|Renewing Religious Life,
Attaining Perfect Love
On 20 October 1965 the Second Vatican Council published the Decree Perfectae Caritatis on the Up-to-Date Renewal of Religious Life. To
commemorate the 40th anniversary of that event, the Congregation for
Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life organized a
Symposium to review the journey made in these years by the consecrated
life, guided by the Holy Spirit.
The Symposium aimed to
recreate signs and guidelines that will help all consecrated persons to
be, as the Holy Father has emphasized, "witnesses of Gods transfiguring
Its celebration took in the direction His Holiness Benedict XVI has
chosen. He had barely been elected Pope when he paid tribute to the Second
Vatican Council with the assurance that he strongly desired to continue in
the commitment to implementing the Council, after the example of his
Predecessors and in faithful continuity with the Church's 2,000-year-old
"This very year marks the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Council (8 December 1965)", the Holy Father
said on the occasion of the Eucharistic celebration Pro Ecclesia on the morning of Wednesday, 20
April, in the presence of the College of Cardinals who had just elected
him. "As the years have passed, the conciliar Documents have lost none of
their timeliness; indeed, their teachings are proving particularly
relevant to the new situation of the Church and the current globalized
society" (Initial Message, 20 April 2005; L'Osservatore Romano English
edition [ORE], 27 April, p. 3).
This relevance and importance should be rediscovered in the Decree Perfectae Caritatis. It did not develop as a doctrinal treatise on
consecration through the evangelical counsels. Its doctrinal basis is
found instead in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,
especially chapter VI on "Religious".
The Decree's aim was to renew Religious life, to attain that "perfect
love" of which Lumen Gentium speaks (n. 42).
This does not prevent the Decree from carrying out its proper,
practical and disciplinary role with a great wealth of theological
elements. Starting from and continuously referring to what is said in the
Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, it also succeeds in clarifying some of the
Constitution's content and becomes an important way to integrate it.
"With the Council", the Servant of God John Paul II pointed out in his
Address to an International Conference studying the implementation of
Vatican Council II, "the Church first had an experience of faith, as she
abandoned herself to God without reserve as one who trusts and is certain
of being loved. It is precisely this act of abandonment to God which
stands out from an objective examination of the Acts. Anyone who wished to
approach the Council without considering this interpretive key would be unable to penetrate its
depths. Only from a faith perspective can we see the Council event as a gift whose
still hidden wealth we must know how to mine" (Address: 27 February 2000,
2; ORE, 8 March, p. 4).
A historical turning point
The Second Vatican Council was also undoubtedly, a historical turning
point in theological reflection on the consecrated life. No Ecumenical
Council had ever spoken at such length and with such depth of this important charism in
This observation alone has a practical theological significance at least
as important as all the other affirmations made by the Second Vatican Council
the consecrated life. Indeed, Vatican II was the first Council to have spoken
in an eminently doctrinal perspective, outlining the identity of the
consecrated life with reference to its place within the mystery of the Church as
the People God.
So it was that the conciliar output this area gave rise to the rich reflection that led to the birth of
the modern theology of the consecrated life.
Three dimensions prevail in Perfectae Caritatis.
First of all, the ecclesial spirit stands out; it is very intense and
dominates the entire Decree.
At the beginning, it is expressly stated that the good of the Church is
the raison d'être of the Document and supreme rule for the consecrated
n. 1). It then becomes evident throughout the text that this insertion the
Church is intrinsic to the consecrated life for the purpose of removing
tendencies or views within the Institutes that are excessively individualistic.
Perhaps the most obvious feature the entire Decree, however, is the
strong Christological emphasis that marks chapter VI of Lumen Gentium;
in it the
Council presented a Christ-like image of consecrated life, declaring that the evangelical counsels "above all... have the power to conform the
Christian man more fully to that kind of poor a virginal life which Christ
the Lord chose for himself and which his Virgin Mother embraced also",
urging consecrated persons to see to it that "the Church truly shows forth
Christ through them with ever-increasing clarity to believers and unbelievers
alike — Christ in contemplation on the mountain, or proclaiming the Kingdom
of God to the multitudes, or healing the sick and maimed and converting
sinners to a good life, or blessing children and doing good to all men,
always in obedience to the will of the Father who sent him" (Lumen
Gentium, n. 46).
The Decree echoes the words of the Constitution on the Church:
"Religious, therefore, faithful to their profession and leaving all things
for Christ's sake (cf. Mt 19:21) as the one thing that is necessary (cf.
Lk 10:42), listening to his words (cf. Lk 10:39), and should be solicitous
for all that is his (cf. 1 Cor 7:32) (cf. Perfectae Caritatis,
"The members of each Institute, therefore, ought to seek God before all
else, and solely; they should join contemplation, by which they cleave to
God by mind and heart, to apostolic love, by which they endeavour to be
associated with the work of redemption and to spread the Kingdom of God" (ibid.).
Renewal, return to sources
Thus the renewal of the consecrated life, as the Council described it,
should be lived through a return to the sources that are represented
primarily by Sacred Scripture, hence by the very person of Jesus Christ,
and subsequently by the authentic charism of founders.
The renewal of the Religious life, as we read in n. 2, "comprises both
a constant return to the sources of the whole of the Christian life and to
the primitive inspiration of the Institutes and their adaptation to the
changed conditions of our time" (ibid., n. 2).
The first fundamental principle to obey, the Document continues, and
the priority commitment of every consecrated person is the sequela
Christi (following of Christ), as the Gospel teaches. This must be a
constant aim of consecrated life: the patrimony of individual Institutes,
the spirit and finality with which the founders and foundresses then
inspired the development of the Religious Families that they founded, as
well as sound traditions.
This emerges in particular in the presentation of the three vows.
Moreover, it is said of community life that it assures the Lord's presence
in the community's midst.
Lastly, we can still see today a great spirit of openness in
Perfectae Caritatis. In fact, the Decree is directed to serving
every form and every reality of consecrated life in the Church, from
contemplative life to the active life, from monastic and conventual life
to secular Institutes. The renewal process is viewed very broadly.
It suffices to think of the treatment of the three vows and of
community life, that is, the actual elements that constitute consecrated
life; even without sacrificing any value of tradition, an unexpected
openness to the contemporary world can be perceived which expresses at the
same time both an appreciable optimism and sincere trust in the
consecrated persons whom it is addressing.
Thus, the conciliar Document on the Renewal of Religious Life heralded
a season of profound changes; the consecrated life was impelled to seek
new ways of living in community and new styles of apostolic service,
radically changing its way of being and working in the Church and in the
The Symposium sponsored by our Congregation took place from 25 to 27
September in the Vatican's Synod Hall. Attending were consecrated men and
women from all over the world.
They included: Bishops whom the respective Bishops' Conferences have
made responsible for the consecrated life, Presidents of the Conferences
of Major Superiors across the world, representatives of the Superiors
General of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life,
members of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and
Societies of Apostolic Life, representatives of the other Dicasteries of
the Roman Curia, experts in the consecrated life, and editors of the most
important journals concerned with this particular charism in the Church.
Leaven in Religious life
Forty years after the end of the Council, the Symposium set out to
evaluate this commitment to renewal that has contributed so much leaven to
Religious life in these past decades, and to mark out prospects of
consecrated life at the beginning of the Third Christian Millennium.
After the invocation of the vivifying presence of the Holy Spirit, it
was the task of Cardinal Georges Marie Martin Cottier, O.P., Theologian of
the Pontifical Household, to define the fundamental theological statute of
the Decree Perfectae Caritatis and to analyse the Document in light
of the entire theological and pastoral reflection of the Second Vatican
Then the "triptych" continued to unfold with the interpretation of
Jesuit Fr. Paolo Molinari, Professor emeritus of the Pontifical Gregorian
University and a participant in the Council's work as an expert, who gave
an account of the compiling of Perfectae Caritatis, which
also helped to analyze it from the linguistic and conceptual viewpoints by
tracing its drafting and terminological development.
Fr. Aquilino Bocos, former Superior General of the Missionary Sons of
the Immaculate Heart of Mary, deepened the analysis by demonstrating the
progress consecrated life has made from the Council to our day. He also
provided the basic ideas of the Decree and offered a profile of the
theology of consecrated life through the many other Documents which, based
on Perfectae Caritatis, were written as a clear practical
response to the challenges to the Church posed by the consecrated life.
On the second day of the Symposium, the essentially historical view of
Fr. Luigi Mezzadri, C.M., completed the reflection on the Decree. He
opened a window on "Service and the Religious life in the modern epoch",
thereby helping to situate the drafting process of the conciliar Document
in the context of the historical evolution of consecrated life.
In light of this thorough reflection, certain themes of consecrated
life were treated that are deemed particularly important to the Church
today: the new forms of consecrated life and the monasticism and the
service of authority. The current situation of consecrated life was also
given attention in order to understand its achievements, challenges and
Bishop Velasio De Paolis, C.S., Secretary of the Supreme Tribunal of
the Apostolic Signatura, addressed the sensitive theme, "New forms of
consecrated life and monasticism", as outlined by the Code of Canon Law
and the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata.
The service of authority
Mother Antonia Colombo, Superior General of the Institute of the
Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians, spoke on: "The service of
authority: the motor and animator of conciliar renewal in building the
Kingdom", noting that the two elements of authority and obedience must run
parallel and grow harmoniously together.
Prof. Michelina Tenace, who teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian
University and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, completed the
Important in the economy of the Congress were the many "communiqués"
that had the demanding task of presenting today's consecrated life and its
challenges for the future.
First of all, representatives of the three
world unions took the floor. The first was Miss Dora Castenetto, former
President of the World Conference of Secular Institutes, whose task was
mainly to present the situation of Secular Institutes today and their
The second was Fr. Alvaro Rodriguez
Echeverría, F.S.C., President of the Union of Superiors General, and then
Sr. Therezinha Joana Rasera, S.D.S., President of the International Union
of Superiors General, who in turn presented the situation of the men's and
women's religious Institutes.
Much of the second day was in fact
dedicated to the communiqués of the representatives from extensive
geographical areas, who looked at the present and future of consecrated
life, together seeking to identify problems, solutions, possibilities,
hopes and prospects.
The speakers were the following: for Latin
America, Bishop Paolo Mietto, C.S.I., Vicar Apostolic of Napo, President of
the Commission for the Consecrated Life (DEVIC); for Africa, Fr. John B.
Kwofie, C.S.Sp., General Concilior of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit
and the Organizer of the Confederation of the Conferences of Major
Superiors of Africa; for Asia, Sr. Julma Neo, F.d.C., General Councillor
of the Daughters of Charity; for Oceania, Sr. Judith Moore, S.M.S.M.,
Superior General of the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary; for
Europe, Bishop Amédée Grab. O.S.B., of Chur, President of the Committee of
European Episcopal Conferences; and for North America, Archbishop Sean
Patrick O'Malley, O.F.M. Cap., of Boston.
The Symposium concluded with a solemn
Eucharistic celebration in the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Peter.
During the Holy Mass, the assembly gave
thanks for the ever renewed vitality in the Church of the consecrated life
and prayed for the constant presence of the Spirit beside all who have
chosen to live the following of Christ, poor, chaste and obedient, "for
the life of the world".