Contemplate the Face of Christ: Guiding Light for Consecrated Life

Author: Fr Eusebio Hernàndez Sola, O.A.R.


Fr Eusebio Hernàndez Sola, O.A.R.

Overview, presentation of the new Instruction of the Congregation for Insititutes of Consecrated Life

The Instruction,"Starting Afresh from Christ:a Renewed Commitment to Consecrated Life in the Third Millennium"was presented to the Church by the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life on Friday, 14 June. It is a follow up to the Apostolic Letter "Novo Millennio ineunte".Those in consecrated life are called to "put out into the deep"totake up their ministry on the front lines of evangelization and charity. In the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vitaconsecrata consecratedpersons were reminded of their mission to be "a living memorial of Jesus' way of living and acting as the incarnate Word in relation to the Father and in relation to his brethren"(Vita consecrata, n. 22). The observance of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 involved them in an ecclesial experience of responsibility, hope, conversion and renewal. In the follow up to the Jubilee, consecrated men and women received the Holy Father's invitation to put the quest for holiness at the centre of the pastoral life and programmes of the Church.

From 25-28 September 2001, the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life held its plenary meeting on the theme, five years since the publication of Vita consecrata,to make an appraisal of the impact of the document on consecrated life and on the approaches to the work of renewal. The plenary assembly helped to bring together the points that are common to both the Apostolic Exhortation and the pastoral programme of Novo Millennio ineunte.

Let us review the vital points of the new Instruction.

Introduction (nn. 1-4)

The Instruction first of all invites consecrated persons, with the wealth of the charismatic and apostolic gifts that their presence in the Church signals, to enter into the pastoral and spiritual revival brought about by the Great Jubilee and launched by the Holy Father in NovoMillennio ineunte.

The Apostolic Exhortation Vita consecrata shed fresh light on the theology of the following of Christ, vowed consecration, fraternal life in community, and mission, drawing on the Mystery of the Trinity and on a renewed ecclesiology of communion. This Instructionintends to encourage consecrated persons to be more faithful to their vocation and to sustain their choices of evangelical witness.

In the document the basic core is clear, namely, the need for a strong spiritual life in order to have a renewed quality of consecrated life.Everything has been developed to foster this value. The further questions and aspirations that consecrated persons raised in different parts of the world have been identified and receive approaches for possible replies.

In general, we can say that the Instruction isa summary of the present situation of consecrated life and the process of renewal that is taking place in communities, as they are guided by the orientations of the recent Jubilee.

The exhortation is addressed to all the consecrated, menand women, who live their gift of selfaccording to a variety of forms and life styles and in the variety of situations of age and health that vary from institute to institute.

Consecrated Life: the Presence of the Charity of Christ in the Midst of Humanity

The first part(nn. 5-10) is a hymn of praise to God for the gifts of grace he has given and continues to give to his Church through this special form of the following of Christ. The Church expresses great gratitude for all the forms of consecrated life down the ages that have been and continue to be the Gospel unfolded on the paths of history to keep alive and reveal the extraordinary greatness of Christ's love. It is undeniable that consecrated life has played a fundamental role in serving the proclamation of the Gospel and in the growth of the People of God.

The theme of holiness, which the Holy Father has launched, directly involves consecrated life. Indeed, with its "special consecration" not only does it share in the common vocation to holiness of the whole People of God, but offers to the People of God a prophetic witness based on the affirmation of the primacy of God and of the future benefits that derive from following and imitating Christ, chaste, poor and obedient.

Special admiration is created by the manifold missionary activity carried out by consecrated persons. What deserves to be acknowledged is their service, particularly the service of women religious, rendered with generosity and with the particular richness of the feminine genius.They are effectively present wherever there is a need for education, cultural and spiritual formation, where new and old forms of poverty continue to characterize human life. Evangelization is offered with all the means that can bring it closer to people's cultures, including the modern media. Nothing can hold back the consecrated person, not even the challenges that at times demand "theextreme proof of love in genuine faithfulness to the Kingdom"(n. 9).

Cloistered life is also considered. Its place is in the heart of the Church. With their lives "hidden with Christin God" (Col 3,3), the nuns become "the soul and ferment of apostolic activity leaving the active participation in it to those whose vocation it is" (Verbisponsa,n. 7).

The power of the Spirit continues to guide the dynamism of consecrated life and, even in a time of crisis, we witness the creation of new institutes while those with an ancient tradition courageously accept renewal.

Lastly, the document stresses that the image of the Virgin Mother of the Lord continues to be the living model and pattern of the life of consecrated persons and their way of serving humanity.

Courage to face trials and challenges

After praising the Lord and thanking him, part two (nn. 11-19) takes a realistic look at the situation in which consecrated persons live and work in our time and reflects on the great difficulties they must face.

The Instruction does not ignore the trials, challenges and purification of consecrated life today. The complex management of institutions demanded by social needs and by legislative regulations of government, the temptation of "efficiency-ism" and "activism" can tend to hide the evangelical originality and the spiritual motivation of the life. The prevalent individualism of contemporary society can seriously undermine communion in religious houses. In addition, the congregations have to face the dwindling numbers and ageing of the members in some countries. There is the need to enhance how we understand the presence of consecrated life in the Church since lay persons have taken up new posts of leadership, and in some parts of the Church there has developed a lack of esteem for the ecclesial meaning of men and women religious.

However, the power of the Spirit is at work in the time of difficulties and trials and guides consecrated persons to new seasons of evangelical life on the path of purification and renewal. The periods of crisis are in fact "a providential sign which invites them to recover their essential tasks of being leaven, ferment, sign and prophecy" (n. 13).

These existential realities are challenges that deserve to be faced with a new quality of consecrated life, to be acquired in a formative process that involves the superiors, communities, and the consecrated men and women.

In the first place, the Instruction takes up the responsibilities of men and women religious superiors and offers them an itinerary to arrive at the common guidelines that enhance community life and call the superiors to make courageous decisions that will make the members appreciate the role of governance.

Secondly, it indicates a serious and strong dedication to continuing formation.There has been much talk about it, but it is the time to put it into practice with systematic decisions. Each institute of consecrated life is called to make shine in its members the splendour of the face of the crucified and risen Christ. Consecrated men and women, even in the human frailty of persons and structures, must rediscover the joyful enthusiasm of the evangelical quality of their mission that will enable them to attract new vocations and give new vigour and clarity to the first formation.

This conviction prompted the decision to treat first ongoing formation before recruitment for vocations and initial formation. Indeed, for formation to be understood properly by the young generations, the young are in need of the personal and community witness borne by perpetually professed consecrated persons, supported by an enlightened permanent formation.

Vocational discernment and initial formation should be handled with serene discernment, free from the temptation of numbers or efficiency. Vocation promoters and formation directors must be careful to verify, in the light of faith and of possible counterindications, the authenticity of the vocation and the purity of intention of those who desire to follow the path of holiness in the consecrated life.

The formation courses that are offered to all consecrated men and women must confront with courageous hope and healthy realism the demanding challenges that derive from the predominant values of the globalized culture of our time, along with cultural dialogue and exchange, differences in age and the different types of planning that are becoming a feature of institutes of consecrated life.

It will be possible to find solutions to the problems of restructuring the works and communities that all too often make the process of spiritual and apostolic renewal difficult, with the creativity of the Spirit, the shrewdness of the superiors, fraternal dialogue with the members of the institute, with institutes that have similar works and with the pastors of the particular Churches.

Spiritual life in the first place

In part three, (nn. 20-32), the fullest section, the Instruction gives concrete guidelines for an authentic ongoing formation to deal with the trials and challenges just mentioned. The Instruction invites to follow the royal road that the Holy Father indicated in NovoMillennio ineunte,"startingafresh from contemplation of the faceof Christ" and from a "profound spiritualityof communion". The whole of part three revolves around these two essentials.

First of all there is "starting afresh from Christ", that is, ensuring that the life and work of consecrated persons and of their institutes be centred on Christ and that everything starts from him and leads to him. Putting Christ at the centre will guarantee to all consecrated persons a renewed harmony in life and apostolate, and will clearly show how it has its real place at the heart of the life and holiness of the Church.

In docility to the Spirit and in the constant quest for the face of Christ, consecrated life will also be a more ecclesial, community-oriented, demanding and mature way of life, open to becoming a pedagogyand pastoral programmeof holiness. The contemplation of the face of the Lord,thelegacy of the Great Jubilee (cf. Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 15) becomes, especially for consecrated persons, a quest for the persons with which Jesus chose to be identified: in the Church, in the community, in each person, and particularly in little ones, in the poor, in those who suffer and are in need, and in every event, happy or sad.

The Instruction reflects on "the privileged places in which the face of Christ can be contemplated", "walking the paths of a lived spirituality" (n. 23), where, in contact with the sources of their own vocation, they renew the dedication of life in the Spirit.

The Word of God, "the first source of all Christian spirituality" (Vitaconsecrata, n. 94), is the nourishment from which the daily life of prayer and apostolic activity draws strength and inspiration. Prayer and contemplation are the place where the Word of God is listened to and heard, where every vocation constantly matures. Here the interior life becomes a relationship of friendship with Jesus and is constantly enlightened by communion with him and with the brethren. Community or personal praise of the Lord echoes in the hearts and deepens the lives of consecrated men and women so that the fertile seed ofthe Word of God may bear abundant fruit of holiness, of fraternal communion and of service to the evangelization of the world.

Starting afresh from Christ means looking at Jesus in the Eucharist: accepting and cherishing Jesus in the heart, witnessing to Jesus in life. Intimacy with Jesus, identification with him, and the total conformity with him to which consecrated persons are called is achieved starting with the Eucharistic sacrifice. Here one learns how to love and forgive, here fraternal life shows its characteristic as fruit and sign of the Father's love received in Christ and exchanged among the brothers and sisters, hereapostolic service learns the indispensable condition for its effectiveness: "to give one's life". "In fact, from the Eucharist comes the spirituality of communion, so necessary to establish the dialogue of charity needed in today's world" (n. 26).

Together with the Eucharist, consecrated life has another place for contemplating the face of the Lord: the crucifix, "the face in trials". In fact it is the book in which we learn what love is and how God and our brothers and sisters should be loved. In this light one recognizes that "sin is still radically present in the heart and life of all" and that today there is a need to re-present forcefully this mystery of reconciliation" (n. 27), that culminates in the sacrament of Penance.

Contemplation of the suffering face of Christ leads the consecrated person to discover it wherever he continues to be revealed: "the new material, moral and spiritual poverties that contemporary society produces" (n. 27). Consecrated persons walk this path to be conformed to Christ. The history of consecrated life has expressed this conformity with Christ in many ascetic forms which were and still are a powerful help on the journey of holiness of all God's people.

When the Word of God, prayer and the Eucharist are the motor of consecrated life, the spirituality they develop tends naturally to be a spiritualityof communion; and "thespirituality of communion appears to reflect the spiritual climate of the Church at the beginning of the third millennium" (n. 28). At this point a very special pedagogical ministry unfolds for the consecrated life which, with its range of charisms and institutions that work in synergy with the Church and with society, and especially with its multi-cultural and international communities, offers humanity precious experiences of dialogue, collaboration and communion.

By emphasizing the importance of the spirituality of communion, the Instruction asks consecrated persons to commit themselves to new and more courageous relationships. Relations between institutes based on knowledge and collaboration in the field of formation and pastoral services avoid competition and open up greater space for intervention. Relations with the ecclesial movements and associations, carried forward with the clear definition of identities and roles, pave the way for a precious exchange of spiritual experiences and apostolic enthusiasm. The participation of lay people in the spirituality and charismatic ideals of institutes can also lead to collaboration and the common operation of the works of the Institute. The "affective and effective relationship with pastors" creates a climate of confident obedience and promotes all "initiatives which foster greater reciprocal knowledge and esteem" (n. 32).

Witnesses to love

All the apostolic action of the consecrated life can be described as "evangelization realized through love"and its most effective means of communication is witness. Part four (nn. 33-46) invites consecrated persons to follow this path of spirituality and communion faithfully in the renewal of their life and works.

The starting point is the fact that "the life of communion is the first announcement of consecrated life" (n. 33). Indeed, "when one starts afresh from Christ the spirituality of communion becomes a strong and solid spirituality of disciples and apostles of his Kingdom" (n. 34). When one starts from contemplation of the face of Christ, one can only see him in those with whom he has wished to be identified. The mission of consecrated men and women, "in old and new forms", is described as a "service to the dignity of the person in a dehumanized society because the greatest and most serious form of poverty of our time is the callous treading upon the rights of the human person. With the dynamism of charity, of forgiveness and of reconciliation, consecrated persons strive in justice to build a world which offers new and better possibilities for the life and development of the individual", ready "to pay the price of persecution" (n. 35).

The field of work of consecrated persons is as vast as the whole world, but in their dedication, they must learn to harmonize the universal breadth of their vocation with being inserted into a specific contest and particular Church. Here, with an authentic spirituality of communion, they are called to be "an efficacious sign and persuasive force which leads to belief in Christ" (n. 33). The first apostolic work of every type of consecrated life, in fact, continues to be the "epiphany of the love of God" (Vitaconsecrata, III).

In this perspective, institutes are called to "reflect on their own charisms and traditions in order to place them at the service of the new frontiers of evangelization". "Today there is a greater freedom in the exercise of the apostolates, a flourishing with greater awareness, a solidarity expressed through knowing how to stand with the people, assuming their problems, in order to respond to them, paying close attention to the signs of the times and to their needs" (n. 36).

The Instruction invites us to look with greater interest at certain tasks, namely, that of announcing the Gospel, of serving life and of spreadingthe truth. Today it is in these that the greatest need is felt for a witness to the total love of Christ, borne with a humble but strong radicalness and accompanied by a fruitful creativity of charity.

Special attention is reserved in the Instruction for the need for consecrated persons to be in the front line in the dialogue with everyone, with the separated brethren, with the members of other religions and with those who profess no religious creed. They are asked to be ready to "enter into dialogue with others fully open to receive, since from among the resources and limits of every culture consecrated persons can gather the seeds of the Word in which they encounter precious values for their life and mission ... (Jn 3,16)" (n. 44).

Paragraph n. 45, with precise emphases, invites consecrated persons to be involved in the critical situations of the world at the level of peoples and of individuals, e.g., ecological problems, problems of war and peace. "Greed, the craving for pleasure, the idolatry of power, the triple concupiscence which marks history and is also at the root of present evils can only be overcome if the Gospel values of poverty, chastity and service are rediscovered".

The Instruction invites consecrated men and women to raise their eyes from their daily difficulties, troubles and problems, to rediscover the courage to trust in God alone, and to abandon themselves to his love to usher in a new millennium marked by hope in the power of the Spirit and by the living presence of the charity of Christ among human beings.

The Instruction concludes with an invitation to look at the young religious with hope and demanding love. The consecrated life truly needs "courageous young people who, allowing themselves to be conformed by the Father in the power of the Spirit to be persons conformed to Christ, offer to all a joyful and transparent witness of their "acceptance of the mystery of Christ" and of the "spirituality of their own Institute" (n. 46).  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 June 2002, special insert

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