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The Gift of Consecrated Life

6/1/2015

Brian Fraga and Columbia staff

The witness of consecrated men and women provides an indispensable sign of the Church’s identity and mission

Sisters from various religious institutes gather for prayer

Sisters from various U.S. religious institutes gather for prayer in the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jeanine Roufs, courtesy of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious)

When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope in March 2013, he became not only the first pope from the Western Hemisphere, but also the first from the Jesuit order. Some commentators quipped that it would not be difficult for the new pontiff to follow the distinctive “fourth vow” that Jesuits have traditionally taken in addition to poverty, chastity and obedience — namely, special obedience to the Successor of Peter.

Pope Francis, in fact, became the first supreme pontiff to be elected from any religious order since the mid-19th century, as well as the first to take the name of the beloved 13th-century saint who is the father of Franciscan religious communities worldwide. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Holy Father has proclaimed a Year of Consecrated Life to celebrate the vocations of men and women who dedicate themselves wholly to God.

“I am counting on you ‘to wake up the world,’” Pope Francis wrote to all consecrated people in an apostolic letter announcing this special year, which began Nov. 30, 2014, the First Sunday of Advent, and will close Feb. 2, 2016, the World Day of Consecrated Life. “This is the priority that is needed right now: ‘to be prophets who witness to how Jesus lived on this earth.’”

Rooted in baptism, consecrated life takes a variety of forms and is most often characterized “by the public profession of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, in a stable state of life recognized by the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 944).

Today, even as the call to radically follow Christ becomes increasingly countercultural, consecrated life in the United States is showing signs of renewal.

CALLED BY THE ‘VOICE OF LOVE’

The Year of Consecrated Life coincides with the 50th anniversary of Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the Church, and of Perfectae Caritatis, the council’s decree on the renewal of religious life.

Religious sisters, priests and brothers no doubt account for the most visible and recognizable form of consecrated life. In the United States alone, there were 179,954 religious sisters, 22,707 religious priests and 12,271 religious brothers when the Second Vatican Council concluded in 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.

Generations of Catholics were educated in grade schools by religious sisters and brothers in full habits like the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers, and many have attended high schools and universities run by religious orders such as the Jesuits, Dominicans, Benedictines and Holy Cross fathers.

But over the past 50 years, due to a variety of societal and demographic factors, the ranks of religious men and women in the United States have dwindled. In 2014, CARA counted 49,883 religious sisters, 12,010 religious priests and 4,318 brothers.

Nevertheless, these statistics do not tell the whole story, for a quiet renaissance in religious life has been underway in recent years.

Worldwide, more than 200 new religious communities have been founded since the Second Vatican Council, according to Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocations Conference.

“The Holy Spirit continues to call and raise up gifts within the Church,” said Brother Bednarczyk, who is a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

A 2012 CARA study indicated that Millennials — those born after 1981 — are much more likely to consider a religious vocation than the previous generation. The study also identified key factors commonly found among young Catholics who consider a vocation, including regular Mass attendance, a home life where faith is discussed and encouraged, and formal Catholic education at any level.

A number of religious leaders, too, say they are seeing a rising tide of interest.

“The voice of Jesus, the same voice of love that called women and men in the past to courageously and selflessly tend the poor, weak and young, is still calling young people today,” said Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, the superior general of the Sisters of Life, which has grown to more than 80 members since its founding in 1991.

Mother Agnes currently serves as chairperson of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which represents 125 communities in the United States — many of them growing in numbers. Nearly 1,000 of the 6,000 sisters in CMSWR communities are in initial formation, and more than 80 percent are active in ministries.

A number of men’s religious communities are also receiving a steady flow of young vocations, even if the number of religious on the whole continues to decline.

“I’m seeing signs of renewal in groups that have a clear identity and clear ministries that are community-focused,” said Father James J. Greenfield, a priest of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales who serves as president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.

Among the more than 500 men being ordained to the priesthood in the United States this year, approximately 100 are members of religious orders.

A DIVERSITY OF GIFTS

Within religious institutes, traditionally called orders or religious congregations, there is a wide diversity of charisms and spiritual gifts. Among those involved in active apostolic works, some religious serve in ministries like education or health care, while others are sent to the peripheries of society to minister to the marginalized and outcast. Other communities consist of monks or nuns who live in enclosed monasteries or cloisters; there they are called to a contemplative life of intimacy with Christ and prayer for the Church and the world.

While the roots of religious institutes reach back to the first centuries of Christianity, a new form of consecrated life developed in the 20th century: secular institutes.

Formally approved by Pope Pius XII in 1947, secular institutes enable lay people to live out the evangelical counsels while working in society. In his 1996 apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata, St. John Paul II described members of secular institutes as “a leaven of wisdom and a witness of grace within cultural, economic and political life” (10).

“We’re all called to holiness, and I have a beautiful way, a structure that Holy Mother Church provides, to be right in the world, but not of the world,” said Jessica Swedzinski, a member of the Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary in Sleepy Eye, Minn.

Swedzinski serves as secretary of the U.S. Conference of Secular Institutes, which represents the more than 30 secular institutes in the United States today. Like religious brothers and sisters, members of secular institutes live as a sign of God’s presence in the world.

“Religious life and secular institutes, in their way of leavening in society, continue to give a witness in the Church to the Gospel and the absoluteness of God, which are things we need to remember,” explained Sister Sharon Holland, a member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who serves as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

In addition to religious and secular institutes, the Church also recognizes forms of individual consecrated life, such as consecrated virgins and hermits.

Dating back to apostolic times, women who discerned a gift to live in perpetual virginity for Christ alone were mystically betrothed to him through a liturgical rite of consecration. The rite of consecration of virgins, a ceremony reserved to bishops, was restored for women living in the world in 1970, following the Second Vatican Council. Today there are approximately 3,500 consecrated virgins in 40 countries, including some 230 in the United States.

“Consecrated virginity is probably the earliest form of consecrated life that existed in the Church,” said Judith M. Stegman, president of the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins.

“We live our unique vocation individually and in the midst of the world,” added Stegman, who is currently studying canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

While they are not associated with communal life or particular charisms, consecrated virgins devote themselves to prayer and remain a striking sign of the Church as the Bride of Christ.

WAKING UP THE WORLD

Just as Christ called the Apostles to leave everything and follow him more than 2,000 years ago, so he continues to call forth disciples to be consecrated entirely to him as witnesses to the Gospel.

“The consecrated life is about seeking Christ alone and living the life of Christ to its fullness,” said Father Thomas Nelson, O. Praem, a Norbertine priest of St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, Calif., who serves as national director of the Institute on Religious Life. “It’s a closer following or imitation of Christ. It is supernatural in its very essence, and you find that under all forms of the consecrated life.”

At the same time, consecrated persons imitate the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom the Church recognizes as “the sublime example of perfect consecration” and “the model of the acceptance of grace by human creatures” (Vita Consecrata, 28).

In this way, consecrated men and women are called to be icons of Christian discipleship.

As Pope Francis said in his apostolic letter, consecrated life “is at the heart of the Church, a decisive element of her mission, inasmuch as it expresses the deepest nature of the Christian vocation and the yearning of the Church as the Bride for union with her sole Spouse.”

One purpose of the Year of Consecrated Life is to help the Christian faithful grow in awareness of “the gift which is the presence of our many consecrated men and women, heirs of the great saints who have written the history of Christianity.”

In addition, the Holy Father is calling on consecrated men and women to reflect on the meaning of their own vocations and to be attentive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

“Pope Francis is asking the religious to ‘wake up the world,’” Father Greenfield explained. “He tells us we need to be witnesses by living our lives and our vows authentically.”

In his letter, the pope underscored key ways that consecrated men and women can bear witness to Christ.

“The apostolic effectiveness of consecrated life,” he wrote, “depends on the eloquence of your lives, lives which radiate the joy and beauty of living the Gospel and following Christ to the full.”

In the face of the many challenges facing consecrated life today, Pope Francis also encouraged the Church to look to the future with hope.

“This hope is not based on statistics or accomplishments, but on the One in whom we have put our trust,” he wrote. “Let us constantly set out anew, with trust in the Lord.”

BRIAN FRAGA writes from Massachusetts, where he is a member of Father John F. Hogan Council 14236 in Dartmouth.