Consecrated life today: the journey travelled so far and the prospects


Luigi Guccini SCJ


1/ – The ‘positive’ aspects – what are they?

155233_1711792915417_2484485_nWhen speaking about consecrated life (CL) one should immediately dwell upon the positive aspects that have emerged in recent years. They are certainly many in number and they promise well, and such as to remove from us all nostalgia or temptation to return to the past, if this temptation actually existed. I cannot dwell upon this here and I will confine myself to two observations:

  • When one looks at the ‘positive’, one is dealing with very fine and promising prospects but ones which are in front of us as a task and a pathway to follow more than a fruit that is already ripe.
  • I will not dwell upon this but I will not for this reason engage in a negative analysis. To be positive seems to me to mean three things:

– Being convinced that there is a pathway to follow.

– Knowing how to identify it.

– Agreeing to do down it and having the strength to do so.

This requires having the courage to call things by their real name, without concealing the problems that exist. And then this is one of the important signs of Christian hope and of the force that comes to us from faith: knowing how to face up to problems because we have understood that there are solutions to them.

It would be of no use to have the approach of always speaking ‘positively’ in the sense of only saying what is good. The results of this would be – and this often happens – the creation of a general analysis that is not in the least convincing and in the ultimate analysis false. I do not want to engage in such an analysis.

2/ – The question that interests us

The question that interests us is the following. It is an obvious question but it is one that awaits an answer and it is on this that I would like to dwell: during the period following the Second Vatican Council a great deal of work has been done, and nobody has worked more than men and women religious, and we are at the stage of what is usually called an ‘uncompleted renewal’, but this is a euphemism.

Why is this? Because of the fact that certain processes inevitably take a long time and one should simple ‘be patient’ or have we failed in something and a change of direction is required? I would like to dwell in detailed fashion on this.

I will take as a point of reference the statement of my very dear friend Giamberto Pegoraro, of the Josephites of Murialdo. When speaking to his religious brothers on the situation of religious life (RL) today, he ended by posing this question: what should be done? And his answer was the following: ‘It seems to me that ours is still a time of silence, of listening, and of thought. For the moment it is not doing that matters (let us indeed continue to do what we are doing). For now on what matters is to understand what God wants from us. It is at times when ‘the word of the Lord is rare’ (1 Ps 3:1) that prophets are mobilised’.

This is very wise and very interesting. I find in these words an invitation to a ‘sapiential reading’ of the journey of recent years. Not a sociological reading and not one that is merely theological, but a sapiential reading, and along the lines of that expressed by Pope John Paul II in his penultimate book where, when speaking about Marxism, he defined this last as a ‘necessary evil’. We also know many evils today both as a Church and as religious life; we are going through a moment of great poverty and also of darkness. What does this have to tell us? What does it contain within it? Is there a word of God for us in this? What is it? A sapiential reading is this.

We are also helped by two icons. The first is that of St. Francis. During an epoch very similar to ours because of the great changes and the need for reform in the Church and in RL, he understood that there was only one pathway: to go back to the Gospel. The problems and challenges were too great for answers to be found to them in a simple reform/renewal of religious life. Only the gospel had the power to provide and answer and Francis as we know staked everything on the gospel.

The other figure is the prophet Elijah. He spent all of his resources and he did this with great generosity. But just at the moment of his greatest success – his victory over the prophets of Baal – he saw everything collapse. He was pursued so that he could be killed and he had to flee; he felt a failure, he was completely discouraged and he wanted to die. But God came to his aid with a mysterious food and he took it with him to Mount Oreb. Here everything was shown to him and everything began again: the collapse had been the beginning of the recovery.

We are like that, like Elijah and St. Francis. We must take a rest, a rest that allows us to go deeper – I will use this phrase repeatedly in this talk of mine – compared to the many pathways that we have followed, even though they have been important.

3/ Have we got our goal wrong?

First of all I will make some observations.

     a/ We began immediately after the Second Vatican Council with our updating. We came from a logic of observance and it was spontaneous for us to continue with that approach. All Institutes rewrote their Rules and by now they have complete regulations in all sectors. And yet we live at a moment that one could define as being anomie: the rules exist but they are not taken seriously; the receptio is absent. Perhaps this is because of laziness but above all, and simply, it is because the new regulations are not seen as the response that is needed, they do not express what as men and women religious we carry in our hearts.

The Evangelica Testificatio has already reminded us of this and today we have seen this even more: the real response is at another level, we have to go deeper.

     b/ The same thing should be said, and with even greater emphasis, about re-acculturation. Here mission is involved. We have to re-acculturate consecrated life to the changed conditions of the times. We have abandoned a very large number of positions and we have chosen others; we have spent enormous resources on the reorganisation of our works and in the ‘retraining’ of personnel.

   We have also obtained some results: the works and the services offered by religious function well, they are even exemplary, but, as is constantly repeated, people come to obtain services from us and they look for their reasons for living elsewhere. And therefore? Have we perhaps got our goal wrong?

I believe that we should reflect on this point further: we come from a past in which what was expected from religious was very evident – in the eyes of everyone and those of our founders themselves. One is dealing here with specific tasks, very important ones as well, those that characterised the great works and services of men and women religious from the nineteenth century onwards.

Today such is no longer the case: what characterised us until yesterday in the field of care, health care, schooling, pastoral care and mission ad gentes itself, is no longer ‘exclusive to us’. And yet we continue to see ourselves as though what we have always done is still our task and to deduce from this the meaning of our presence. In essential terms, the international congress on consecrated life of November 2004 was also a prisoner of this belief, as I will observe below.

And this is a pathway that can no longer be followed. Everything that until yesterday we expressed through our works has to face up to the fact that today they are no longer – in the great majority of cases – an instrument suited to apostolic work. This is not only because we no longer have the resources to support them but because of the historical situation itself which is ‘too large’ and complex to be addressed by us at the level of ‘doing’ and the organisation of our services.

1979518_10203986278595211_8873049414428110076_n  A note also on the training of personnel. Competence is important and professionalism is also a serious matter. But when you stake too much on this and arrive, as is often the case, at a professionalization of religious life and one’s identity, then there is really something that is not working. It is understandable that at a time such as this, where it is difficult to understand where and how to spend our resources, one can be tempted to emphasise one’s role so much as to define oneself according to it – however one then finds oneself in a blind alley. This is because one enters a logic of competition and one can well be very good, better than others, but what is the use of this if one gives to people what they can find elsewhere?

4/ – Being too much exclusively centred around the institutional dimension

     There is a great need to reflect in all of this. It seems to me that in recent years we have worked too much exclusively around the institutional dimension and we continue to do this.

I cannot dwell upon this statement of mine; I will only refer to the fact that it is also a ‘provocation’ and a further invitation to think about this subject. The fact is the disproportion that exists between the size of the resources – in people, time and money – involved in institutional problems and the results that are obtained.

Here there is something that is not working. I do not know how we can move out of this but there is a problem and it makes one think. If we look at the saints we find a St. Francis who did not want to have anything to do with Rules and accepted them only subsequently. What he was interested in was the gospel, the gospel sine glossa; only from there, after assimilating it at a deep level, would it be possible for him to define a specific kind of life.

And such is the case today and this for us is an important lesson. The passage is not from Rules to the gospel but the opposite. Primary importance – in time, money, resources and commitment – should not be given to institutional problems but, rather, to quality of life, which is something that always has to be constructed, that is given to us by Jesus. I do not want to enter the complex analysis of new forms of consecrated life and movements but if we look at the most significant experiences and ones with the greatest impact on young people one thing appears clear: they speak about Jesus and the gospel.

The expenditure of too much energy on things that should be done and on institutional problems rests upon two assumptions that have still to be demonstrated as being correct:

  • First, the belief that the approach to RL that characterises us is a good one and that one has only to update it…and make it work. But such is not the case; we would have solved our problems a long time ago if things were like that.
  • Second, and above all else, in a great deal of what we do we take it for granted that the problem that matters has been suitably solved – the problem of contents. Perhaps the machine works, but what is inside it? In our way of living where do we find the substance of the gospel?

When I say that we have to go deeper I an referring to this. I remember my experiences for very many years as the head of Witnesses. Faced with a persistent gap between what was being developed in how religious life was understood and the real life of communities, we asked – just as today we ask – why this was? The answer was that it was a matter of mentality: the mass of people do not want anything to do with change and perhaps cannot even change. The famous phrase was: this generation has to pass…But, on the other hand, it is not that the new generations really represent that newness that we need, and even where change is accepted it does not seem to me that the fruit that was hoped for has been produced…

And therefore: is the problem change or is there something else? And even if we must change and make new choices – because it cannot be contested that this must take place – at what level should change take place and for what purpose?