By Cardinal Justin Rigali
As the Church in the United States joins the Universal Church in marking the “Fourteenth World Day for Consecrated Life” during the weekend on February 6-7, we reflect this week on this great gift to the Church of the Consecrated Life.
The Soul of the Apostolate
Americans have always been known for their great industry and hard work. The magnitude of our cities and the development of commerce and industry in the United States have often been the object of admiration throughout the world. In the things that pertain to God, Americans have often showed this same industry and hard work.
As Catholics, we just need to look at our institutions of charity, our schools and our parishes to see much of the fruit of the zeal and labor of past and present generations of Catholics. However, our justifiable concern with activity and physical results also has a danger: the danger of forgetting or ignoring the spiritual life as the foundation and source of any material success we enjoy and as the motivation and goal of all that we do.
In the late nineteenth century, as the energy of the United States was producing great things, there were some in the Church who thought that modern Christianity should have its expression in actions alone. Pope Leo XIII wrote a Letter to the Bishops of the United States, praising the great material accomplishments of the young Church in our country but also reminding them that contemplation, consecrated Religious life and the spiritual life in general must be the foundation of every Christian undertaking. Material accomplishments do not take the place of our spiritual lives but are their fruits.
Pope Leo’s successor, Pope Saint Pius X, had as his bedside book a work that has become a spiritual classic and that is enjoying a new popularity: “The Soul of the Apostolate,” by Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard. Dom Chautard’s thesis, found in the very title of his book, is that all apostolic work must have a “soul,” that is a fundamental intimacy with God, upon which all apostolic work is built.
The “soul” of the consecrated life
As we mark the Fourteenth World Day for Consecrated Life, we not only contemplate the labors of our consecrated men and women religious, but we also look to their “soul,” that is, the motivation of all they do. They are at the heart of the Church because, as the Second Vatican Council taught, the consecrated life “belongs inseparably to the life and holiness of the Church” (Lumen Gentium, 44).
Pope John Paul II established this universal celebration of the consecrated life in 1997, in order to do just that: to give thanks for the gift to the Church of our consecrated men and women religious and to remind them and us of the origin and inspiration of all that they do.
This Day for Consecrated Life is always observed near the liturgical Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, celebrated on February 2. For many centuries, this liturgical celebration has had great significance for religious communities of consecrated men and women. This Feast was often chosen as a day of entrance into a religious community or a day of Profession of Vows or reception of the Religious Habit. This is because this Feast, in many ways, can be seen as the “feast of youth.”
Mary and Joseph presented their first born Son in the Temple, according to the Jewish Law, which dictated that the first born male was to be given to God’s service. After the priestly service in the Jewish Temple came to be exclusively fulfilled by those belonging to the Tribe of Levi, the first born of other Jewish tribes would still be presented and then “ransomed back,” by an offering made in the Temple.
The Child Jesus had no need to obey these laws, since as the Eternal Son of the Father, He is the source and end of all laws. However, as an act of humility on His part and an act of obedience on the part of Mary and Joseph, the child Jesus was presented to God in the Temple early in His earthly life.
This presentation, this act of humility, obedience and sacrifice mirrors the generous young men and women who respond to the call of Jesus to give themselves to Him in an intimate and total way. This is always the origin and purpose of the consecrated life, and any other activity which it may entail is its fruit but not its ultimate end.
The Feast of the Presentation is also called Candlemas Day because it is on this day that the traditional blessing of candles takes place. The use of candles in the Church reminds us of the two-fold teaching concerning light in the Gospels: Jesus tells us that He is “the light of the world” (John 8:12), enlightening us by His teaching and warming us by His love.
However, He also tells us that we are to be as a light, showing forth to the world what it means to be His follower. He says: “Your light must shine before others, so that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:16).
The consecrated man or woman religious accepts this light in a special way and consecrates his or her total person to having that light grow within and spreading it to the world. As I have written before: “The consecration of Religious starts with a personal experience of Christ and His church and it leads into the depth of the Trinitarian life of God. From this Trinitarian life, it leads forth to share the mission of Jesus in the world” (Show us Your Mercy and Love, p. 146, Paulist Press, 2003).
Some principal characteristics of the consecrated life
I would like to dwell here on just three of the principal qualities of the consecrated life, so that we may all understand and appreciate it better. They are: prayer, identification with the Church and the life of charity.
We all know the importance of communication to sustaining any relationship. If we cease to talk to or communicate with a friend in some way, our relationship eventually dies. For every Christian, prayer, which is talking to and communicating with God, is necessary.
However, for the consecrated man or woman religious, the Code of Canon Law tells us that “the first and principal duty of all Religious is the contemplation of things spanine, and constant union with God in prayer” (cf. Canon 663). Saint Paul reminds us that, for the consecrated person there is a freedom to engage in prayer which the married person may not possess to as great an extent because of his or her responsibilities (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:32-34).
This freedom is not a freedom from something but a freedom for something. The consecrated religious engages first in an intimate relationship with Jesus through prayer, thereby imitating the Trinitarian intimacy of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is this intimacy that he or she brings to the apostolate and the only way in which that apostolate will bear fruit that will endure.
The consecrated men and women are always identified as being of service within the Church. It is within the Church that their proper identity is lived out and fulfilled.
I think that this is best expressed by the following quote from Pope John Paul II during a discourse he gave to the bishops of the United States during their visit to Rome in 1983. He said: “Religious are persons inspanidually called by God and consecrated by God through the mediation of the Church. The value of their activity is great, but the value of who they are is greater still” (19 September 1983).
Finally, we come to the characteristic of Christian love. The consecrated religious does not give up love but gives all his or her love to an intimate union with Jesus Himself. Jesus in turn rewards the consecrated person with the peace of soul and strength that come from being consecrated in the truth, within the Church, in love.
That love may be shown forth in the active life of many religious men and women or the total life of prayer, sacrifice and contemplation lived out by the cloistered religious but all are motivated by love and cannot please God, serve the Church or possess inner peace without it.
As we thank our consecrated men and women of the present, we also look to the future. Our present Holy Father reminds us: “Today, as in all ages, there is no lack of generous souls ready to give up everyone and everything to embrace Christ and His Gospel, consecrating their existence to His service within communities characterized by enthusiasm, generosity and joy” (17 February 2008).
May the many generous hearts of the past and present, who have embraced the consecrated life within the Church, inspire the generous hearts of today to follow their example.
28 January 2010