By Liz Hoefferle
Handing on the Faith
“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
With these words, Jesus calls the rich young man to a more perfect love. It’s not that the things of the world are bad, but a renunciation of them allows one to follow Jesus Christ more freely and to love more perfectly.
Pope Francis has declared this year the “Year of Consecrated Life,” coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Vatican II document, “Perfectae Caritatis” (“Perfect Charity”).
This year is meant to draw focus on the beauty and necessity of consecrated life within the church. Each one of the baptized is set aside for God’s service and is to be a sign of his presence in the world. However, some are called to a life of consecration in a special way.
There are many forms of consecrated life, but all consist of dedicating oneself to God and offering oneself to bear greater fruit through one’s baptismal graces. Most forms of consecration are characterized by permanent vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Hermits live a solitary life, offering prayer and penance on behalf of the church. Religious brothers and sisters belong to a community with others who have taken the same vows, sharing a common way of life. Consecrated virgins and members of secular institutes usually live in the midst of the world, being “leaven” and “light” to those around them.
Those in religious communities live according to a certain “charism,” which is associated with their founder and is a gift from God for the building up of the church. Such charisms manifest themselves through the prayer, community and apostolic life of a particular religious order, such as the Benedictines, Dominicans or Franciscans. Religious communities may engage in works of charity, teaching or service to the people of God. Some are devoted entirely to prayer.
The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are called the “evangelical counsels.” Simply explained, the evangelical counsels are ways of living the Gospel more fully.
In a culture that glorifies the accumulation of possessions, encourages unrestrained sexual activity and promotes “personal choice,” why would anyone want to be poor, chaste and obedient? Because Jesus was. Living these vows allows one to become more closely conformed to Jesus Christ.
In one sense, we are all called to poverty, chastity and obedience in virtue of our baptism. Jesus instructs us that the kingdom of God is for those who are poor (cf. Luke 6:20). We are to be pure in our thoughts and actions (cf. Matthew 5:27-28). And our love for God is manifested by our obedience to his commandments (cf. John 14:15).
However, “it is the profession of these counsels, within a permanent state of life recognized by the Church, that characterizes the life consecrated to God” (CCC 915). Some persons formally commit to living these counsels in a specific and permanent way.
The evangelical counsels are a means to an end. Living up to these vows each day disposes a person to a pure heart, spiritual freedom and a life of fervent charity (cf. Lumen Gentium, 46). It helps the person become more like Christ and is an inspiration for all Christians to live up to our own baptismal consecration.
Consecrated life is a sign of God’s kingdom, here on earth. When persons freely give up earthly attachments, which are not bad in themselves, in order to focus on heavenly realities, they point to the eternal life that awaits us.
On more than one occasion I’ve been in a public place, such as a gas station or restaurant, with a religious sister. It was amazing to see total strangers come up to them and ask for their prayers. Simply by their presence, people’s hearts and minds were turned to God and heaven.
At the same time, consecrated persons do have earthly concerns, as they serve their brothers and sisters and offer prayers for the needs of the church and the world.
Through consecrated men and women, Jesus Christ becomes manifest to believers and non-believers each day. The world comes to see Jesus “in contemplation on the mountain, in His proclamation of the kingdom of God to the multitudes, in His healing of the sick and maimed, in His work of converting sinners to a better life, in His solicitude for youth and His goodness to all men, always obedient to the will of the Father who sent Him” (LG 46).
Throughout this Year of Consecrated Life, we are asked to reflect upon consecrated life and the special gift it is to the church. We can give thanks to the many consecrated men and women who have revealed the love of Jesus Christ within our own diocese for more than 125 years. We can get to know those who live a consecrated life.
Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.