On World Day for Consecrated Life (Feb. 2, 2019)
Historically, religious orders developed in the Church, first because of some particular need that was not able to be met in the Church at the time and, second, because the vision and charism of some particular individuals were able to inspire others to come together and determine how to meet that need. And, so, religious orders, communities, congregations and societies were born!
Some of these groups of women and men gathered in monasteries where they lived a life of prayer and worked apart from the world, while others pursued an active life of service in the midst of the world and its needs. Still others have lived their vocation as consecrated virgins, widows or hermits.
The Church approved and fostered their existence and the “rule of life” that governed how they would live and what they hoped to accomplish within and through the Church. Members took special vows or “evangelical counsels” of poverty, chastity and obedience – and some others made additional vows – to help them fulfill their mission and purpose. The Church’s canon law made further distinctions among them to guide and govern their religious life and ministry, eager to help them preserve and foster their unique charisms and contributions to the work of the Church.
Some of these orders have been in existence for centuries while others are relatively new in foundation. Regardless of the historical, charismatic or canonical differences that exist among them, it is hard to imagine the history of the Church without them!
Each year since 1997, the Church dedicates February 2, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, to “consecrated (religious) life.” That date was chosen by Pope St. John Paul II because, just as Christ is the “Light of the World,” religious women and men are called to reflect this light in a variety of ways and works. While the historical circumstances and apostolic ministries that occasioned their original establishment may have changed and developed over the centuries, “religious life” is an essential part of life in the Catholic Church.
In the Diocese of Trenton, more than 2,600 religious women and men from 28 different religious orders have served here since its establishment in 1881. Even if the universal Catholic Church did not celebrate World Day for Consecrated Life, it would be most fitting for us to do so here. From the earliest days of our Diocese’s existence, religious sisters, brothers and priests established and taught in our Catholic schools, founded and ministered in our Catholic hospitals and nursing homes, worked and served in our Catholic parishes and other organizations created to meet the needs of the poor. They have been part of the life-blood of the Church in Central New Jersey. We owe them our most profound gratitude, prayer and support.
Speaking to an assembly of religious superiors of women on May 8, 2013, Pope Francis remarked that:
Your vocation is an essential charism for the journey of the Church, and it is not possible that a consecrated woman and a consecrated man not “feel” along with the Church. … What would the Church be without you? She would lack maternity, affection, tenderness! A mother’s intuition. … Be joyful, because it is beautiful to follow Jesus.
In a similar, later conversation with religious superiors of men on Nov. 24, 2013, our Holy Father stated:
Religious life ought to promote growth in the Church by way of attraction. The Church must be attractive. Wake up the world! Be witnesses of a different way of doing things, of acting, of living! It is possible to live differently in this world. … Religious follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way. It is this witness that I expect of you. Religious should be men and women who are able to wake the world up … You should be real witnesses of a world of doing and acting differently. … What I expect of you therefore is to give witness. I want this special witness from religious.
As a Jesuit, Pope Francis addressed religious life from his own experience. My own religious background as a Vincentian prompted me to write once that consecrated women and men have helped our own Diocese:
… to build a Catholic Church that reached out far and wide to embrace those who needed a little more charity, a little more care, a little more instruction, a little more witness to our Catholic faith than might otherwise be available. These incredible sisters and brothers have given their lives to God’s people, asking nothing in return. … The effects of what they have done for all of us in the Catholic Church – as well as for countless others who are not part of our community of faith but served nevertheless – speak for themselves in generations of well-educated, lovingly nursed, selflessly supported and deeply faithful people.
And, so, we in the Diocese of Trenton rightfully celebrate World Day for Consecrated Life with the Catholic Church everywhere. Let’s thank religious women and men and all those in consecrated life with our prayer and support.
And, if Christ is calling you who are reading this message, follow their example by following Him.
Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton