In our day the Holy Spirit is stirring up new forms of consecrated life
The rich variety of forms that consecrated life continues to take in the Church's history was the subject of the Holy Father's catechesis at the General Audience of Wednesday, 5 October. Worthy of particular mention are secular institutes, whose members seek to practice the evangelical counsels while living and working in the world, as well as the new lay movements and associations that have recently sprung up in the Church. The Holy Father's talk was the 104th in the series on the mystery of the Church and was given in Italian.
1. Consecrated life, which has marked the Church's development over the centuries, has experienced and still experiences different expressions. This variety must be kept in mind while reading the chapter of the Constitution Lumen gentium dedicated to the profession of the evangelical counsels. Its bears the title "Religious", but the range of its doctrinal considerations and pastoral intentions covers the much wider and diversified area of consecrated life as it has developed in recent years.
2. Many people today also choose the way of consecrated life in religious institutes and congregations that have long been active in the Church, which continues to find new enrichment in the spiritual life from their living, fruitful presence.
In the Church today, however, there are also new visible associations of consecrated persons, recognized and regulated from the canonical standpoint. First of all, there are the secular institutes, in which, according to the Code of Canon Law, "the Christian faithful living in the world strive for the perfection of charity and work for the sanctification of the world especially from within" (can. 710). The members of these institutes are obliged to follow the evangelical counsels but they harmonize them with a life of involvement in the world of secular activity and institutions. For many years, even before the Council, there were some gifted pioneers in this form of consecrated life, which—externally—is more like that of "seculars" than of "religious". For some this choice was perhaps based on necessity, in that they were not able to enter a religious community because of certain family obligations or certain obstacles. But for many it was the commitment to an ideal: to combine an authentic consecration to God with a life lived amid the affairs of the world, and this too as a vocation. It is to Pope Pius XII's credit to have recognized the legitimacy of this form of consecration in the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia (1947).
In addition to secular institutes, the Code of Canon Law recognizes societies of apostolic life, "whose members without religious vows pursue the particular apostolic purpose of the society, and leading a life as brothers or sisters in common according to a particular manner of life, strive for the perfection of charity through the observance of the constitutions" (can. 731, §1). Among these societies, which are "assimilated" to the institutes of consecrated life, there are some whose members are committed to practicing the evangelical counsels by a bond defined in the constitutions. This too is a form of consecration.
3. In more recent times, a certain number of "movements" or "ecclesial associations" have appeared. I spoke of them appreciatively on the occasion of a convention sponsored by the Italian Episcopal Conference on The Christian Community and Associations of the Laity: "The phenomenon of ecclesial associations", I said, "is a fact characterizing the present historical moment of the Church. And it must also be noted, with true consolation, that the range of these associations covers the entire span of the forms of the Christian's presence in current society" (Insegnamenti, VII, 2, 1984, 290; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 17 Sep. 1984, p. 8). Now as then, I hope that, in order to avoid the risk of a certain self-satisfaction on the part of those who tend to absolutize their own experience and of an isolation from the community life of the local Churches and their Pastors, these lay associations will live "in full ecclesial communion with the Bishop" (ibid., p. 292).
These "movements" or "associations" although consisting of lay people, often steer their members—or some of their members—towards practicing the evangelical counsels. Consequently, even if they are defined as lay people, groups or communities of consecrated life arise among them. What is more, this form of consecrated life can be accompanied by an openness to the priestly ministry, when some communities accept priests or guide young men to priestly ordination. As a result, some of these movements reflect the image of the Church according to the three directions that the development of her historical composition can take: those of lay people, of priests and of consecrated souls within the context of the evangelical counsels.
4. One need only refer to this new situation without having to describe the various movements in detail, in order to emphasize the significance of their presence in the Church today.
Charismatic life is finding new expressions in the Church
It is important to see them as a sign of the charisms given to the Church by the Holy Spirit in ever new and at times unforeseeable ways. The experience of recent years allows us to state that, in harmony with the foundations of the faith, the charismatic life is far from being spent, but is finding new expressions in the Church, especially in the forms of consecrated life.
A very particular—and in a certain sense, new—aspect of this experience is the importance that the lay character generally has in it. It is true that there can be some misunderstandings about the word "lay", even in the religious sphere. When lay people are committed to the way of the evangelical counsels, doubtless they belong to a certain extent to a state of consecrated life that is very different from what is more commonly that of other believers who choose marriage and secular professions. "Consecrated" lay people, however, intend to maintain and strengthen their attachment to the title "lay", since they wish to be and to be known as members of the People of the God, in accordance with the origin of the word "lay" (from laos = people), and to give witness to the fact that they belong to this people, without distancing themselves from their brothers and sisters even in civil life. Also of considerable importance and interest is the ecclesial vision of movements which show a firm intention to live the life of the whole Church, as a community of Christ's followers, and to reflect it in deep union and co-operation between "lay people", religious and priests in their personal decisions and in the apostolate.
It is true that these three characteristics, i.e., charismatic vitality, the desire to give witness to one's membership in the People of God and the requirement of communion for consecrated persons with lay people and priests, are features common to all forms of consecrated religious life; but we must acknowledge that they are expressed more intensely in contemporary movements, which are generally distinguished by a deep commitment of dedication to the mystery of the Church and of skilled service to her mission.
5. In addition to movements and communities of a "lay-ecclesial" orientation, we must now mention other types of recent communities, which put greater stress on the traditional elements of religious life. Some of these new communities have a strictly monastic orientation with a notable development of liturgical prayer, others follow in the "canon" tradition, which along with the more strictly "monastic" tradition, was so active in the Middle Ages, having particular care for parishes and, later, for a more extensive apostolate. Even more radical today is the new "eremitical" tendency, with the foundation or rebirth of both old- and new-style hermitages.
Church needs consecrated witnesses in every age
On a superficial glance, some of these forms of consecrated life could seem out of step with the current direction of ecclesial life. In fact, however, the Church — which certainly needs consecrated persons who turn more directly to the world in order to evangelize it—also needs, and perhaps even more so, those who seek, cultivate and give witness to God's presence and intimacy, with the intention of working for the sanctification of the world. These are the two aspects of consecrated life seen in Jesus Christ, who reached out to men to bring them light and life, but also sought solitude to devote himself to prayer and contemplation. Neither of these two requirements can be neglected in the Church's life today. We must be grateful to the Holy Spirit who enables us to understand this continually through the charisms he abundantly distributes and the often surprising initiatives he inspires.
L'Osservatore Romano October 12, 1994