On the First Sunday in Advent, November 30, 2014, Pope Francis released a message inaugurating the Year for Consecrated Life, which will end on February 2, 2016, the Feast of the Presentation. In the message the Holy Father outlines a program for reflection and action that should be a source of renewal for individual consecrated persons and their institutes. Please support Pope Francis and all consecrated persons in this endeavor by taking the time to read his message. I offer a few reflections of my own here.
Under the title of “aims” for the year, Pope Francis encourages consecrated persons to reflect on the past, present and future. The past brings us into contact with our origins, the inspiration of our founders and the nature of our charism. The original inspiration from the Holy Spirit was a response to the signs of the times, and a seed that continued to grow and develop.
It is only in “reconciliation with the past,” a notion applied by Pope Benedict to the liturgy, that we are able to respond to the signs of the times today. In each community, a charismatic element remains and must be allowed to bear new fruit under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But ecclesiastically approved forms of life analogically share in a quality of doctrine and liturgy: they can only develop organically in continuity with the original form. Otherwise, the new form arising is not development but corruption.
Carrying the analogy further, our recollection is not mere a memory of the past, but an active participation in the reality of the gift of our vocation as an objective reality. We become responsible for this gift, and will be asked to give an account of the talent we have received and what we have done with it.
Pope Francis says that the present reminds us that each and every institute of religious and consecrated life has the gospel as its fundamental rule. Differences in time and place notwithstanding, the essential values of consecrated life remain unchanged and are rooted in the counsels of Our Lord to follow him unreservedly in poverty, chastity and obedience. St. Francis, for example, neatly summarized the rule and life of the Friars Minor as this: “to observe the holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without property, and in chastity.” Last night at the prayer vigil in the Basilca of St. Mary Major’s in Rome, which our seminarians attended, sections of the many rules and constitutions of various institutes of religious and consecrated life were read. The common evangelical profession was even more striking than the wonderful diversity of form.
This is why Vatican II’s call for the renewal of religious life points to “perfect charity” as the heart of the matter. For supernatural love is the ultimate rule to which all other norms and observances must be subordinated. In sum, our profession is to live in, through and for Christ. He is our life.
For the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, this means in particular way that we live in, through and for Our Lady, who is the great model of consecrated perfection in the following of Jesus. This profession is lived in the present moment by fidelity to both the external form of our life, approved by the Church, but also, and above all, to the internal grace that alone can animate the evangelical life.
This reminds us that the grace of vocation in the here and now continues to be a gift that we receive, that is, it is a gift mediated by the Church of today. We have received a charism, a vocation, a mission, and a ministry—all of which have validity only insofar as they bear witness our communion with the Church, which alone can approve a charism, create a new institute, and definitively interpret its development. Thus, Pope Francis reminds consecrated persons that the present calls us to be
“experts in communion”, “witnesses and architects of the ‘plan for unity’ which is the crowning point of human history in God’s design.”
Franciscans should understand the importance of this very well, as from the beginning, the vocation of St. Francis was to rebuild the Church, a calling he came to understand in terms of the communion of the Order with the visible Church and the building up of ecclesial communion in others by way of evangelical witness.
Christ calls every individual and the whole Church to penance and holiness. We build up the Church when our personal fidelity and witness draws others into communion with Christ in the Church. This was vision of St. Francis.
Pope Francis also identifies one of the “aims” of the Year for Consecrated Life as pertaining to the future. Here he turns to the virtue of hope and the witness of religious as eschatological signs. The Church is always in crisis because she is moves through history, struggling for the kingdom already present but not yet fully realized. Consecrated persons are a sign of hope because they also struggle in that history as men and women who are in the world but not of the world.
No matter how difficult the present becomes, this can never be a justification for consecrated persons to become prophets of doom. In difficult times, apocalyptic literature, personalities and ministries have their attraction, but they do not reflect the hope that is always ours in the gospel.
In fact, the Book of Revelation is not apocalyptic in the sense that the prophets of doom understand it to be. The Apocalypse is a sign of hope because Christ remains present in the persecuted Church in and among the martyrs. History is not a random succession of events, or one reducible to merely human choices. On the contrary, history has a theological meaning because God ultimately directs it to its final end. In a mysterious way, everything from the creation of the world to its final conflagration is ordered to that purpose by the providence of God. This is the meaning of the Book of Revelation.
Thus, those caught in the straights of apocalyptic times must not prophets of doom but of hope, who place their trust, not in man, but in the God who keeps His promises. Consecrated profession is a sign of this hope and the consecrated persons themselves must be its prophets, who read the signs of the times and by their holy way of life lead their brothers and sisters along the course Christ has set for history.
Having laid out his aims for the Year for Consecrated Life, Pope Francis goes on to speak of his expectations. He does so by exhorting consecrated persons to communicate the gospel through their joy. In addition, he expands on the themes of prophecy and ecclesial communion, which he mentioned earlier while discussing aims.
But he also applies to consecrated persons one of the hallmark exhortations of his papacy, namely, he tells the consecrated to go to the “existential peripheries,” where they learn not to be closed in on themselves and crippled by their internal affairs, or as he says, “hostage to [their] own problems.” To this end he exhorts consecrated persons to “work concretely in welcoming refugees, drawing near to the poor, and finding creative ways to catechize, to proclaim the Gospel and to teach others how to pray.” He goes on, then, to express his expectation that the consecrated will examine themselves and discern clearly what it is that God and the people of God are asking them in the here and now.
I recall that Pope Benedict, in his volume of Jesus of Nazareth on the public ministry of Christ, illustrated the meaning of the first beatitude, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mtt 5:3), by having recourse to the example of St. Francis of Assisi. Pope Benedict reminds us that the radical poverty of St. Francis was first of all a freedom from the cares of this world that was linked to unlimited trust in God. This trust allowed St. Francis, not only to appreciate the goodness of the Father, who cares for the lilies of the field, but also to become free himself to care for the Father’s children. Pope Benedict says that In this way St. Francis recaptured the missionary dynamism of the Church, which had been lost through the feudal system.
Here, pope Benedict alludes to St. Bonaventure’s understanding of St. Francis, and Bonaventure’s defense of the innovation of the Franciscan vocation. The early Franciscans, indeed, went to the peripheries at a time when that was exactly what the signs of the times called for. However, the Franciscan vocation was not a revolution or an evangelical movement that found itself at odds with the Church. At the time there were others like St. Francis who were calling for the renewal of the Church and a return to the gospel. Not all of them were Catholic and Apostolic like St. Francis. St. Bonaventure argued successfully, that the vocation of St. Francis was a providential innovation, a movement of the Holy Spirit in the here and now, that was in fact a legitimate and necessary development of tradition.
The wisdom of the saints, like Francis and Bonaventure, make us capable of reading the signs of the times and developing the tradition of religious life in such a way that it remains faithful to its origin in the gospel, the fundamental rule of charity and the individual charism of the particular institute. We can and must go forward in the Church according to her measure and in conformity with the identity we have received from the Lord and the Church as religious and consecrated persons.
There is more in the pope’s message. I hope you read it.