Pope Francis leads Mass during the World Day for Consecrated Life in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 2, 2019. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters) See POPE-MASS-PRESENTATION Feb. 4, 2019.

A Teachable Moment

World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life is an opportunity for the Church

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In 1997, Pope John Paul II instituted an annual day of prayer for women and men in consecrated life, coupling it to the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the day on which Joseph and Mary “consecrated” Jesus in the Temple. The Scriptures proclaim, in the words of a holy man, Simeon, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles / and glory for your people Israel” (Lk 2:32).

The Church blesses candles for liturgical use that day, but St. John Paul II recognized a happy connection between the Light of Christ and the witness of scores of women and men who consecrate themselves to the Lord. This observance of consecrated life continues annually on Feb. 2.

St. John Paul defined the purpose of the observance: “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,” adding that the day would be “a suitable occasion for consecrated persons to renew their commitment and rekindle the fervor which should inspire their offering of themselves to the Lord.”

In fact, in the 1990s, consecrated persons included large numbers worldwide with more than 1 million religious priests, sisters and brothers; in the United States, the same categories numbered 127,235. Fewer new candidates and a preponderance of post-World War II members presaged a continuing decline. More telling, however, came the uncertainty of how persons professing consecration fit into a renewed ecclesiology with its reassertion of something long-acknowledged — namely, that God extends an invitation to holiness to all people. Catholics always knew saintly grandmothers and grandfathers as well as holy people in parish churches. They also knew, for instance, that God invited some women and men to be singularly focused on divine service.

Wisely, the Church convened a synod, in 1994, to study, to dialogue about and to ultimately provide some direction for consecrated life, for its current members and for those attracted to it. The synod stepped into something much larger than religious institutions such as orders and congregations. It acknowledged the broad range of manifestations of consecration: monks in monasteries, either wholly contemplative or with an outreach through prayer and hospitality; individual consecrated virgins and widows; missionary societies whose members spoke God’s Good News in foreign lands; hermits and anchorites hidden away but supporting the rest; societies of apostolic life with apostolates from care of youth to media to assistance to migrants; institutes for service toward the marginalized — the list grew with each need expressed. Even in the ‘90s, men and women heard the promptings of the Holy Spirit in unity with the institutional Church.

Fundamentally, then, the living Lord in the Holy Spirit prompts believers to respond with love to the Lord and some respondents choose to make their response a life commitment.

Eventually, the fruits of the synod would be gathered into an excellent compendium of teaching on consecrated life, Vita Consecrata, the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, which includes theological reflection and models for discipleship.

Collaboration, Inspiration

Following Jesus assumes many disguises or manifestations. No single form of discipleship applies to every person who seeks a relationship with Jesus for the sake of the kingdom of God.

St. Paul the Apostle may have set the direction for disciples that would evolve into consecrated life for some believers when in his Letter to the Romans commented: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:1-2).

He continues with an admonition for believers to practice a sober self-judgment “each according to the measure of faith God has apportioned” (Rom 12:3), before going on to instruct us regarding the singular functions we may fulfill in the “one body of Christ” (v. 5).

St. Paul taught that we are many, yet one in the Body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another with gifts that differ “according to the grace given to us” (Rom 12:6). He then lists these gifts which serve the community of faith: prophecy; ministry; teaching; exhorting; giving; leading; and ministering compassion. Everywhere that apostles proclaimed the Good News they discovered new needs, either for the sake of making the community of believers stronger or for the sake of suffering ones for whom Jesus would wish us to provide service.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of the variety of spiritual gifts: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes” (1 Cor 12:4-6, 11).

In a commentary on this passage, one pastor, studying spiritual gifts, says that it is helpful to recognize three types, or categories, of spiritual gifts described in Pauline thought: motivational gifts by which God works to shape a person’s perspective on life and to motivate the words and actions that person will employ (cf. 1 Cor 12:4); ministry gifts by which God works with a person to direct the service offered to the needs of others (1 Cor 12:5); and manifestation gifts by which God uses a person to demonstrate his presence, power and activity in human life (1 Cor 12:6). God uses all of the gifts in each of these categories to minister to his Church and to accomplish his work in the world.

Totally Giving Way

In preparation for the synod on consecrated life held in 1994, those who prepared under the auspices of St. John Paul II consulted broadly in the Church before the bishops and experts met. That consultation showed that believers felt that consecrated men and women participate in the common vocation of all the baptized and confirmed that they manifest the wealth of the mystery of Christ and the Church. However, many responses insisted that the state of consecrated life is not a kind of middle way between clerical and lay conditions of life, but rather a form of life to which some Christians (Christifideles), both clerical and lay, are called by God so that they may enjoy a special gift of grace in the life of the Church and may contribute, each in his own way, to the saving mission of the Church.

Consecrated life means going to the very root of the love of Jesus Christ with an undivided heart and putting nothing ahead of this love.

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Why Consecrated Life Matters

Here’s why World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life matters to a parish, to a priest, to any pastoral minister or administrator, to the faithful people and to the universal Church.

• The Holy Spirit raises up gifts within real believers in the Church for the sake of the Kingdom.

• The universal call to holiness includes a call for some to consecration.

• Consecration to the Lord appeals even in spite of secularization.

• Discipleship with the Lord has multiple manifestations.

• Awareness of the possibilities of God working in individuals’ lives requires the cooperation of priests.

• Fewer consecrated persons mean fewer adults and youths will encounter this way of following Christ Jesus.

Father John A. Pavlik, OFM Cap.

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According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this consecration “is characterized by the public profession of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, in a stable state of life recognized by the Church” (No. 944). The Code of Canon Law defines it as “a stable form of living by which the faithful, following Christ more closely under the action of the Holy Spirit, are totally dedicated to God who is loved most of all, so that, having been dedicated by a new and special title to his honor, to the building up of the Church, and to the salvation of the world, they strive for the perfection of charity in the service of the kingdom of God and, having been made an outstanding sign in the Church, foretell the heavenly glory” (Canon 573).

In an October 2018 article in the Catholic Herald, Father Alexander Lucie-Smith recounts, a few years ago “I gave a child a holy picture of St. Faustina explaining that she was a very holy nun. ‘What’s a nun?’ the child asked.” This shouldn’t surprise us. Even in parishes in growth areas, young Catholics may more often see permanent deacons and professionally trained lay staff as a bright spot in new ways of serving Christ and his mission. But they likely see few or no religious sisters or brothers and thus do not see the witness of a life-enhancing, grace-fulfilling vocation in consecrated life.

In one large and thriving suburban parish in an East Coast archdiocese, if the local convent of the Little Sisters of the Poor did not appear yearly at the church doors to humbly beg assistance, neither old-school parishioners nor younger Catholics would meet a consecrated religious.

Invite, Invite, Invite

A young Capuchin friar, in his 20s, recently penned the story of his awakening invitation to consecrated life as stemming from a reading of Pope Benedict XVI’s theological reflections on Jesus as published in book form. A priest at the university had alerted him to its content. This young man recounts that after reading Benedict’s words, he realized that he wanted what this pope had found; he also realized that he would like to devote his life to this quest. Even with all of those devout aspirations, he also admits that he frequently faced temptations to abandon what he most desired. Yet, he now talks of his better-than-expected, happy life in Rome where he pursues Catholic theology.

We priests are privileged to have the opportunity to introduce people to consecrated life as one way of finding joy, satisfaction and meaning. Jesus always makes room for another disciple, and the living Spirit always finds a place where the need is great. 

FATHER JOHN A. PAVLIK, OFM Cap., is the executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.

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Diversity of Living the Consecrated Life

Consider these examples of consecration:

In a large metropolitan archdiocese, 20 years ago a young woman was seeking something more than the ordinary in her spiritual life. Researching options available to her, she contacted the local bishop and eventually took vows as a “consecrated virgin.” At first, she kept her career in banking. In the evenings and on weekends she assisted a large parish with pastoral care and religious education, all the while maintaining a vigorous prayer life individually and within the parish.

In a Southern state, a bearded man introduces himself as the local Catholic hermit. He resides in a secluded place but visits retreat houses and a monastery where he is welcomed for Mass and the Divine Office. This man impresses others as peaceful, happy and approachable. He is not shy about telling others about his way of living and about the joy he finds in his life. Imagine the conversations he might have in a small town and the opportunity he has to witness to the love of God.

Nor do many of us know about the special assignments, or “apostolates” adopted by women and men in consecrated life. For example, American Christian Brothers undertook a unique educational venture in Bethlehem in the foundation, administration and staffing of a university which serves the Arab Christian and Arab Muslim populations in one school, where mutual studies work to build mutual respect and friendship while assisting the population with economic and cultural development. The university prides itself on fostering mutual respect, dignity and equality.

Nor are we likely aware of the assignment of two sisters to the Circus and Traveling Show Ministries in the United States who traveled with circuses to provide for the spiritual and catechetical needs of Catholics on the move.

Or, we may not be aware that some “retired” Catholic sisters have planted themselves at a small university campus in a medium-sized city where they meet students in the cafeteria and lead informal study clubs in the student union (with administrative approval). If tutoring helps, these ladies do so. The sisters report making friends and bridging the age gap while witnessing to the place of God in human lives.

— Father John A. Pavlik, OFM Cap.

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