Community life, a characteristic of consecrated life, means a daily readiness to follow Christ’s example of humility and fraternal charity
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 14 December, the Holy Father continued his discussion of consecrated life by turning his attention to fraternal life in common. Christian humility and charity are the answer, the Pope said, to problems that may arise among those who live in community. The Holy Father's catechesis was the 113th in the series on the mystery of the Church and was given in Italian.
1. Regarding the essential aspects of consecrated life, the Second Vatican Council, in the Decree Perfectae caritatis, after discussing the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience speaks of life in common with reference to the example of the first Christian communities and in the light of the Gospel.
The Council's teaching on this point is very important, even though it is true that a life in common, strictly understood, does not exist or is greatly reduced in some forms of consecrated life, such as the eremitic, while it is not necessarily required in secular institutes. It exists however in the great majority of institutes of consecrated life and has always been considered by founders and by the Church as a basic observance for the good progress of religious life and the effective organization of the apostolate. As a confirmation of this, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life recently published (2 February 1994) a special document on Fraternal Life in Community.
2. If we look at the Gospel, it could be said that life in common is a response to Jesus' teaching on the connection between the two precepts of love of God and love of neighbor: In a state of life in which God is supremely loved, one cannot but strive to love one's neighbor with particular generosity, beginning with those who are closest because they belong to the same community. This is the state of life of "consecrated" persons.
Moreover, it is clear from the Gospel that Jesus' calls were addressed, indeed, to individuals but usually in order to invite them to join, to form a group: this was the case with the group of disciples and with that of the women.
Practice of fraternal love requires sacrifice
The Gospel text documents the importance of fraternal charity as the soul of the community, and thus as an essential value of the common life. There is a reference to the disputes which took place on several occasions between the Apostles themselves, who in following Jesus did not cease to be men, children of their time and their people: they were anxious to establish ranks of greatness and authority. Jesus' response was a lesson in humility and willingness to serve (cf. Mt 18:3-4; 20:26-28; par.). Then he gave them "his" commandment of mutual love (cf. Jn13:34; 15:12, 17) according to his example. In the history of the Church, particularly in that of religious institutes, the question of the relationship between individuals and groups has often been raised, and it has no other valid answer than that of Christian humility and fraternal love, which unites in the name and power of Christ's love, as the ancient song of the "agapes" says over and over: Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor, the love of Christ has gathered us together.
Certainly, the practice of fraternal love in the common life requires considerable effort and sacrifice, and demands generosity no less than the practice of the evangelical counsels. Hence, joining a religious institute or community implies a serious commitment to living fraternal love in all its aspects.
3. An example of this is found in the first Christian community. They came together immediately after the Ascension to pray in unity of heart (cf. Acts 1:14) and to persevere in fraternal "communion" (Acts 2:42), going so far as to share their possessions: "they shared all things in common" (Acts 2:44). The unity desired by Christ found at the time of the Church's beginning a fulfilment worthy of being recorded: "The community of believers were of one heart and one mind" (Acts 4:32).
The Church has always retained a deep memory of—perhaps even a nostalgia for that early community and basically, religious communities have always sought to reproduce that ideal of communion in charity as a practical rule of life in common. Their members, gathered by the love of Christ, live together because they intend to abide in this love. Thus they can witness to the Church's true countenance, which reflects her soul: charity.
"One heart and one mind" does not mean a rigid, featureless uniformity, but a deep communion in mutual understanding and reciprocal respect.
4. It cannot only be a matter, however of a union of like-mindedness and human affection. The Council, echoing the Acts of the Apostles, speaks of a "sharing of the same spirit" (Perfectae caritatis, n. 15). It is a question of a unity that has its deepest root in the Holy Spirit, who pours out his love into hearts and spurs different people to help one another on the path of perfection by creating and maintaining an atmosphere of good understanding and co-operation among themselves. As the guarantee of unity in the whole Church, the Holy Spirit establishes it and causes it to abide in an even more intense way in communities of consecrated life.
What are the ways of this charity infused by the Holy Spirit? The Council calls particular attention to mutual esteem (cf. Perfectae caritatis, n. 15). It applies to religious two of St Paul's exhortations to Christians: "Love one another with mutual affection; anticipate each other in showing respect" (Rom 12:10), and "Help carry one another's burdens" (Gal 6:2).
Mutual esteem is an expression of mutual love, which is opposed to the widespread tendency to judge one's neighbor harshly and criticize him. Paul's exhortation urges us to discover other people's qualities and, as far as the poor human eye can tell, the marvellous work of grace and—ultimately—of the Holy Spirit. This esteem means accepting the other with his characteristics and his way of thinking and acting; thus, despite many obstacles, harmony between what are often very different dispositions can be achieved.
"Help carry one another's burdens" means sympathetically bearing with the true or apparent defects of others, however irksome, and willingly accepting all the sacrifices required by living together with those whose mentality and temperament are not full in accord with one's own way of seeing and judging.
Christ is present wherever there is unity in charity
5. In this regard, the Council (Perfectae caritatis, n. 15) recalls that charity is the fulfilment of the law (cf. Rom 13:10) the bond of perfection (cf. Col 3:14), the sign of having passed from death to life (cf. 1 Jn 3:14), the manifestation of Christ's coming (cf. Jn 14:21, 23) and the source of great apostolic power. We can apply to the common life the excellence of charity described by St. Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians (13:1-13) and attribute to it what the Apostle calls the fruits of the Spirit: "love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, mildness and chastity" (Gal 5:22), fruits, —the Council says—of "the love of God which is poured into their hearts' (Perfectae caritatis, n. 15).
Jesus said: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst" (Mt 18:20). See: Christ is present wherever there is unity in charity, and Christ's presence is the source of deep joy, which is renewed each day until the definitive meeting with him.
L'Osservatore Romano December 21, 1994