Pope Francis declared an Year of the Consecrated Life from 30 November 2015 to 2 February 2016. As immediate context for this unexpected declaration and celebration of the consecrated life in the Church, there were the golden jubilee occasions of Lumen Gentium, 21st Second Vatican Ecumenical Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church with its sixth chapter concretely dealing with the religious in the Church of the historic document on the renewal of the religious life Perfectae Caritatis (Vatican II document on the renewal of the Religious Life). The yearlong celebration around the world has undoubtedly brought in fresh enthusiasm and vigour to the religious life in the Church. A renewed sense of dignity of the call to the consecrated life and a prophetic awareness of living out the call of the consecrated life has been a major achievement. Interestingly when the consecrated life is enkindled with the vision and spirit of Jesus, the consequence is nothing but waking up the world. That has been the wonderful missionary theme of this blessed year- wake up the world. The religious both men and women, of clerical and lay character, deserve our heartfelt gratitude and admiration for their life and witness in waking up the world towards the realization of the Kingdom of God which is inaugurated in the person of Jesus who is chaste, poor and obedient and which is to be culminated at his christophany of second coming.
In this paper, what I would like to primarily do is to make a co- journey with you religious into the dynamism of the Year of the Consecrated Life through the triple dimensions of past, present and future. I do not have any intention of providing you with new data or information but would find my presence with you fruitful in raising your awareness and experience towards some concrete steps in the days to come firmly rooted in the mind of the Church.
1. A Retrospection and summary
It is the desire of the Holy Father Pope Francis that we have been seeing in this year. What did he do or what did he say? His mind for the year was primarily expressed through his apostolic letter to the consecrated on 24 November 2016. This letter, as you have already studied and assimilated through various programmes and activities as part of your celebration, had the following things in nutshell:
A: 3 Aims, 5 Expectations and 4 Horizons
A1. Aims: 1. to look to the past with gratitude,( origins, history and inspirations) 2. to live the present with passion (Gospel and Christ), 3) To embrace the future with hope (to practice hope amidst uncertainties and troubles with a hope to be relevant without rupture with the past generation).
A 2: Expectations
A 2 1. To be joyful (to discover perfect joy), 2.To wake up the world prophetically, 3. To have the spirituality of communion (be experts in communion), 4. to come out of yourselves and go forth to the existential peripheries, 5. To do a self-questioning to respond to the expectations of God and the world concretely through the cry of the poor.
A 3 Horizons:
A3.1. Relatedness to laity through appreciation and association of charisms, 2. An event for the whole Church, 3. Ecumenical awareness and encounter of non-catholic religious/monastic traditions, 4. Interreligious appreciation and awareness of the monastic traditions of non-Christian religions.
Thus Pope Francis exhorted the consecrated persons in particular and the Church in general through the parameters of the aims, expectations and horizons, he set forth, to turn this Year of Consecrated Life into “an authentic kairos, a time rich in God’s grace, a time of transformation.”
An Enthusiastic Response
As you yourselves have experienced in the span of a year long celebrations at the universal, national, regional and local levels, the reception of the year has been one of umpteen enthusiasm, hope and joy with a determination for experiencing grace and courageously thinking of steps in direction of transformation.
The question before us today is not so much as to how to conclude the year of the consecrated life as though in the sense of a solemn burial but it is as to how to continue afresh with the energy and motivation you have received so far. In other words, the effectiveness of the year depends on the practical course of action you will work out with fidelity and courage, with prudence and sensitivity, without forgetting what is happening within the Church and within the world and within the concrete spectrum of consecrated life which people often term it as crisis. You were well made well aware of the crisis today the religious forums talk about: the decline of vocations and our own sense of a loss of dignity in being prophetic religious. The second is more severe than the first. The numeric decline is a worry factor when a religious begins to think of what will happen to our institutions and property? Who will take care of them? It is amidst this crisis the Universal Church has given you an opportunity to become aware of who you are and what we need to be doing and how we are preparing ourselves to face the future in the spirit of the gospel? What about the world and nation today? Religious violence, economic crisis, break ups of families, climate changes, natural calamities, increase of poverty, family break ups and media infiltrations mark our world and society. Ideological goals prevail over the dignity of persons. It is a world of superficially created and ideologically motivated peripheries/abandoned zones. In other words, a consecrated person is exhorted to face and confront the world and its challenges just as Jesus has woken it up. He says, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have trouble and suffering, but take courage–I have conquered the world” (Jn 16:22). The consecrated person steps into the world to wake it up with the hope that has been given to us along with the redemption and with the mission to be agents of the Kingdom of God.
3 Directions by which we shall journey ahead:
In going ahead with the spirit of the year of the consecrated life, we can think of many ways and approaches. But I would concretely draw your attention to three areas and the responses resulting from them.
1. At the level of Being, 2. At the level of Doing and 3. At the level of Having
What do we mean by the level of Being- Here it is meant who a religious is and where his/her place is located. In other words, the level of being has a personal, communitarian/congregational and ecclesial dimension.
First of all, a religious is a person who follows Christ radically by taking upon oneself a configurative identification with Christ through the evangelical counsels of obedience, chastity and poverty. The evangelical counsels are neither ideals nor concepts, neither qualities or adjectives but the very life and character of Jesus Christ without which the person of Christ ceases to be who he is in his incarnated life, message and mission. We meet this Christ not in someone’s imaginations or interpretations but we meet him concretely in the gospels. That is why Perfectae Caritatis unequivocally taught that “the ultimate norm of the religious life is the following of Christ set forth in the Gospels, let this be held by all institutes as the highest rule” (PC, 2, a).
1.1. Being at the Personal Level: the Person and formation: Our trouble with the religious life and ensuing crisis starts often with a wrong understanding and approach whereby we tend to view religious life in structures and apostolates as the visible and living expressions. The Religious begins or ends with person. It is the person that matters at the core. God and his grace works on the person who has felt within himself/herself the call to follow Christ. It is therefore call us to reorient our priorities towards persons. The person according to Christian anthropology is one who has a precious and indelible dignity and value because of being created in the image and likeness of God, a person who shares in the weakness of the human nature yet redeemed by Christ. As a candidate he or she comes from a society and is in a world which thrives on secularizations and God-negating self-seeking and violence. This person is a composite of emotions and feelings. This person also shares in the brokenness of family and carries within the wounds of brokenness. Such a person also today comes from nuclear family and from a frontier less media world, as a victim of consumerism including that of human body as a sex object , self-assertion and competition along with loneliness and obsessive habits. Yet Christian vision of person is not self-preservation but is a call to be broken for others through a self-giving after the example of Christ who breaks himself on the cross and relived in the eucharist.
If we closely observe the key formative and Kingdom related activities and behavior of Jesus, they are all astonishingly person oriented. Be it Peter or the Samaritan woman, be it the blind man or the leper! This centrality of the person calls us to a practical course of action in placing the utmost attention on the formation which is initial as well as ongoing. The effectiveness of religious life depends on the effectiveness of the person and formation. Because formation is nothing but transformation and conversion. That is why Vita Consecrata categorically states, “Formation should involve the whole person, in every aspect of the personality, in behaviour and intentions. Precisely because it aims at the transformation of the whole person, it is clear that the commitment to formation never ends” (no. 65). So too Potissimum institutioni (Directives on Formation in the Religious Institutes, 1990) added that “the first requirement for this formation is the ability to identify a human and Christian foundation with a particular person. Numerous failures in religious life can, in effect, be attributed to defects that were not perceived, or overcome, in this area” (no. 33). The crisis in a congregation is not, first of all, a question about money or mansions but it is the person. “The principal purpose of formation at its various stages, initial and ongoing, is to immerse religious in the experience of God and to help them perfect it gradually in their lives” (Contemplative Dimension of Religious Life, no. 17). Every document of worth has since Vatican II has pointed out this fundamental fact. In this connection, I recall an interesting dialogue between Lord Cotys and Hercules in the 2014 released film directed by Brett Ratner: Lord Cotys tells, “we came to save this village (Bessi) but we lost them and lost half our men. It is the work of Rhesus, the sorcerer demon.” The response of Hercules is important to note, “…partially you are responsible for it because you did not give me enough time to train these men”. The indicator for the health and sickness of a congregation/province is to ask yourself “what is your priority for formation: initial and ongoing: what is your programme of action in this direction? How many personnel you promote for formation, counseling and spirituality? Hence I would say, to live the spirit of the year of the consecrated life in the days to come, act with exigency on an action plan in this direction of formation, very specially ongoing formation plans such as prayer and scripture studies, individual and community daily enrichment through listening to the heritage of saints and monks, groups, theological study sessions, psycho-sexual-spiritual integration, exploring experiences need to be a first priority.
1.2. Being in the community: Religious life is communitarian and persons form communities. “The fraternal life in common and the public vows of the members are seen…by the new Code (of Canon Law) as the essential elements of religious life distinguishing it from life in a secular institute or society of apostolic life” ( cf., Code 607, no. 2; C.712; 714, cf. also Robert Soler, The Community…; Jean Vanier, Community and Growth…). The religious community is not a club or interest group. It is primarily a community of faith. You are there not by your choice and personal interest. You are there by your call and surrendering commitment. For, Trinity is the source of unity for the Church and the religious. Community life and communion is primarily a divine dynamism rather than just being a social nature of man and women. Forgetting this truth and responsibility to be faithful to this fact leads to Machiavellian maverick groupism and manipulating divisions. The underlying fact is communion and unity among persons who are precious and unique yet conformed to the common vision and charism in following Christ. Communion and community for a Christian or a religious is nothing but Eucharistic. Hence a community that neglects the Eucharistic communion and contemplative prayerfulness cannot live the joy of the communion that emanates from the Trinitarian God and experienced deeply in the eucharist. Sacrifice, self emptying and washing of the feet are essential elements of the Eucharistic communion. Hence to take care of a community in communion is to promote the joyfulness of praying and serving each other. It is a community of forgiveness and reconciliation. As a post programmatic course of action, we need to think of mercifying the communities where we approach each other through mercy than merely through rules and regulations. That calls for making the community a dialogical one. A dialogical community like a healthy family, presents hopes, aspirations, anxiety and dreams in gentleness and respect and listens to each other and relates to each other considering the worth of one’s person and call. The characteristic mark of a dialogical community is forgiveness and compassion. It is through the lens of mercy, that we can have healing communities. Because as your experience might prove, it is your emotions and feelings which are at risk of being hurt or wounded when you extend yourself into a communitarian life. Mercy leads a person to healing and restoration while rigorsim leads one to indifference, fear and duplicity. In today’s context of individualism, relativism and self-glorification, a community that fosters a merciful and dialogical atmosphere is the safest environment where obedience, poverty and chastity become a reality of life and where there will be experienced an Immanuel-presence of Christ amidst those living in his name.
1.3. Your Being in the Church: Religious life is a gift of God to the Church and it is lived and preserved in the Church for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Religious are neither parallel to the church nor independent of the Church. In other words, as Vita Consecrata clarifies, “life is not something isolated and marginal, but a reality which affects the whole Church”. ( no. 3). This is the reason the council fathers of Vatican II included “Religious” in the sixth chapter of Lumen Gentium which is on the mystery of the Church. As the Perfectae caritatis reminds us, “The more fervently, then, they (the religious) are joined to Christ by this total life-long gift of themselves, the richer the life of the Church becomes and the more lively and successful its apostolate” (no. 1). VC observes further that “the consecrated life is at the very heart of the Church as a decisive element for her mission, since it “manifests the inner nature of the Christian calling” and the striving of the whole Church as Bride towards union with her one Spouse…..the consecrated life… is also a precious and necessary gift for the present and future of the People of God, since it is an intimate part of her life, her holiness and her mission” (VC, 3). The Church is fundamentally the mystical body of Christ. Vita Consecrata in its no. 43 states: “In 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 ready obedience to the Bishops and especially to the Roman Pontiff. Against this background of love towards Holy Church, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), we readily understand the devotion of Saint Francis of Assisi for “the Lord Pope”,the daughterly outspokenness of Saint Catherine of Siena towards the one whom she called “sweet Christ on earth”, the apostolic obedience and the sentire cum Ecclesia of Saint Ignatius Loyola, and the joyful profession of faith made by Saint Teresa of Avila: “I am a daughter of the Church”. We can also understand the deep desire of Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus: “In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love”. These testimonies are representative of the full ecclesial communion which the Saints, founders and foundresses, have shared in diverse and often difficult times and circumstances. This is why the Church gratefully fosters, protects and approves universally and locally your necessary autonomy in governance and in living out the charism by being active agents of the Kingdom of God and as signs of the age to come. Your separation and isolation from the Church leads your apostalates degrades them to the status of NGO works about which Pope Francis sternly warns the Church and the priests. That is why Perfectae Caritatis insists that “All institutes should share in the life of the Church, adapting as their own and implementing in accordance with their own characteristics the Church’s undertakings and aims in matters biblical, liturgical, dogmatic, pastoral, ecumenical” (PC, 2, c).
Hence it is a fitting occasion for us to ask as regards the quality and commitment and the extent in involving yourself in the catechetical and spiritual renewal programmes of a local church besides being votaries of institutional service. The faith formation activities and creative involvement in the sacramental dispensation in obedience to and under the guidance of the local Bishop means how much you are alive in the Church as its sanctifying leaven. The fruit of the year of the consecrated life here too is an immediate evaluative action plan to see how we can augment such activities as policies and attitudes.
2. The Level of Having
Religious life and life style is a radical upholding and statement of the gospel call of Jesus “to leave everything’ (cf. Lk 18: 24-34; Mk 10: 28; Mt 19:27) in order ‘to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness’ (cf.Mt 6: 33). Religious life is a banner statement against greed. Your authenticity and radicality is reflected in giving up, self-emptying in order to proclaim and possess the Kingdom of God. In other words, what your having and possessing define who you are and the quality of radicality. The manger at Bethlehem, Anthony of Egypt and Francis of Assisi or Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Don Bosco, Alphonsa or Mother Teresa are not myths or imaginations in this regard. Your being decides your having. Yet the Church assures you of basic things for your human needs and dignity when Perfectae Caritatis says: “Religious communities have the right to possess whatever is required for their temporal life and work, unless this is forbidden by their rules and constitutions. Nevertheless, they should avoid every appearance of luxury, excessive wealth and the accumulation of goods” (no. 13). Hence the year of the consecrated life calls upon you to work out an action plan of your having and to check out our treasures and possessions. To tell you directly, there comes a prophetic duty of cleansing our communities and institutions. The best example is Jesus cleansing the temple as depicted in the gospels by Mathew, Mark and Luke (cf. Mt 21: 12-17; Mk 11: 15-18;Lk 19: 45-48). The word used to describe the action of Jesus is fascinating and terrifying: He drove out all who were trading in the temple… My father’s house is turned into a den of robbers. Driving out and casting out (ekballo/garash) have the same meaning when the evangelists use it for exorcism performed by Jesus: he cast out demons. The possession can be of persons as is in the case of the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4:4–26.). Her dignity was deprived by many persons from which she derived a pleasure and was in bondage. The story of Zacchaeus (cf. Lk 19: 1-10) and Levi (Mk 2:13-17; Lk 5: 27-32) show the example of dispossessing. Obsessive possessions of persons or things of comfort under the pretext of being in tune with the time is diabolic and forces away from true adoration of Christ in our life and mission. The Devil told Jesus to worship him in order to become owner of all earthly things and luxury (cf. Mt 4:8). Jesus refused with the strength of the Spirit and in listening to the Will of the Father. A religious community and its radicality and vitality in terms of poverty and simplicity which is the true freedom of the Spirit of a religious is destroyed by possessions of the markets which are delightful to the eyes and pleasing to the human logic. In the book of Genesis, “…the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise.” (3: 6). The consequent loss was grave. It is worth contextualizing the words of Christ, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Mt 16: 26). Let us paraphrase it as follows, what does it profit a religious community if it possesses the whole market and loses its religious soul? It is not without reason Pope Francis, a religious himself, calls upon the Church to shun the worship of markets. As Jesus was tempted after his desert experience of prayer and fasting, today after the experience of novitiate and profession, it is the market and its delight which ask you to worship it under the pretext of pretended needs which are in fact greed. And Jesus cleaned his Father’s house by driving out/casting out…
3.The level of Doing/ Mission
Doing is a direct outcome of being. Doing reflects being. In doing, a religious carries the obedient mind of Christ, the faithful dream of the founder or foundress expressed in charisms and the situation of the local Church. However, before every act the decisive factor is your being. How much you are attuned to the triple factors. Thus we enter into the areas of action. There as Pope Francis often emphasizes and insists we learn to get out of ourselves to reach out to the peripheries (cf. Evangelii Gaudium 46, 49; Letter to the Consecrated on the Year of the Consecrated Life, no. 4) . In fact, it is a giving of ourselves in the Eucharistic sense of brokenness. The criterion is therefore the harmony between being and doing. It is the Kingdom of God which is the underlying factor of every reaching out and every variety of charism. In the Kingdom of God, all are not equal! There is a difference. The deprived, the marginalized and the sinners have the central place in the Kingdom of God!. We call them poor. The poor are not at your generosity but the poor are to be at your centrality. The unforgettable truth about the Kingdom of God is that it is inaugurated by and inaugurated in Jesus through his person, message and mission. The seed of the Kingdom is seen in the Church (cf. CCC 567; LG 3, 5). Therefore it is through the Church that we become votaries of the Kingdom mission. It calls us to be humble and optimistic amidst failures and unfaithfulness because the completion is not in our hands but in the hands of the Father. Hence the Lord who proclaims the Kingdom and shows the signs also teaches us to pray to the Father: “Thy Kingdom come” (cf. Mt 6:10; Lk11:2 ff).. The Kingdom reality is also a reality of relationships. Hence we also need to join our hands with others. Our ashrams become meeting places of harmony and communion welcoming even the brothers and sisters of other faiths. Ashrams are not in this respect guest houses but reflection of God’s houses wherein we gather together and we bring together elements even diametrically opposed.
Hence the action plan for us in this dir ection would be as to how to make the peripheries the centre of our priority and planning. How much can we be seen in the society amidst the forsaken areas? How can we free our energy from elitism promoting actions and activities for affirmative interventions in the hitherto avoided peripheries? What small things can we begin through ministries in the areas of culture, environment, spirituality such as that of a place dedicated to “doing good in silence.”? Who are the ones blocking us to do such initiatives with market based calculations of profit and comfort? Can our institutions be turned into mangers of presence and encounter leaving the idolatory and cult of efficiency and restrictions to channels of hope and mercy?
Religious life had been, and is, and will be a gift and grace to the Church and the world in so far it reflects and lives out the mind of Christ. The year of the consecrated life with its aims, expectations and horizons called us to moments of awareness, thanksgiving, self-criticism and faithfulness. To continue its spirit means to go out as prophets with action plans which christify the Church and the world deeper and deeper. The mightiest work is that God has mercifully loved and saved humanity in Jesus Christ through his blood and body from the sins and we have become the children of God through acceptance and faith. The future of religious life in this sense is brighter and ever relevant in being a humble witness to the mighty works the Lord has done. But the future will be qualitatively and essentially different. That is to say, it will be less institutional and less numeric but more of witnessing presence in simple ashrams and centres. The future of religious life would be a revisit to Anthony of Egypt and Francis of Assisi. This is the opportunity lying like a hidden pearl in today’s religious crisis to rediscover religious life as authentic God-seeking and spread the aroma of Christ in simple and joyful ashrams/centres as light and salt of the earth. We need not be shocked or threatened. Because there is nothing more shocking in the human history than the truth that God became man and was born in a poor and filthy manger to save us. He who has called us is faithful and in Him we experience the poverty of the manger, the obedience of the cross and the chastity in being wed locked to the Kingdom of God which makes a realistic sense to us not because he is God alone but because he is perfectly human too and not because he willed it alone but because he loved us deeply and uniquely. Thank you for being a religious/consecrated person and thank you for your precious dedication.