When the Second Vatican Council spoke of the universal call to holiness, it raised another issue. If, because of our baptismal consecration, we are called and empowered to be holy, where do religious orders fit into the picture?
This is not a new question, but it was given added sharpness by the strong emphasis the Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) placed on the universal call to holiness.
The origin of religious life in the Church goes back to at least the fourth century when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. That elevated status meant an end to persecution. It also meant an influx of new Christians whose commitment to the Gospel was several degrees less than what had previously been normal.
In response, Christians who wanted to live the Gospel with a full fervour headed to the desert, forming communities based around ascetical practices and regular prayer. Out of this movement arose the first monastic orders.
Flash ahead to the mid-20th century and Lumen Gentium’s comment that a baptized Christian is “dead to sin and dedicated to God” (44). Many lay Catholics try to be faithful to that baptismal call, but in this society – or any society – it is difficult to pull away from the trivial pursuits pulling one in a hundred directions.
The religious life exists to keep the freshness of the Gospel alive.
Members of religious orders, however, “in order to draw still more abundant fruit from the grace of their Baptism, make profession of the evangelical counsels in the Church.”
The evangelical counsels – promises or vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – are not necessary for a holy life. But they do represent “the narrow way,” a way freer of hindrances that could hold one back from “fervent charity and perfect worship of God.” The vows or promises are also a public commitment to serving God.
What are these hindrances that prevent charity and worshipping God? It would seem that they are marriage and children. Of course, many couples, especially those with mortgages and small children, would testify that they too have lives of poverty, chastity and obedience. Those with teenagers might well find themselves on their knees imploring God’s assistance more than at any other point of their lives.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that many couples are more preoccupied with finances and have a less ordered prayer life than do people who belong to religious congregations. The vows can free one’s life up for service and prayer.
It goes still further. Religious women and men live out the call to holiness not only as individuals but also in community. These communities stimulate the whole Church to keep the freshness of the Gospel alive.
Lumen Gentium calls the religious counsels “a gift of God which the Church has received from her Lord and which by his grace she always safeguards” (43). The profession of the counsels by religious is a sign to the whole Church of the fervour with which all are called to live their Baptism.
More than that, women and men religious are a sign of the heavenly city that “manifests in a special way the transcendence of the kingdom of God” (44). The witness of religious reveals in a concrete form that our true home is in heaven and that our earthly cares are secondary.
Lumen Gentium also defends religious life from the view that there is something dehumanizing about pledging one’s life to poverty, chastity and obedience. Rather than repressing the development of one’s full humanity, the vowed life frees one to live life more fully.
Today, that is a badly-needed witness. Much advertising and the consumer society itself would have us believe that the good life consists in having more money, more things, more experiences, more sex with more partners and more general autonomy.
It’s not true and when one sees a vowed religious radiating joy, it is palpably visible that it is not true.
In the years immediately following Vatican II, millions of young people fed up with modern society tuned in, turned on and dropped out. Most of them soon saw the shallowness of that choice and returned to mainstream society.
Far fewer saw that the evangelical counsels lived out of the love of Jesus were in fact the better choice, that if one really wants a society that is fully human, it begins with the light offered by those communities centred around prayer and the freedom offered by voluntary poverty, chastity and obedience.