Put Out into the Deep

Waking Up the World

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Last November, on the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pope Francis declared a Year of Consecrated Life beginning on that day and to continue until Feb. 2, 2016, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. As a religious, Pope Francis understands, perhaps better than many, the gift of consecrated life to the Church, as well as the difficulties of leading a consecrated life in the world today. In perhaps his most telling statement in his Apostolic Letter to all consecrated people he said, “I am counting on you to wake up the world, since the distinctive sign of consecrated life is prophecy.” Wake up the world. Make the world realize that the true content of the Gospel is the work of religious as it has been in the past, is presently, and will be in the future of the Church.

The Holy Father outlined three aims or goals for the Year of Consecrated Life. First, is to look back on the past with gratitude; to recognize the great contribution that religious have made to the life of the Church over the past centuries. A humble evaluation of past contributions is necessary so that we can set our sights on the future. Second, is to live the present with passion gratefully remembering the past but recognizing that the essential aspects of consecrated life are much needed in the Church today. The Holy Father makes it clear “… the Gospel is truly the ‘manual’ for our daily living and the decisions we are called to make.” Consecrated religious take the evangelical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Their following of the Gospel is complete and gives to the world a witness that is unique. So the Holy Father reminds religious: “The Year of Consecrated Life challenges us to examine our fidelity to the mission entrusted to us.”

Experts in Communion

The mission of religious in the Church has been to live the Gospel to its fullest and to share the spirit of the Gospel with all whom they encounter. The Holy Father goes on to say: “Living the present with passion means becoming ‘experts in communion,’ witnesses and architects of the ‘plan for unity’ which is the crowning point of human history in God’s design.” Yes, community means living together, sometimes in difficult circumstances. But religious are the experts in communion. They must teach the world unity and peace, which are essential in living out the evangelical counsels and the invitation of the Gospel.

The third goal the Holy Father outlines is to embrace the future with hope. The religious must always have their eyes on the horizon, where the sun rises, to recognize that there is always more the Church can do to be faithful to the Gospel.

In this regard Pope Francis said: “Together with Benedict XVI, I urge you not to ‘join the ranks of the prophets of doom who proclaim the end of meaninglessness of the consecrated life in the Church in our day; rather, clothe yourselves in Jesus Christ and put on the armour of light – as Saint Paul urged (cf. Rom 13:11-14) – keeping awake and watchful.’ [4] Let us constantly set out anew, with trust in the Lord.”

The future of consecrated life will depend on the prophetic witnesses of our religious today. One of those witnesses is the openness to new forms of religious life; the openness to accepting new members. At times our religious communities seem to be a bit tired. They do not portray the vibrancy of youth that will attract young members to join religious communities. This is a constant challenge for religious today so that they can attract new members, not by counting numbers but rather by counting on the quality of life and commitment that new members bring to religious communities.

The Holy Father also outlined certain expectations that he wanted from the Year of Consecrated Life. First he quoted an old saying, “Where there are religious, there is joy.” Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God. Joy is what will attract new members to join communities. To discover “perfect joy,” as the Holy Father reminds us, we must recognize that suffering for the Christian brings us to perfected joy, to real joy, which allows us to attract others to the faith. As he said in the Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel): “It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but by attraction.” Happiness and joy attracts others. So the Holy Father expects our religious today, to truly be the face of Christ in the world, a face that portrays joy.

Secondly, the Holy Father is counting on the religious to “wake up the world” as I already said. “Radical evangelical living is not only for religious: it is demanded of everyone.” But religious follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way. The religious are the models of Christian living. They follow the Gospel completely and carefully. They need to attract others who live in that way, for following the Gospel is the task of every Christian. Thirdly, the Holy Father expects men and women religious to become true experts in community so that the true spirituality of communion will permeate their lives and the Church itself, seeking unity in all things, while at the same time being prophetic. This is the careful balance that men and women religious in the Church today must find.

Another expectation of the Holy Father is that all members of the Church have been asked to come out of themselves and go forth to the existential peripheries, so too, the religious in a special way must be the vanguard. I might mention that in our own diocese we have begun a new project staffed by two Franciscan Brothers called the San Damiano Project, which aims to attract the young people living in the Williamsburg area to practice their faith, and for others to embrace our Catholic faith. This mission is only in its beginning. But certainly it is reaching out to the periphery of our diocese, to those who find it difficult to relate to the structures already in place for practicing the faith in our parishes. This mission, without boundaries, is meant to reach out to the alienated and those who do not see the Church, truly as Mother. The Franciscan spirit of simplicity is characteristic of this mission. Finally, the Holy Father expects that in all forms of consecrated life, men and women re-dedicated themselves during this year as a time of special grace to live the consecrated life to its fullest.

The Holy Father ends his Exhortation by outlining the horizons for the Year of Consecrated Life. These horizons for consecrated life are meant to reach out to the entire Church, especially the laity, to ask their assistance in the living the consecrated life in the world today.

When the laity appreciates the gift of consecrated life, we will attract new members to these religious communities. So too, Pope Francis challenges the bishops and clergy of the Church, to recognize the religious “as spiritual capital which contributes to the good of the whole body of Christ.” For “consecrated life is a gift to the Church, it is born of the Church, it grows in the Church, and it is entirely directed to the Church.”

As we put out into the deep recognizing this Year of Consecrated Life, our prayer must be directed to those in consecrated life and those who perhaps are considering consecrated life, that these special members in the community of the Church, who witness the evangelical counsels, will forever be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

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