Institutes of consecrated life in the Church are a sign of the activity of the Holy Spirit, who showers charisms on individuals and communities
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 28 September, having finished his discussion of the role of lay people in the Church, the Holy Father turned his attention to religious life. Those who profess the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience, the Pope said, have an important role in fostering the Christian community's growth in holiness. Here is a translation of his catechesis, which was the 103rd in the series on the mystery of the Church and was given in Italian.
1. In the ecclesiological catecheses we have been giving for some time, we have often presented the Church as a "priestly" people, i.e., comprising persons who share in Christ's priesthood as a state of consecration to God and of offering the perfect, definitive worship he gives to the Father in the name of all humanity. This is a result of Baptism, which inserts the believer into Christ's Mystical Body and appoints him—almost ex officio and, one could say, in an institutional way—to reproduce in himself the condition of Priest and Victim (Sacerdos et Hostia) of the Head (cf. St. Thomas, Summa Theol., III, q. 63, a.3 in c. and ad 2; a. 6).
Every other sacrament —especially Confirmation—completes this spiritual state of the believer, and the sacrament of Orders also confers the power to act ministerially as Christ's instrument in proclaiming the word, renewing the sacrifice of the Cross and forgiving sin.
2. To explain better this consecration of God's People, we now would like to discuss another basic chapter of ecclesiology, which in our day has become increasingly important from the theological and spiritual standpoint. We are speaking of the consecrated life, which many of Christ's followers embrace as a particularly elevated, intense and demanding way of living out the consequences of Baptism with a lofty charity leading to perfection and holiness.
Church gives recognition to religious families
The Second Vatican Council, heir to the theological and spiritual tradition of two millennia of Christianity, has highlighted the value of the consecrated life, which (according to what the Gospel indicates) "is expressed in the practice of chastity consecrated to God, poverty and obedience", which are called precisely the "evangelical counsels" (cf. Constitution Lumen gentium, n. 43). The Council speaks of them as a spontaneous manifestation of the sovereign action of the Holy Spirit, who from the beginning has produced an abundance of generous souls moved by the desire for perfection and self-giving for the good of all Christ's body (cf. Lumen gentium, n. 43).
3. We are speaking of individual experiences, which have never been lacking and even today continue to blossom in the Church. However, since the first centuries a tendency has been noted to move from the personal and—one could almost say— "private" practice of the evangelical counsels to a state of public recognition by the Church, both in the solitary life of hermits and—ever increasingly—in the formation of monastic communities or religious families, which are meant to assist in attaining the objectives of the consecrated life: stability, better doctrinal formation, obedience, mutual help and progress in charity.
Thus, from the first centuries down to our day, "a wondrous variety of religious communities" has emerged, in which the "manifold wisdom of God" is displayed (cf. Decree Perfectae caritatis, n. 1) and the Church's extraordinary vitality is expressed, but in the unity of Christ's Body, according to the words of St. Paul: "There are different gifts but the same Spirit" (1 Cor. 12.4). The Spirit pours out his gifts in a great variety of forms to enrich the one Church, which in her multicoloured beauty reveals in time "the unfathomable riches of Christ" (Eph 3:8), as all creation manifests "in many forms and in each individual part" (multipliciter et divisim), as St. Thomas says (Summa Theol., I, q. 47, a. 1), what in God is absolute unity.
4. In every case, it is a question of one basic "divine gift", although in the multiplicity and variety of spiritual gifts or charisms bestowed on individuals and communities (cf. Summa Theol., II-II, q. 103, a. 2). Charisms in fact can be individual or collective. The individual ones are widespread in the Church and vary so much from person to person that they are difficult to categorize and in each case require the Church's discernment. Collective charisms are generally bestowed on men and women who are destined to establish ecclesial works, especially religious institutes, which receive their distinctive mark from their founders' charisms, live and work under their influence and, to the extent of their fidelity, receive new gifts and charisms for each individual member and for the community as a whole. The latter can thus discover new forms of activity in accordance with the needs of time and place without breaking the line of continuity and development going back to the founder, or by easily recovering its identity and vigour.
Religious state belongs to Church's life and holiness
The Council observes that "the Church, by virtue of her authority, gladly accepted and approved" religious families (Perfectae caritatis, n. 1). This was in harmony with her own responsibility for charisms, because it is her "office not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to what is good (cf. I Thes 5:12 and 19-21; Lumen gentium, n. 12). This explains why—with regard to the evangelical counsels—"the authority of the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has taken on the task of interpreting these counsels and regulating their practice as well as establishing stable forms of living according to them" (Lumen gentium, n. 43).
5. It should always be kept in mind however, that the state of consecrated life does not belong to the hierarchical structure of the Church. The Council notes this: "If one considers the divine and hierarchical constitution of the Church, the religious state is not an intermediate condition between the clerical and lay. But some faithful, from each of these two conditions (clerical and lay), are called by God to enjoy a particular gift in the life of the Church and, each in their own way to help the Church in her mission of salvation" (Lumen gentium, n. 43).
The Council immediately adds, however, that the religious state, "which is constituted by the profession of the evangelical counsels, although it does not belong to the hierarchical structure of the Church, does, however, belong unquestionably to her life and holiness" (Lumen gentium, n. 44). This adverb—"unquestionably"—means that all the blows that can disturb the Church's life will never be able to eliminate the consecrated life characterized by the profession of the evangelical counsels. This state of life will endure as an essential element of the Church's holiness. According to the Council, this is an "unshakable" truth.
That having been said, it must still be stated clearly that no particular form of consecrated life is sure to last forever. Individual religious communities can die out. History shows that some have in fact disappeared, just as certain "particular" Churches have also come to an end. Institutes that are no longer suited to their age, or which have no more vocations, can be forced to close or to be consolidated with others. The guarantee of lasting until the end of the world, which was given to the Church as a whole, has not necessarily been granted to individual religious institutes. History teaches that the charism of the consecrated life is always on the move, showing that it can discover and "invent", so to speak, new forms that more directly answer the needs and aspirations of the time, while remaining faithful to the founder's charism. However, communities that have existed for centuries are also called to adapt to these needs and aspirations so as not to condemn themselves to disappearing.
6. Nevertheless, the practice of the evangelical counsels—whatever forms it may take — is guaranteed to last throughout history, because Jesus Christ himself desired and established it as a definitive feature of the Church's economy of holiness. The idea of a Church consisting only of lay people involved in marriage and secular professions does not correspond to Christ's intentions as we find them in the Gospel. All this shows us —from also looking at history and even current events—that there will always be men and women (and boys and girls) who will want to give themselves totally to Christ and his kingdom by the way of celibacy, poverty and submission to a rule of life. Those who take this way will continue, in the future as in the past, to play an important role for the Christian community's growth in holiness and for its evangelizing mission. Indeed, today more than ever, the way of the evangelical counsels offers great hope for the future of the Church.
L'Osservatore Romano October 5, 1994