“One size fits all” does not apply to consecrated life in the Catholic Church. Nor does one style suit all. Because the Holy Spirit has continually brought forth various forms of consecrated life to adapt to the changing times, we in our 21st century now have a treasure house of both the old and the new from which to choose.
This article hopes to set forth the array of possible choices and serve as a brief reference tool for both those called to the consecrated life as well as for those who assist in the discernment of vocations.
We know that God has designed all vocations in the Church out of love for us. Each person, created by God with a unique identity, discovers that he works out circumstances and opportunities for us to recognize and be able to respond to the particular role we are to live in salvation history.
God does not do “mass production”! He does not set up assembly lines to produce people or vocations.
The key, then, is to find the right “fit.”
For those called to marriage, the right fit might be “Mr. Right,” or “Miss Right.” For those of us called to the consecrated life, however, we must find that way of life best suited to us and then embrace that definitive vocation.
It should be noted here, importantly, that the term “consecrated life” is not synonymous with “religious life.” That is to say, although all religious live a form of consecrated life, not all consecrated persons are members of “institutes of religious life.”
Moreover, “consecrated life” is defined in the Code of Canon Law as a state of life distinct from both clergy and laity [C. 588.1]
nCategories of consecrated life
The Synod of Bishops in October 1994 prayerfully examined the consecrated life in the Church today. On March 25, 1996, the Feast of the Annunciation, St. John Paul II issued an Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata. This papal document reflects the proceedings of the synod and thus speaks of the gift and mission of the consecrated life at the service of the Church.
Vita Consecrata was the third of a series, the first two dealing, respectively, with the other two canonical states of life — the laity (Christifidelis laici) and the clergy, specifically the priesthood (Pastores dabo vobis). Vita Consecrata, then, defined what consecrated life is as well as clarified the various forms. A quick look at those various categories allows us to grasp quickly the wide vista of choices currently available in the Church.
nReligious institutes and societies of apostolic life
Most people are acquainted with sisters, brothers, nuns, and monks who live the consecrated life according to the constitution of their particular institute. In most cases, they profess a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience; their way of life is lived communally and they strive to live according to the corporate charism of their founder or foundress. How well they have served the Church over the centuries in education, health care, and mission work!
Secular institutes: Fairly recently in the history of the Church — i.e., the mid-20th century — secular institutes were recognized as another authentic form of consecrated life. Examples include institutes for celibate women only, institutes for celibate men only, institutes for priests only and institutes with married couple affiliates.
Characteristic of the members is that they are to be a “leaven” in society, often working in secular occupations but fully committed to consecrated life through their vows or promises, according to their individual constitutions. These consecrated persons most often live their individual lifestyles in the world, but with spiritual and legal bonds to each other and according to constitutions approved by the Church.
Often connected to religious movements in the Church, the members endeavor to live according to the particular charism of their founder or foundress.
Hermits or anchorites: Recently restored as a form of consecrated life, the ancient vocation of anchorite or hermit is noted in Canon 603 in the Code of Canon Law. Strictly removed from the world, the hermit follows a rule or plan of life approved by the diocesan bishop, after having committed himself to living the evangelical counsels by some form of vows or promises made to the bishop.
Usually hermits support themselves financially by some form of work that can be performed in the hermitage. Open to men and women, this form of consecrated life focuses on “the silence of solitude” as portrayed in the life of Jesus himself.
Seeking the “one thing necessary,” the hermit radically witnesses by his very life the counter-cultural, penitential aspect of Christian life through self-denial. This is in contrast to the prevailing siren song of the world that a person must be “self-actualized” or “self-fulfilled” in order to be truly living. To seek the Lord alone is the entire longing of the hermit while spiritually serving the entire Church and local diocese through “constant prayer and penance.”
Consecrated virgins living in the world: Also recently restored (in May 1970) as a form of consecrated life, consecrated virgins living in the world are noted in Canon 604. Unlike the aforementioned hermits, consecrated virgins do not draw up a rule of life, as their daily schedule of prayer and work must be harmonized with the demands of the everyday world.
By their very lives they witness the brideship of the Church herself, and this espousal to Christ is never so evident as when the bishop celebrates the Rite of Consecration to a life of virginity for a woman living in the world.
Like hermits, each consecrated virgin lives her form of life individually, as did the consecrated virgins in the early centuries of the Church.
The Roman Pontifical [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 62 (1970): 650] states the following prerequisites for women to be eligible to be consecrated as virgins in this form of life:
> That they have never married or lived in public or open violation of chastity;
> That by their age, prudence, and universally approved character they give assurance of perseverance in a life of chastity dedicated to the service of the Church and of their neighbor;
> That they be admitted to this Consecration by the bishop who is the local Ordinary.
nAnother form of commitment
In spiritual direction and discernment of vocation, one often discovers that the person aspiring to give himself to God in a perpetual commitment of celibacy fits into none of the above categories.
What alternative can a spiritual director or pastor suggest for this person? A private vow of perpetual chastity is most frequently the answer. This private vow can be received by a spiritual director, pastor, or other competent authority.
Recently, an interest has been growing among widows and widowers to have the ancient Order of Widows restored in the Church. Like the consecrated virgins, consecrated widows were a viable part of life in the early Church as they continued to live their form of life in the everyday world.
As of this time, there is no official, canonically recognized Rite for widows to be consecrated in the Latin Church.
Widows and widowers who desire to dedicate their lives to God through prayer and service in the local Church are encouraged at this time to make a private vow of perpetual celibacy. In addition, they should inform their bishop of their desire to have this ancient form of consecrated life reconstituted.
It is understood, however, that no individual priest or anyone else should take it upon himself to undertake anything that would suggest that the Consecration of Widows is already a viable reality.
nThe right fit
As all persons living the consecrated life would attest, the call to follow Jesus in this radical way of life, giving one’s all to him, is truly a response to a call of love from God himself. The Holy Father has made this point clear on many occasions, and never so clearly as when he has encouraged prayer as a primary component of the consecrated life.
All service to one’s neighbor must flow from this life of prayer.
Because each person carries within himself a unique design of life from God, the spiritual director has two services to offer to a person discerning a vocation to the consecrated life. He would first try to help the person discern if he has the proper motivation for consecrated life.
Then, if that motivation is focused on the love of God, the spiritual director would help his directee to discover the best “fit” among the forms of consecrated life. No one form is “better” or “higher” than another. All lead to love of God, and it is a matter of finding what is our true vocation in God.
Loretta Matulich, Ph.D., is a faculty member of Clackamas Community College, Oregon City, Oregon. She received the Consecration to a Life of Virginity for a Woman Living in the World in 1974 in the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon. She can be reached at her email address: [email protected].