religious life as narratives of holiness

waterOn the 6th March, 2013, around 150 leaders of Religious Institutes gathered at the Novotel, Parramatta, for the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes (NSW) Conference 2013.

The theme of the conference was ‘religious life in the post-modern world’ and I was privileged to address leaders and leadership teams on the purpose and contribution of religious life today.

The conference took in a variety of themes centred on religious life: the Church as sacrament of God’s mission, the multidimensions of evangelisation and the living symbol that religious life remains today in a culture that, while often very secularised, remains sensitive to signs.

Prominent documents to consult on the varieties and purpose of religious life include the 1965 conciliar decree, Perfectae Caritatis, and John Paul II’s 1996 Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata.

These were my remarks at the gathering:

‘Narratives of Holiness’ for the Church and world

candleIn the first instance, religious communities, both apostolic and contemplative, tell a particular story about the way in which God’s Spirit has been manifest in history. Secondly, religious life tells as well a story about the human response to such divine irruption. The many varieties of religious life reveal that Christian discipleship is possible even in this way and recalls for the Church that diversity can be an expression of God’s life too.

By the narratives of holiness it provides, religious life nourishes not only the vocation of those called to live radically the evangelical counsels but nourishes the hope and imagination of the wider Church as to how holiness might be exercised. As bearers of charism and grounded in the original spirit of their founder(s), religious congregations show forth the accessibility and concrete shape of a life centred in God’s gifts; in turn, they invite all members of the Church to envisage what God is asking to be realised and hence what they might live for.

I consider religious life essential to the Church also in the way in which such life stretches beyond but is nevertheless active within the local church, that is, the diocese. Of course, my role as a pastoral planner for a local church has brought into focus the centrality of parishes as the ordinary experience of communion for the vast majority of Catholic people.

However, religious life complements this particular experience of communion with witness to the universal dimension of the church’s life. Religious life, as we know, as a response to the Spirit, cannot be completely merged or contained within traditional diocesan structures. Marked by an intense desire to live the Gospel fully and radically in genuine service to the world, religious life possesses the ability to keep individuals and communities open to the essential universality of the Church and its truly global concerns.

The presence of religious within a diocese, for one, can assist to ensure that local communities do not become inward or self-absorbed, focused on their parish facilities rather than their engagement in God’s mission. In their universal character and tensive ecclesial location in the midst of the local church, religious institutes work against the absolutisation of the parochial and so support the genuine ‘catholicity’ of the Church’s identity and mission.

Religious Life and the New Evangelisation

marymackillopI would further suggest that the apostolic character of many religious congregations will play an important role in maintaining the integrity of the ‘new evangelisation’ which continues to unfold on both a magisterial and local level.

I approach the contemporary situation in this way: since the Second Vatican Council, we are well aware how close to the surface questions of Catholic identity lie. The danger of course is that ‘the new evangelisation’ and its more apologetic tendencies foster a narrow focus on Catholic identity couched primarily in terms of opposition to the world.

This way of being Church – permeated as it is by a certain apocalyptic, dualistic sensibility – can result, unhelpfully, in self-affirming Catholic subcultures which are unable to engage or dialogue with the surrounding culture.

(Note that this danger was on show in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s abdication – while the pope’s resignation unleashed wide ignorance and some anti-Catholic bigotry in the secular media it also produced an ample supply of Catholic triumphalism with little genuine conversation between the two opposed tendencies.)

As an alternative to this narrow politics of identity, religious life is well placed to offer the ‘new evangelisation’ a model of outreach characterised by genuine service to the world without the reactionary and oppositional spirit to which other emerging groups may be vulnerable. In other words, religious life can model a mature evangelism, a truly contextualised faith which engages the surrounding culture while losing nothing of its distinctive Christian identity.

Religious Life and Lay Discipleship

SB054Finally, religious life continues to nourish the discipleship of lay men and women in a variety of ways. In addition to the ‘narratives of holiness’ which religious life offers to the whole Body of Christ, we have also seen the emergence of formal collaborations including the creation of new juridic persons among religious institutes in which laity have assumed governance responsibilities while allowing religious to re-engage more immediate and original expressions of service.

Of course, laity and religious collaborate in many other ways, including through ‘associations’ that give expression to a more inclusive imagination of holiness, and therefore a more inclusive notion of Christian community, recovered by the Second Vatican Council.

Beyond structured initiatives, however, religious life can foster lay discipleship through its work at the margins with those who may never feel comfortable within the structures of the Church. As noted by Australian theologian David Ranson, religious life has shown a profound ability to mediate between a given social context and the wider Catholic community – in the case of schools, hospitals or works of justice, between the lives of students, parents, and families who may not be connected to parish or regular practice and the normal life of the Church which is the bearer of the Word and sacramental encounter. This mediating role of religious life, its carriage of the meaning and experience of Christian faith to contemporary culture, is precisely that work of evangelisation to which the entire Church is called.


By a life that animates the local church but stretches beyond it, religious life bears witness to the essential universality of the Church’s identity and mission. In its proven ability to engage the culture with a mature and discerning spirit, in its continued work with and support of lay men and women through its apostolates and associations, and in its variety of charismatic life, religious life is positioned well to awaken and support the Church in its mission of evangelisation which cannot be exhausted by any single historical form.

9 thoughts on “religious life as narratives of holiness

  1. Hello Daniel. I was curious as to how this vision/critique of Religious Life was received by the audience. Not to be judgemental but the CLRI wouldn’t normally be exposed to this vision of Religious Life in an ecclesiological context that is very much in line with the resourcement movement. I absolutely loved your critique, and only wished that my professors back at the Claretianum where I studied the Theology of Consecrated Life could see Religious Life from this perspective as well. Well done!

    • Hi Fr Benedict, many thanks for your comments! The response seemed very positive, in fact, and I sensed a great enthusiasm to further explore some of the issues named in the short reflection. One of the things I took away from the forum was the willingness of Religious to extend their charism through further involvement of the laity in their apostolates.

      I also affirmed the importance of religious congregations precisely because laity lack ‘narratives of holiness’ that are particular to their vocation (a problem in itself and no doubt explained by the failure of Vatican II to develop a ‘theology of laity’ proper – one finds in the conciliar documents a theology of the ‘Christian faithful’ but this is not intended to apply to laity alone and includes clergy within its domain). Religious, I proposed, are bearers of narratives which offer a framework for laity to make sense of and apply their faith. I know many committed laypersons who have enjoined Religious associations because of a desire for such a framework.

      While I did not speak to it on the day, Congar raised some important issues around an ecclesiology which understood non-ordained, consecrated Religious as ‘lay’ with regard to ministry but not their spirituality. So it becomes necessary to consider clergy, religious and laity together for a coherent account of the Church’s life, ministries and mission. A work in progress…

      Could I ask, what was the emphasis as Religious Life was taught at the Claretianum? I would have thought the theology there would have had deep roots in the conciliar and pre-conciliar theologies of consecrated life?

      Best wishes, Daniel

      • Daniel, thank you for your thoughts and thanks to Fr. Benedict who has brought out further thoughts.

        Your point about Congar is a very interesting one in reference to the so called ‘lay’ state of religious. Lumen Gentium 10 makes a first distinction between the share in Christ’s priesthood – that is the share of Christ’s priesthood of the common baptised and the ministerial or hierarchical (dare I use this word?!?!) share in Christ’s priesthood. This is the first distinction made and I think that many don’t see past this and so proclaim religious as lay. However this first distinction is in regards to how the priestly body of the Church is brought into operation (LG11). In other words, to put it rather crudely, there is no Church without both participations, common and hierarchical, in the priesthood of Christ.
        So when LG comes to discuss the laity in chapter IV it quite specifically rules out religious from this category, viz. “The term laity is here understood to mean all the faithful except those in holy orders and those in the state of religious life specially approved by the Church.” (LG31) The reason is given in the very next paragraph. That is that the laity by their very vocation seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs, that is in the secular (as JPII makes clear in Christifideles Laici). Religious are different. They are to give example to the life of the beatitudes.
        In chapter VI on religious, LG makes it quite clear that the religious vocation is an ecclesial vocation, that it is regulated by the Church as it is a gift to the Church. So in LG44: “…the state which is constituted by the profession of the evangelical counsels, though it is not the hierarchical structure of the Church, nevertheless, undeniably belongs to its life and holiness.”

        As for the passing on of a religious charism to laity, one needs to be somewhat careful, as the charism can never be lived out the same by a lay person because they don’t profess the evangelical counsels, they don’t live by a rule. The third orders of the mendicant orders are quite clear in being a differing expression of the charism from that of the friars who founded them and the second order enclosed nuns (moniales) who live a strict cloistered life of prayer as an expression of the charism.

        I would disgree with your statement regarding the development of lay vocation. at the council. In the quote I give above (LG31) the council fathers seem to be at pains to make clear in the chapter about laity that they are teaching about the lay vocation alone, untangled from the clergy and religious (the ecclesial vocaiton).

      • Hi Fr Anthony, many thanks for your thoughtful and incisive comments, including on the specific way in which laity might participate in the charism of religious. My thought on this relation is still developing so I’m grateful for your contribution and critique.

        If I have read you correctly, you would locate the difference between laity and religious in the ‘ecclesial vocation’ of the latter, recognising that religious life is regulated by the Church as it is a gift to the Church. However, I would not see ecclesial oversight as the differentiating aspect but rather identify it – as you mention earlier – with the example religious give to the life of the beatitudes through the living of the evangelical counsels which is a radical and clearly distinctive way of receiving the Gospel in life. We would agree on this I gather.

        As for the council’s understanding of lay, clergy and religious life, it is quite an involved subject when one considers the breadth of the conciliar documents. As for Lumen Gentium 31 (which states that ‘to be secular is the special characteristic of the laity . . . to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs), I agree with you that this provides a ‘contrastive’ view of the laity, understood quite apart from clergy and religious. That same presentation appears also in Apostolicam Actuositatem 2 (‘Lay people ought themselves to take on as their distinctive task this renewal of the temporal order’).

        However, I must admit while I recognise and can affirm this as an accurate description or typology of the role of the laity I do not believe this to be an ontological definition, for the Council documents as a whole situate the difference of ecclesial roles and vocations within the theological status of the whole people of God (Lumen Gentium, Chapter 2), a common matrix of baptismal faith. This has lead theologians, including Bruno Forte whom I find convincing, to understand ‘laicity’ not so much as a group of persons within the Church but the Church itself for the whole Church, by virtue of baptism, including clergy and religious, are inserted into this world for mission. It is the whole church which confronts the secular world, that is ‘the universal sacrament of salvation’ (LG 48), not simply the laity though they most obviously do so most commonly.

        I suppose what I am reflecting on in my own ministry and life is while laity have ‘special characteristics’ these are not exclusive ones and I am not inclined towards a theology which conceives of clergy or religious as the ‘apolitical’ members of the Church while the laity are less ecclesially committed, politically involved ‘men of the world’ (this is Schillebeeckx’s thought and I can agree with him on this specific point, though not others). A theology specific to the laity, I think, is still to be developed rather than a past achievement of the Council.

        As for a positive and less strictly ‘contrastive’ theology, I am writing a talk for the ‘Great Grace’ conference in May 2013 (I might meet you there?) and wrestling at the moment with the meaning of ‘co-responsibility’, a stronger hermeneutic through which to read lay contributions to the Church than ‘collaboration’ which has dominated magisterial thought to date. We live in incredibly interesting times and I have much hope in our continuing reflections on the Church in the hope it strengthens our common mission and unity after a tumultuous post-conciliar experience.

        Thank you for raising important issues, Daniel

  2. yes, one would have thought so! Thought the historical context of Religious Life was emphasised and the development of spirituality/charism throughout the ages was also a highlight, generally the theology of consecrated life, though supposedly based on Vita Consecrata, seemed to be taught more with a hermeneutic of rupture as opposed a hermeneutic of continuity as Pope Emeritus Benedict has taught in his magisterium. The former Prefect for the Congregation of Consecrated Life/Societies of Apostolic Life, Cardinal Franc Rode, sensed this and it can be seen clearly in a symposium he gave entitled “Apostolic Religious Life since Vatican II … Reclaiming the Treasure: Bishops, Theologians, and Religious in Conversation” ( This paper is an excellent critique on the status quo of Religious Life from someone who was definitely in the know!

    • Thanks for the link, I am eager to read more on this subject. I thought Vita Consecrata was an excellent Exhortation as well, particularly on the Transfiguration and the Cross as foundational for the imagination of religious life (the virginal love of Christ for the Father, his poverty of spirit in his self-emptying on the Cross and his filial obedience). Interesting to hear of your experience in Rome.

      One of the key issues for Religious Life which you’ve identified is how to engage culture (also an issue for the wider Church) with various models lying between ‘accommodation’ to the world and an accompanying hermeneutic of ‘rupture’ and the other pole – a dualistic negation of the world which is also unhelpful and a neglect of the magisterial teaching of Vatican II. The ‘hermeneutic of reform’ is gaining ground, articulated by Benedict XVI, as it recognises both elements of continuity and discontinuity – recognising the Church as a living body which must discern the new consequences of an unchanging faith. I think this has the most potential and gains support from the ressourcement movement – de Lubac, Congar et. al.

      I think Religious like yourself are well placed, given the time-tested and mature charism that your congregations bear, to lead the Church in a prophetic engagement with the world, one which remains distinctive in its Christian identity though not oppositional in the sense of dualistic, which inevitable leads to Catholic subcultures which is simply unable to engage the concerns of the world in the public square (and to which ‘the world’ does not listen).

      Please send me any other good conversations or articles you might come across in your own study and reflection, best wishes, Daniel

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  4. Greetings,
    I’m writing to let you know about a book recently published.
    In the link below
    A Priceless Gift: A Primer of the Theology of Consecrated Life

    you’ll find a presentation.
    If you like the book, please tell others about it.

    Best wishes for a peaceful and fruitful New Year in the Lord


    Sr. Pascale-Dominique

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