Religious life today calls for sincere reflection and evaluation on how to express their specific identity through prayer and service.
At the centre of the Christian religion is the belief that Jesus, the Son of God, became a full human being and lived among us. Jesus was fully committed to everything and to everyone in the world. For a serious commitment to and involvement with the world, every disciple of Jesus must be intensely apostolic. For this reason, any distinction between apostolic and contemplative spiritualities may confuse, and even deny a healthy, creative and serious concern – the apostolic concern – that must constitute every spirituality.
The essential apostolic orientation of Christian spirituality can be expressed by religious, either in the monastic or in the active life style. And these two distinct apostolic life styles are the fruit of God’s Spirit at work in the heart of men and women who have responded to His call. The monastic and active styles of Christian apostolate are not meant as hard and fast divisions. Rather, they express tendencies, movements of grace in our hearts. For the consecrated life, the challenge is to achieve a proper blend of these two aspects of the incarnational spirituality of Jesus.
Jesus was fully human and divine. His incarnational spirituality was both contemplative and active. The ll Vatican Council has clearly stated that by its very nature, religious life requires apostolic action and service. Hence, consecrated men and women are contemplatives in action.
It is obvious that in the life of a religious prayer must hold the premier place. In fact, people look at them preeminently as persons of prayer. The request “pray for me” is a phrase, priests and sisters often hear. They are expected to be persons of prayer.
In the monastic tradition, the emphasis was more on the official community prayers. Praying together, of course, has a special significance in religious life. It reminds of the unity and togetherness, which are the cornerstones of religious life.
Basically prayer is a response in faith to God who constantly reveals Himself – God coming to us, we responding to him. God’s revelation is a dynamic process. It comes to us through the Holy Scriptures, sacraments, community and personal prayer and our life experiences. Hence, it would be appropriate to allow considerable flexibility and accommodation in the prayer life of the religious. As salvation history shows, there are various forms of prayer that are valid. Without neglecting the importance of common prayer, each religious should be encouraged to develop a style of prayer life according to one’s personal aptitudes and interests.
Today, most religious communities are more active than contemplative. The importance given to ministry in no way is meant to deny the absolute importance of the contemplative dimension of religious life. Effective ministry is impossible without mature prayer. The deepening of their regular contemplative experience is a great challenge today for active religious, busy and fatigued with various ministries. Consecrated persons have to constantly remind themselves that they are in the world, but not of the world. The best and the most radical service they can render to humanity is their testimony of a life that manifests the total supremacy of the love of God.
Proper balance between prayer and involvement in pastoral ministries is vital for the active religious congregations of today. This is the greater challenge facing active apostolic communities. In the past, religious formation mostly produced a compartmental relationship between prayer and activity. Even today, formators struggle to help active members of their communities to achieve an inner integration that facilitates the experience of finding, being with, and serving God in all their activities. The Vatican ll emphasizes this aspect when it says to communities whose very nature requires apostolic action and services, that “their entire apostolic activity should be animated by religious spirit” (PC 8).
Work is Prayer
Many modern religious are tempted to think that their ministry is their prayer. Such a concept is theologically and psychologically wrong. We know, beyond doubt that no one does work while praying, unless that person regularly stops working, and prays. Apostolic spirituality is not a simplistic identification of work and prayer.
The apostolic spirituality of the consecrated life involves two mutual and integral movements. The first is an appropriate, regular involvement in contemplation which gradually spills over and renders prayerful, everything a person does, says, and is. The second is an involvement in activity that shows a desire for, and sometimes provides subject matter of formal contemplation in private. As one grows faithful and sensitive to the two movements, life becomes permeated by a Presence – the Sprit of God praying and revealing the clear signs of the Spirit acting within (Gal.Ch 5).
Modern religious life is more apostolic than contemplative, seeking to imitate Jesus in His public life. Jesus was attentive to the needs of the people. Large crowds came to him – “the lame, the crippled, the blind, the dumb…and He cured them” (Mt 15:30). He could anticipate their desires even before voicing them. “I feel sorry for these people. They have been with me for three days and have nothing to eat.”
The Founders of Apostolic Congregations were also moved by the cry of the poor, the sick, and the ignorant. Jesus inspired them to respond to the cry of their times. They gathered followers who would share their project and vision. Today, we have in the Church numerous religious communities, continuing to build the Kingdom of God, as Jesus did in His public life. The Founders of apostolic congregations chose to respond to the needs of their times, imitating Jesus. How do Congregations working in India now, respond to the needs of our society? This is the question Apostolic Congregations in our country are invited to answer, during the Year of Consecrated life.
Apostolic activities will be effective only in proportion to the intensity of the religious consecration. The ll Vatican Council emphasizes: “Every apostolic activity should be animated by the religious spirit. If the religious wish to respond above all else to their vocation to follow Christ and to serve Him in His members, their apostolic activity must be the outcome of their intimate union with Him” (PC 8). This statement clarifies any dichotomy between prayer and action, between being and doing. Religious are called by a unique vocation, to consecrate themselves to God as well as to serve their neighbour. Their consecration takes flesh in their action, and their action is an integral part of their pursuit of holiness. This integration has its roots in the mystery of Christ. Jesus is at same time “the one whom the Father consecrated, and sent into the world” (Jn 10:36).
Relevant to the Times
The purpose of religious life is to make salvation tangible to the world. What are the tasks required of religious life today? Those that demand a total adherence to Christ and which are not sought out by others, neglected by the institutional structures of the Church and government agencies; those that correspond to the charism of the Founder, here and now. The needs, problems and pursuits of today’s humans must find resonance in our hearts, inspiring us to make ours an evangelical presence that corresponds to their aspirations.
Therefore, it is expected that the consecrated persons choose tasks that cater to the most desirable values of our culture. Ministries undertaken by the religious should be based on the principle of “insertion” into the lives of people. Insertion means that we must be part of the people we serve, part of the society we live in and identify ourselves as much as possible with them. The poor we serve evangelize us. They help us examine our life style, and spur us to be honest to our religious commitment.
Insertion into people’s lives calls for a ministry with them, a ministry which is reciprocal. It calls for collaboration with other religions, with laity and people who have identical goals, no matter what their background is.
In all our ministries, there is the opportunity to experience the joys, hopes, griefs and anxieties of ordinary people. But at least in certain congregations, most ministerial settings provide scant opportunity to come into contact with the poor and the marginalized. (Eg: schools, colleges and superspeciality hospitals). Most religious congregations had as a part of their founding charism a special concern for ministry among the poor. Why then are the vast majority of the religious now working in ministries for the more affluent?
Fidelity to Charism
It is essential that religious understand fully their special founding charism as the basis for their spiritual life and for their special mission for the Church, in reading the signs of the times, and responding to them. Each religious has a particular personal task as well, of ascertaining one’s unique charism, a gift received for service. Thus each Congregation has a specific purpose and goal within the Church which it must remain faithful to, while serving the Church in cooperation with the ecclesial authority.
A serious problem facing most religious congregations today is that of determining how to effectively serve the Church and the society. The traditional expressions of religious life in its manner of presence and apostolic works are being challenged. Timely decisions regarding the future thrust of religious communities must be made in a systematic, corporate and prayerfully reflective manner.