“Is the consecrated life still valid?” asked Mother Agnes Mary at the midday meal. Seventeen other Sisters of Life were seated around her at the U-shaped table in our convent refectory.
“Crisis magazine has asked the question. How would you respond?” she continued. The faces of the six professed sisters, nine novices, and three postulants grew animated as they articulated reasons why “consecrated life is still valid today”; why each is trying to live thoroughly counter-culturally as a poor, chaste, obedient servant of God.
Some had made the decision three years ago when the Sisters of Life was first founded by John Cardinal O’Connor; others had joined the community as recently as a few months ago; and yet each is risking the attempt to consecrate all her prayers and works in defending the sanctity of human life in a special way through a common religious life.
Answering the question of the validity of religious life is easy. To it we give a resounding, “YES”! We do so with confidence in the nearly 1,700-year Catholic tradition of communally-lived religious life and our own personal experience of God’s call to follow Him more perfectly. One does not nominate oneself for a life of consecration. Rather we recognize that we have been called by God to consecrate our lives to Him. As Mother Teresa is fond of saying, “The woman called to religious life—She knows! She knows!” And we know. There has been no mistaking the call. The current climate in our secular, pagan culture inhibits greatly the recognition of such a call to love. But in each case, God persisted despite our reluctance and disbelief. Time proved both the validity of the call and the eternal patience of our God.
As sisters we now give the totality of our lives in service to a God Whom we know and love and serve with all our hearts and minds. We are not romanticists longing for a bygone era; rather, we consider ourselves blessed by God and privileged to be called to religious life. And we are certain that to live the life authentically much will be demanded of us daily, for a lifetime. Such is the price of love.
Perhaps the question posed at root by our culture is not so much, “Is consecrated life still valid?”, but even more radically, “Is love still valid?” Our culture talks easily and freely about love, but shies away from sacrificial expressions of love.
Christ has given to the Church (and through His Church, to the world) His example of sacrificial love. Our culture puzzles over—or is openly hostile to—Jesus, the Son of Mary and the Son of God, whom we take as our model for consecration. Jesus lived His love for us by emptying Himself to take the form of one of us (Philippians 2:6-7), so much did His love want to identify itself with us. He taught that love involves making oneself dependent, making oneself vulnerable. This scares most people in a culture so bent on self-autonomy that it seeks security in amassing material things, seeking to fill rather than to empty. Each and every Christian is called to the self-emptying love of the Cross. The consecrated person follows Christ through the public profession of vows—in this case, the vow of poverty, of renouncing the natural right to possessions.
The other two vows also express Christ’s sacrificial love in a way pronouncedly different from worldly expectations. It is important to note that each of the three areas of the vows (possessions, affections, personal autonomy) is a good in and of itself, and men and women religious would be foolish not to embrace these fulfillments of natural human needs if not motivated by divine love.
Our culture has so identified self-will with “freedom” that its greatest ridicule and misunderstanding is aroused by Jesus’ example of total submission to the will of His Father: “not my will, but Thine be done.” A disbelieving age challenges: Does an intelligent woman with a wealth of experiences really believe in this day and age that she needs to practice obedience? How can obedience possibly be a virtue? But love reframes the questions: Does not a person in love seek the preferences of the Beloved? May not charity be more fully expressed when one subsumes one’s own inclinations and gives over one’s will, rather than engaging in battles over daily matters at hand?
Jesus teaches Christians to love His Father above all else. The world wonders: Can God’s love fill the void within us, the need for deeply and intimately knowing and being known by the other? Christians affirm that God is the source of all our fulfillment. Our culture needs to dust off its copies of Saint Augustine’s Confessions and the writings of the saints to settle its doubts about the uniqueness and marvelousness of God’s love. It also needs the witness of living examples of men and women who are “head-over-heels-in-love” with God. True love involves an element of choice and exclusivity, an element of saying, “I choose this person over that person,” and religious are choosing the person of Christ over all else.
Interestingly, the traditional formula for expressing the vows put poverty first, followed by chastity and obedience. Beginning with the Vatican II documents, the Church has switched the emphasis and most often gives chastity primacy of place in order to show forth the relational, Christo-centric nature of consecrated life. The Church describes consecration as “pure gift. It is a covenant of mutual love and fidelity, of communion and mission, established for God’s glory, the joy of the person consecrated and the salvation of the world.”
How does one enter into “a covenant of mutual love and fidelity” with God? On one side of the covenant is God, who is perfect; on the other side are weak, fallible human beings. How do we sisters, even as confident, joy-filled women, presume to enter into a covenant of mutual love and fidelity with God Himself?
Our present Holy Father answers this question simply and beautifully by writing of “that redeeming love of His… directed towards a particular person”; of how Christ’s love takes on a “spousal character,” a “love of choice” which “embraces the whole person, soul and body, whether man or woman.” It is because Christ has chosen us and has loved us first that we respond to His love. This is the story throughout all of salvation history: God choosing Abraham, and Moses, and David; Christ calling each of His twelve disciples individually and by name.
In the midst of our troubled, confusing times, the world (even without knowing it) longs for the peace and joy of Christ’s sacrificial love. It scarcely dares to believe that God is still waiting on us. But where there is faith in the name of Jesus, there also will be God’s gift to His people of consecrated religious. Our God awaits whole-hearted responses to His tender call.