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A Rainbow of Consecrated Life in the Church

 The following article was published in Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection in the year 2002. An edited copy is  being posted here :

VITR 66 (2002) 845·849
A Rainbow of Consecrated Life
in the Church

People often wonder about the difference between various forms of consecrated life in the Catholic Church. One commonly hears in
Eucharistic celebrations prayers being offered for the clergy, religious and the laity. Actually there are many different forms of consecrated life, and religious life is only one of them. A recourse to the Code of Canon Law (1983) will help us to be more accurate in our understanding:

Can. 207 §I. By divine institution, among Christ's faithful there are in the Church sacred ministers, who in law are also called clerics. The others are called lay people.

§2. Drawn from both groups are those of Christ's faithful who, professing the evangelical counsels through vows or other sacred bonds recognized and approved by the Church, are consecrated to God in their own special way and promote the salvific mission of the Church. Their state, although it does not belong to the hierarchical structure of the Church, does pertain to its life and holiness.

In the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation ¥'ita Consecrata (VC).the Holy Father John Paul II describes three categories of persons in the Church: the clergy, the consecrated persons and the laity (n. 4, n.60).

Under the broad umbrella of consecrated persons come various groups:
·          eastern and western monastics (VC n. 6)
·          the order of virgins (n, 7)
·          hermits (n.7)
·          widows (n.7)
·          institutes completely devoted to contemplation (n.8)
·          apostolic religious life (n.9)
·          secular institutes (n.lO)
·          societies of apostolic life (n.11).

In this rainbow there are both individual forms and communal forms of consecrated life. Some are strictly lived in the world, e.g., the secular institutes. Some strictly renounce the world, e.g., the contemplative monastics. Most others choose their involvement in the secular world in varying degrees and styles according to their charism, local circumstances, context and mission. Consecrated life is today in a period of adventurous evolution and change. Spiritually however all consecrated persons are set apart for God and dedicated to the spiritual growth of the Church. They are equally rich in grace and there are no gradations of consecration determined by different rites of consecration. (lnformationes, Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Rome, January 1999.)

A common area of confusion is between the Orders and Congregations. Let us study the distinguishing points with a certain sense . of history, for the distinction is partly obsolete. Since apostolic times the Church has had three different orders, of hermits, virgins and widows. These 'orders' do not signify 'religious orders' but groups of people, as today we speak of the 'order of presbyters', 'order of deacons', etc. Just as in the order of presbyters the priests may be diocesan or religious, so too in the order of hermits there could be men and women who were either diocesan or monastic /  religious. Similarly the order of virgins has had women who are consecrated and guided by the bishop and may live a diocese-based or secular life in the world, and women living in religious life in monasteries that have the tradition to receive the rite.

Formerly those belonging to Religious Orders took 'solemn' vows. Juridically it is these who were called nuns in the true sense of the word. Their vows were solemn and strict . Dispensation from such solemn vows was very difficult and is only given by the Pope. Since some decades, the distinction between solemn and simple perpetual vows in a religious order or congregation has no juridical effect, and is a matter of the internal tradition of the institute.

Canonically the basic distinction is between public vows if accepted by a legitimate Superior in the name of the Church, and private vows, if not. Institutes completely devoted to contemplation (VC n.8) or of apostolic religious life (n.9) are now professed by public perpetual 'simple vows': for serious reasons presented by the highest authority in the Institute they can be dispensed by the Holy See if the Institute is of Pontifical right; if not, the local bishop can grant the dispensation. The women belonging to congregations or institutes of simple vows are technically called sisters, although popularly they also are called nuns because few people are aware of the distinction which in fact has little practical effects.

In the Consecration of Virgins (or nuns), which is a 'constitutive sacramental', what is specific is the charismatic element in the 'Prayer
of Consecration' which the bishop recites while laying his hands over her after she offers herself, and by which she is mystically espoused to Christ. In the Profession of Religious, what is specific is the ascetic element or the act of self-giving by the 'sister through the explicit 'Profession of vows' which establishes her in the consecrated state of life. Although a 'Prayer of consecration or blessing' (different from the 'Prayer of Consecration of Virgins') is a part of the Rite of Religious Profession, it can be done by a priest because it is not strictly under the Bishop's authority. The vows are made in the hands of the Religious Superior.

Every type of consecrated life has its own identity or charism
and purpose:

1. Monks and Nuns strive to create a harmonious balance between
the interior life and work in the evangelical commitment to
conversion of life, obedience and stability. Monasteries are
eloquent signs of communion, welcoming abodes for those
seeking God and schools of faith and true places of study,
dialogue and culture.

2. Men and women hermits belonging to ancient Orders or new
Institutes, or being directly dependent" on the Bishop, 
bear witness to the passing nature of the present age by their inward
and outward separation from the world, living" in the desert"
(VC n.7):

3. Consecrated virgins either alone or in association with others,
constitute a special eschatological image of the Heavenly Bride
and the life to come, when the Church will at last fully live her
love for Christ the Bridegroom (VC rt.7). Diocesan consecrated
virgins around the world live either alone, or with their families
or several virgins live together in households without the rigid
structure of the convents and the way they live is decided in
consultation with the bishop.

4. Consecrated widows and widowers through a vow of perpetual
chastity as a sign of the Kingdom of God, consecrate their state
of life in order to devote themselves to prayer and the service
of the Church (VC n.7).

5. Members of Institutes completely devoted to contemplation
imitate Christ in his prayer on the mountain (VC n.8).

6. Sisters or Brothers belonging to religious Institutes and
Congregations consecrate themselves to God and live according
to a specific charism and common life for the sake of carrying
out different forms of apostolic service to the People of God
(VC n.9).

7. Members of Secular Institutes profess the evangelical counsels
in the midst of temporal realities and strive to transfigure the
world from within, acting like a leaven within the cultural,
economic and political life (VC n.IO).

8. Persons in Societies of Apostolic Life or of Common Life pursue
a specific apostolic or missionary end and may or may not profess
the evangelical counsels.

Each form in this rainbow has its own beauty and is neither superior nor inferior in relation to the others because each expresses a specific vocation. Many new or renewed forms of consecrated life have also risen . recently which are being experimented upon and encouraged by the Church. Priests and bishops can also live a consecrated life as described above in the rainbow of possibilities. Besides we must not forget those who in their innermost hearts have consecrated themselves to God without a public expression of their consecration.

Consecrated life in the early Church began as a specific radical way of living the calI given of every baptized Christian to follow Christ
according to the spirit of the beatitudes, even to the extent of  martyrdom . .During later centuries there emerged the practice of professing this  'following of Christ' through the vows of obedience, chastity and poverty (also called the evangelical counsels); and at times other vows were added. This however led to a loss of the value of the basic equality of all baptized persons which is fundamental in the Church.

In India the clergy and consecrated persons need to be innovative in meeting the challenges of inculturation, which is a delicate and difficult task. Inculturation hardly has much to do with changes in dress, fluency in local languages, external adaptations in the liturgy, prayer-dances, etc.

What it really means is to learn the language of the heart and the way of life of the local people which is - silence, prayer, contemplation,hospitality, listening, simplicity, thirsting for truth, respect for elders, etc.

An authentically inculturated gospel message (or living of the evangelical counsels) will surely touch the hearts of our neighbours and even those who are deaf and dumb and blind will meet Christ in a truly inculturated Church.

This does not mean merely adopting certain ways of life but also giving up those values,  which perhaps only do dis-service and are a counter-witness to the gospel message. The wide gap between the consecrated persons living a secure life with huge houses, cars, etc., while so many live hungry, sick and shelterless poor on the foot-paths outside their own gates, must make the world wonder who has taken the vow of poverty! Who has been consecrated (set apart) for God to look after them - for whom does God alone suffice?

We believe that India is our motherland and we are not foreigners in this country. In the context of globalisation, we cannot depend on inculturation in externals. ' , Externally there is emerging a global culture: but the heart and soul of various traditions and cultures will more or less remain the same. Both eastern and western cultures need to be purified by the gospel message. Every parish can be a modern ashram, a community where there is communion and dialogue between people of different walks of life --"where Christians are one in heart and mind, with Christ as our Guru, in our midst, in the Eucharist, in the divine Word, in the presence of our priests, consecrated persons, the poor, the suffering, the marginalized.

The "rainbow of consecrated life" can be a sacrament of salvation to the whole world. In today's context, what is perhap most needed is a revival of the charismatic element in consecrated life which was so strong in the various forms of it that existed during the apostolic times and the ancient Church.

Will a day come when people will say, "These people are sanctified and holy. They have renounced the worldly values and live in God and for God and serve the world. They have no worldly riches but are rich in the spiritual life - which is the secret behind their service. They are not attached to what is passing because they are pilgrims on their journey towards the homeland of the Kingdom of Heaven"?

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