Along with the Catholic Church around the world, the Diocese of Providence has now begun its observance of the “Year of Consecrated Life.” At the invitation of Pope Francis, during the fourteen months to follow, the Church is called upon to promote the vocation of the consecrated life, to celebrate the many contributions of religious women and men, and to thank all those who have served so faithfully as religious priests, brothers and sisters.
The programs and activities of this special year will remind us of something St. John Paul II taught us in his Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata, “That the consecrated life is not something isolated and marginal, but a reality that affects the whole Church. The consecrated life is at the very heart of the Church as a decisive element for her mission.” (#3)
Pope Francis took up this ecclesial theme speaking to members of religious communities meeting in Rome. “Religious life ought to promote growth in the Church by way of attraction. The Church must be attractive. Wake up the world! Be witnesses of a different way of doing things, of acting, of living,” the Pope said.
This special observance is also an invitation to members of religious institutes to enter into a time of reflection on the holiness of their vocation, to renew their solemn vows and refresh their personal commitment to Christ and His Church.
While the renewal of religious life is primarily a spiritual reality, an interior movement prompted by the Spirit, there is ample empirical evidence that this renewal is long overdue. Many religious communities, particularly in the United States, are facing daunting challenges as their members rapidly age and the size of the community shrinks.
For example, according to statistics provided by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), from 1965 to 2014 the number of religious priests dropped from 23,000 to 12,000; religious brothers from 12,000 to 4,000; and the number of sisters from 180,000 to 50,000. In many religious communities the median age of members is 70 or more. Religious communities, (like many dioceses too) are in the process of reducing their missions, consolidating their structures and selling their resources to meet present and future needs.
It is important to note, though, that these declining numbers are not universal. Throughout the United States there are several communities of women and men religious that are thriving and growing, adding new and younger members, and increasing their presence in the Church. The success stories of these communities are really encouraging and provide great hope for the future.
In celebrating the Year of Consecrated Life, however, it would be a mistake to focus only on the statistics, on the challenges and problems faced by some communities of sisters, brothers and priests. This observance is primarily an opportunity to thank the members of religious communities for the generous and dedicated service they have offered to the Church and the community, and particularly, here in the Diocese of Providence.
St. John Paul asked in Vita Consecrata, “What would become of the world if there were no religious?” (#105) In an analogous fashion we might ask, what would the Diocese of Providence look like today without the historic witness and multiple contributions of religious women and men? Most of us – I dare say all of us – have been blessed at one time or another, in one way or another, by the example and ministry of religious. In a personal way I will always be grateful for the wonderful service offered by the Benedictine Nuns in Pittsburgh, at St. Teresa Elementary School, who first taught me the faith and enthusiastically encouraged my vocation to the priesthood.
Religious women and men continue to make amazing contributions to the Church, in a variety of settings and ministries. I think of those who are involved in Catholic education; in health care ministry in our hospitals and nursing homes; in programs of charity with food pantries and soup kitchens; in political advocacy for the homeless and immigrants; and in a wide variety of parish ministries and activities.
Nor should we forget for a moment the loving and powerful witness of religious who live more contemplative lives, who spend their time at the feet of Jesus, learning, listening and praying for the needs of others. They are a spiritual powerhouse, providing a source of God’s grace for those of us who would be sorely lacking otherwise.
In celebrating the contributions of religious women and men, it’s important to recognize the spiritual foundation of their vocation. While they may be outstanding teachers, administrators and social workers, they are first of all disciples of Jesus Christ, and in that commitment is found the motivation and consolation of their work. Members of religious communities are consecrated to Christ and freely assume the solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, virtues that form their lives and inspire their growth in personal sanctity.
As Pope Francis has reminded us, the foundation of the apostolate is prayer. “The first thing for a disciple is to be with the Master, to listen to him and learn from him . . . If the warmth of God, of his love, of his tenderness is not in our own hearts, then how can we, who are poor sinners, warm the hearts of others?”
The familiar last invocation of the Litany of Saints refers to “All ye holy men and women.” We are fortunate that we don’t have to wait until we get to heaven to meet some of these holy ones. They’re in our midst right now, praying for us, speaking to us of Jesus, and serving our neighbors in need. To our brothers and sisters in the consecrated life whom we honor in this special year – thank you very much for all that you are and all that you do!
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