Religious Have Treasure to Reclaim

Sister Sara Butler on Vocations and the Church

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NORTH EASTON, Massachusetts, OCT. 14, 2008 ( Here is an excerpt from the address Sister Sara Butler, a member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity and a professor of dogmatic theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York, gave at the Stonehill College symposium on «Apostolic Religious Life Since Vatican II … Reclaiming the Treasure: Bishops, Theologians, and Religious in Conversation.»

The Diocese of Fall River hosted the Sept. 27 event.

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Religious life belongs unquestionably to the life and holiness of the Church, although it is a «charismatic» rather than a «structural» element; one could even say it is an essential expression of that holiness. It is a gift by which God the Father through the Holy Spirit animates and refreshes the Church with an outpouring of grace that calls forth communities distinguished by their courageous faith, steadfast hope, and passionate love for Jesus Christ and the world he came to save. Consecrated religious have a place in the heart of the Church because, by leaving all to follow Christ, they announce with their whole lives that God has made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they rest in him.

We who accept the vocation to religious life make profession of the poverty, chastity, and obedience of Jesus Christ «freely, willingly, and purely for the love of God.» In fact, our freedom must be assured; our vows are invalid if we have been subject to any alien pressure. We ask to be admitted to public vows in response to a deep personal experience of being loved and chosen, and in the light of a strong attraction to the charism of a particular institute. This impulse to «sell everything» to buy the field in which we have found the «treasure» (Matthew 13:44) is from the Holy Spirit. If our request is accepted, we commit ourselves to observe the evangelical counsels, to live in community, and to carry out a particular mission in the name of the Church — according to the charism and constitution of our institute. Because our witness arises from a free personal gift of self, lived according to a way of holiness approved by the Church, it possesses moral authority — the kind of authority, in fact, that is indispensable for transmitting the faith and accomplishing the Church’s mission.

We are here to reflect on our vocation. Most of us are aware that all is not well, that something has been lost and must be reclaimed. What is this «treasure» that needs to be reclaimed? The problem is not only that so few are joining our ranks. It is that the current polarization and division in the Church at large is found among us as well. It exists in the uneasy and even fractured relationships among our apostolic institutes, within many of our institutes, and — for many — in the relationships of religious with the diocesan clergy, the bishops, and the Holy See. The reality of this polarization is more than regrettable; it is a cause of scandal, a counter-sign. Our way of life was born from the ardent desire to reproduce the apostolic ideal in which «the company of those who believed was of one heart and one soul,…had everything in common, [and] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers» (Acts 4:35; 2:42).

New communities of apostolic men and women religious seem able to offer this witness. They are attracting vocations, and for this we can all rejoice. Some traditional institutes that made few changes or made them very gradually, and some of the younger institutes that had fewer changes to make, are likewise still welcoming new members. But many communities that were flourishing before the Council are now floundering and dying, despite the evident good will and generosity of most individual religious. We experience a decline in numbers and a rise in median age but also a malaise, an uncertainty about the future. Many are stymied by indecision. They may soldier on, hoping and praying for new members, but they are unable, or perhaps simply afraid to evaluate how their own choices and attitudes affect their situation. Some long to «reclaim the treasure,» but meet with inertia or resistance from other members of their institutes and cannot get enough traction to initiate a change of direction. Others are convinced that apostolic religious life as we have known it not only will die, but that it deserves to die. They anticipate a future on the margins of the «institutional Church.» Some are «sojourners,» already so far out on the «margins» that they expect to leave Jesus Christ and his Church behind for the sake of a new, universal spirituality.

Are apostolic women and men religious doomed to remain divided into factions — liberals and conservatives, women and men, ordained and non-ordained, Leadership Conference of Women Religious and Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious? Is this the best we can do? Is this pleasing to God?

I will focus on the theological dimensions of the present dilemma.


Naming the «Treasure»

What is the «treasure»? In the first place, the treasure is our covenant relationship with Jesus Christ who has chosen us and whom we have chosen in return; no one can take this treasure from us. In the great winnowing of the past 40 years, each of us has found some way to live our consecration in intimate communion with him — whatever distress we might experience in trying to live it out in our religious institutes or in the Church. We would not be here today if we had not. With St. Paul, we know that we bear this treasure — «the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ» — in earthen vessels «to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us» (2 Corinthians 4:6-7).

But we cannot have Christ without the Church! We cannot claim to belong entirely to Christ and at the same time repudiate the covenant community which he established, which he loves, for which he sacrificed his life (Ephesians 5:25). Pope Paul VI said as much in the Apostolic Letter «Evangelii nuntiandi,» in response to certain anti-hierarchical strains in liberation theology. He refers with sorrow to well-intentioned but misguided Catholics who claim «to love Christ but without the Church, to listen to Christ but not the Church, to belong to Christ but outside the Church.» This dichotomy is absurd, he says, as anyone knows who recalls the Lord’s saying, «Anyone who rejects you rejects me» (Luke 10:16)

In response to the dichotomy often proposed today, I would add: Nor can we claim to love «the People of God» and at the same time reject the «institutional church,» those consecrated and sent by Christ to teach, sanctify, and govern that people. This dichotomy, too, depends on a distortion of Catholic doctrine and the application of a norm extrinsic to our faith, a secular conception of «equal rights» that has no inkling of the desire for self-sacrifice that love alone inspires. The Church cannot be reduced to a sociological entity and then reinvented according to our intuition about what best expresses «equality.» The Church is a gift from God in Christ, an internally-differentiated priestly community. It cannot be our «prophetic» vocation as apostolic religious to repudiate the ministerial priesthood and the hierarchical structure of the Church! This does not mean there is no place for «fraternal correction,» for we may indeed call one another to a more faithful living out of the Gospel. We may lament the failures of our brothers in the hierarchy, who like us are «earthen vessels,» but we cannot reject the Church as a hierarchically-structured community that mediates Christ’s salvation. We must expect the Church’s pastors, in turn, to call us to fulfill our vocation — our public, ecclesial vocation, in fact, the «prophetic» vocation entrusted to us by our founders.

The Fifth Challenge: Spiritual Renewal according to the Founding Charism

There was one more challenge the Council put to apostolic religious, namely, the challenge to spiritual
renewal according to the Gospel, the legacy or charism of the founder(s), and the authentic traditions of each institute. We may have taken this up years ago, but perhaps the only way to reclaim the treasure now is to return to that task with fresh vigor and determination. If we want to regain the moral authority once enjoyed by apostolic religious, if we long for that «full participation» in the Church’s life which is identical with holiness, the perfection of charity, let us «start afresh from Christ» and from the charism of our founders, free of «politically correct» considerations. Why did our founders request canonical status? What is the ideal that attracted us to this institute? How faithfully are we expressing it? What is it our institute continues to offer the Church today?

Let us study, along with our founding stories and documents, the many exhortations addressed to apostolic religious by the Holy See — from Perfectae caritatis to the most recent instruction on Authority and Obedience. Let us really study them, and use them for individual and communal self-examination. Are we still willing? Do we still desire to profess the poverty, chastity, and obedience of Jesus Christ «freely, willingly, and purely for the love of God»? Shall we help each other to do this?

The «treasure» many of us would like to reclaim, perhaps, is the possibility of living the religious life fully, in peace, according to the charism of our communities, in communion with the hierarchy and collaboration with the laity, that is, according to the ecclesiology of communion, «one in heart and soul» with the Church. Beyond that, the «treasure» might be the confidence that our consecration makes a difference; that we belong to Christ and to his Church in and through the mediation of our religious institute, and that our charism and mission are valued by others in the Church — laity and hierarchy — as a gift of the Holy Spirit. We would like to get beyond the stress of being suspicious and being under suspicion, and enter into a realm where we are recognized as a resource, where we are needed and wanted, where we can make a corporate impact through ministerial service that is coordinated with or supplements diocesan plans.

Those of us who choose to remain, and who embrace the obligation to live the religious life as the Holy See defines it, long for the rebirth of relationships in which our place in the Church is clear and unambiguous, and in which we can ask of one another the witness of holiness according to the nature, purpose, and spirit of our institutes. We desire to develop apostolic initiatives that will allow us to live and work together so that our efforts will build up the Church, give striking witness to her mission, and attract vocations so that our charism will continue to be a gift to the Church. Let us keep our eyes on the «treasure.» Let us renew our willingness to «sell everything» to possess it.

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On the Net:

Sister Butler’s full address:

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