Contributions of consecrated persons in the Church
“What would be the Church like without consecrated women”, Pope Francis asked this rhetorical question a couple of times. In response to this query, the Holy Father opines, “It would be missing maternity, affection, tenderness and a mother’s intuition”. In this column, allow me to highlight not only the key contributions of consecrated women, but also of consecrated men in the Church.
The first visible contribution of consecrated men and women is enriching the local church through works of apostolate. The Synod of Bishops 2001 extolled the consecrated people by saying, “In the area of apostolate, we can see members of institutes of consecrated life enriching the local churches, making more evident in them the gift of holiness and catholicity. Through many of their works and their presence in the places where they take care of people, in schools, or other places of education, hospitals, and others, consecrated persons show and realize the presence of the Church in the world of health, of education and integral growth of persons.”
The second is the witness of one’s consecration. Despite the fact that the different works of apostolate are the most tangible contribution of consecrated persons in accord with the nature of the institute, it is not the primary one. Canon 673 affirms, “The apostolate of all religious consists primarily in the witness of their consecrated life, which they are bound to foster through prayer and penance.” It is their first duty to foster these objectives through prayer, works of penance, and the example of their own life for which said Synod strongly urges them to increase their esteem and zeal. In this regard, we, therefore, distinguish between apostolate and apostolic works. Apostolate in the sense of the testimony of life concerns all institutes, even those engaged principally in contemplation. But apostolic works belong to apostolic institutes engaged in external works of the apostolate (can. 675, §3).
This third contribution is sometimes called the mission of being, or signifying, although, in reality, one cannot exist without the other. The first Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II to Men and Women Religious on their consecration in the light of the ministry of redemption (Redemptionis donum, March 25, 1984), n. 15, clarifies: “Even though the many different apostolic works that you perform are extremely important, nevertheless the truly fundamental work of the apostolate remains always what (and at the same time who) you are in the Church.” In view of aging membership in many congregations, every consecrated person brings his/her own beauty, gifts, and talents, notwithstanding age.
The fourth qualitative contribution of consecrated persons, religious in particular, is the presence of a community. The presence of a community is preferred; a lone religious is not ideal. Vita consecrata says, “It is important to keep in mind that the Church entrusts the participation in the mission of Christ to the institute as such. The presence of religious, even as a simple one, can be more helpful when it exists as a religious body, family, and group” (VC 92). In fact, from the canonical point of view, the title “The Apostolates of the Institutes” (Chapter V; cann. 673-683) itself underlines that it deals with the mission of the institutes rather than the activities of the individual religious.
Indeed, all forms of consecrated life require fraternal life, but not all require that this fraternal is lived in common. The Order of Virgins, the Anchorites or Hermits, the members of Secular Institutes, and even the diocesan clergy, for example, observe fraternal life, but living in community is not an essential element of their consecration or their being secular priests.
In this regard, canon 665, §1 stipulates, “Religious are to reside in their own religious house and observe the common life; they are not to stay elsewhere except with the permission of the superior. For a lengthy absence from the religious house, the major superior, for a just reason and with the consent of his or her council can authorize a member to live outside a house of the institute; such an absence should not exceed one year.”
Against the backdrop of these contributions is the distinctive sign of consecrated life, which is prophecy. Pope Francis addresses consecrated persons in his Apostolic Letter to Consecrated Men and Women on the Occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life: “I am counting on you “to wake up the world,” since the distinctive sign of consecrated life is prophecy. As I told the Superiors General: “Radical evangelical living is not only for religious: it is demanded of everyone. But religious follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way.” This is the priority that is needed right now: “to be prophets who witness to how Jesus lived on this earth … a religious must never abandon prophecy”.
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