To speak of the challenges to consecrated life today is not at all new. Some have been reported for a long time. In any case the fact that we consecrated people question ourselves regarding this, is important because it helps us to be ever vigilant so as not to allow ourselves to be taken by surprise in our sleep and to continue to work for an ever more meaningful life.
There are two points that I feel are important to mention. Among the challenges that consecrated life currently faces, some are more urgent than others, so the first thing that is asked of consecrated people is discernment, so that priority can be given to one rather than another. It is a fundamental methodological issue given that not all the challenges can be faced in the same way, nor can all of them be invested with the same strength and energy. In this too, the Holy Father’s constant call to consecrated life and to the Church herself is very valid: the need to return to what is essential, the need to return to the Gospel.
The second point which I think is important to consider is that when speaking of challenges, we cannot refer only to the problems that consecrated life may have at this time and that require a reply, but also and I would say first and foremost, to the possibilities that this form of sequela Christi has before it. This would lead us to find strength in our weakness and to maximize all that is positive in our lives and of which we are often unaware, thus giving rise to the “prophets of misadventure” that cause so much
damage to the Church and to consecrated life.
Keeping in mind the above, I report two challenges/opportunities of consecrated life, that enclose many others: to recover the capacity for amazement and wonder and to bring back to consecrated life, all of its attraction. In reading the Gospels, we are struck by the amazement and wonder displayed by Jesus’ followers at what he says and does: wonder at what he says because he teaches as one who has authority, and not like the Scribes (cf. Mk 1:22), amazement at what he does because he does “all things well” (Mk 7:37). The astonishment and the wonder, especially in Mark’s Gospel, open the heart to the good, generating questions which in turn give rise to faith that translates into the sequela (cf. Mk i:22ff).
Astonishment and wonder stir and upset until there is a demand for an immediate response. Only this way can the ready assent of the disciples’ to Jesus’ invitation to follow him, be explained: “immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mk 1:18; cf. 1:20; 2:14). Amazement and wonder before which one cannot be indifferent but rather spurred to make a strong decision of communion with this person, moved by the passion to be like him, to say what he says and to do what he does, to be with him which is the aim of every consecrated life.
Amazement and wonder are the first steps towards reflection and contemplation. They illuminate the mind, touch hearts and move feet and hands to walk and take action, giving meaning to one’s life. If amazement and wonder are essential in the lives of believers, they are much more so in the life of a consecrated person because the irruption of the sacred is always extraordinary. The transcendent bursts into the immanent and the surprising, the unexpected into the usual and uncontrollable, the infinite into the finite. If following Christ in consecrated life is to undertake a path of conversion that never ends, then amazement and wonder open a door towards conversion, toward the experience of a God who remains ever young. In this way amazement and wonder arc the antidote to routine and they open the way to new experiences. Without amazement and wonder, the relationship with the Lord in consecrated life cools down and the vocational response dies.
All this finds its culmination in the new evangelization and in a truly new vocational catechesis made up of accounts of experiences because only those who live in the amazement and wonder of the sequela can infect following Jesus with enthusiasm and joy. Only by starting from this astonishment and wonder can we become “joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shine forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium n. 168). In order to restore all its attraction back to consecrated life: contagious joy, strong attraction, pleasing freshness and vitalizing hope. By its nature, attraction reawakens grace and empathy, imagination and fantasy, strength, enthusiasm and hope. The opposite of enchantment is disenchantment, frustration, fatigue, monotony, disillusion, sadness. Disenchantment is the grave of dreams, and hope can end with regret for decisions taken in the past.
As consecrated people, we have a challenge and opportunity before us: to make consecrated life maintain its attraction for us, even after many years of having embraced it and to reawaken its attraction and liking in those who are “on the outside”, not only to admire it and take an interest as “collectors” of mementos as if it were a museum piece, but rather to become involved in it, to allow oneself to be drawn to it and so that it may continue to be meaningful in today’s world, as an alternative way of life to that offered by the world and by the dominant culture, and all things considered, so that it may continue to be prophetic. As consecrated people, we have before us the challenge and the opportunity to make our way of life attractive and witnesses to a different way of doing, working and living: “It is possible to live in a different way in this world” (cf. Francis, Illuminate il futuro, Ed. Ancora 2015, p. 13).
Certainly in order to achieve all of this it is not enough to think about the aesthetic of consecrated life, nor is it sufficient to make beautiful, utopian statements of principles that have nothing to do with the reality of life, nor yet sewing a new patch on an old garment (cf. Mk 2:21).
Passion is the language of people in love, as we can contemplate in the Canticle of Canticles. Passion should be the language of consecrated people. Without passion, consecrated life becomes bland, insipid, useless (cf. Mt 5:13). The passion which characterizes the experience of “first love” (cf. Hos 2:9), prompts a constant search, almost dramatic, until it transforms us into “seekers” of the One who loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:10) and by grace we reach the beloved person (cf. Hos 3:1ff). Jesus Christ is the only reason that justifies consecrated life. He is the founding element of it.
Consecrated life was born to be on the existential frontier of thought as Pope Francis often repeats. The peripheries are places that are generally characterized as being less safe, more exposed to chaos which lead to counting far less in society. The peripheries force one to live in a condition of exodus. The periphery forces those who dwell in it to live in itinerancy, to go out from the centre to the areas on the margins. It is clear that the options for the poor and the peripheries call us to “go out” from ourselves, to leave aside petty internal struggles, to be less self-referential, to “stand out”, to take the initiative in all that has to do with loving, showing solidarity, accompanying, celebrating and celebrating with everyone, especially with the poor. And we have to admit that this is not easy. However herein lies an important challenge and opportunity for consecrated people.
Consecrated life cannot concentrate on itself but by not belonging to itself, and being committed, it must be at the service of all the People of God and mainly to the most vulnerable. Our institutes were not born of a narcissistic gaze or a purely theoretical reflection, but rather from having been in the peripheries, in full bodily contact with the most vulnerable of people, to tend to the wounds and the suffering of men and women.
If consecrated life wants to be reborn and rise again, it will only be possible if it does not withdraw into itself, if it does not remain prisoner to its problems, if it has the courage to go out to the peripheries. If the Christian is by vocation peripheral with respect to the world, consecrated life is, equally by vocation, peripheral with respect to the life of the Church.
The option for the poor and for the peripheries is neither an option nor a slogan or a simply social or political choice. It is a choice for Jesus who “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor” (2 Cor 8:9). It is clothing Jesus in those who are naked, giving food and drink to Jesus in those who are hungry and thirsty, it is visiting Jesus in the sick and the imprisoned, it is welcoming Jesus in receiving the stranger, it is accompanying Jesus by accompanying those who are part of the throwaway culture (cf. Mt 25:35-36). From when Jesus became poor (2 Cor 8:9), our God is the God of the poor. They have a preferential place in God’s heart.
* Secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life
7 February 2020, page 5