The question was asked by Fr Gaetano Greco of the Tertiary Capuchins of Our Lady of Sorrows, chaplain of the ‘Casal del Marmo’ juvenile detention centre: “Consecrated life is a gift of God to the Church, a gift of God to his People. However, this gift is not always appreciated and valued in its identity and in its specificity. Communities, especially women’s, in our local Church often have difficulty finding serious people to accompany them, formators, spiritual directors, confessors. How can this treasure be rediscovered? The face of consecrated life is 80 percent female. How is it possible to value the presence of women and in particular consecrated women in the Church?”
Fr Gaetano, in his reflection, while he was telling his story, spoke about that “two-to-three-week substitution” that he had to do at the detention centre for minors. He has been there for 45 years, I believe. He did this out of obedience. “Your place is there”, his superior told him. And he obeyed him reluctantly. Then he saw that that act of obedience, that which the superior asked him, was God’s will. Allow me, before responding to the question, to say a word about obedience. When Paul wants to tell us of the mystery of Jesus Christ, he uses this word; when he wants to say what the fruitfulness of Jesus Christ is like, he uses this word: “He became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (cf. Phil 2:8). He humbled himself. He obeyed. The mystery of Christ is a mystery of obedience, and obedience is fruitful. It’s true that, like every virtue, like every theological place, it can be tempting to develop a disciplinary attitude. But obedience in consecrated life is a mystery. As I said that a consecrated woman is the icon of Mary and of the Church, we can say that obedience is the icon of the way of Jesus. When Jesus became incarnate out of obedience, he became man out of obedience, until the cross and unto death. The mystery of obedience is not understood if not in the light of this way of Jesus. The mystery of obedience is to resemble Jesus on the journey that He wanted to take. And we see the fruit. I thank Fr Gaetano for his testimony on this point, because many words are said about obedience — the prior dialogue, yes, all of these things are good, they aren’t bad — but what is obedience? Go to the Letter of Paul to the Philippians, Chapter 2: it is the mystery of Jesus. Only there can we understand obedience. Not in the general or provincial chapters: there it can be deepened, but to understand it, only in the mystery of Jesus.
Now let’s move to the question: consecrated life is a gift, a gift of God to the Church. It’s true. It’s a gift of God. You speak of prophecy: it’s a gift of prophecy. It is God present, God who wants to make himself present with a gift: He chooses men and women, but it is a gift, a freely given gift. The vocation is also a gift, it is not an enlistment of people who want to take that path. No, it is a gift to the heart of a person; a gift to a congregation; and that congregation is also a gift. Not always, however, is this gift appreciated and valued in its identity and in its specificity. This is true. There is a temptation to standardize consecrated people, as if they were all the same thing. In Vatican II, there was a proposal of this kind, to standardize consecrated people. No, it is a gift with a special identity, which comes through the charismatic gift that God gives to a man or a woman to form a religious family.
And then a problem: the problem of how to accompany men and women religious. The communities, especially women’s, in our local Church often have difficulty finding serious men and women to accompany them, formators, spiritual fathers and confessors. Either because they do not understand what consecrated life is, or because they want to place themselves in the charism and give interpretations that harm the heart of the nun…. We are speaking of nuns who have difficulties, but men have them too. It is not easy to accompany. It isn’t easy to find a confessor, a spiritual father. It’s not easy to find a man with rectitude of intentions; in order that this spiritual direction, this confession not be a nice chat among friends but without depth. Or, finding those rigid men, who do not really understand where the problem may be, because they do not understand religious life. In the other diocese that I had, I always advised the nuns who came to ask advice: “Tell me, in your community or in your congregation, isn’t there a wise nun, a nun who lives the charism well, a good nun with experience? Do spiritual direction with her! — “But she’s a woman!” — “But it is a charism of lay people!”. Spiritual direction is not an exclusive charism of the presbytery: it’s a charism of the laity! In early monasticism lay people were the great directors.
Now I am reading the doctrine, actually on obedience, of St Silouan, that monk of Mt Athos. He was a carpenter, he worked as a carpenter, then a bursar, but he was not even a deacon; he was a great spiritual director! It is a charism of the laity. When the superiors see that a man or woman in that congregation or that province has that charism of a spiritual father, they must try to help them to be formed, to perform this service. It is not easy.
A spiritual director is one thing and a confessor is another thing. I go to the confessor, I tell my sins, I feel the flogging; then he forgives me of everything and I go ahead. But I must tell the spiritual director what is happening in my heart. The examination of conscience is not the same for confession and for spiritual direction. For confession, you must search where you have fallen short, whether you have lost patience; if you have been greedy: these things, concrete things, which are sinful. But for spiritual direction, you must examine what has happened in the heart; such as the movement of the spirit, whether I have been desolate, if I have been consoled, if I am tired, why I am sad: these are the things to speak about with a spiritual director. These are the things. The superiors have the responsibility of looking, in the community, in the congregation, in the province, for those who have this charism, to give this mission and form them, help them with this. To accompany on the path is to go step by step with the consecrated brother or sister. I believe that we are still immature in this respect.
We are not mature in this, because spiritual direction comes from discernment. But when you find yourself in front of consecrated men and women who do not know how to discern what is happening in their own heart, who do not know how to discern a decision, it is a lack of spiritual direction. And this can be done only by a wise man, a wise woman. But also formed! Today you cannot go only with good will: today the world is very complex and human science also helps us, without falling into psychologism, but it helps us to see the path. Form them with readings of the greats, of the great men and women spiritual directors, especially of monasticism. I don’t know if you have had contact with the works of early monasticism: how much wisdom and spiritual direction there was there! It is important to form them with this. How can we rediscover this wealth? The face of consecrated life is 80 percent female: it’s true, there are more consecrated women than men.
How is it possible to value the presence of women and particularly of consecrated women, in the Church? I am repeating a little in what I am about to say: give consecrated women this function that many believe is only for priests; and also give concreteness to the fact that a consecrated woman is both the face of Mother Church and of Mother Mary, and that is going forth in maternity, and maternity is not only having children! Maternity is accompanying growth; maternity is spending hours next to a sick person, a sick child, a sick brother; it is spending one’s life in love, with that love of tenderness and maternity. On this path we will find even more the woman’s role in the Church.
Fr Gaetano touched on various themes, that is why it’s difficult for me to answer…. But when they tell me “No! In the Church women must be dicastery heads, for example!”. Yes, they can, in certain dicasteries they can; but what you are asking is simple functionalism. That is not rediscovering woman’s role in the Church. It is more profound and goes on this path. Yes, may she do these things, that are being promoted — now in Rome we have one who is the rector of a university, and that is a good thing! — but this is not a triumph. No, no. This is a great thing, it is a functional thing; but what is essential to the woman’s role is — speaking in theological terms — to acting in a manner which expresses the feminine genius. When we face a problem among men we come to a conclusion, but when we face that same problem with women the outcome will be different. It will follow the same path, but it will be richer, stronger, more intuitive. For this reason women in the Church should have this role, they must clarify, help to clarify the feminine genius in so many ways.