“I am convinced that, if we revisit our past with gratitude, live our present with passion and embrace our future with hope, we will stay awake and wake up the world.”
On October 18th Sister Lorraine Caza CND gave a talk on the Year of Consecrated Life at St. Pius X Church in Charlottetown. Here is the text of her wonderful talk.
STAY AWAKE and WAKE UP THE WORLD
- Revisiting the past with gratitude
- Living the present passionately
- Embracing the future with hope
When Pope Francis addressed his November 21st 2014 letter to all people involved in consecrated life under the vows, He specified that he had in mind very large horizons for the year of Consecrated Life. He was thinking of the laity who share with consecrated persons “the same ideals, spirit and mission”. More so, Pope Francis continues, “I ask the whole Christian people to be increasingly aware of the gift which is the presence of our many consecrated men and women. I ask all of you, he says, to draw close to these men and women, to rejoice with them, to share their difficulties and to assist them, to whatever degree possible, in their ministries and works, for the latter are, in the end, those of the entire Church. Let them know the affection and warmth which the entire Christian people feels for them.” In this letter, Francis says: “I do not hesitate to address a word to the consecrated men and women and to the members of fraternities and communities who belong to Churches of traditions other than the Catholic tradition. Francis wants us to be aware of the dialogues going on between Christian consecrated men and women and monasticism and other expressions of religious fraternity in all the great religions. Our Pope Francis finally asks the Bishops of the Catholic Church to show special concern for promoting within our communities the different charisms whether long-standing or recent.
With these precisions about the horizons Pope Francis had in mind as He inaugurated this year of Consecrated Life, let us reflect on the 3 aims he set for this time in history:
I Look to the past with gratitude.
Here, Francis invites us to look at the origins of our respective Institutes and then to notice how the initial experience matured and developed through history. He suggests that we give particular attention to the growth and evolution of Consecrated Life in the past fifty years, that is from Vatican II until now. Personally, I found it helpful to start this re-reading of the past of our Religious families with a revisiting of my personal story. When did I experience my first attraction to Consecrated Life? Did my family play a significant role in nourishing this attraction? Did my formal school education contribute to the growth of my desire? Can I identify special events or special people who had a strong influence on my aspiration to Consecrated Life? Have I taken time to give thanks to God for all the help I was offered along the way to strengthen my choice of Consecrated Life and of Consecrated Life in this particular Institute? Are there people who have reached the other shore or/and people who are still walking with us to whom we owe gratitude at that level?
And now, let us focus our attention on the beginnings of our respective Institutes. Many of us have cultivated, especially since Vatican II, a special attachment or love for the founders or foundresses of our Congregations. We are aware, to say it in the words of Francis, that they received a call “to follow Christ more closely, to translate the Gospel into a particular way of life, to read the signs of the times with the eyes of faith and to respond creatively to the needs of the Church. Better knowledge and better understanding of pioneer persons who initiated our Institutes, most of us achieved quite well. But have we given as much attention to giving thanks to God for the life and mission of our founding figures? Thanks to God, yes, but also thanks to those inspiring human beings. Francis encourages us also to deepen our consciousness of all the development that has taken place in our respective Congregations through generations. Think of the persons who joined your Institute “in new geographic and cultural contexts, giving rise to new ways of exercising the charism, new initiatives and expressions of apostolic charity”. Personally, I think we should take time to identify a number of members who played an important role in enriching the Congregation charism. We also need to name events that allowed positive steps in the orientations of a given Institute. I also think that we need to acknowledge groups that were not always recognized in different religious communities. For example, in Congregations dedicated to education, was sufficient recognition given to members who were in charge of farms, of meals, of maintenance? Even today, is sufficient recognition always given to people in charge of the financial dimension of our institutions? Office work does not always attract the attention of our media-society. Here again, so many “thank yous” remain unspoken.
Since we will be celebrating, on October 28th, 2015, the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Council Decree on Religious Life, Perfectae Caritatis, Pope Francis encourages us strongly “to give thanks to God for these fifty years which followed the second Vatican Council. The Council, he says, “represented a “breath” of the Holy Spirit upon the whole Church. In consequence, consecrated life undertook a fruitful journey of renewal which, for all its lights and shadows, has been a time of grace, marked by the presence of the Spirit.” Francis wishes us to take this year “to confess humbly, with immense confidence in the God who is Love (cf. 1 John 4:8) our own weakness and, in it, to experience the Lord’s merciful love. May this year, likewise, be an occasion for bearing vigorous and joyful witness before the world to the holiness and vitality present in so many of those called to follow Jesus in the consecrated life.
Allow me here to share with you how I tried to answer this last call from Francis. Because I had the privilege of participating as resource person for the Canadian Delegation to the 1994 Roman Synod, I had multiple opportunities, in the aftermath of the event, to deepen my understanding of the content of the post-synodal exhortation: Vita Consecrata, all this to explain the fact that I was thinking that my gratitude for the last fifty years would stem from what we lived in the CND during that time and from the teachings of Vita Consecrata. But then, came a phone call from the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem. They were asking me to give them 3 full days on Perfectae Caritatis. What a surprise that was to me! I couldn’t picture myself teaching three full days on the 25 short paragraphs that make up Perfectae Caritatis, but they were insisting. We weren’t born in 1965. We need to know how things were before Vatican II, what newness the Council introduced. So, I went back to the Council Documents on Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis, Lumen Gentium, chap. 6; Ad Gentes, 18; Apostolicam Actuositatem, 23; Christus Dominus, 33-35) and took time to investigate what kind of preparation took place from 1959 when John the XXIII announced the council, to the final text the 2,300 bishops adopted in 1965. Never before had I been so aware of the gigantic steps implied in the short document we call Perfectae Caritatis. So, yes, I know for sure that we need to be so grateful for the Council’s general orientations and decisions about Religious Life. And we need to express gratitude to God and also to all the men and women who prepared and participated, 30 years later, in the Roman Synod on Consecrated Life. The 1994 Synod being focused completely on Consecrated Life, the exhortation that followed invited us to look at our lives through images such as the Transfiguration of our Lord and the Washing of the feet. It adopted a three-dimension approach to consecrated life. We could, from now on, think of our lives as Confession of the Trinity (Consecration), as a Sign of communion in the Church (Community), as a Manifestation of God’s Love in the World (Service of charity). The vows, we would consider as gifts of the Trinity and as a reflection of Trinitarian life; they would also be envisaged as prophetic answers to major challenges of our present society.
II Live the present passionately
When Francis urges us to live the present with passion, he articulates conditions making this possible. First, he says,
- never forget that your “absolute rule” is the Gospel “whereas every other rule is meant to be an expression of the Gospel and a means of living the Gospel to the full`.
- cultivate an intimate friendship with Christ Jesus so that you can truly say with Paul: “For me, to live is Christ” (Ph 1:21)
- ask yourself if you have the same passion and compassion for people that Jesus expressed and that founders and foundresses of our Institutes tried in every way to imitate
- give great importance to the community dimension of your vowed life, inspired by the “one heart and one soul” that characterized the first Christian community
- work unceasingly at becoming an “expert in communion”, “a mystic of encounter”, a person who has the ability to hear, to listen to other people, to seek with others ways and means to build a better world.
What Francis summed up in his letter to all consecrated people on the occasion of the year of consecrated life, he developed very strongly in his programmatic exhortation: the joy of the gospel and very recently in his shaking encyclical on the environment: Laudato si.
I think we all need to give great attention to these most thought-provoking documents. Personally, I find very helpful to hear the insistence with which Francis calls us to joy. One cannot help noticing that in the introduction to The Joy of the Gospel alone, there are at least 51 words referring to joy. But the joy promoted by Francis in “the joy brought by the Lord”. “I invite all Christians everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to let him encounter them. I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her.” (EG. 3) Not surprisingly, then, if, speaking to consecrated people, he insists: “We are called to know and show that God is able to fill our hearts to the brim with happiness… that the authentic fraternity found in our communities increases our joy, and that our total self-giving in service to the Church, to families and young people, to the elderly and the poor, brings us life-long personal fulfilment.”
Another of Francis’ secrets allowing us to live our present with passion is what he calls our missionary conversion. He says: “Become more and more people who boldly take initiative, who get involved by word and deed, who are supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be; be familiar with patient expectation and apostolic endurance; in faithfulness to the Lord’s gift, bear fruit; finally, learn to celebrate every small victory, every step forward in the evangelization (EG 24). In his letter to consecrated people, he writes in that same vein: “I am counting on you “to wake up the world”, since the distinctive sign of consecrated life is prophecy”. “Prophets receive from God the ability to scrutinize the times in which they live and to interpret events: they are like sentinels who keep watch in the night and sense the coming of the dawn (cf. Is 21:11-12)”. “Prophets tend to be on the side of the poor and the powerless, for they know that God himself is on their side. And so I trust, rather than living in some utopia, you will find ways to create “alternate spaces” where the Gospel approach of self-giving, fraternity, embracing differences and love of one another can thrive.”
The very structure of The Joy of the Gospel convinces me that Francis knows that in order to live our present with passion, we need to take time to identify the main challenges facing our society. He expects us to vigorously say NO to an economy of exclusion, NO to the new idolatry of money, NO to a financial system which rules rather than serves, NO to the inequality which spawns violence: these challenges are given first priority in The Joy of the Gospel, Chapter 2. In his letter to consecrated people, he insists: “A whole world awaits us: men and women who have lost all hope, families in difficulty, abandoned children, young people without a future, the elderly, sick and abandoned, those who are rich in the world’s goods but impoverished within, men and women looking for a purpose in life, thirsting for the divine… I ask you to work concretely in welcoming refugees, drawing near to the poor, and finding creative ways to catechize…”
After naming a number of contemporary challenges, Francis chooses to talk about the tasks, the forms that evangelization can take. Here again, I feel he is helping us discover how we can live our present passionately. Very surprising and interesting for me is the order in which he places the elements he invites us to consider… First, he places popular piety, bringing out its evangelizing power. Then, person to person conversation and, at the end of his list, personal accomplishment in processes of growth. Francis fully recognizes that charisms, culture, thought and education, homilies, catechesis are important paths for evangelization, but the three items that I single out say so much about the spirit of the evangelization we are called to. I recognize that we are helped living our present with passion when we are told that “The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this “art of accompaniment” which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (cf. Ex 3:5). The letter to consecrated people speaks a very similar language: “We need to ask ourselves about the way we relate to persons from different cultures, as our communities become increasingly international. How can we enable each member to say freely what he or she thinks, to be accepted with his or her particular gifts, and to become fully co-responsible?”
If I follow Francis in chapter 4 of The Joy of the Gospel, I will be led to be more attentive to the social dimension of Christianity. Here again, I hear him question: Do you really wish to live your present passionately? If so, remember the poor, see what you can achieve to socially integrate the poor and to build peace by encouraging dialogue at all levels. Addressing us in his letter to Consecrated Life, he affirms: “during this Year, no one can feel excused from seriously examining his or her presence in the Church’s life and from responding to the new demands constantly being made on us, to the cry of the poor.”
In the last chapter of his exhortation on The Joy of the Gospel, Francis offers us four avenues that can be of great help to live our present with passion:
1) keep in mind always that you are infinitely loved by Jesus Christ, “and if you do not feel an intense desire to share this love, pray insistently that He will once more touch your heart.”
2) keep your ears, your mind, your heart open to the word of God so you recognize that you are part of a people: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet. 2:10) … “Stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter you from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness.”
3) be sure that “Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force. Often, it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty. But it is also true that in the midst of darkness, something new always springs to life and sooner or later produces fruit.”
4) Always believe in the missionary power of intercessory prayer.
III Embrace the future with hope
Pope Francis does not ask us to negate the difficulties we are presently experiencing. He names them: “decreasing vocations, aging members, particularly in the Western world; economic problems stemming from the global financial crisis; issues of internationalization and globalization; threats posed by relativism and a sense of isolation and social irrelevance.”
Yet, he affirms very strongly that it is “amid these uncertainties that we are called to practice the virtue of hope. He wants us to be clear: “hope is not based on statistics or accomplishments, but on the One in whom we have put our trust.” (cf. 2 Tim 1:2) “Do not yield to the temptation to see “things in terms of numbers and efficiency, and even less to trust in your own strength.” When I meditate on Pope Francis’ letter on ecology: Laudato si, I consider that we are all given in this study a great sign of hope. Just take a few minutes to go over Francis’ appeal to us all “for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.” He wants us to recognize that “we need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.” And then, see how Francis has structured his encyclical:
- Brief review of several aspects of the present ecological crisis.
- Principles drawn from Judeo-Christian tradition which can render our commitment to the environment more coherent.
- Deepest causes at the roots of the present situation.
- Approach to ecology that respects our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings.
- Broader proposals for dialogue and action which would involve each of us as individuals, and also affect international policy.
- Inspired guidelines for human development to be found in the treasure of Christian spiritual experience (Laudato si 15)
I also see a sign of hope in how we have moved ahead on an issue as fundamental as ecology. The progress can be noted not only in the plan just presented, but in the identification of a number of themes that run through the whole encyclical. Pope Francis made a list of 9 such themes:
1) the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet
2) the conviction that everything in the world in connected
3) the critique of the new paradigms and forms of power derived from technology
4) the call to seek other ways of understanding the economy and progress
5) the value proper to each culture
6) the human meaning of ecology
7) the need for forthright and honest debate
8) the serious responsibility of international and local policy
9) the throwaway culture and the proposal of a new lifestyle.
The sign of hope we can identify in our growing consciousness of the seriousness of the ecological crisis can be recognized by any attentive human being, but it will certainly stir important modifications in the styles of consecrated life.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to end this reflection on our way of embracing the future without quoting from the inspiring text produced by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life entitled: Keep Watch (Sept 8th, 2014). This document meditates on the image of the cloud:
At every stage of their journey, whenever the cloud rose from the tabernacle, the sons of Israel would resume their march. If the cloud did not rise, they waited and did not march until it did.
For the cloud of the Lord rested on the tabernacle by day, and a fire shone within the cloud by night for all the House of Israel to see.
And so it was for every stage of their journey.
(Ex 40: 36-38)
Our document applies the image of hope to consecrated life: “The consecrated have truly been on a “journey of exodus”. This has been a time of enthusiasm and audacity, of inventiveness and creative fidelity, but also of fragile certainties, of improvisations and bitter disappointments. With the benefit of hindsight, we can recognize that truly there was fire in the cloud, and that, by unknown paths, the Spirit in truth led the lives and plans of consecrated men and women along the paths of the Kingdom.
In recent years, the impulse of this journey seems to have lost its vigor. The cloud appears to enclose more darkness than fire, but the fire of the Spirit still dwells in it. Although at times, we may walk in darkness and a lukewarmness that threaten to trouble our hearts (cf. Jn 14:1), faith reawakens the certainty that, inside, the cloud the Lord’s presence is not diminished: it is a glow of fire flaming in the night, as well as being darkness.”
The letter “Keep Watch” also invites us to open the books of Kings and to read carefully the Elijah story (cf. 1 Kgs 17-19.21; 2 Kgs 1-2). We can let our attention be drawn to extraordinary happenings in that prophet’s life and mission, but the letter suggests that we concentrate on the minor signs and see how the Lord works through them.
“The biblical texts offer numerous “lesser” symbols. We can highlight: the scarce resources for life at the brook Cherith, and the ravens that obey God in bringing the prophet bread and meat in a gesture of mercy and solidarity. The generosity, at the risk of her own life, of the widow of Zarephath who has only a handful of flour and a little oil (1 Kgs 17:12) and gives them to the famished prophet. The powerlessness of Elijah in the face of the dead boy, and his cry of doubt together with his desperate embrace, which the widow interprets in a theological way, as the revelation of the face of a compassionate God. The long struggle of the prophet, prostrate in intercession – after the spectacular and rather theatrical clash with the priests of Baal, on Carmel – imploring rain for the people exhausted by the sentence of drought. It is a team effort by Elijah, the boy who goes up and down from the crest, and God, who, rather than Baal, is the true lord of the rain; and the answer finally comes in a little cloud, the size of a man’s hand (cf. 1 Kgs 18:41). A tiny answer from God, which, nonetheless quickly becomes a great rainfall, restoring a people on the brink of exhaustion.”
And the text concludes:
When the cloud doesn’t rise, accept to wait in hope. Know that the fire in the cloud is never completely extinguished. When you think of Elijah, do not focus only on the great achievements. Be attentive to the minor signs God gives that He is always present.
I am convinced that, if we revisit our past with gratitude, live our present with passion and embrace our future with hope, we will stay awake and wake up the world.
Longueuil, Qc., Oct.15th 2015
Lorraine Caza, CND