It was the Second Vatican Council which decreed, "From the very beginning of the church men and women have set about following Christ with greater freedom and imitating him more closely through the practice of the evangelical counsels, each in their own way leading a life dedicated to God." It is on this observation that I write in commemoration of the close of the Year of Consecrated Life, which Pope Francis inaugurated on November 30, 2014 (the First Sunday of Advent) and concluded on February 2, 2016 (the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple). Addressing all consecrated people in an Apostolic Letter, His Holiness expressed three aims for this great year: first, “to look to the past with gratitude;” second, “to live the present with passion;” and third, “to embrace the future with hope.” Similarly, he called upon the laity, “who share with them the same ideals, spirit and mission,” and the whole Christian people to become more aware of the gift of consecrated men and women, “heirs of the great saints who have written the history of Christianity.”
Growing up, I was blessed to have been taught, mentored, and befriended by a number of consecrated religious, namely the Sisters of the Resurrection and the Lasallian Brothers. When I arrived at The Catholic University of America, however, my exposure to consecrated religious expanded to include the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans), the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Servant Sisters of Mary Immaculate, and the Pallottines (and their Apostolate Center!), to name a few! As I got to know each of them, I became more aware of the joy and the grace inherent of their living out their respective Order’s charisms and spirituality, be they involving education, service, contemplative prayer, or dogmatic theology. In spite of the differences between each order and the varying reasons each member had for professing, there remains one commonality: desiring to follow Christ and seeking to imitate Him more closely in a life dedicated to God. Of course, there are many ways of doing this— each religious order accomplishes this in accord with its unique spiritual character and gifts— as St. Vincent Pallotti encouraged, “Seek God and you will find God. Seek God in all things and you will find God in all things. Seek God always and you will always find God.”
How one discerns entering religious life does not mean one has to force a change in his or her lifestyle; rather, it an acceptance of who one is and surrendering that to the God so loved since Baptism, thereby consecrating him or herself “more intimately to God’s service and to the good of the Church” (CCC 931). In my own discernment, I have found great relief in this understanding— that I can give myself to God as I am in love and He will help me to focus and purify that love in my heart which is to radiate from every action of Christian living. Similarly, the famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton expressed the relationship between discernment and the discerner:
Discerning vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.
As the Year of Consecrated Life concludes, let us remember that it concerns not only consecrated persons but the entire Church! Where would the Church be without the examples set by Saints Francis and Augustine, Ignatius and Dominic, or Vincent Pallotti and (soon-to-be-Saint) Mother Teresa and repeated in their respective Orders? The Church would no doubt be less effective in its charity and evangelization, as Blessed Pope Paul VI observed, “the ‘salt’ of faith would lose its savour in a world undergoing secularization.” Let us then respond to Pope Francis’s call to give thanks for the incredible work done by religious around the world and for their fidelity to their respective charisms while seeking to draw close to them in times of joy and trial and assisting them in their holy endeavors. Finally, let us continue to pray for God to send more numerous vocations among their ranks: may their discernments be a model for our own, that we may echo the words of the great Carmelite Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, “At last I have found my vocation: My vocation is love.”
It is the Year of Consecrated Life, proclaimed by Pope Francis and begun on November 30, 2014. It is actually more than a year … extending until February 2, 2016! In 1997, Pope John Paul II instituted February 2nd as World Day for Consecrated Life, which is attached to the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.
This year is to be along the lines of the Year of the Priest a few years ago or the Year of Faith of more recent memory – a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, this makes it pretty exciting! In Pope Francis’ video message that was viewed at the Vigil to begin the Year of Consecrated Life, he set the stage, “My first words, on this occasion, are of gratitude to the Lord for the precious gift of consecrated life to the Church and to the world. May this Year of Consecrated Life be an occasion for all members of the People of God to thank the Lord, from whom every good comes, for the gift of consecrated life, appreciating it appropriately.” It is the Year OF Consecrated Life and FOR the whole Church.
Much of the content connected with this celebratory Year is directed to Consecrated persons, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something in it for everyone. Since it is the season when we might start thinking about making New Year’s resolutions, I thought the three “aims” of the Year of Consecrated Life might give us food for thought.
Pope Francis issued a letter – his full message – for the Year, issued on November 29, 2014, the eve of the Year and directed to his “Brothers and Sisters in Consecrated Life.” (If you’re interested in reading the whole thing, you can find it here.)
The first aim of the Year of Consecrated life “is to look at the past with gratitude.” (Introduction) In a couple of weeks we will start to see all of the “year in review” programs and news captions. Do we have our own manner of reviewing our year or several years? Do I tend to focus on my mistakes or bad things that happened? Pope Francis starts us off with the disposition of gratitude as we look back. He invites Consecrated persons to claim the richness of their Institute’s history, charism, and action of the Spirit which brings us to the point where we are today.
This is a valuable activity because, as Pope Francis explains, “Recounting our history is essential for preserving our identity, for strengthening our unity as a family and our common sense of belonging. More than an exercise in archaeology or the cultivation of mere nostalgia, it calls for following in the footsteps of past generations in order to grasp the high ideals, and the vision and values which inspired them, beginning with the founders and foundresses and the first communities.” Advent calls us to the same kind of remembering. In the readings of last Sunday, Peter asks us “what sort of person ought you to be?” Looking at our past can help remind us of our goals, values, and ideal, and recognize how we live consistently with this vision and where we might do better.
The second aim of the Year of Consecrated Life gives us some concrete follow-through from the first aim: “This Year also calls us to live the present with passion. Grateful remembrance of the past leads us, as we listen attentively to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church today, to implement ever more fully the essential aspects of our consecrated life.” Recalling those things most important to me, the things innate to my identity, I can claim them as my own (again or for the first time) and live out of them, anew, with passion!
The challenge to Consecrated persons is no less the same for all believers. “For the various founders and foundresses, the Gospel was the absolute rule, whereas every other rule was meant merely to be an expression of the Gospel and a means of living the Gospel to the full…. The creativity of charity is boundless; it is able to find countless new ways of bringing the newness of the Gospel to every culture and every corner of society.” Does this fit into our plan for the New Year? It is a nice idea, but what does it look like? Pope Francis continues,
“Living the present with passion means becoming “experts in communion,”… In a polarized society, where different cultures experience difficulty in living alongside one another, where the powerless encounter oppression, where inequality abounds, we are called to offer a concrete model of community which, by acknowledging the dignity of each person and sharing our respective gifts, makes it possible to live as brothers and sisters….So, be men and women of communion! Have the courage to be present in the midst of conflict and tension, as a credible sign of the presence of the Spirit who inspires in human hearts a passion for all to be one (cf. Jn 17:21).”
As in all things Catholic, there are never two without three! The third aim should come as no surprise: to embrace the future with hope. Hope for the future makes the past both meaningful and bearable, and the passion for the present possible. This is not meant to be a wishful-thinking hope, but a leap of faith. How can I embrace that which is not yet here? Pope Francis explains, “This hope is not based on statistics or accomplishments, but on the One in whom we have put our trust (cf. 2 Tim 1:2), the One for whom “nothing is impossible” (Lk 1:37). This is the hope which does not disappoint; it is the hope which enables consecrated life to keep writing its great history well into the future. It is to that future that we must always look, conscious that the Holy Spirit spurs us on so that he can still do great things with us.” How am I writing my own history? Can I trust in the God for whom all things are possible? If I resolve to the live the present with passion, can I add that next layer of commitment to embrace the future with hope?
The Year of Consecrated Life is just beginning; may the blessings and graces of this Year be enjoyed by you and all People of Good Will!
Sr. Kelly Connors, pm, teaches Canon Law for Saint Joseph’s College Online and is member of the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary.
This blog post was first published on October 26th on the St. Joseph’s College of Maine Theology Faculty Blog. Click here to learn more about our cooperative alliance with St. Joseph’s College Online
“In the world there is often a lack of joy. We are not called to accomplish epic feats or to proclaim high-sounding words, but to give witness to the joy that arises from the certainty of knowing we are loved, from the confidence that we are saved”
(Rejoice! (Letter in Preparation for the Year of Consecrated Life), n. 3)
Last month, on the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Pope Francis went for lunch at the Generalate of the Jesuits. As I reviewed the pictures from his visit, joy and happiness are very evident. He appears very comfortable and relaxed with them, even though he may not know them well individually. Why is he comfortable? As a member of a religious community, I think that I can venture an answer. He is among those who shared a similar formation as he did as a member of the Society of Jesus. Technically, he formally ended his time as a Jesuit when he became a bishop. Bishops cannot be under the authority of the superior of a religious community. They can, though, ask to continue to use the religious initials of their community as well as wear the habit. Cardinal O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston, continues to use the initials of the religious community that he came from, the Capuchin Franciscans, as well as wear the habit. Many religious communities even officially continue to count bishops among their membership. Some might think this strange, but the reality is that once a person is part of a religious community, it is part of who that person is and how the person approaches God, life, ministry.
When you share a common formation and lifestyle from a relatively young age, that formation does not simply go away. It is a lifestyle that one freely chooses and it forms and informs the person. Once committed to, consecrated life (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 913-933) is not something that can easily be cast aside. Even those who have left religious communities often continue to live the spirituality of that community as a single or married person or diocesan priest. I have seen it time and time again.
Twenty-eight years ago today, I made my First Consecration of Promises as a member of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate (Pallottine Fathers and Brothers). Our six promises of poverty, chastity, obedience, sharing of resources, spirit of service, and perseverance have provided me with a way, within the context of our community life, to live the charity of Christ. I make no claim to live it perfectly, but I try to live it as authentically as possible. The way that I live more authentically is through the assistance of the members of my community who “urge me on” to live more fully in Christ’s love.
This summer, more than most, I have had to even more deeply reflect on the quality of my life as a member of the Society. Am I living as an apostle, as St. Vincent Pallotti called all to do, reviving faith and rekindling charity? Have I fully surrendered, given, and offered myself to God, as the form of consecration of my religious community challenges me to do? If not, then why not? These questions have been very much on my mind as I form, with the help of God, a new member of the Society who began Postulancy only a few days ago. Thirty years ago last month, I did the same and have grown and developed spiritually and otherwise in ways that I would have never thought or imagined. As I work in formation with our Postulant, Brandon, I try to teach, but once again God causes me to learn and for that I am full of gratitude and joy.
Pray for those in consecrated life, especially as the Church prepares for the Year of Consecrated Life that will begin this coming Advent!
Fr. Frank Donio, S.A.C., is Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center and teaches for Saint Joseph’s College Online.
This blog post was first published on August 17th on the St. Joseph’s College of Maine Theology Faculty Blog. Click here to learn more about our cooperative alliance with St. Joseph’s College Online