When I reflect on my own upbringing I immediately realize that, in addition to my parents, the profound influence on my faith life was due to my association with religious brothers, sisters and priests. I attended Irish Christian Brother schools, participated in special events sponsored by the Presentation Sisters and the Sisters of Mercy, and attended Liturgies as well as retreats and youth activities sponsored by the Capuchins, Jesuits and Redemporists. This meant, among other things, that I was introduced to great giants of faith in the persons of the founders of these religious communities including Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice, Nano Nagle, Catherine McAuley, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and Saint Alphonsus Liguori.
Hopefully, others have similar memories of being recipients of the positive outreach of religious sisters, brothers or priests, if not with “perfect charity” then at least with the best charity possible. Such is the expected disposition of those who dedicate their lives to Christ in the consecrated life.
Living a Church vocation is explored and contemplated with care and precision in Vatican II’s decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life which was promulgated with four other documents on October 28, 1965. Consisting of 25 articles (or short chapters), the Latin name Perfectae Caritatis [PC] means “perfect charity.” This name fits well since the theme of this document pertains to those who have answered God’s call to the “religious” or “consecrated” life.
The introductory paragraph of this decree makes reference to Lumen Gentium, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church, issued two years previously. It affirms: “this most sacred Synod has already pointed out how the teaching and example of the Divine Master laid the foundation for a pursuit of perfect charity through the exercise of the evangelical counsels … In this present document, the Synod intends to deal with the life and rules of those institutes whose members profess chastity, poverty, and obedience, and to make provisions for their needs as the tenor of the time indicates.”
Being a consecrated religious includes the expectation that one live a life of virtue and, as St. Paul points out, the theological virtue of charity is the crowning jewel of virtuous living. He describes the qualities of this love or charity in 1 Corinthians 13: 4-13.
The key purpose of the Vatican II decree Perfectae Caritatis was to promote the adaptation and renewal of the consecrated life to meet the needs and circumstances of our contemporary culture. In its consideration of spiritual renewal, it sought to cultivate a life of prayer rooted in authentic Catholic sources such as Sacred Scripture, the Sacred Liturgy, and a return to the writings and charism of the founder or founders of specific religious communities.
The various models of consecrated life mentioned in this decree include “clerical and lay institutes devoted to various aspects of the apostolate” (PC, 8). Communities such as cloistered nuns and monasteries, of both men and women, dedicated entirely to contemplation are also highlighted.
When we consider the lives of consecrated religious we are correct in assuming that, for the most part, they live a common life, fashioned on the model of the primitive Church where “the multitude of believers were of one heart and one mind” (PC, 15). They pray together, attend daily Mass and, in addition to participating in pastoral duties, they share recreation and leisure activities. Their pastoral assignments are often enhanced by pooling their personal resources and talents, thus working together to build up the body of Christ.
Animated by the vision of the individual founder, coupled with a personal relationship with Christ, mostly within a communal setting, male and female consecrated religious are disciples on a mission. They are called to be examples to all of us by living balanced and integrated lives as they seek to grow in greater holiness as outlined in the fifth chapter of Lumen Gentium.
In the years following Vatican II, the number of consecrated religious, drastically fell. The lack of support and encouragement by parents and the Church itself are often cited as contributing factors to this decline.
In countries such as Vietnam, however, the “vocation problem” is the opposite. Intense interest in consecrated life has led bishops and superiors to limit the number of new candidates. Curiously, the flourishing vocations in Asian and African countries have been linked to the cross of suffering endured from political strife, disease and famine.
Another phenomena in recent years has been the attraction of youth to new religious communities while many older communities seemed to flounder. The explanation given is, in one word, “identity”. The tendency of older communities to lack clarity in their identity while newly established foundations to be more clearly focused in following the Church’s discipline, has been linked to the strong interest in religious vocations.
Other themes explored in Perfectae Caritatis include the matter of governing religious communities, the religious habit as “simple and modest” (PC, 17), the evangelical counsels including chastity “on behalf of the heavenly kingdom”(PC, 12), obedience whereby the “religious submit themselves to their superiors … as God’s representatives” (PC, 14), and the importance of religious “to be poor in both fact and spirit” (PC, 13).
How fortunate I am, not unlike many others, to have experienced the presence of Christ through the teaching and ministry of a fellow Catholic who chose the consecrated life as a priest, nun, monk, friar or religious brother or sister.
As a child it was apparent to me that there was something special about those called to the religious life. As a teenager I was especially inspired by those who answered the call to this Christian path. As a young single Catholic man I was drawn for a time to consider this radical vocation before pursuing the equally radical call to diocesan priesthood. Now, as a priest, I continue to marvel at the zealous way in which consecrated men and women, young and old, continue to live Christ-centered lives embracing the evangelical counsels, also known as vows of obedience, chastity and poverty.
The Church, through Perfectae Caritatis, promotes ongoing formation as a way to support those who represent the Church in consecrated religious life. The one who responds generously to God’s call has special access to God’s many helps as a way to face the unique challenges that come when living a Church vocation.
Like our current focus in this present Year of Faith on the New Evangelization for all Catholics, the focus of religious communities and institutes as they follow this decree is to be better equipped to think with and for the Church of Jesus Christ with the goal of dedicated Christian service.