The Pope begins his beautiful message for the Year of Consecrated Life with his characteristic simplicity and humility, in stating that he sends his message not only by virtue of his office as Successor of Peter, but also “as a brother who, like yourselves, is consecrated to God.” It is a simple and short opening line, yet already contains the kernel of what he will expand at greater length as he first explains the aims and then the expectations for the year, and most especially where he lastly elucidates the horizons to which this year ought to reach: a strong emphasis on unity and communion amongst all those who are in Consecrated Life, amongst the entire Church in appreciation and support of it, between those Consecrated within the Catholic Church and those in the Orthodox and Reformed Churches, and even with those living a life fully given to God in the other great religions.
The aims of the Year of Consecrated Life are for those living such a life to look to their past with gratitude and re-discover their founding charism, so as to engage the present with passion, and surrender the future of their labors and their religious institutes to Christ who is our hope. The Holy Father then elaborates his expectations from this Year of Consecrated Life, following upon its given aims: 1) that Consecrated Persons “know and show” their life to be one that is truly happy and fulfilled; 2) that they be prophets, pointing to the reality of God, who is Life and Love Incarnate, by their lives and concrete works, offering a true alternative to the mirage of the various utopias that are presented by the world; 3) that the different religious communities will come together, mutually enriching one another and serving as a source of mutual help and apostolic synergy; 4) that Consecrated persons “ come out of yourselves and go forth to the existential peripheries”; and 5) that they consider seriously what God is asking of them, and what the world in its current state is asking of them.
It is difficult to point to any one section of the message and highlight it as the most relevant, or the most important, or even the most beautiful; however, certain excerpts definitely contend strongly for such recognition. Take, for instance, Francis’ simple yet rich summary of the origin of every charism and rule of life within the Church:
From the beginnings of monasticism to the “new communities” of our own time, every form of consecrated life has been born of the Spirit’s call to follow Jesus as the Gospel teaches (cf. Perfectae Caritatis, 2). For the various founders and foundresses, the Gospel was the absolute rule, whereas every other rule was meant merely to be an expression of the Gospel and a means of living the Gospel to the full. For them, the ideal was Christ; they sought to be interiorly united to him and thus to be able to say with Saint Paul: “For to me to live is Christ” (Phil 1:21). Their vows were intended as a concrete expression of this passionate love.
Later, the Holy Father mentions the incalculable contributions made to the Church by religious who forever are etched in her historical memory: Benedict, Basil, Francis, Dominic, Ignatius, all the way to our own Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. And though undoubtedly they each left a distinct spiritual legacy to the Church and their own religious families, nonetheless, what all have in common far surpasses that which distinguishes them: the Gospel as both their impetus and rule of life. And indeed, a merely summary review of this Year’s aims, expectations and horizons makes clear immediately that this is the essence, the kernel, of what Francis desires: that each and every Consecrated man and woman be a shining and living Gospel for all to see. As such, they will enrich their own orders:
In fraternal communion you [young religious] will be enriched by their [more mature religious’] experiences and wisdom, while at the same time inspiring them, by your own energy and enthusiasm, to recapture their original idealism. In this way the entire community can join in finding new ways of living the Gospel and responding more effectively to the need for witness and proclamation.
They will enrich their religious brethren from all charisms:
I also hope for a growth in communion between the members of different Institutes. Might this Year be an occasion for us to step out more courageously from the confines of our respective Institutes and to work together, at the local and global levels, on projects involving formation, evangelization, and social action? This would make for a more effective prophetic witness. Communion and the encounter between different charisms and vocations can open up a path of hope. No one contributes to the future in isolation, by his or her efforts alone, but by seeing himself or herself as part of a true communion which is constantly open to encounter, dialogue, attentive listening and mutual assistance. Such a communion inoculates us from the disease of self-absorption.
And they will enrich the Church as a whole:
“Consecrated life is a gift to the Church, it is born of the Church, it grows in the Church, and it is entirely directed to the Church”. For this reason, precisely as a gift to the Church, it is not an isolated or marginal reality, but deeply a part of her. It is at the heart of the Church, a decisive element of her mission, inasmuch as it expresses the deepest nature of the Christian vocation and the yearning of the Church as the Bride for union with her sole Spouse. Thus, “it belongs… absolutely to the life and holiness” of the Church (ibid., 44).”
As this year begins, with Pope Francis, we look forward in anticipation and gratitudeto the “the gifts of grace and light with which the Lord graciously wills to enrich us,” and we express our gratitude, esteem and appreciation for all who have generously given themselves to a Consecrated vocation.