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franciscan - January 2005

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2004

Religious life - a Catholic perspective

by Father Jean Geysens OSB

Eastern and Western Christian monasticism forms the 'humus' in which religious life in its diverse historical compositions is rooted.  Monasticism in the East has retained its unity, and is seen as a reference point to all who are baptised.  In the West however, we see the emergence of different types of religious life under the impulse of charismatic founders.  These may be seen as branches of one and the same tree, fed by the same source, the living tradition which is the work of the one and same Spirit of the risen Christ. 

As a monk standing in the tradition of Saint Benedict, I would prefer to underline the fundamental unity of religious life.  Beyond the boundaries of the different institutions and of their juridical statutes, (religious life on this level is a complicated matter within the Roman Catholic Church), one should rather state that the flourishing of our baptismal life forms the horizon to which all in the church look forward.  Christian spirituality is substantially one:  it is about life in Christ inspired by the Holy Spirit to live a life of evangelical radicalism.  That which distinguishes the 'religious', is their 'charisma' of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and life in community.

Today we have reached an important point in the evolution of religious life in the Roman Catholic Church.  This happened especially under the impulse of the second Vatican Council with the decree Perfectae Caritatis  (1965), about the renewal of religious life.  This document urges us to draw inspiration from the sources of Christian life: the Scriptures, liturgy, and the Church Fathers.  The decree concerning ecumenism explicitly refers to the Eastern Church Fathers and their sense of contemplation, to which all believers are encouraged, and even more so the religious.  Besides this, the church texts speak more and more about the 'charisma' of the founders.  The tradition teaches us that we should see the spiritual fatherhood/motherhood of a founder as a 'charism', the fruit of a special intervention by the Holy Spirit, so that that man or woman may be capable of passing on their intense experience of evangelical living to others.

Since the sixties and seventies much has been done to seek renewal, by adapting to the times and reaching back to our roots.  Some put more emphasis on adapting, sometimes in a strong secular sense, mostly to the detriment of their spiritual life.  At present, one has become more convinced of the need of spiritual discipline.  Others have begun to see the charism of their founder and institute as something which can be perfectly defined (in some cases, even to the smallest detail).  The danger exists that one can absolutize the historical form.  Even an ideal beginning period has to always be reinterpreted.  Everything ultimately depends on grace, with one's inner self experiences as an appeal from the Lord.  Everything should lead to an intense living of the gospel.

I would like, as a monk of a community dedicated to Christian unity (Chevetogne), to make a plea for religious life to return to the common source, and not to lay the emphasis on the 'specificity' of each religious institute with her own calling, such that one loses sight of the underlying oneness.  In my opinion, one looked far too much for renewal in the particularity of each group, whilst this 'particularity' can only come to blossom from out of our rich common Christian experience.  The time has come for each community to return to the centre - Christ himself - and to situate themselves in the heart of the Church, as a school where one is taught to serve the Lord (cf. Rule of Saint Benedict - Prologue).

The social context invites us to underline the oneness in diversity.  The above-mentioned process of looking for an adapted renewal coincides with the cultural and ecclesiastical shift in most West-European countries.  In Belgium for instance we have seen a great evolution, the analysis of which far surpasses the context of this article, towards less participation in church life.  There is a crisis, which seems to becoming worse, concerning the ability to pass on the Christian faith and way of life from one generation to the next.  Here lies, at least partly, the explanation of the strong decline of vocations to the religious life, a life of celibacy and community of goods in obedience of faith.

Religious have, sociologically, become grey and passive.  This is the picture which the general public has of religious life in our region.  A few years ago, an art-photo-album of the different religious communities was published.  At the presentation of this book, a leading newspaper used the headline: "The last friars and nuns in Flanders".  This strongly characterises the situation present in the media, which sees religious life as something of the past.  Even many Catholics remain ignorant of the fact that in Western Europe, many religious communities are flourishing, in classic forms as well as new.  In the diocese of Namur there is the 'Fraternité de Tiberiade' which is especially Franciscan inspired.  I wrote this article in a monastery in Limburg, where many young nuns live in solitude according to the ideal of Saint Bruno, giving it a new stature as 'soeurs de Bethléem'.  There is a need for such information!  In the best case one will admit in the social debate that the religious have rendered many services with regard to charitable works and education.  Intellectuals will, more often than not, know that the monks contributed a great deal to European culture.  Even now, culture remains a terrain on which fruitful encounters take place between monasteries and the society which surrounds us.  There is a renewed interest in monasteries.  This is apparent by the growing number of guests from all walks of life that visit our monasteries.  The spiritual, let alone the Christian motivation, is more often than not rather vague.  But one can say that there is an existential search for meaning and healing in their lives.  Monasteries, in my opinion, can play an important rôle in providing supportive convictions with regard to liturgy and spirituality.  For monks and nuns the meaning of beauty is a way to God's glory, and even being occupied with the most ordinary things, can place themselves in His presence.

More important however than the relevance to society, is the question how relevant the position of religious life is to the local church.  In the past there seemed to be a more spontaneous symbiosis between both.  Today, one can speak of a sort of passive being from sheer necessity.  Many of the works founded by religious (schools, hospitals) have to be given away.  The current situation invites us to lay the accent, in proclaiming the religious life, on our presence and being, rather than on our actions and utility.

Within the pilgrimage of God's people, religious keep the eschatological hope alive.  They reach out with all who believe in Christ to his coming and to the completion of all human aspiration in the kingdom of God.  This attitude does not exclude commitment and testimony, but resituates everything within the orientation towards God's glory.  An attitude like this can help us abstain from absolutely wanting to prove our own actuality and utility in the Church and in society.  This eschatological attitude allows us to let go of the care we have for the future of religious consecrated life, being surrounded as it were by so many witnesses in a great cloud (cf. Heb. 12:1) on our way to the Heavenly Jerusalem, the City of God (cf. Rev. 21:2). f

Fr. Jean Geysens OSB is a monk of the Benedictine Monastery at Chevetogne (Belgium). He is involved in formation and hospitality.


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