I am not living consecrated life.
Many of you who know me, or who have been present when I have baptised, buried, preached or presided at a wedding or another liturgy, might think this is exactly what my life is about. However, when Pope Francis initiated the Year of Consecrated Life, he was keen to promote a particular call to a life that is almost as old as Christianity itself.
Put simply, consecrated life is a call from God to live in community according to the charism – distinguishing character – of a particular tradition, animated by the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Many of you will be familiar with Franciscans – followers of the way of St Francis, or Dominicans, followers of the way of St Dominic. These are but two of literally thousands of religious congregations across the world, each with its own story to tell, its own heroes and symbols, its own way of being a disciple of Christ.
Some congregations have been born out of particular circumstances, answering the needs of the time and then fading from view.
Some have initiated a new way and the path is emerging slowly.
Whatever their differences, all forms of consecrated life – all sisters and nuns, brothers and religious priests – have freely chosen a way of life that puts the gospel of Jesus ahead of pursuing a career, becoming a spouse and a parent, accumulating property or exercising power.
Some are engaged in teaching, nursing, counselling, welfare work, adult education or chaplaincy. Some are academics, solicitors, psychologists, scientists, writers, advocates for the poor and downtrodden. Some are retreat leaders, spiritual directors, liturgists, musicians, preachers or artists.
All minister through the lens of their vocation, and all are included in Pope Francis’ sweeping invitation:
“I am counting on you ‘to wake up the world’, since the distinctive sign of consecrated life is prophecy....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....Prophets know God and they know the men and women who are their brothers and sisters....they are beholden to no one but God....Prophets tend to be on the side of the poor and the powerless, for they know that God...is on their side.”
The aspects that distinguish consecrated life from the vocation to which I (and Bishop Bill) have been called are the vows taken by religious men and women and the commitment to live in community.
Pope Francis showed his deep commitment to his calling as a member of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) when he chose to live in simple accommodation, eating with other members of the household and eschewing some of the grandeur of his predecessors.
His approach highlights one aspect of consecrated life. It’s not about standing apart from, but about living in solidarity with, the People of God.
Joan Healy rsj writes tellingly about the changes in religious (consecrated) life which occurred in the wake of the second Vatican Council:
“Mary MacKillop and Father Julian Tenison Woods tried from the beginning to forge something daringly different, something for this country and the contemporary challenges, needs and evils of colonial days. Because of many influences and constrictions, customs and practices accumulated like barnacles around this simple vision....We [as Josephites] tried to let go of anything that set us apart.” (http://cathnews.com/reflections/21575-sr-joanhealy- our-time-our-place)
The Year of Consecrated Life is a warm personal invitation from Pope Francis to religious, but also to all of us:
“The Year for Consecrated Life concerns... the entire Church. Consequently, I ask the whole Christian people to be increasingly aware of the gift which is the presence of our many consecrated men and women, heirs of the great saints...So I invite every Christian community to experience this Year above all as a moment of thanksgiving to the Lord and grateful remembrance for all the gifts we continue to receive....I ask all of you to draw close to these men and women, to rejoice with them, to share their difficulties and to assist them...in their ministries and works....Let them know the affection and the warmth which the entire Christian people feels for them.”
I am delighted to echo this invitation, and to acknowledge with gratitude the presence and influence in my life of so many women and men who have committed themselves to living the gospel in the spirit of their particular charism and who daily inspire and encourage me to do my best to “wake up the world”. You can read Pope Francis’ apostolic letter at w2.vatican.va