See homily by Pope Francis for World Day for Consecrated Life here.
A World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Men and Women – Why?
The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple marks forty days since the celebration of the Lord’s Nativity, and so, in a sense, closes, with the Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord, the feasts which help to expand the meaning of the Annunciation and Incarnation. In one way it looks back to the Old Testament promises, both in the Law of Moses and in prophecy, and yet boldly ushers in the new epoch of the Messiah, God-with-us, in the witness of the old priest, Simeon, and the prophetess Anna, daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. In recounting the presentation of the Child Jesus the evangelist Luke, in language and phrasing and reference, solemnises the whole event and we feel that we ourselves are being ushered into the Temple to witness this event within the Christ-event. Indeed, the Temple in that moment ceases to be temple, since the single Temple, the Lamb, is come to the Holy Place – he is now the place in which believers will worship, and the Temple will become the place of God’s indwelling, the believing heart of every Christian.
This moment of revelation and witness, this testimony to the closeness of God in Christ, made part of human experience and history, this desire to be drawn into the temple which is no longer temporal but eternal, lends itself to the marking of this day each year as a special day of prayer for consecrated life. It is both an invitation to celebrate this remarkable vocation in the Church’s life and mission, and a hermeneutic – a key for understanding and interpretation – of that same vocation.
The day of prayer was instituted in 1997 by Pope St John Paul II, a year after he had issued his own post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata, a text which gave one of the most complete visions of the richness of the vocation to religious life of the last century. Each year since then a letter or message has been sent to the Church’s religious men and women highlighting some aspect of consecrated life relevant to this particular moment in the Church’s life and work. In this short text we would like to highlight again the purpose which underpinned John Paul II’s institution of this day of prayer. In doing so, we not only celebrate the gift of consecrated life to the whole Church but look at it as an invitation to consider why vocation to the consecrated life, and discernment of such a vocation, remains a life-giving experience for the individual religious and for the whole People of God. Reflecting on this invitation to vocation and response, we mirror John Paul II’s reflection with Pope Francis’s own homily during Mass for the feast of the Presentation – as well as commenting on how religious should embrace their consecrated lives, the text of the homily also provides a framework for the discernment of vocation to the religious life.
Pope St John Paul II – Message to Consecrated Men and Women, 2nd February 1997
St John Paul II opens his reflection by reminding us that the vocation to the consecrated life lies at the very heart of the Church’s life:
“In effect, 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” (VC 3)
The Pope goes on to give three pivotal reasons why a special focus should be given, each year, to the place of the consecrated life within the Church.
In the first place, it answers the intimate need to praise the Lord more solemnly and to thank him for the great gift of consecrated life, which enriches and gladdens the Christian community by the multiplicity of its charisms and by the edifying fruits of so many lives totally given to the cause of the Kingdom.
In the second place, this day is intended to promote a knowledge of and esteem for the consecrated life by the entire People of God. It is thus a special and living memory of his being Son, who makes of his Father his only love — his virginity; who finds in him his exclusive richness — his poverty; and who has, in the will of his Father, the “food” by which he is nourished (cf. Jn 4:34) — his obedience.
The third reason regards consecrated persons directly. They are invited to celebrate together solemnly the marvels which the Lord has accomplished in them, to discover by a more illumined faith the rays of divine beauty spread by the Spirit in their way of life, and to acquire a more vivid consciousness of their irreplaceable mission in the Church and in the world.
Immersed in a world which is often agitated and distracted, taken up sometimes by the press of responsibilities, consecrated persons also will be helped by the celebration of this annual World Day to return to the sources of their vocation, to take stock of their own lives, to confirm the commitment of their own consecration. In this way, they will be able to give witness with joy to the men and women of our time, in diverse situations, that the Lord is the Love who is able to fill the heart of the human person.
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is an eloquent icon of the total offering of one’s life for all those who are called to show forth in the Church and in the world, by means of the evangelical counsels “the characteristic features of Jesus — the chaste, poor and obedient one” (VC 1).
Closing the circle, from 1997 up until the present day, Pope Francis’s homily seeks new reflection and takes stock of how we as religious celebrate our life and vocation within and for the Church and Kingdom. It continues, obviously, John Paul II’s intention and invitation, but, a quarter of a century on, the Holy Father shows that the context in which religious life is lived and the worries which changing community profiles bring ask men and women to keep reflecting and rediscovering their consecration. Pope Francis’s homily also suggests to us questions which might serve as a framework for discernment of vocation to the consecrated life. The Holy Father, meditating on the figures of Simeon and Anna, notes that Simeon responds to Christ’s being brought to the Temple in three ways: he is moved by the Spirit; he sees salvation present in the Christ child; he takes the Christ child in his arms. And with these three questions as his point of departure he begins to ask religious about how they live their lives today, not simply in a practical day to day fashion, but in terms of their motivation, intention and interior spirit.
We begin by reflecting on the Pope’s question what and who moves us? The Answer, of course, must be the Holy Spirit, who stirs up that deep desire for God within us. This is the only motivation which a religious can have: that overwhelming power which confirms us and supports us and drives us as we seek his face, as we make the possibility of encounter with God an everyday reality, not by something which we do ourselves but rather by noticing the ever present God, who is always part and parcel of our daily lives. This serves as an excellent starting point for vocational discernment: it is precisely this question which begins a conversation around vocation: what is drawing you to this life? What are you seeking in this life? How do you think this seeking and desire can shape the choices that you make? The consecrated life of religious men and women is, above all, a life which forgoes everything else for the sake of the search for God, a search which really does not permit of limits or conditions or the imposition of my “now here’s how we’re going to do this….”
The Holy Father immediately brings us to the point that such a conversation relies upon the discernment of spirits – in monastic terminology this can also be called the discernment around thoughts, and especially that practice of separating thoughts which come from God and thoughts which arise from my own heart and desires. True discernment will always seek God’s will for me, and be underpinned by that desire to bring my own will into harmony with God’s will for me.
But that is nothing less than God’s Spirit moving within me, the Spirit which allows me to grow as son or daughter of the Father, and so become the child whom the Father has always desired that I be. Vocation, above all, is the fulfilling of that invitation: I become the person that the Father has always intended me to be. Again, it’s interesting to see that the Holy Father highlights the simple, daily fidelity which should characterise the life of a consecrated religious. Indeed, in part this indicates the freedom of the religious: the daily taking up of simple responsibilities, services, mission, consecrated by their being placed in our lives and hands is already an invitation to set aside my own plans, my own agendas, and freely enter into God’s plan. Sometimes one hears accusations of the monotony of the life, that is ordinary, unexciting, predictable. Only if it is removed from a sense that all that we undertake is begun by God and ends by being brought to completion by him will our lives and work become ordinary, unexciting, predictable. When we know that all that we undertake is done for love of God, nothing is ordinary!
The second question which Pope Francis poses: What do our eyes see? He reflects here on the fact that Simeon, in that moment of encounter in the Temple, sees the Christ; and seeing the Christ he responds with an extraordinary statement, that he has seen salvation. He notes that this is a sapiential gaze, a look, if you like, which does not stop short at mere facts, but looks beyond and deeply, a gaze which is shaped not by a desire simply to know something, but rather to experience it deeply, so that it passes over from mere knowledge to being wisdom. And he asks us religious to apply this to our religious life – we must continue to look deeply into our reality and not be fooled by external appearances, to perceive God present within us and within our experience, whatever that might be for us.
But then he takes an important turn which we can apply, again, to the discernment of vocation: What is our vision of consecrated life? Answering it, in one way – and it’s often a common view and statement – the Pope provides the answer that it is said by some to be a “waste”. Indeed, this tragic portrayal of consecrated life probably leads to many being dissuaded from considering the fact that they are called to this life: that they might be better off doing something else, that they really should consider marriage, that it goes nowhere and has few prospects…. In this very fact we ask ourselves how we converse with others about our consecrated life and our life of vowed wonder. And indeed how we converse with one who might be drawn, mysteriously indeed, to consider that this way of life is for them.
What is a candidate’s vision of consecrated life? What might they be expecting? What are their dreams about the life of vowed commitment? What is drawing them to it, driving them to it, carrying them to it? This is vitally important! We have to be ready to listen to what a man or woman thinks about consecrated life in order to dialogue with them about a possible vocation. The Spirit, after all, is speaking to them, and revealing something to them that has lit the spark about this life for them and within them. Some experience, some encounter with a religious, some moment in a liturgy, something which they have read, a programme which they have seen, a Youtube video which someone else has shared – any of these, and many other moments, may be the beginning of the working of grace within them, and we must be ready to breathe upon it, or rather, to allow the Spirit to continue to breathe life into it for this person.
The Holy Father’s point about a renewed vision of consecrated life is interesting, and it is not entirely clear what he means, I think. There is certainly a correction in what he says – for those who would wish to “drift back through inertia to the forms of the past, paralyzed by fear of change”. All of us, to some greater or lesser degree, can become frightened by the prospect of change, since it means letting go of certain securities and practices and ways of life to which we have long become accustomed. Change is not always welcome, and may not even be necessary. Change when it is needed must be discerned and then sensed as God’s will expressed in the common will, particularly in communities of religious life.
One of the most striking words in this homily is against the charism of the founder of an institute. I think, for many of us, the foundational charism of our Order or Institute is not a negotiable element – it is the movement of the Spirit in the life of the founder or founders which leads to a new birth of life service in the Church. Such a movement of the Spirit, embodied in the discerned charism of the founder, always answers a particular need in the Church’s life: the Spirit, blowing where it will, gives the gifts and moments of new witness which the Church seeks in order that the mission of proclaiming, and realising, the kingdom of God may be carried forward. Indeed, one might even say that a proper renewal – and certainly the renewal of religious life envisaged by the Second Vatican Council – required, and always and still requires, a return to the original charism lived by founder or founders or first communities.
And, of course, we must be able to speak specifically about the founding charism and the work of founders to potential candidates! They want to know why we exist, what we do, how we live and why, and where all this began! And it’s probably fair to say, as we can see in the births and deaths of many religious institutes and associations over the centuries, that once their work is complete, they can cease to be. Perhaps, indeed, it’s one of the real questions about some aspects of consecrated life today, and has been over the last 50 or so years: religious institutes losing the sense of their founding charism, and trying to re-invent themselves as something else.
This is an essential part of vocational discernment: a man or woman moved by the Spirit to embrace a specific way of life, to join themselves to a body of men or women who know who they are and why they are, so that they can put their feet onto a path which they will walk with others for the remainder of their lives and mission. These seekers after life want to know what our Orders do in the Church, why they exist, and what charisms they incarnate and share. And we, as the religious who embrace specific traditions, must be able to say to ourselves who we are and with what has the Spirit gifted us so that we can serve the Church and the kingdom of God today and here and now.
The Holy Father, in closing his treatment of this second question, encourages us to ask for three attitudes from the Lord, and these are attitudes which we might very well encourage vocation discerners to ask for and embrace: joy, courage, and to be without fear. A vocation to the religious life is not a moment when we should hang our heads and curse our ill-luck! It’s not a moment for sorrow, for becoming depressed at the thought of renunciation, poverty, chastity and obedience, a loss of self and self-determination…. As with every vocation the call to live the vowed consecrated life in one religious institute or another is a response to the Holy Spirit who draws us inexorably into relationship with the Father and Christ. And as with every life giving and life changing relationship the overwhelming feeling must be joy. This typifies the experience of the apostles and disciples gathered after Christ’s death and resurrection when the Risen Lord comes to meet them and they recognise him: they are overcome with joy at this reunion and his presence with them. Sorrow is taken away; defeat is overcome; the sorry backward gaze has no meaning, and the blessedness of Christ’s accompaniment renews this monet and the future which stretches out before us.
Both the one who senses a vocation to the religious life and the one who is called by the Spirit to accompany them in their discernment must allow joy to be the defining feeling for them.
Courage is needed in our world today for this sort of witness. The very vows which characterise most forms of consecrated life are, in themselves, platforms for courageous living, because they challenge prevailing secularist views about success, the body, sexual behaviour, material wealth and competition, exploitation, so-called autonomy and freedome of choice, the disposable nature of our society which extends even to the disposability of human persons. To become radically poor – renouncing my material and emotional independence so that I live in dependence upon my brother sna sisters and rejoice that I receive what I need to live life fully; to search for a meaning for self which accepts my sexual being as part of the God gifted createdness which puts me into permanent relationship with God, because I am his image and likeness, and permanent loving relationship with my brother and sister, because they reveal that createdness and image and likeness to me, and all of this bound up in the vow of chastity, and all that goes within it; and to become radically the servant who listens and answers by bringing my own will into joyful oneness with God’s will for me and my community, expressed in a listening which is lived out in obedience; these three vows radically challenge dominant trends in our societies today which find religious living so challenging that it is easier to mock religious integrity and humility and truthfulness than to engage with it and learn from it, even when disagreeing with it.
Without fear, lastly. The one who seeks naturally may be anxious about what lies ahead,whether they can “make it”, so to speak, finish the course, and even, often, whether they really are called to this life! Fear, of course, can emerge from many a source – uncertainty about the future, uncertainty about one’s own capabilities, uncertainty about whether one is “cut out” for this life; a fear of being harshly judged by those who don’t understand our choice; a fear of not being happy in this life. Fear can be a crippling emotion, and most often finds its source in a lack of real trust in others and God, and in oneself. The writer of the First Letter of St John makes a very clear statement about fear by placing it in the context of a lack of love (I John 4:15-18). This above all must characterise a vocation, and, sooner or later, the one discerning the vocation or already living out the vocation must come to this realisation: they are doing it out of love for God; their life, lived as it is, is one which would be meaningless if it were not one which found it origin and its fulfilment in love of God, because God already loves me, and loves me into this chosen, vowed, consecrated way of life in the Church. The consecrated life becomes, therefore, supremely a life which is a declaration of love for God by the one who answers this call.
The third question follows from the other two and, in a way, sums up and completes them: what do we take into our arms, just as Simeon took the Christ Child into his? The total acceptance of Christ as the one who fills us with meaning, who reveals the Father to us and allows us to immerse ourselves in the life of the Spirit, is what is held out to us. But practically speaking there is a life handed over to us: a way of living, a tradition, a witness, tools gathered over ages and proven in the lives of others, a shared pathway to God and in God’s company. The How of our religious lives grows from this, and does not precede it! If we have lost the capacity to praise and bless – God and others – if we are beset by petty competition and little personal power plays, if we are grumblers and complainers who are rarely satisfied by being given everything that we need to live this life to the full, then we must face up to a very hard fact: we are never going to invite others to join us in this life, no matter how sincere or true their vocation is. But we may very well attract those who wish to enter for their own reasons rather than God-centred reasons.
While obviously intended to be an examen of life for us religious already in the way of consecrated living, the Holy Father’s homily for this past 2nd February is a mine of good things for framing conversation around potential vocation to the life. Above all, this conversation demands honesty: we must with great transparency hold out to others how we live what the Spirit has given us. And if it is still moved by the Spirit it will serve as the most complete invitation possible.