Pastoral Letter on the Consecrated Life
addressed to the members of the Canadian Religious Conference
on its 50th Anniversary
by the Executive Committee
of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
Sisters and brothers in Christ:
The Canadian Religious Conference in 2004 celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding. This celebration offers an important opportunity not only to reflect on the Conference and on the testimony and achievements of its member religious institutes and apostolic societies, but also to examine the importance of all forms of consecrated life in the Church.
As the members of the Executive Committee of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, we wish to begin our reflections by expressing our appreciation to the Canadian Religious Conference. Together with all the Bishops of Canada, we thank the heavenly Father for the innumerable graces and blessings with which God has enriched the Church and society through the generous witness and service of those in apostolic and religious life.
Bringing together women and men from religious institutes and apostolic societies, in both official languages of Canada, and encompassing the traditions of the Latin and Eastern Catholic Churches, the Canadian Religious Conference and its member institutions have been of invaluable assistance to the Bishops who are the signs and instruments of ecclesial unity. We are most grateful for the continuous cooperation, excellent communication and close relationships between our two national conferences, as well as the mutually enriching and strengthening partnerships on the regional and local levels.
The religious institutes and apostolic societies that are members of the Canadian Religious Conference continue a vital tradition which dates to the very beginnings of the Church in our country. As throughout the universal Church, these religious and apostolic institutions are part of the great heritage of consecrated life, rich with many forms and involving a history marked by continuing adaptation and evolution.
In the words of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata by Pope John Paul II, “We are all aware of the treasure which the gift of the consecrated life in the variety of its charisms and institutions represents for the ecclesial community: … religious orders and institutes devoted to contemplation or the works of the apostolate, … societies of apostolic life, … secular institutes, and … other groups of consecrated persons, as well as … all those individuals who, in their inmost hearts, dedicate themselves to God by a special consecration” (2.2).
In this variety and change which are apparent throughout the history of consecrated life, there is an underlying constancy. All its forms – each creative in its own way of expressing the life and mission of Christ and the search for God – involve “a pursuit of perfect charity through the exercise of the evangelical counsels”, serve “as a blazing emblem of the heavenly Kingdom”, and thus are a “sign which can and ought to attract all the members of the Church to an effective and prompt fulfilment of the duties of their Christian vocation” (Second Vatican Council, Decree Perfectae Caritatis, 1; Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, 44.4).
While the “desert traditions” of Scripture provide a basic understanding of the original thrust of consecrated life, the founders and members of apostolic societies and religious institutes with good reason often cite the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles to express their evangelical ideals: The desire to recreate the apostolic community of believers, and to proclaim the new creation in Christ; Poverty and sharing, with special concern for the poor; A consecration of the whole person to God through virginity and celibacy; The creation of a new family, not limited by flesh and blood; A new spiritual partnership of male and female as disciples of Christ; The treasuring of the Word in heart and mind; The obedient search for God’s will, through discernment, reflection, dialogue, and listening to the voice of the Christian community; The imitation of Jesus, caring for the crowds, withdrawing in prayer, healing the sick, instructing the disciples, showing concern for the little ones, liberating the marginalized.
The second chapter of the Gospel of Luke presents two prophetic witnesses of the consecrated life: Anna and Simeon. Righteous and devout, Simeon looks forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. Anna, a prophet and widow, with fasting and prayer, worships night and day. Simeon testifies to the paradoxes of Christian life – that love for God and neighbour involves a personal struggle, and that with the joy and happiness of the Beatitudes comes the piercing of one’s soul. Anna proclaims that to praise God is to speak to all of the redemption of Jerusalem – or to use the later words of Saint Irenaeus, the “glory of God is the human person fully alive” (cf. Adv. haeres., 4, 20, ).
According to the statistics that have been released by the Canadian Religious Conference, most of its religious and apostolic institutions are facing a severe decline in membership, with only one in 10 of their members expected to be under the age of 65 by the year 2015. Many in the Church are anguished to see this decline and aging, especially when contrasted with the memories of the thousands of sisters, brothers and priests who, only a few decades ago, staffed almost every Catholic hospital, school and university across the land. Yet Simeon, ready to depart from life and praising God in a spirit of peace, saw salvation and consolation in the dawning of the promised light, while Anna, a widow of “great age”, at least 84 years old, recognized and proclaimed the wondrous potential of the Child before her.
Today, as many in apostolic and religious life see their institutions close, they can take great consolation in knowing their services and ministries not only made a tremendous difference to the lives of millions of Canadians, but also in seeing new expressions of these same ministries and forms of service in the Church as well as within social agencies and volunteer organizations. At the same time, these profound changes are not easy, as they demand the same soul-piercing courage, determination and hope that have always been necessary to live the Christian life. As the Annas and Simeons of our day, those in consecrated life witness to all the Church that every disciple is born and formed in the paschal mystery, passing through death to life. Moreover, the challenges facing religious institutes and apostolic societies are similar to those that the whole Church in Canada faces, at the beginning of the Third Millennium.
While the Church in Canada owes so much to the generous services of those in religious and apostolic life, it is always their witness that remains their most important gift to the Church. If, in the past, this witness was expressed especially by means of institutional services, such as health care and education, today there are other forms of testimony.
We have seen many Pentecost moments in our Church since the arrival of the new millennium: the 2001 visit across the country of the relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the trans-Canadian pilgrimage of the World Youth Day cross, the 2002 North American Congress for Vocations to the Ordained Ministry and the Consecrated Life, and the 2002 celebrations of World Youth Day. But there are also innumerable other signs of Pentecost, many involving men and women in consecrated life. We wish to note seven of these special testimonies of the Spirit in our midst.
1. Consecrated life today is clearly a reminder that all the People of God are called to reform and renew their lives in holiness, and so transform their communities, following the command of Jesus to be perfect as the heavenly Father (Matthew 5.48).
[T]his ideal of perfection must not be understood as if it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few ‘uncommon heroes’ of holiness…. The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 31).
In his Apostolic Letter to celebrate the beginning of the new millennium, the Holy Father speaks of holiness in terms of the “practical significance” of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council (no. 30) and the need for “genuine training in holiness” (no. 31). Many diocesan clergy and faithful seek out members of consecrated life as confessors and spiritual guides. The whole People of God finds in consecrated life a witness of the renewal called for by the Council. With many religious and apostolic institutions facing the challenges of declining memberships and the pains of leaving aside familiar apostolates, they testify to the courage and hope that every disciple needs in leaving all behind in order to follow Christ, and so discover new signs and marvels. “‘What should we do?’ … ‘Repent, and be baptized … and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2.39).
2. The consecrated life testifies to the mystery and vocation of the Church as communion. “To make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 43). As Pope John Paul II went on to note, this involves promoting a spirituality of communion, as well as valuing and developing forums and structures for communion.
Communion embraces all generations; it celebrates and transforms all cultures and subcultures; it respects and engages all races and languages. Given their great diversity of historical roots and ethnic origins, as well as their variety of charisms and forms of service, apostolic societies and religious institutes are among the Church’s most important means for manifesting and developing its mystery and reality as communion.
That “community life” has become almost a synonym for religious and apostolic life says a great deal about the contributions of these institutions to the Church as communion. Historically, they provided hospitality through hospices, hospitals and hostels – the “hôtels de Dieu”. Their libraries, colleges and universities have deepened and strengthened the Church as communion. Today, they also make available retreat and meditation centres, prayer houses, guesthouses and shelters. Religious and apostolic life not only testifies to the Church as communion, but provides examples of and opportunities for community engagement, as well as resources for all Catholics to intensify their sense of communion and community. “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4.32).
3. Consecrated life testifies to every Christian’s need for prayer, reflection and silence. Many in our society, and even some members of the Church, find themselves with less and less inner spiritual space and calm. The peace that Jesus gives is the gift of forgiveness, reconciliation and peacemaking. Meditation and prayer are means to deepen and extend that peace, not only in our lives but also in our hearts. The Holy Father says that the name of God is “a name of peace and a summons to peace” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 55).
For many busy and harried Catholics, it is often the human presence of those in consecrated life, as well as their houses and prayer centres, which provide important reminders, occasions and resources for personal prayer, reflection and quiet. The great “schools” of Christian meditation and contemplation have long been the tradition of apostolic societies and religious institutes, with many continuing to provide leadership and formation in the techniques of prayer and meditation. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” and “spent much time together in the temple” (Acts, 3.42,46).
4. Another testimony for the Church in our day and age is the generous engagement of consecrated life in the refound Catholic understanding of universality and mission. This has in no small measure been assisted by Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. Their teachings have reminded all Catholics to be more responsible for, and involved in, universal peace, justice and charity (Pacem in Terris), as well as in the development of all peoples (Populorum Progressio). This commitment to solidarity is closely linked to the proclamation of the Good News to all the world (Redemptoris Missio), through a new evangelization, a renewed sense of mission, and an effective response to inculturation (Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 40).
Members of consecrated life have helped make Canadian Catholics more aware of their ties to, and their solidarity with, Africa, Asia and Latin America. This has happened not only through Canadian missionaries going abroad immediately after the Council, with the resulting partnerships and exchanges in which many Canadian agencies, communities and parishes are now involved, but also through the more recent Latin American, Asian and African presence, including new vocations, which bring new life and energy to Canadian religious and apostolic institutions as well as to our parishes. “Amazed and astonished, they asked … ‘How is it … in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power?’” (Acts 2.7,12).
5. Following the example of the first Christians – “There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4.34) – Canadian religious institutes and apostolic societies have been the social conscience of our Church. Their witness includes working in slums and soup kitchens, and generously assisting development projects through subsidies and seed money, both in our own country and in the Third World. As Pope John Paul II reminded Catholics when discussing the Church’s preferential option for the poor:
Our world is entering the new millennium, burdened by the contradictions of an economic, cultural and technological progress which offers immense possibilities to a fortunate few, while leaving millions of others not only on the margins of progress but living in conditions far below the minimum demanded by human dignity.
Now is the time for a new ‘creativity’ in charity, not only by ensuring that help is effective but also by ‘getting close’ to those who suffer, so that the hand that helps is seen not as a humiliating handout but as a sharing between brothers and sisters (Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 50).
6. Those in consecrated life also give an important testimony about the contemporary approach to pastoral life and ministry in the diocesan and parish community. In collaboration with the bishop, priests, deacons, pastoral workers and volunteers, many members of apostolic societies and religious institutes participate in building up the People of God through the liturgy, catechesis, sacramental preparation, pastoral administration and various other ministries. “Therefore the Church of the Third Millennium will need to encourage all the baptized and confirmed to be aware of their active responsibility in the Church’s life” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 46).
Canadian Catholics have at times overly depended on specific ecclesial organizations to take care of pastoral projects; for example, catechesis, inner city parishes or collaboration with Native Peoples. Today, all the People of God are more aware of how these are responsibilities shared by the whole Christian community. While institutions of consecrated life must maintain and develop their own particular charisms, to the extent that they can assist in pastoral work and diocesan ministries, their contributions are much appreciated, not simply for the work accomplished but especially for their witness that all believers are co-workers for the Kingdom. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2.4).
7. Institutions of consecrated life and their individual members have been extensively involved in, and deeply committed to, dialogue and consultation in all its forms – ecumenical and interfaith as well as various expressions of social discourse. In some ways, the ongoing conversion that is at the heart of the consecrated life is itself a witness to the spiritual dynamic of dialogue – listening to the other’s perspective, and articulating one’s own principles and values.
[I]n the presence of the mystery of grace, infinitely full of possibilities and implications for human life and history, the Church herself will never cease putting questions, trusting in the help of the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth whose task it is to guide her ‘into all the truth’ (John 16.13).
This is a fundamental principle not only for the endless theological investigation of Christian truth, but also for Christian dialogue with other philosophies, cultures, and religions. In the common experience of humanity, for all its contradictions, the Spirit of God, who ‘blows where he wills’ (John 3.89), not infrequently reveals signs of his presence which help Christ’s followers to understand more deeply the message which they bear (Novo Millennio Ineunte, nos. 48, 56).
Engaged in this “active and watchful discernment” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 56), members of apostolic societies and religious institutes have participated in every ecumenical dialogue and interfaith consultation involving the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. They have also provided significant support for ecumenical coalitions, as well as taking part in innumerable social projects, and also initiating conversations with groups distant from the Church. “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts, 4.20).
We wish to highlight not only the 50 years of the founding of the Canadian Religious Conference, but also the witness of religious institutes and apostolic societies to the Church in Canada for nearly 400 years. As well, we wish to point out some possible challenges for the future. We pose these as questions for the possible reflection of men and women in consecrated life, as well as all the clergy and faithful in Canada. As the Holy Father has said, “Dear brothers and sisters, it is especially necessary for us to direct our thoughts to the future which lies before us” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 3).
· What is the Spirit saying to the Church and its members in consecrated life about vocations? The 2002 North American Congress for Vocations to the Ordained Ministry and the Consecrated Life contributed to renewed and concerted efforts in promoting a better understanding of vocation. At the same time, many in our society and Church, especially young adults, are at a loss as to how to discern their vocation. Would it be opportune for all apostolic societies and religious institutes to renew their vocation ministry, where possible in collaboration with dioceses and the regional episcopal assemblies? Would it not also be opportune for pastors and all the faithful to use the resources from the Vocations Congress to foster a vocation culture that will deepen the understanding of the lay vocation, the ordained ministry and consecrated life?
· What is the Spirit saying to the Church and its members in consecrated life about formation? Many who are involved today in catechesis, education, health care, chaplaincy work, youth ministry and pastoral work are requesting ongoing pastoral and spiritual formation. Formation has always been a keynote of the apostolic and religious life. Would it be opportune for those traditions and skills to be handed on and applied to the new realities of lay ministries? Could religious institutes and apostolic societies, together with Catholic colleges and universities, collaborate with dioceses and regional episcopal assemblies in the development of formation leaders, as well as developing the physical and pedagogical resources needed for formation?
· What is the Spirit saying to the Church and its members in consecrated life about popular expressions of faith? With the 2001 visit of the relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and the 2002 pilgrimage of the World Youth Day cross, the Bishops of Canada noted the growing significance for many Catholics of popular expressions of faith, including devotions and pilgrimages. Would it be opportune for institutions of consecrated life, many of which enjoy close contacts with local groups and more recent immigrants, to help provide a solid biblical and liturgical foundation for these expressions of popular piety? As well, in order to help span the generations, could those in consecrated life explore ways to encourage families to pass on not only their faith, but also their cultural heritage and their traditional expressions of faith? More and more, these appear to be important examples of inculturation which should be preserved in the new evangelization.
· What is the Spirit saying to the Church and its members in consecrated life about the need for mentors in health care, education and chaplaincy work? As many religious and apostolic institutions withdraw from active involvement in health care, education and chaplaincies, those taking on these responsibilities often find the work lonely and frustrating, especially in the current social, economic and secularized environment. Would it be opportune for religious institutes and apostolic societies to provide mentors and coaches for the laity working in schools, health-care facilities and chaplaincy services?
· What is the Spirit saying to the Church and its members in consecrated life about children and youth? World Youth Day 2002 has reminded all the Church about the enthusiasm and profound longings of the young, many of whom are confronting difficult challenges and facing significant social, economic and cultural challenges. Would it be opportune for institutions of consecrated life, in collaboration with families and parishes, to ensure a special place in the Church for children and youth? Could more of those in consecrated life encourage youth ministry, and find new opportunities to listen to and share with children and youth? Could apostolic societies and religious institutes assist diocesan clergy, families, catechists and other pastoral agents in assuring that pastoral and spiritual opportunities for children and youth in the Church involve safe environments?
· What is the Spirit saying to the Church and its members in consecrated life about aging and the elderly? It is not only the membership of apostolic societies and religious institutes that is aging, but the whole of Canadian society. Could those in consecrated life do more by way of reminding the Christian community about visiting, encouraging and assisting the aged who are lonely, bedridden or ill? Could the members of religious institutes and apostolic societies find innovative ways to witness to the hope and joy that their faith brings to them as they age?
· What is the Spirit saying to the Church and its members in consecrated life about the environmental movement? Christians cannot be “indifferent to the prospect of an ecological crisis which is making vast areas of our planet uninhabitable and hostile to humanity” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 51). Those in religious and apostolic life have always had a deep appreciation and reverence for nature and all creation, while the ecological principles of reducing, reusing, repairing and recycling have been ways of life for centuries in their institutes and societies. Would it be opportune for those living the consecrated life to revitalize their witness to the integrity of creation, and to help assure a more visible Catholic presence in the environmental and ecological movement?
· What is the Spirit saying to the Church and its members in consecrated life about marriage and families? One repeatedly hears concerns about today’s crisis of family life, with so many families struggling under enormous economic and social pressures. Would it be opportune for the Canadian Religious Conference to explore with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops how the Church can assure “the pastoral care of the family” and work with families in “safeguarding their rights” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, no. 47)?
· What is the Spirit saying to the Church and its members in consecrated life about the new ecclesial movements? The Canadian Religious Conference has had extensive experience in providing a forum for many Canadian religious institutes and apostolic societies. Would it be opportune for it to take the lead in providing structured, ongoing conversations and exchanges with the new ecclesial movements, and also with those institutes and societies that are not members of the Conference? Could the experiences and insights of the more established groups be a rich source of wisdom and guidance to the newer? Could the discoveries and enthusiasm of the more recent groups spark different approaches and renewed impetus among the older? Such conversations would not be with the aim of modifying or expanding the membership of the Canadian Religious Conference, as there needs to be full respect for the particular nature of the movements as well as of the appropriate autonomy and charism of each institute and society. This is a question that we also pose for the reflection of the ecclesial movements, as well as of those institutions of consecrated life that do not belong to the Canadian Religious Conference.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, marvelling at how God the Father always provides the Church with the testimony of the consecrated life, we thank each religious institute and apostolic society in our country, and all of you who are their members, for your generosity and faithfulness. We pray that the Lord Jesus continue to call men and women to be his evangelical witnesses. Through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, may your charisms encourage all the sons and daughters of the Church to prophesy, so that our youth may see the vision of eternal life, and our elderly dream the dreams of the Reign of God (cf. Acts 2.17).
These are the hopes that we convey on Pentecost 2004.
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
Most Reverend Brendan M. O’Brien, Archbishop of St. John’s, President
Most Reverend André Gaumond, Archbishop of Sherbrooke
Most Reverend V. James Weisgerber, Archbishop of Winnipeg
Most Reverend Pierre Morissette, Bishop of Baie-Comeau