the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ proposes the evangelical counsels to every Christian — and it is “the profession of these counsels, within a permanent state of life recognized by the Church, that characterizes the life consecrated to God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 915).

Consecrated life within the Church can take many different forms. While all are called to a life of prayer and penance for the glory of God and salvation of souls, some are called to a life of total seclusion from the world in solitude, such as hermits; others to a life of total seclusion in community, such a religious; and some to dedicate their lifes to God while continuing to live in the world, such as consecrated virgins.

What they all have in common is the obligation of practicing the three virtues of poverty, obedience and chastity in celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God.

“What attracted me to religious life,” Dominican Father Jean-Gabriel Pophillat from the Roman Province of St. Catherine of Siena, told the Register, “was the radicality of it and the fact that you are giving yourself completely over to God as a sacrifice.”

Dominican Father Jean-Gabriel Pophillat
Dominican Father Jean-Gabriel Pophillat(Photo: Bénédicte Cedergren/EWTN)

“According to the teaching of St. Thomas,” Father Jean-Gabriel added, “we are, through our vows, made as if holocausts to God, because we sacrifice all external goods, including the goods of the body through chastity, and also our own will through obedience.”

“Therefore, our life is a sacrifice offered to God for his glory and for the salvation of others,” the Dominican priest explained. “Our lives are sacrifices in the heart of the Church for the life of the Church.”

Christ’s call has been profound for others, too.

“My vocational calling came to me as a beautiful surprise from the Heart of Jesus,” Dominican Sister Mary Madeline Todd, of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tennessee, told the Register via email.

The Baltimore native reflected, “I was blessed to attend a high school in which I was taught by joyful religious daily. When I began to go to daily Mass, I felt in the deepest place of my heart that Christ was asking me to give my whole life and all of my dreams to him. What is most beautiful is what Scripture calls the opportunity to live for Christ with an ‘undivided heart.’ There is a true unity to every aspect of living religious life, entirely immersed in our life of prayer. This deepens the union with Christ that is the basis for our life in community and our service to God’s people.”

At the Heart of the Church

In his 1996 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata, Pope St. John Paul II affirmed that “the consecrated life is at the very heart of the Church as a decisive element for her mission.”

“The heart of the Church is prayer and apostolate,” Oblate Father Martin Wolf, official of the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, told the Register. “And in consecrated life, we find both of these elements lived out in an exemplary way.”

Oblate Father Martin Wolf celebrates Mass.
Oblate Father Martin Wolf celebrates Mass.(Photo: Bénédicte Cedergren/EWTN)

The Oblate explained that consecrated men and women truly live at the heart of the Church since they devote their entire lives to praying for the world and for the Church, as well as to many different works of apostolate, such as taking care of people in schools, in hospitals and other missions.

“Mother Teresa is a great example,” Father Martin added. “She would spend hours every day in prayer, in union with God, and then she would go out and take care of the dying on the streets of Calcutta, so that they could die with dignity.”

Such witness is what the world needs — including the joy of living for God.

“Consecrated life is at the very heart of the Church because the Church is the Bride of Christ. Every believer by baptism is called to a communion of love with the Blessed Trinity,” explained Sister Mary Madeline.

“Consecrated persons are here to show the world how to say ‘Yes’ to the unconditional love of God. We point forward to the way that every soul will live in the union of love with God in heaven. The Church needs this ‘eschatological sign’ to remind all of us that this world is not our ultimate destiny, that there is so much more ahead, and that living for God even now is the source of true joy.”

Sisters of Life Maris Stella (left) and Sister Veritas attend the March for Life 2024. | Jeffrey Bruno

The Importance of Christian Families

During the last decades, there has been an apparant decline of vocations to consecrated life, and the Church has in some countries shared a gloomy prognosis for the future: For example, in a graph released in July 2023 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the number of religious in the United States is projected to decline by nearly 50% over the next 10 years.

“Christians are no longer recognizing the extremity of their Christian calling and the need to live their baptismal promises in a radical way,” Father Jean-Gabriel suggested, “and are instead too easily seduced to live a way of life that conforms to that of the world.”

Arguing that it was easier to discern and choose consecrated life before, when society was more Christian, Father Jean-Gabriel explained that “it is now becoming increasingly obvious that the way of life that the world proposes to us and the way of life that Christ proposes to us are at odds,” making it harder for people to choose something society is steadily distancing itself from.

Similarly, Pope St. John Paul II spoke of the family as the “primary and most excellent seedbed of vocations to a life of consecration to the Kingdom of God” in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio and in Vita Consecrata explained that it is in the family that young people “have their first experience of Gospel values and of the love which gives itself to God and to others.”

“Vocations grow within a concrete family in which the faith is lived,” Father Martin commented. “Families who pray deeply and regularly, families where the father and mother are role models for the faith, are the basis for good vocations,” he said, adding that we can clearly see that where there are no longer traditional and faithful families, there are no longer any vocations.

As for how the Church can motivate and encourage young Catholics to discern (and choose) a vocation to consecrated life today, Sister Mary Madeline said, “The first and foremost way to inspire and encourage vocations is through constant, persevering prayer. I know a diocese that had almost no vocations to the priesthood, and then they dedicated perpetual Eucharistic adoration chapels across the diocese to the intention for priestly vocations, and their number of vocations grew.”

She emphasized that fostering vocations is a task for the entire Church.

“A religious vocation is always a divine grace and gift. We need to build dynamic parishes in which families and individuals are deeply immersed in prayer, sacramental life, and ways of serving others. Thirdly, it is important to encourage vocations actively. I was just talking to a sister this week and we were saying it wouldn’t hurt when you see a person who has excellent qualities for religious life to say what you see in them, never to be aggressive, but to be encouraging.”

Overall, Sister Mary Madeline is “full of hope that consecrated life is alive and well in a diversity of charisms and that the Lord will never fail to call people to give their lives completely to him and the service of his people. I have been living this calling for over 30 years, and I can say that the Lord is full of surprises and that there is profound freedom and joy in saying ‘Yes’ with your whole being to God’s plan for your life.”

Listening to God’s Voice

“If consecrated life is considered essential to the life of the Church, then God will continue to call,” Father Jean-Gabriel said. “It doesn’t mean that he will call many — he might only call one or two, and that might be enough for him — but it means that we must learn how to better perceive his call and respond to it.”

In addition to the “fear of choosing a life that demands everything of a person,” Father Martin said that “the problem is also that we don’t listen, or, rather, that we have too many distractions that make it hard for us to hear God’s call,” such the internet, social media and all the opportunities offered to young people nowadays.

“We need to make the decision to listen to his calling,” Father Martin said. Although God also speaks through other people and through circumstances, “it is essential that we start praying, regularly, faithfully and deeply, both alone, with our family, or with friends. Without prayer, nothing will happen in our lives.”

“I always say that if you want to go on a journey of discovery to find out what God has in store for you, then start praying — a twofold prayer,” Father Martin said. “The first one is, ‘Lord, open my ears so that I can hear what you want from me.’ And the second one is, ‘Lord, I am ready to do what I have recognized.’”