Vatican II, 40 Years Later: "Perfectae Caritatis"

Sister V.M. Finnegan on the Decree on Renewal of Religious Life

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ROME, MAY 8, 2003 ( As part of its series on the documents of the Second Vatican Council, ZENIT spoke with Sister Vincent Marie Finnegan about «Perfectae Caritatis,» the pastoral decree on the renewal of religious life.

Sister Vincent Marie Finnegan has been a Carmelite Sister of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles for 42 years and is the immediate past superior general of her community.

She is a founding member and was the first president of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious of the United States, and was one of the two women religious from the United States to be an auditor at the Synod on Consecrated Life in Rome.

Q: What are the most important points of «Perfectae Caritatis»?

Sister Vincent Marie: «Perfectae Caritatis» has several important points. First, the adaptation to the needs of our times is to be animated above all by a spiritual renewal. This, of course, is to be cultivated by a spirit of prayer based on authentic sources of Christian spirituality, i.e. sacred Scripture and sacred liturgy, especially the Eucharist. Being nourished by the word and the Eucharist, we are then much more able to live and think with the Church.

Our special consecration, which is rooted in baptism, conforms us to Christ in a special way through our vows of obedience, chastity and poverty. This allows us to experience the fullness of the freedom of the children of God as we live out our commitment in a deep spirit of faith.

«Perfectae Caritatis» also emphasized initial and ongoing formation. An integrated religious, apostolic, doctrinal and technical training is so very necessary for the Church in our world. Today’s religious need to know, understand and live an integrated life to be effective not only in their own community lives but especially in the their apostolic assignments.

Lastly, conferences and councils of Major Superiors were recommended and have been set up worldwide. This allows a great deal of communication and connection with the Apostolic See and the local Church.

Through these structures, religious life as a whole is better supported and we are able to share resources and talents — thus modeling the beauty of brothers and sisters in Christ working together for the building up of the body of Christ.

Q: Where has the decree taken root the best?

Sister Vincent Marie: Overall it has taken root best in countries that have been experiencing the cross.

In places such as Asia and the African nations that continue to suffer from internal political strife, disease and famine, religious life is fresh and vibrant as all religious life should be. The faith is alive and growing and religious life is a very real and important part of the life of the Church in those regions.

Q: The number of religious, especially women religious, is falling. What are the prospects for congregations in general?

Sister Vincent Marie: It is important to realize that while the numbers have dropped in some parts of the world, especially in the United States and Europe, other countries are experiencing a «new spring» as regards vocations.

In the United States, vocations to religious life are starting to increase, slowly but surely. In the recent past, religious have become almost «invisible.» For example, the reality of diminished numbers of religious has changed the complexion of the Catholic school and health-care systems.

This has necessitated a great deal of rethinking and prayer. It has impacted the faithful and religious life itself in a profound way. Also, in recent years, society has taught the young some horrific lessons. However, this has led them to sincerely seek Christ unto the cross. From the rubble of a secularized, materialistic society a new clarity and depth of commitment to consecration has emerged.

The young women of today are responding to the challenges of serving Christ in the Church. They bring a newness and vigor in living the evangelical counsels of obedience, chastity and poverty that is necessary for the inculturation needed today.

They exhibit a prayerful, deep love for the Lord and his Church. They are the ever-new fire of youthful love that spreads God’s kingdom. Holiness is their goal and it shows! The prospects are therefore hopeful and do not rest on numbers, but rather on the holiness religious are called to live.

Q: What must families and the Church do to ensure future vocations?

Sister Vincent Marie: First and foremost, pray. Both at home and in Church the sense of the sacred needs to be restored.

Children need to be catechized in a clear, systematic, integrated manner that continually leads to conversion to Jesus Christ. Parents, educators, pastors and the parish family need to model holiness of life to the young. They need witnesses of the life of faith-filled love that sustains us in all the joys and sorrows of life.

Vocations need support and encouragement. Talking about and providing opportunities for interaction with priests and religious is an invaluable component of vocation promotion. The Church will not have holy priests and religious without holy families. The domestic church is where it all begins.

Q: What can religious life offer young women in particular?

Sister Vincent Marie: We have a special closeness to the Lord who calls us individually to have a spousal relationship with him. By our total gift of self through the vows to the Other — Christ — we experience an inner freedom that supports our conformity to his will and enables us to love beyond human measure.

We also have a lifetime of opportunities to proclaim the Gospel message in a special manner by our freely chosen lifestyle in imitation of Christ. Our vocation puts us as the heart of the Church, our Mother as we live together with women who are daily striving for holiness by living an authentic evangelical life. Like St. Thérèse of Lisieux, our vocation is to be love.

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