Is Religious Life Relevant today ?

Rethinking this way to Christian perfection will strengthen the Church

Posted on July 19, 2012, 6:53 PM


By Ivan Fernandes
Kolkata:I was genuinely amused after reading an article about the Conference of Religious India’s recent convention to prepare young religious for future challenges.

They came up with great strategies on leadership, partnership and effectiveness in modern day society.

All in itself commendable!

What amused me more was their failure to answer questions that are of particular interest to many like me who either were once Religious or people who quite can’t understand the need for this vocation today.

I am of course not talking about the priesthood or those who choose to live a contemplative way of life. Theirs is a unique function in the Church.

It is said that Saint Ignatius of Loyola from his balcony at the Jesuit house in Rome would often gaze up at the stars lost in reflection and moved to tears.

It has always been my guess that besides staring with wonderment at God’s creation, this great spiritual master must have constantly been asking himself questions that most people ask at some point in their lives — Who am I? What am I doing? Why am I here? Where am I going?

Similarly, it would be good to know if the Religious in India and elsewhere are asking such questions. Are Religious and their congregations, as we know them today, relevant? Or have both outlived their purpose?

This I think is important because answering such questions will go a long way in strengthening the Church, the people of God.

Of course Religious men and women — young and old — are doing great work. That is no doubt about that. But so are social workers, lawyers, teachers, doctors, engineers, bureaucrats.

It would be arrogant to say or think that others cannot pray or manage institutions with the same dedication, fervor, expertise and sense of mission to the gospel values as Religious do.

That may have been the case in the past, but it is not true for today when we see so much progress, development and social change.

Aren’t we all called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and look after the sick? Are we all not also consecrated in baptism for this purpose?

Religious take the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Poverty means living a simple life, not owning personal property and contributing to a life in common with the community. Chastity means not only forsaking marriage but also all unchaste desires. Obedience is bending one’s will in a discerning way to a rightful authority so as to bring about the good of all in the community.

Historically, part of why Religious take such vows is to become a “countersign” to the ways of the world. Poverty: the slavery to things. Chastity: inordinate relations. Obedience: selfish desires.

Are not all Catholics also called to be chaste within and outside marriage, live a simple life, care for their family and community and bring about common good by following laws and rightful superiors?

All in all, the vows are meant to help one’s journey toward Christian perfection. Are not all Christians called to perfection just as our heavenly Father is perfect?

What is it that Religious do that others can’t do? If they have a special insight they should let us know. We too want to be holy and yearn for a closer union with God in our quest for perfection.

Why should Religious have a monopoly to this way of perfection? If they are so convinced, can’t they open their congregations and share their way of life with the rest of us? Why should they be a section set apart?

In the Catholic tradition, Religious life is based not on separation but in establishing a greater union with God. The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church points out that holiness is not just in doing work but also in how we live our daily lives.

Moreover, “from the point of view of the divine and hierarchical structure of the Church, the Religious state of life is not an intermediate state between the clerical and lay states (and) is not the hierarchical structure of the Church,” the Constitution says.

This means that Religious and their congregations operate within the Church but are not part of the Church’s hierarchy and hence not at par with the divinely founded apostolic ministry.

As a Religious for 14 years I had often struggled to understand the dynamics of this vocation. There are some prophetic Religious who read the signs of today’s changed times and want to radically restructure their way of life but feel constrained and fettered by the Church’s “sacred hierarchy.”

Three popes since the Second Vatican Council have either in an apostolic exhortation or address to major superiors and congregations reigned in such thinking, forcing a status quo.

But as a former Religious I feel free to ask if the time has not come to rethink on today’s Religious model.

Changes undoubtedly have taken place since Vatican II. Venturing into non-traditional ministries, not using the habit and a less strict community-centric life are some examples. But all that was before my time and part of history.

Given the changes in modern life shouldn’t the Religious ask themselves if they are relevant or if it is time to move on?

By their doing so, we will learn a valuable and enriching lesson in fine-tuning our Catholic faith and fostering a more intense relation with God.

Young Religious , Religious Life , Ivan Fernandes
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1 Comment

  1. July 21, 2012 at 9:17 am



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