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Old wine into new wineskins: a year for consecrated life

By Rita Larivée, SSA


The church often uses words that require most of us to think for a moment before we understand their full meaning. This is certainly the case for “consecrated life.”

Last year Pope Francis surprised many of us when he designated 2015 as the year of consecrated life. For me, as a professed religious for almost 30 years, it was certainly nice to know that my chosen way of life was to be the focus of such attention. I must confess, however, that at the time it was not clear to me which direction this would take.

The reality is that the occupation of nun, sister, monk, brother or priest will not be found on any list of the most needed jobs for the years ahead. And, though I have had many wonderful conversations about my chosen life with family and friends, I am at a loss to recall a time when someone recommended this lifestyle for one of their children.

It is sad to say, but the church’s long tradition of those professing the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience seems to be at a loss when measured against many of the values promoted through media and societal life today. So why talk about it? Why spend an entire year giving attention to something that is not considered of great importance in day-to-day activities?

Our pope, who has developed a reputation for catching us off guard with his insightful understanding of things, told consecrated men and women last year to “wake up the world and to be witnesses of a different way of doing things, of acting, and of living.” We have a job to do. And that’s exactly what those in consecrated life have been doing since they first began back in the early centuries following the resurrection. But it took a pope to remind us.

Unfortunately, when we hear of men and women religious, most of us are reminded of the quickly diminishing numbers in this part of the world. So what exactly does the pope want us to do? And how do we wake up the world? An important issue that perhaps often gets overlooked is that, while much is being said about decreasing numbers, there is new life out there that is pretty much left unnoticed. Our pope sees it.

New communities of younger men and women are taking the wine made by their older brothers and sisters for the past 2,000 years and they are putting it into new wineskins. As the old adage goes: good wine ripens with age. The same can be said for the wisdom of the many founders and foundresses of religious orders, congregations and monasteries.

The older wineskins, however, in many ways, are no longer able to carry the wine for the road ahead.

We live in an age of great uncertainty where truths are no longer taken for granted and more and more people are becoming skeptical about any and all ideologies. And, while we live our lives in great connectivity, we are also lonelier than ever and in search of meaningful relationships. Even the earth’s resources, which many of our founders and foundresses never knew had limits, cannot sustain our level of consumption.

Using the wisdom of the older generations and the energy of the younger generations, the Spirit is creating something new. After many conversations with religious here and in other countries, it seems to me that three characteristics, in particular, are emerging.

(1) Contemplative prayer is becoming a form of great sustenance for an age that has become almost void of stillness, filled with constant availability. (2) Community living, once taken for granted, is again being stressed in direct response to the crisis of individualism that deceives us into thinking we can live joy-filled lives out of our own self-sufficient lifestyles. And (3) global consciousness, once unheard of, has awakened justice movements and planetary concerns worldwide.

Consecrated life today is in a period of great transition and much of what we know will come to an end. And, though it will take multiple generations for us to grasp the full meaning of what is happening today, we can be certain that something new is being born.

Pope Francis has it right when he says to men and women religious: Wake up the world! Commit yourself “entirely” to a way of life that rejects oppression, says no to violence, and chooses instead to affirm compassion and justice for all. A year of celebration is well worth our time for religious, for the church and for the world at large.

Larivée is president of the Canadian Religious Conference.