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  CONGREGATION FOR INSTITUTES OF CONSECRATED LIFE AND
SOCIETIES OF APOSTOLIC LIFE

REFLECTION BY ARCHBISHOP FRANC ROD
ON OCCASION OF THE 40th ANNIVERSARY
OF "PERFECTAE CARITATIS"
 

Renewing Religious life, attaining "perfect love'

26-27 September 2005


On 28 October 1965 the Second Vatican Council published the Decree Perfectae Caritatis on the Up-to-Date Renewal of Religious Life. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of that event, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life organized a Symposium to review the journey made in these years by the consecrated life, guided by the Holy Spirit.

The Symposium aimed to recreate signs and guidelines that will help all consecrated persons to be, as the Holy Father has emphasized, "witnesses of God's transfiguring presence".

Its celebration took in the direction His Holiness Benedict XVI has chosen. He had barely been elected Pope when he paid tribute to the Second Vatican Council with the assurance that he strongly desired to continue in the commitment to implementing the Council, after the example of his Predecessors and in faithful continuity with the Church's 2,000-year-old tradition.

"This very year marks the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Council (8 December 1965)", the Holy Father said on the occasion of the Eucharistic celebration Pro Ecclesia on the morning of Wednesday, 20 April, in the presence of the College of Cardinals who had just elected him. "As the years have passed, the conciliar Documents have lost none of their timeliness; indeed, their teachings are proving particularly relevant to the new situation of the Church and the current globalized society" (Initial Message, 20 April 2005; L'Osservatore Romano English edition [ORE], 27 April, p. 3).

This relevance and importance should be rediscovered in the Decree Perfectae Caritatis. It did not develop as a doctrinal treatise on consecration through the evangelical counsels. Its doctrinal basis is found instead in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, especially chapter VI on "Religious".

The Decree's aim was to renew Religious life, to attain that "perfect love" of which Lumen Gentium speaks (n. 42).

This does not prevent the Decree from carrying out its proper, practical and disciplinary role with a great wealth of theological elements. Starting from and continuously referring to what is said in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, it also succeeds in clarifying some of the Constitution's content and becomes an important way to integrate it.

"With the Council", the Servant of God John Paul II pointed out in his Address to an International Conference studying the implementation of Vatican Council II, "the Church first had an experience of faith, as she abandoned herself to God without reserve as one who trusts and is certain of being loved. It is precisely this act of abandonment to God which stands out from an objective examination of the Acts. Anyone who wished to approach the Council without considering this interpretive key would be unable to penetrate its depths. Only from a faith perspective can we see the Council event as a gift whose still hidden wealth we must know how to mine" (Address, 27 February 2000, n. 2; ORE, 8 March, p. 4).

The Second Vatican Council was also, undoubtedly, a historical turning point in theological reflection on the consecrated life. No Ecumenical Council had ever spoken at such length and with such depth of this important charism in the Church.

This observation alone has a practical theological significance at least as important as all the other affirmations made by the Second Vatican Council on the consecrated life. Indeed, Vatican II was the first Council to have spoken in an eminently doctrinal perspective, outlining the identity of the consecrated life with reference to its place within the mystery of the Church as the People of God.

So it was that the conciliar output in this area gave rise to the rich reflection that led to the birth of the modern theology of the consecrated life.

First of all, the ecclesial spirit stands out; it is very intense and dominates the entire Decree.
At the beginning, it is expressly stated that the good of the Church is the raison d'être of the Document and the supreme rule for the consecrated life (cf. n. 1). It then becomes evident throughout the text that this insertion in the Church is intrinsic to the consecrated life for the purpose of removing tendencies or views within the Institutes that are excessively individualistic.

Perhaps the most obvious feature of the entire Decree, however, is the same strong Christological emphasis that marks chapter VI of Lumen Gentium; in it the Council presented a Christ-like image of consecrated life, declaring that the evangelical counsels "above all... have the power to conform the Christian man more fully to that kind of poor and virginal life which Christ the Lord chose for himself and which his Virgin Mother embraced also", urging consecrated persons to see to it that "the Church truly shows forth Christ through them with ever-increasing clarity to believers and unbelievers alike - Christ in contemplation on the mountain, or proclaiming the Kingdom of God to the multitudes, or healing the sick and maimed and converting sinners to a good life, or blessing children and doing good to all men, always in obedience to the will of the Father who sent him" (Lumen Gentium, n. 46).

The Decree echoes the words of the Constitution on the Church:  "Religious, therefore, faithful to their profession and leaving all things for Christ's sake (cf. Mk 10: 28), should follow him (cf. Mt 19: 21) as the one thing that is necessary (cf. Lk 10: 42), listening to his words (cf. Lk 10: 39), and should be solicitous for all that is his (cf. I Cor 7: 32) (cf. Perfectae Caritatis, n. 5).

"The members of each Institute, therefore, ought to seek God before all else, and solely; they should join contemplation, by which they cleave to God by mind and heart, to apostolic love, by which they endeavour to be associated with the work of redemption and to spread the Kingdom of God" (ibid.).

Thus, renewal of the consecrated life, as the Council described it, should be lived through a return to the sources that are represented primarily by Sacred Scripture, hence, by the very person of Christ, and subsequently by the authentic charism of founders.

The renewal of the Religious life, as we read in n. 2, "comprises both a constant return to the sources of the whole of the Christian life and to the primitive inspiration of the Institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time" (ibid., n. 2).

The first fundamental principle to obey, the Document continues, and the priority commitment of every consecrated person is the sequela Christi (following of Christ), as the Gospel teaches. This must be a constant aim of consecrated life:  the patrimony of individual Institutes, the spirit and finality with which the founders and foundresses then inspired the development of the Religious Families that they founded, as well as sound traditions.

This emerges in particular in the presentation of the three vows. Moreover, it is said of community life that it assures the Lord's presence in the community's midst.

Lastly, we can still see today a great spirit of openness in Perfectae Caritatis. In fact, the Decree is directed to serving every form and every reality of consecrated life in the Church, from contemplative life to active life, from monastic and conventual life to secular Institutes. The renewal process is viewed very broadly.

It suffices to think of the treatment of the three vows and of community life, that is, the actual elements that constitute consecrated life; even without sacrificing any value of tradition, an unexpected openness to the contemporary world can be perceived which expresses at the same time both an appreciable optimism and sincere trust in the consecrated persons whom it is addressing.

Thus, the conciliar Document on the Renewal of Religious Life heralded a season of profound changes; the consecrated life was impelled to seek new ways of living in community and new styles of apostolic service, radically changing its way of being and working in the Church and in the world.

The Symposium sponsored by our Congregation took place from 25 to 27 September in the Vatican's Synod Hall. Attending were consecrated men and women from all over the world.

They included:  Bishops whom the respective Bishops' Conferences have made responsible for the consecrated life, Presidents of the Conferences of Major Superiors across the world, representatives of the Superiors General of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, members of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, representatives of the other Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, experts in the consecrated life, and editors of the most important journals concerned with this particular charism in the Church.

Forty years after the end of the Council, the Symposium set out to evaluate this commitment to renewal that has contributed so much leaven to Religious life in these past decades, and to mark out the prospects of consecrated life at the beginning of the Third Christian Millennium.

After the invocation of the vivifying presence of the Holy Spirit, it was the task of Cardinal Georges Marie Martin Cottier, O.P., Theologian of the Pontifical Household, to define the fundamental theological statute of the Decree Perfectae Caritatis and to analyse the Document in light of the entire theological and pastoral reflection of the Second Vatican Council.

Then the "triptych" continued to unfold with the interpretation of Jesuit Fr Paolo Molinari, Professor emeritus of the Pontifical Gregorian University and a participant in the Council's work as an expert, who gave an account of the compiling of Perfectae Caritatis, which also helped to analyze it from the linguistic and conceptual viewpoints by tracing its drafting and terminological development.

Fr Aquilino Bocos, former Superior General of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, deepened the analysis by demonstrating the progress consecrated life has made from the Council to our day. He also provided the basic ideas of the Decree and offered a profile of the theology of consecrated life through the many other Documents which, based on Perfectae Caritatis, were written as a clear practical response to the challenges to the Church posed by the consecrated life.

On the second day of the Symposium, the essentially historical view of Fr Luigi Mezzadri, C.M., completed the reflection on the Decree. He opened a window on "Service and the Religious life in the modern epoch", thereby helping to situate the drafting process of the conciliar Document in the context of the historical evolution of consecrated life.

In light of this thorough reflection, certain themes of consecrated life were treated that are deemed particularly important to the Church today:  the new forms of consecrated life and monasticism and the service of authority. The current situation of consecrated life was also given attention in order to understand its achievements, challenges and prospects.

Bishop Velasio De Paolis, C.S., Secretary of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, addressed the sensitive theme, "New forms of consecrated life and monasticism", as outlined by the Code of Canon Law and the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata.

Mother Antonia Colombo, Superior General of the Institute of the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians, spoke on:  "The service of authority:  the motor and animator of conciliar renewal in building the Kingdom", noting that the two elements of authority and obedience must run parallel and grow harmoniously together.

Prof. Michelina Tenace, who teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian University and at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, completed the picture.

Important in the economy of the Congress were the many "communiqués" that had the demanding task of presenting today's consecrated life and its challenges for the future.

First of all, representatives of the three world unions took the floor. The first was Miss Dora Castenetto, former President of the World Conference of Secular Institutes, whose task was mainly  to  present  the  situation  of Secular Institutes today and their prospects.

The second was Fr Alvaro Rodríguez Echeverría, F.S.C., President of the Union of Superiors General, and then Sr Therezinha Joana Rasera, S.D.S., President of the International Union of Superiors General, who in turn presented the situation of the men's and women's religious Institutes.

Much of the second day was in fact dedicated to the communiqués of the representatives from extensive geographical areas, who looked at the present and future of consecrated life, together seeking to identify problems, solutions, possibilities, hopes and prospects.

The speakers were the following:  for Latin America, Bishop Paolo Mietto, C.S.I., Vicar Apostolic of Napo, President of the Commission for the Consecrated Life (DEVIC); for Africa, Fr John B. Kwofie, C.S.Sp., General Councillor of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit and Organizer of the Confederation of Conferences of Major Superiors of Africa; for Asia, Sr Julma Neo, F.d.C., General Councillor of the Daughters of Charity; for Oceania, Sr Judith Moore, S.M.S.M., Superior General of the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary; for Europe, Bishop Amédée Grab, O.S.B., of Chur, President of the Committee of European Episcopal Conferences; and for North America, Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley, O.F.M. Cap., of Boston.

The Symposium concluded with a solemn Eucharistic celebration in the Patriarchal Basilica of St Peter.

During the Holy Mass, the assembly gave thanks for the ever renewed vitality in the Church of consecrated life and prayed for the constant presence of the Spirit beside all who have chosen to live the following of Christ, poor, chaste and obedient, "for the life of the world".

 

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