Wake Up the World!

October 17 2014 | by

THIS YEAR Pope Francis is calling on the Church to wake up the world. To help achieve his vision the Pope has named 2015 the ‘Year of Consecrated Life’. This Year has three main goals: the renewal of those who are already living the consecrated life; a celebration of their special vocation by the whole Church; and the promotion of new vocations to the consecrated life.

As there is so much to celebrate this year it is actually longer than a calendar year. It starts at the end of November, as this month is the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church. This choice of date is not by chance, but it teaches us an important lesson, namely that those living in consecrated life are not doing so as a private devotion or merely as a way of personal holiness. No, all Christians in consecrated life live their vocations as members of the universal Church, and, as is the case with all vocations, the whole Church benefits from their lives. And the Year will end on February 2, 2016, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. This feast was traditionally called Candlemas Day, and it was the day when candles were blessed to symbolize Christ, the light of the world. In 1997 St. John Paul II decided that the Church would also celebrate the World Day for Consecrated Life on this feast day. This was to underline the vocation of those in consecrated life to bring the light of Christ to the world.


Baptismal consecration


At this point, perhaps it would be good to ask the question of what exactly constitutes consecrated or religious life. On one level each one of us has been permanently consecrated to God on the day of our baptism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: “Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ.” But over her long history the Catholic Church has discovered different ways to live this baptismal consecration, and very early in the history of the Church, a particular way of life emerged whereby certain Christians felt a call from God to live their Baptism in a radical manner that is permanently dedicated to God. The Catechism defines religious life as “a permanent state of life recognized by the Church, entered freely in response to the call of Christ to perfection, and characterized by the profession of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.”


The beginnings


Most scholars agree that religious life started with St. Anthony the Great in third century Egypt. Anthony’s parents died leaving him a big farm, but as a young man he felt drawn to a type of life that was totally dedicated to God. One day at Mass he heard the words of the Gospel of Matthew: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). He took these words at face value, sold all his property, gave the money to the poor and started living in the desert, praying and doing penance. He slept in a cave and did manual labor to earn his food. After some time other men started following him and, when he died, his disciples continued his way of life. This was how organized religious life started in the Church. This form of life quickly spread, and soon people living a permanent state of religious consecration were to be found in every corner of the Christian world.


Need of community


Millions of people have lived the consecrated life during the history of the Church and in every age they have made great contributions to the Church, and indeed to society at large. Many of the most popular saints, such as St. Francis, St. Anthony of Padua, Padre Pio and the St. Therese of Lisieux, have lived the consecrated life. While many orders have faced some challenges over the last few decades, these orders are far from being a spent force in the Church. Indeed the election of Pope Francis, who as a Jesuit is the first pope from a religious order in well over one hundred and fifty years, has signalled a providential new springtime for the religious orders. Speaking of his decision to become a Jesuit in an interview to La Civilita Cattolica in September 2013, the Pope summarized his reasons for entering religious life very simply, “I did not see myself being a priest on my own. I need a community.” As pope he is bringing this realization of a need for community to the whole Church.


Special vocation


The role of the Pope has been fundamental in the Catholic Church since that day at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus famously constituted Simon Peter as the rock on which he would build his Church. But God has often used the different personalities and talents of the individual popes at different moments during the history of the Church to help the Church face particular challenges. In our days St. John Paul II brought the papacy to the world stage in a special way, while Pope Benedict XVI entrusted the Church with a catechetical and theological legacy that will last for centuries to come. One of the important contributions that Pope Francis is making to the Church is a renewal of the religious orders and it should be no surprise then that he has proclaimed this year as the Year of Consecrated Life.

Pope Francis is a workaholic, and maintains a daily schedule that would challenge someone half his age. But among the many appointments that he keeps, he seems to make a special place for his brothers and sisters in religious life. He uses these meetings to both encourage and challenge them, as well as taking advantage of the meetings himself to find spiritual refreshment with his brothers and sisters in religious life. In an informal meeting he had with the Union of Superiors General of religious men in November 2013 he spoke of what he considers to be the special vocation of those in consecrated life in the Church today. “It is a question of leaving everything to follow the Lord,” said the Pope, “no, I do not want to say ‘radical.’ Evangelical radicalness is not only for religious: it is demanded of all. But religious follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way. It is this witness that I expect of you. Religious should be men and women able to wake the world up.”


Strip away


However, how can religious and those in consecrated life wake the world up? Cardinal João Braz de Aviz,
Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life 
and Societies of Apostolic Life, wrote a letter to religious on the occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life entitled Rejoice! Here he provided a selection of quotations of Pope Francis to help answer this precise question. One particular quote was from Pope Francis’ pastoral visit to Assisi last October, and it gives us a good answer to this question. Pope Francis was asked what the Church must strip away in order to fulfill her mission in the world today. He replied: “[Strip away] every action that is not for God, is not of God; strip away the fear of opening the doors and going out to encounter all, especially the poorest of the poor, the needy, the remote, without waiting. Certainly not to get lost in the shipwreck of the world, but to bear with courage the light of Christ, the light of the Gospel, even in the darkness, where one can’t see, where one might stumble. Strip away the seeming assurance structures give, which, though certainly necessary and important, should never obscure the one true strength it carries within: God. He is our strength!”

As we face this challenge, we can never simply take it for granted that we have the spirit of Christ and complacency does not have a place in our spiritual life. When he met with the religious of Korea during his apostolic visit there last August, Pope Francis stressed the importance of always keeping God’s mercy at the center of our lives. “For you, as men and women consecrated to God, this joy is rooted in the mystery of the Father’s mercy revealed in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Whether the charism of your institute is directed more to contemplation or to the active life, you are challenged to become ‘experts’ in divine mercy precisely through your life in community.”


Manifold charisms


This year is a great opportunity for the Church. It will help some people to find their vocations in consecrated life. Indeed, perhaps someone reading this very article will begin to consider that God might be calling them to enter a religious order and experience there that Jesus’ promise that he has come that we might live life to the full can become a reality in their own life! The Year for Consecrated Life will help those already in religious life to appreciate their vocation and role in the Church and the world as a whole. It will also allow the majority of Catholics who are not living in consecrated life or a religious order to truly appreciate those who are. We can support them with our prayers and actions, we can cooperate with them in many important ministries of the Church and in the New Evangelization. But most importantly we can rejoice that God has given so many wonderful charisms and callings to the different members of his Church.

Updated on October 06 2016