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Thursday, 23 April 2015 11:11

A gospel path which calls us

Archbishop Timothy Costelloe sdbWith all religious congregations and families throughout the world, we are being invited, not for the first time, to enter into the demanding and perhaps frightening, but also hopefully life-giving, project of reviewing our life and mission, writes Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe sdb who reflects on his own personal and communal history to understand the past and present and try to reimagine the future for consecrated life in Australia.

As we are all well aware this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. There have been many commemorations of the event of the Council, both here in Perth and throughout Australia and the world, in the last few years. People have reflected on the changes which were ushered in by the Council and many challenging questions have been asked, and continue to be asked, about the meaning and legacy of the Council and how faithful or otherwise the Church has been to the Council in the intervening fifty years. It is almost a cliché these days to say that it will take at least one hundred years for a fair and balanced evaluation of Vatican II to emerge, but it is in fact that case that this has been true in the past and may well be true of the Council which shaped the lives of so many of us.

I am 61 and so when Vatican II concluded I was an 11 year old boy in my last year of primary schooling. I still remember the afternoon, a year or so before that I think it was, when I saw the assistant priest in our parish racing towards me across the playground, cassock flying in the breeze, as he rushed to tell me that we had permission to celebrate the Mass in English. In many ways the changes in the liturgy were the most dramatic, or at least the most obvious, results of Vatican II. Whether or not they were the most momentous or significant is a matter still open to debate.

Another obvious change ushered in by Vatican II was the change to religious life, or at least the external changes. Most dramatically these were seen in the many changes in religious dress which appeared over a number of years. Many congregations of women religious, over a period of time, and more so in some countries and cultures than in others, arrived at a point where they believed it was more appropriate for them to wear secular dress. Other congregations decided to retain a more traditional distinctive religious habit although most of these groups adapted their form of dress to a more simple style. Strangely this question became, and for some still remains, almost a fundamental issue and there are still people who make judgments about the sincerity or commitment of various religious, or their views on all kinds of issues from the social to the theological, depending on their style of dress. I can’t help thinking that it will be a sign of maturity for the Church when the legitimacy of the different decisions made by individual religious congregations in this matter of dress is recognised and respected and we cease judging each other on the basis of what we wear.

Of course there were other major changes in the way religious life was lived and also in the way young religious were formed. I entered the Salesian novitiate in 1977 and already we were living our religious life according to the revised constitutions which had in a sense “replaced” the original constitutions written by Saint John Bosco. The Salesians had never had many of the trappings associated with traditional religious life, most of which were expressions of a monastic style of life rather than a life adapted to the active apostolate. We prayed together as a community each morning and evening, but what we called the “practices of piety” were fairly minimal and adapted from the religious practices of the farmers and peasants of Don Bosco’s northern Italian rural upbringing. We had introduced what was for us the novelty of communal Morning and Evening Prayer from the breviary, and we had a short period each morning for mediation and a short period each evening for Spiritual Reading. The Salesians had never had a habit. From Don Bosco’s time the priests wore whatever the local clergy wore while the brothers wore secular dress, so we were spared the need to make changes to our form of dress beyond deciding whether or not it was appropriate for young Salesians attending the local Teachers College to wear coloured jumpers rather than black ones when we were wearing the clerical collar. And I can assure you, with my hand on my heart, that as novices we never had to plant cabbages upside down!

I mention these few points almost as an aside as I believe very strongly that it is helpful to keep our own personal history and our communal history in mind as we seek to understand the past and the present and try to imagine and shape the future.

When Pope John Paul II sat down to write his Apostolic Exhortation on Religious Life after the Synod on Religious Life held in Rome in October 1994, nearly thirty years after the publication of “Perfectae Caritatis”, the Vatican II document on the renewal of the religious life, he chose the story of the Transfiguration as the gospel text around which he wanted to base his reflections. Another twenty years on this still as relevance for us today. I would like to take up one of John Paul’s thoughts as a launching pad for some ideas I wanted to share with you this evening.

As you read John Paul’s letter you realise that among the many reasons for him choosing this particular text are the words found in Matthew’s version of the story as Jesus comes back down the mountain with Peter, James and John.

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Rise, and have no fear."

And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only (Matt 17:7-8).

John Paul sums up his reflections on these few lines from the story with the following words:

From the standpoint of the Christian life as a whole, the vocation to the consecrated life is, despite its renunciations and trials, and indeed because of them, a path of light over which the Redeemer keeps constant watch: “Rise and have no fear.”

These words of Jesus are important and I would like to invite each one of us to allow ourselves to hear Jesus say directly to us this evening: “rise, and have no fear.” And perhaps, as we do so, we might also keep in mind the words of Pope Francis who in his letter announcing the Year of Consecrated Life has challenged us as religious to “wake up the world”.

With these two invitations ringing in our ears it is important for all of us to reflect on the situation of religious life, and for those of us who are religious to reflect in particular on our own experience of and living of religious life. In common with all religious congregations and families throughout the world, we are being invited, not for the first time, to enter into the demanding and perhaps frightening, but also hopefully life-giving, project of reviewing our life and mission.

Whenever we do this, one of the things we have to do is to return to our origins and to the charism of our founders. This means of course that we are invited to return to the original divine inspiration which gave rise to our congregations in the first place. This call to return to the origins implies, I think, that we recognise and accept that today we find ourselves in a new situation, different in so many ways from the situation which gave birth to our religious families. It is precisely the reality of this new situation, and the need for us, as consecrated religious, to respond faithfully to this new situation, which means that we must always be open to the surprises God has in store for us. Another way of saying this is that we are being asked to continue to walk the path of renewal, a path which continues to throw up challenges but which also offers us the freedom to respond to the Lord in the ways that he is asking of us.

This is not an easy task. Perhaps it can help if we remember that it is a task in which the whole Church must constantly engage. Everyone here this evening is called to the same journey. What Pope Francis says to religious is also applicable to every Christian. As I will try to say a little later it is especially relevant for religious because of the role we are called to play in waking up the world, yes, but in waking up the Church as well. And in saying this I don’t just mean waking up the bishops and other leaders of the Church. If Religious are to wake anyone else up we must first wake up each other so that we can then wake up the community of the Lord’s disciples, of which we, and the bishops, and the clergy, and the laity are all equally a part.

So what does Pope Francis say in this regard? He is quoted in the letter sent out by the Congregation for Religious to mark the inauguration of the Year for Consecrated Life:

Meeting the Lord gets us moving, urges us to leave aside self-absorption. A relationship with the Lord is not static, nor is it focussed on self. “Because when we put Christ at the centre of our life, we ourselves don’t become the centre! The more that you unite yourself to Christ and he becomes the centre of your life, the more he leads you out of yourself, leads you from making yourself the centre and opens you to others … We are not at the centre; we are, so to speak, ‘relocated’. We are at the service of Christ and of the Church”.

The truth is that, whether we want to speak of “waking up the world” or “rising and moving ahead without fear” or “launching out into the deep”, we are talking about acting boldly, imaginatively, innovatively and courageously. But of course, as religious, we are talking about doing this within the community of disciples, the Church. We are talking about our following of the one who said “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” and who was celebrated by Saint Paul as the one who, “though he was in the form of God did not cling to his equality with God but humbled himself and became obedient to his Father, even to death.” If we are, as Pope Francis constantly reminds us, being called to go to the margins, the peripheries, we are called to do so as disciples of Jesus, and members of his Church, which is really saying the same thing in two different ways. As Pope Francis reminded people in a homily he preached in the chapel of his residence on his feast-day:

The Church is a mother who gives us the faith, a mother who gives us an identity. But the Christian identity is not simply an identity card: Christian identity is a belonging, belonging to the Church. You see it is not possible to find Jesus outside the Church. The great Paul VI said: "Wanting to live with Jesus without the Church, following Jesus outside of the Church, loving Jesus without the Church is an absurd dichotomy." And the Mother Church which gives us Jesus gives us our identity…… This belonging to the Church is a beautiful thing.”

I want to reflect on this for a moment. When I used to teach theology I often reminded my students that theology invites us to what I call a three-fold fidelity. This is because the living of the Christian life calls us to a three-fold fidelity. Christian life is ultimately a life of discipleship – of a faithful following of Jesus, not as we would wish him to be but as he really is. Because religious life is a particular living of the Christian life, then religious life too is called to a three-fold fidelity.
What is this three-fold fidelity in theology, which must become a three-fold fidelity in life? It is this: firstly, fidelity to what God has done for us in the sending of his Son. There can be no Christianity worthy of the name which does not constantly renew itself in the image of the Jesus of the gospels ... what else could discipleship mean?

The second fidelity is to the ways in which, over the centuries, the Holy Spirit has led the Church into an ever deeper appreciation of the riches to be found in the mystery of Christ. As I would say to my students, the Holy Spirit wasn’t only at work during the time of Jesus or during the period of the establishment of the primitive Church: the Spirit was also at work, leading and guiding the Church all through its history, even at those times when many in the Church, including its leaders, had their hearts and minds closed to the Spirit. A good example of this ongoing presence of the Spirit throughout the ages is in fact the existence of religious life. There were no monks and nuns in the first years of Christianity. And for most religious in the world, the origins of their particular religious families go back no more than five hundred years, and for many of us much less than that.

The third fidelity is to the present reality in which we find ourselves. It is not much use having the gospel of life, with all the deeper understandings which have come to us over the centuries, if we don’t know how to offer that gospel to the world in which we presently live in a way the world can hear and understand. It is no good wishing the world were other than it is: it is precisely the world, as it is, which is so desperately in need of the word of life which we have been privileged to receive and which we have been commissioned to share.

I do think we can take this basic insight and apply it to the religious life, and to the life and mission of each religious congregation, particularly at a time like our when we are still caught up in the process of renewal. We too are called to a three-fold fidelity. As I speak of it, however, I do want to stress that all that I might now say is meant to fit within the overarching notion of our fidelity to the Christ of the Gospels, to the ongoing work of the Spirit in the Church over our long history, and to our need to find new and effective ways to share the Good News of the Lord with the people of our own time. And this is the task of every baptised person, not just religious.

Within this overall framework we religious might say that first of all we are called to fidelity to our founder and our founding charism. As we all know, you don’t receive a vocation to the religious life as such: you receive a vocation to the Sisters of Nazareth or the Mercy sisters, to the Carmelites or the Benedictines, to the Salvatorians or the Sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition, even sometimes to the Salesians. It is the same of course for marriage. There is a sense in which you don’t receive a vocation to the married life in the abstract: you receive a call to commit yourself and all you have and are to the particular person who, in the providence of God, you have encountered and come to recognise as the person with whom you wish to spend the rest of your life.

For religious, what this means is that we each receive a vocation, a calling, an invitation, to a particular way of life, with a particular spirituality, a particular way of “seeing” the world and God’s presence in the world, and a particular mission. It seems to me that we need to constantly return to the original vision, the original dream of our origins, and ask ourselves what really lies at the heart of the founder’s dream for us. For many orders and congregations, the “work we do” will be an essential part of this dream, but I would argue that, beyond the particular concrete work there is something deeper: we should not only ask ourselves “what should we be doing?” but more fundamentally “what are we called to be?”

Of course, in response to both questions, and particularly the latter, there will be elements common to all religious and elements which are particular to each religious family. For Pope Francis, for example, elements which are common to all religious include the call to radical discipleship, the profession of the evangelical counsels, and the common life. How each religious family understands and lives these common elements will vary from group to group.

In asking these questions I think we need to recognise a danger into which many of us fall from time to time. To speak of the original dream of our founders is, before anything else, to speak of their conviction that they were being called by God to be faithful disciples of Jesus and to help others to do the same. They lived out that discipleship in different ways and gave expression to it in many different forms of apostolic activity. But we should never forget that it was because they wished to be faithful disciples of Jesus that they embarked on the journey that led to the founding of the groups to which so many of us now belong. Perhaps another way of saying this is that for our founders the words of Jesus in John’s gospel would make perfect sense: “you did not choose me, no, I chose you and I commissioned you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”

This is an excerpt from an address given by Perth Archbishop Timothy Costelloe sdb to Religious on 14 April 2015.

pdf   Download the address Religious Life Today-A Gospel Path Which Calls To Us in full. (501.62 kB)

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