The various forms of consecrated life fulfill many roles in the Catholic Church, one of which is to serve as a weather vane. When new religious orders blossom in the church it is invariably in response to needs which are not being met.
New religious orders, by their very existence, often point to weaknesses in the church or society. Because of that, if we want to improve the life of the church, it is important to pay close attention to how these new orders perceive their mission.
Why is this so? Consecrated life is, in fact, a way of living out one's baptismal commitment with great fervor, making one's life "dedicated totally to God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 916). Of course, all the baptized should be totally dedicated to God. What is unique about those in consecrated life is that they express their dedication through vowed lives of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Religious life finds its origin in the desert fathers who began to leave society as early as the third century to live in the desert as a sign of contradiction. These were men disturbed by the ease with which Christian life could be lived following the end of the Roman persecutions and the establishment of Christianity as the state religion. They saw the Christian faith as a call, not to respectability, but to renunciation. The first monks sought to live the Gospel in a radical way.
So it has always been. St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century drew followers who were upset by the worldliness and wealth of the church. In the same era, St. Dominic founded an order of preachers, men who knew the faith and who could defend it from opposition. Both addressed various aspects of a church strong in worldly terms, but spiritually emaciated.
In the 16th century, St. Angela Merici founded an order to teach young girls with the goal of re-Christianizing family life through solid education. And in the 19th century, St. Eugene de Mazenod, repulsed by the identification of the church with the French aristocracy, established the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to bring the good news to the poor.
There are numerous other cases like these where men and women began institutions of consecrated life to address the perceived weaknesses of society and the church in their day. The mere existence of these vibrant organizations was a radical critique of and call to renewal for the world of that time.
As the centuries have passed, those organizations have either adapted to changing times or have died. As religious orders have renewed themselves in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, we see them addressing the critical issues of the late 20th century.
But if we want to see the spiritual crisis of our own time most clearly, we need to look at the new institutions of consecrated life which have emerged and thrived in the 20th century. Older religious orders may well have identified some of the same issues, but it is in the new organizations that this crisis is identified most clearly.
This may prove to be uncomfortable for many because the most prominent of those organizations -- Opus Dei, the Missionaries of Charity, the Legionaries of Christ -- may appear to be reactionary. Many see the remarkable growth of these organizations as a sign of nostalgia for a simpler time when issues were black-and-white. Such over-simplification, however, is to turn away from the signs of the times that they make evident.
The Legionaries of Christ, for example, were founded in 1941 by Marcial Maciel, at that time a young seminarian in Mexico. By 1991, it had over 2,000 seminarians around the world. Those seminarians spend up to 15 years in preparation before ordination -- a formation which includes rigorous intellectual training, but also formation of the whole person. Spiritual formation is essential (they spend three hours in prayer a day), but not sufficient, to prepare Maciel's priests.
The legionaries are fiercely loyal to the pope and the church's magisterial teaching. But far from being a new clericalism, they see lay leadership as the hope for transforming society. They endeavor to form and work with lay people through the family, education and mass media.
But this congregation also has a strong love for the poorest and most marginalized. Its members live with the poor, especially in Latin America, and help provide basic services like clean drinking water.
One sees some of the same characteristics in Opus Dei and the Missionaries of Charity. By watching these organizations, one might see a church which is placing greater emphasis on the responsibility of laity to transform society, on reaching out to the most marginalized, on adherence to the teachings of the pope and bishops, and on evangelization in complex cultures.
These qualities contain an implicit call for reform in the life of the church. In these organizations, even if the more rigid aspects of their life do not become widespread, we can catch glimpses of the future of the church. We see how the vision of a founder of a religious order can transform not only his followers, but also the whole church and society itself.
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