Saturday, October 17, 2015

Consecrated Life


           It is “Firstly, the total donation of your life as the response to a personal and vital encounter with the love of God. You have discovered God is everything for you; you have decided to give everything to God.”[1] Or Sandra Schneiders, speaking of Religious Life, but equally applicable to all forms of Consecrated Life, puts it this way:
For some people their experience of the universal Christian vocation to the love of Christ has the unusual character of seeming to call them to an exclusivity in that relationship which makes other primary life commitments (e.g., to spouse or family or life work) not viable for them. The call to consecrated celibacy, that is, to giving themselves to Jesus in an exclusive and permanent union that expresses itself in nonmarriage to anyone else is at the heart of Religious Life.[2]
If one truly understands this fundamental ground of Consecrated Life, one will never ask “why such consecrated people can’t be married”. Non-marriage is not an imposed rule but rather a primary response of love that is determinative of this vocation.

This underpinning irresistible drawing to Christ and all that Christ loves is the ground of consecrated celibacy and distinguishes it from that celibacy that may be taken up as mandated by some authority, an imposed condition or undertaken for motives other than “religious motivation”.[3]  It is not simply part of the package of consecrated life. It is an invitation to a way of loving that is other than, different to, the way of loving to which the majority of baptized Christians are called to embrace. It is not a better, higher, nor more perfect way. It is expressed in non-marriage for the overarching alterity experienced is a total inclusivity of all that God loves, and it is thereby determinative of the entire configuration of one’s life. To be attracted to love in this way is real, possible and still experienced. It is a path to full maturity in Christ for those so called, exemplified first and foremost by Mary, “the sublime example of perfect consecration.”[4]

The call to a total gift of oneself, a gift accepted and responded to in the formal liturgical act of “profession”, a call and total gift of one self as a response of and in love to the person of Christ and “for the sake of the Kingdom”, the attraction of which can only be expressed and lived in the configuration of one’s life to a celibate life for the sake of the Kingdom in communion with others likewise called, such a call is not that of all the baptized.  The formal liturgical act of professing such a call and acceptance, together with the Church’s blessing and invoking of the Holy Spirit,[5] is deemed a “further consecration”, for the call and response in this vocation are gifts of the Holy Spirit. A shift in language from “profession of vows” to “consecration” acknowledges that the vocation of “a total gift of oneself” that configures one’s decisions and life choices differently to the majority, is not much the choice and action of the person, but rather the call and gift of the Holy Spirit.

But let us not confuse a “total gift of oneself” with a whole-hearted response, for it does not necessarily imply that the consecrated person will be more “whole hearted” nor more committed to Christ. For if we are to acknowledge the universal call to holiness of all the baptized and that every vocation is a path to perfect love in Christ, then married and single people are called to give no less of their life to God. They also make a “total gift of their life to God” through their particular vocation. So what is intended by this phrasing in relation to consecrated life is that the “total gift of oneself to God” engages the “totality of one’s being” through the embracing of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. And so, like any vocation there may be moments when one is less than whole-hearted in how they are living their Christian baptism, but every aspect of one’s being is engaged in one’s response, even if sometimes in moments of human weakness it is found lacking a degree of whole-heartedness.

As a response to a vital all-consuming encounter with the love of God in Christ, consecrated life as a response of love is therefore at its core relational. It is about who one is and how one is called to grow in love. It is a way of loving through which one grows to full maturity in Christ, can be seen as an affirmative rather than a renunciative reality. Choice by its very nature is both affirmative and renunciative. Where one good is chosen rather than another the norm is to speak in terms of that which is chosen, that which is affirmed, rather than that which is not selected. Marriage is not spoken of in terms of renunciation of those one chooses not to marry. Rather, marriage is portrayed affirmatively as commitment in love to one person. Likewise, celibacy for the sake of the kingdom is not so much a renunciation of marriage and family but rather a positive acceptance of an invitation to a particular way of growing in love, a commitment to Christ “in an exclusive and permanent union”, just as marriage is a commitment to one’s spouse “in an exclusive and permanent union”.  Just as monogamy symbolizes faithful commitment to one’s spouse, so religiously motivated non-marriage is a symbol of one’s total self-gift to God in response to an invitation of Love to grow in love in this particular way. As in all relationships of love, one grows to love all that the other loves. Thus the Consecrated person is called to embrace all humanity and creation with the love of Christ.

In such giving of their heart and entire being to God, the Consecrated person signifies with their life the ultimate call to union of all humanity with God and the union of Christ with his followers who believe in Him. This personal vocation is not unique to such consecrated people, for it is the vocation of all the baptized, but it is that aspect of our common consecration that comes to the foreground in Consecrated life. For Balthasar, such celibacy was not just a eschatological sign but the eschatological sign, for while the Old Covenant valued sexuality as a sign of theological hope for the Messiah, the New Covenant “transvalues” this.[6] It is an invitation into Trinitarian union for it is a call to enter that union that exists within God, allowing the future fullness of that union to enter into the present, to live in the present the eschatological reality to which all humanity is invited. It is also an invitation to live now humanity’s response of a return of that fullness of love first given by God.

Consecrated life finds expression through service or ministry be that a personal, collaborative or institutional work/service or an evangelising dialogue and proclamation of the Gospel in other activities or professional engagement. Those called to Consecrated life, are not necessarily called to “community”, for example, hermits and consecrated virgins. Even community has many configurations and lived reality ranging from monastic communities sharing a common residence and order of the day, to secular institutes whose members reside alone but gather for periodic meetings and are bound together by their common calling, by that which grounds and gives meaning to their life. There are many and varied forms in which Consecrated life may be expressed and lived.

[1] Benedict XVI “Secularity speaks to Consecration” addressed to Ms Ewa Kusz, president of the Executive Council, sent through the Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Cardinale Bertone 18 July 2012. Accessed 18 October 2015.
[2] Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M., Religious Life in a New Millenium. Volume Two. Selling All (New Yor/Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2001), 10.
[3] Schneiders, Religious Life in a New Millenium. Volume Two. Selling All, 117.
[4] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation. Vita Consecrata 28.
[5] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation. Vita Consecrata 19, 30.
[6] Balthasar, Hans Urs von, Explorations in Theology IV: Spirit and Institution translated by Edward T. Oakes, S.J. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 392. Original Pneuma und Theologie IV (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1974).

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