While Christ calls all his followers to be perfect, he calls some of them to a closer imitation of himself, by giving up everything to follow him
The Holy Father returned to his discussion of consecrated life at the General Audience of Wednesday, 9 November devoting his catechesis to the profession of the evangelical counsels as a way of perfection. Here is a translation of his talk, which was the 108th in the series on the mystery of the Church and was given in Italian.
1. The way of the evangelical counsels has often been called a "way of perfection", and the state of consecrated life the "state of perfection". These terms are also found in the Council's Constitution Lumen gentium (cf. n. 45), while the Decree on the renewal of religious life is entitled Perfectae caritatis and has its theme the "pursuit of perfect charity by means of the evangelical counsels" (Perfectae caritatis, n. 1).
A way of perfection obviously means a way of perfection to be acquired, and not of a perfection already acquired, as St Thomas Aquinas explains clearly (cf. Summa Theol., II-II, q. 184, aa. 5, 7). Those who are committed to the practice of the evangelical counsels do not at all claim to possess perfection. They acknowledge that they are sinners like all men, sinners who have been saved. But they feel and are more expressly called to strive for perfection, which consists essentially in charity (cf. ibid., q. 184, aa. 1, 3).
Evangelical counsels mean freedom and growth
2. It cannot be forgotten that all Christians are called to perfection. Jesus Christ himself referred to this call: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). In discussing the Church's universal call to holiness, the Second Vatican Council says that this holiness "is expressed in many ways by the individuals who, each in his own state of life, tend to the perfection of love, thus helping others to grow in holiness" (Lumen gentium, n. 39; cf. n. 40). Nevertheless, the universality of this call does not prevent others from being called in a particular way to a life of perfection. According to Matthew's account, Jesus addressed his call to the rich young man by saying: "If you wish to be perfect..." (Mt 19:21). This is the Gospel source of the idea of a "way of perfection": the rich young man had asked Jesus about "what is good", and in reply he received a list of the commandments; but, at the time of the call, he was invited to a perfection that goes beyond the commandments: he was called to renounce everything in order to follow Jesus. Perfection consists in the most complete gift of self to Christ. In this sense the way of the evangelical counsels is a "way of perfection" for those who are called to it.
3. It should again be noted that the perfection Jesus offered the rich young man does not mean harm to one's person but rather its enrichment. Jesus invites the young man to renounce a plan of life in which concern about having is the focal point, in order for him to discover the true value of personal fulfilment in giving oneself to others and particularly in generous devotion to the Saviour. Thus we can say that the real and considerable renunciations demanded by the evangelical counsels do not have a "depersonalizing" effect, but are aimed at perfecting personal life, as the result of a supernatural grace corresponding to the human being's deepest and noblest aspirations. In this regard St Thomas speaks of "spiritualis libertas" and "augmentum spirituale": spiritual freedom and growth (ibid., II-II, q. 184, a. 43.
4. What are the main elements of freedom and growth involved in the evangelical counsels for whoever professes them?
First of all, there is a conscious striving for the perfection of faith. The response to the call: "Follow me", with the renunciations it entails, requires an ardent faith in the divine person of Christ and absolute trust in his love. Both will have to grow and be strengthened along the way to avoid yielding to adversity.
Nor can a conscious striving for the perfection of hope be lacking. Christ's request must be viewed in the perspective of eternal life. Those who commit themselves to it are called to a firm, solid hope both at the time of their profession and throughout their life. This will allow them to witness, amid the relative, fleeting goods of this world, to the everlasting value of the goods of heaven.
The profession of the evangelical counsels particularly develops a conscious striving for the perfection of one's love for God. The Second Vatican Council speaks of the consecration produced by the evangelical counsels as the gift of self to God who is "supremely loved" (Lumen gentium, n. 44). It is the fulfilment of the first commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength" (Dt 6:5, cf. Mk 12:30 and par.). Consecrated life genuinely grows by the continual deepening of this initial gift and by an ever stronger and more sincere love in its Trinitarian dimension: it is love for Christ who calls us to intimacy with him, for the Holy Spirit who seeks and helps us to become completely open to his inspirations, for the Father, the original source and ultimate goal of consecrated life. This takes place particularly in prayer, but also in every action, which receives a decidedly vertical dimension from the infused virtue of religion.
Obviously faith, hope and love arouse and increasingly heighten the striving for perfection of one's love of neighbour, as an expansion of one's love of God. The "gift of self to God who is supremely loved" implies an intense love of neighbour: love that strives to be as perfect as possible, in imitation of the Saviour's charity.
Consecrated persons contribute to Church's progress
5. The truth of consecrated life as union with Christ in divine charity is expressed in certain basic attitudes, which should increase throughout one's life. In a general way they can be described as follows: the desire to pass on to others the love that comes from God through
the Heart of Christ, and thus, the universality of a love that cannot be stopped by the barriers human selfishness creates in the name of race, nationality, cultural tradition, social or religious status, etc.; an effort to show goodwill and esteem towards all, most especially towards those who, humanly speaking, tend to be more neglected or despised; showing special solidarity to the poor and the victims of persecution and injustice; care in helping the suffering, such as the many today who are handicapped, forsaken, exiled, etc.; the witness of a meek and humble heart, which refrains from condemning, renounces all violence and revenge, and forgives joyfully; the desire to foster reconciliation everywhere and to welcome the Gospel gift of peace; generous dedication in every apostolic endeavour that seeks to spread the light of Christ and bring salvation to mankind; assiduous prayer according to the principal intentions of the Holy Father and the Church.
6. There are many vast fields that today more than ever call for the work of "consecrated persons", as an expression of divine charity in the concrete forms of human solidarity. In many cases, perhaps, they can accomplish, humanly speaking, only little, or at least quiet, lowkey things. But even small contributions are effective, if imbued with true love (the truly great and powerful "thing"), especially if it is the same Trinitarian love poured out in the Church and the world. "Consecrated persons" are called to be these humble, faithful collaborators in the Church's progress in the world along the path of charity.
L'Osservatore Romano November 16, 1994