On Friday Pope Benedict addressed the assembly in Rome of the superiors of religious orders and congregations. The full address at the moment is only available on the Vatican website in Italian – the English version normally takes a few days to be released.
The Holy Father reminded the assembled superiors that all renewal in religious life must be based on the Word of God, which is central to the religious life. The living out of the Gospel “every day is what makes the consecrated life intriguing and beautiful”. To provide a true and reliable option for Christians in modern society, consecrated men and women must meet the primary expectation that both world and Church have of them: “to be a living Gospel”.
One aspect of this living out of the Gospel the Pope highlights is fraternity. It is the communal life and its spirit of fraternity that attract young people, and it is the living of community life in a fraternal spirit that is “an important prophetic element you offer to a highly fragmented society”. In a world increasingly individualistic and even selfish, the consecrated religious is called to live a life in community that embodies the Gospel values of mutual service and self-sacrifice. In so doing the religious community, be it apostolic and active, or contemplative and monastic, becomes an icon of the universal Church living in obedience to Christ’s great commandments to love God and our neighbour. By implication, a community that lacks this fraternal and communal spirit, this fidelity to the Gospel in daily life, is one that will not meet the needs of either the contemporary Church or the world.
To avoid this, the Pope reminded the superiors of the need “for serious and constant discernment in order to listen to what the Spirit is telling the community, in order to recognise what comes from the Lord and what is contrary to Him”. It is very easy for a community or a congregation to be so fixated on its own agenda and its own self-chosen set of priorities that it fails to meet the most pressing needs of the Church and world, which are primarily spiritual and moral needs. When a community thus serves itself rather than the Lord who speaks and acts through the Church in the contemporary world then it will not attract others to its life. Therefore, “without discernment, accompanied by prayer and reflection, consecrated life risks basing itself on the criteria of this world: individualism, consumerism, materialism; criteria that undermine fraternity and cause consecrated life to lose its allure”.
Which brought the Holy Father to the concept of mission. Mission is essential to the consecrated life and always involves a mandate “to bring the Gospel to everyone, without borders”. Such an openness to encountering the world will only be fruitful if it is “supported by a strong experience of God, solid formation and fraternal life in the community”. Without these elements, the products of prayer, study and fraternity, the religious community risks being shaped by the world rather than itself shaping the world. A religious community that ruins to a worldly agenda is a failed community. Perhaps here lies part of the reason for the decline in religious life in Europe and the West.
For all its decline, religious life is a constant in the life of the Church: “the difficulties must not make us forget that consecrated life has its origins in the Lord; chosen by Him for the edification and sanctity of His Church. Thus consecrated life ‘will never be lacking’ in the Church”. While particular communities and congregations may pass away, either because they no longer serve a pressing need in the Church in the world or because they have strayed from the essentials of their vocation, the consecrated life will remain a God-given factor in the life of the Church. The consecrated life, be it active or contemplative, always links the spiritual welfare of its members to the service of the Church. Where that service is lacking or mis-directed, the consecrated life becomes sterile and doomed to die.
The Pope has effectively given the religious superiors a particular and pressing task: to discern afresh the role of religious communities in serving the Church. What are the needs that religious are called to meet? Pope Benedict has given us many clues over the last few years:
- to restore worship as the central activity of the Church, worship offered not only for the Church but also on behalf of all the world;
- to counteract the increasing materialism, rationalism, atheism and individualism of the modern world by preaching, in word and in action, the reality of God and the primacy in healthy human existence of God’s universal call to self-sacrificial love;
- to bear witness to the centrality of the Church, not only in the life of Christians but also in that of the world; and
- to promote the dignity of all human life, from conception to the grave, and beyond.
For those who are considering religious or monastic life, you will probably need to ask yourselves two questions: (1) does this describe the sort of life to which you are attracted and to which you may therefore be called; and, (2) in which community or monastery, given your personal gifts and strengths, will you best fulfill God’s call to you?