Last week, my friend Elizabeth Lam became a consecrated virgin in and for the Diocese of Oakland. Bishop Salvatore Cordileone was the presider for the rite of consecration, which was performed in the context of a Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the Light.
Elizabeth is not bound to a religious community, but rather lives in the world. Through her consecration, she has made a total gift of herself to the local Church under the leadership of her bishop.
There are only about 200 consecrated virgins in the United States, but there is a revival of this ancient rite taking place. As Bishop Cordileone noted at the outset of his homily, some of the most revered saints of Christian antiquity were consecrated virgins, like Sts. Cecilia, Lucy, Agnes, and Agatha.
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As I was navigating through the outstanding new Vocation Boom website, I stumbled upon this short video in which Pope John Paul II comments on his own vocation story.
It’s hard to believe that it’s already been five years since JPII’s death. The images, events, and messages in this clip will bring back many inspiring memories of his amazing pontificate, as we count down the days until his beatification.
This week the Vatican released the 2011 Lenten Message of Pope Benedict XVI. The message’s title is taken from St. Paul: “You were buried with Him in Baptism, in which you were also raised with Him” (Colossians 2:12).
The message in its entirety may be viewed here. (Scroll down for the English translation.)
As the title suggests, this year’s focus is on the relationship between Baptism and Lent. The Holy Father writes:
“The fact that, in most cases, Baptism is received in infancy highlights how it is a gift of God: no one earns eternal life through their own efforts. The mercy of God, which cancels sin and, at the same time, allows us to experience in our lives ‘the mind of Christ Jesus,’ is given to men and women freely. . . .
“Hence, Baptism is not a rite from the past, but the encounter with Christ, which informs the entire existence of the baptized, imparting divine life and calling for sincere conversion; initiated and supported by Grace, it permits the baptised to reach the adult stature of Christ.
Drake cites one Church source, corroborated by other studies, who says that the CARA report ignores the ‘elephant in the room,’ namely, “the rather obvious fact that religious communities that preserve traditional elements such as the habit, common prayer, communal life, focused apostolates, and strong affirmation of Church teaching, are doing well in comparison to orders that do not.”
Drake also notes that the CARA report does not examine the difference in those joining orders associated with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) versus those joining the smaller Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR). A 2009 study showed that just 1% of religious orders associated with the LCWR have more than 10 women in the process of joining, whereas among the CMSWR, 28% reported having 10 or more candidates.
Last week the L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, released some statistical data on the Catholic priesthood as of the end of 2009. The complete report is expected any day.
The principal finding is that there were 410,593 priests worldwide in 2009, up over 5,000 from the previous decade, an overall increase of 1.4%.
The news isn’t bright on all fronts, however. For one thing, while the overall number is up, there are now 5,000 fewer religious order priests than a decade ago, representing a decrease of 3.5%. Fortunately, the number of diocesan priests grew by 10,000, representing an increase of 4%.
Also, here in the United States, there was a 7% decrease in diocesan priests and a 21% decrease in religious order priests over the past ten years The numbers were similar for Europe. As has been the case for some time, the growth has primarily taken place in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.
While affirming the “spiritual liveliness and missionary dynamism” of religious communities throughout the Church’s history, he candidly admitted the challenges they face in today’s world. “Religious life is in difficulty today and this must be recognized,” he noted.
He is especially concerned that works of charity have frequently degenerated into mere social work, which he said causes harm to the proclamation of the Gospel. When that happens, communities pursue “a society of well-being” here and now, rather than questions of eternity.
While there are signs of secularization everywhere, Cardinal Rode said that they are most prominent in the West.
At the same time, Cardinal Rode expressed his confidence in the new religious communities springing up in places such as France, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Peru, and the U.S. which are “surging against the spirit of secularism.”
“These communities give great importance to prayer and to the fraternal life lived in community; they insist on poverty and obedience: all take the religious habit, a visible sign of their consecration,” he explained.
“[They] call man to his transcendent destiny and constitute a force of renewal, of which the Church has a great need.”
Today the universal Church celebrates the feast of the Chair of St. Peter. When I first returned to the Church way back when, I thought this feast sounded really strange. I was okay with celebrating events from the life of Christ, and even with celebrating feasts in honor of special saints. But a chair?
Then I read that ever since the fourth century, the feast of the Chair of St. Peter has been celebrated in Rome as a sign of the unity of the Church founded upon that apostle. Hmmm. There must be more to the story . . . Continue reading Chair of St. Peter→
One of my favorite lines from Fr. John Hardon, the late, great Jesuit theologian whose cause for sainthood is working its way through the Church, is: “even a corpse can float downstream.”
Yet, as Saint Irenaeus famously said, “The glory of God is man fully alive!” If we are fully alive in Christ, then we have the vitality to swim against the current, to work against the pull of the flesh that wants to drag us downstream. And there is no neutrality here: if we do nothing but “go with the flow,” then we will be dragged along with those who have made a conscious decision in favor of the “flesh” as opposed to the lifegiving “spirit.”
Those who are faithfully answering the radical call to the consecrated life are the most “alive” people I’ve ever encountered. A few months ago my wife Maureen and I had the privilege of visiting with our daughter at the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. What struck me even more than the calls to chastity and obedience was the way they live the call to poverty.
Like the woman in the Gospel who was healed of her infirmity and was able to stand upright for the first time in many years, these beautiful young ladies are not “bent over” and worried about things here below. Rather, with Our Lord as their strength and constant companion, they see things from a more God-centered perspective. They are free. They appreciate and enjoy everything. They are not bored or thinking about what they’ve “given up” or don’t have. What an amazing paradox: By becoming poor, they have truly become rich!
I’m particularly drawn to Eucharistic Prayer III. One phrase from that prayer that has had rich meaning for me through the years is, “Father, hear the prayers of the family you have gathered here . . .” as I’ve written frequently on the image of the Church as the “family of God” as well as on the “parish family.”
But at Mass the week Sr. Mary Kate entered the Dominicans, it was the next line that really struck me: “In mercy and love unite all your children wherever they may be.”
Even though Sr. Mary Kate is now a thousand miles away, we are still united in God’s mercy and love, particularly through our participation in the Eucharist and in the life of the Church in general (a “communion of saints” thing). This is another one of those teachings to which we give notional assent, but every now and then we have moments in which a truth of the faith penetrates us in a more real, experiential way.
It’s all right here in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 2232-33):
“Family ties are important but not absolute. Just as the child grows to maturity and human and spiritual autonomy, so his unique vocation which comes from God asserts itself more clearly and forcefully. Parents should respect this call and encourage their children to follow it. They must be convinced that the first vocation of the Christian is to follow Jesus: ‘He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me’ (Mt 10:37). . . .
“Parents should welcome and respect with joy and thanksgiving the Lord’s call to one of their children to follow Him in virginity for the sake of the Kingdom in the consecrated life or in priestly ministry.”
This brings me back to the call to poverty. Young religious need to incorporate a healthy spirit of detachment from worldly things, including even one’s family, if they are to be “worthy” disciples of Christ. This assuredly means swimming upstream, and I was so impressed with how well the young sisters seemed to be making this transition, despite the inherent difficulty.
It’s also a challenge for parents to have their son or daughter enter religious life, especially when they enter right out of high school. We had about as much advance warning as possible (Sr. Mary Kate told me when she was 5 that she wanted to be a nun), and it was still a shock to the system.
I think that letting go of a child who is entering religious life is an act of poverty on our part. We not only are creating “space” for our children to seek evangelical perfection, but also growing in our own feeble spirit of sacrifice and detachment. Not surprisingly, Maureen and I have become fast friends with a whole fraternity of families who are also going through the same process.
Please remember in your prayers for religious vocations those who have already responded and, like Sr. Mary Kate, are going through the initial stages of their formation. And while you’re at it, please pray for their families, too!
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Religious Life, the bimonthly magazine of the Institute on Religious Life.
In this article, the USA Today comments on the CARA report earlier this month on women religious who took their final vows in 2010. The article focuses on the disappointing statistic that more than half of the sisters were discouraged by a family member in pursuing their vocation.
In most families that I’ve encountered, the problem is that religious vocations are not adequately valued. Contraception, the natural but at times inordinate desire for grandchildren, lukewarm faith, poor formation, and secular values are but a few of the factors that come into play, along with the normal emotions that go with having a loved one more away, potentially forever.
Maybe in the cases in which the family isn’t on board with the decision, the young woman’s vocation may be a catalyst for the conversion of the family . . .