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|Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life|
Fraternal life in community
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60. The missionary presence of a religious community is developed within the context of a particular Church, to which the members bring the richness of their consecration, of their fraternal life and of their charism.
By its mere presence, not only does a religious community bear in itself the richness of Christian life but as a unit it constitutes a particularly effective announcement of the Christian message. It can be said that it is a living and continuous preaching. This objective condition, which clearly holds religious themselves responsible, calling them to be faithful to this, their primary mission, correcting and eliminating anything which could attenuate or weaken the drawing power of their example, makes their presence in the particular Church identifiable and precious, prior to any other consideration.
Since charity is the greatest of the charisms (cf. 1 Cor. 13:13), a religious community enriches the Church of which it is a living part, first of all by its love. It loves the universal Church and the particular Church in which it is inserted because it is within the Church and as Church that it is placed in contact with the communion of the blessed and beatifying Trinity, source of all goods. In this way it becomes a privileged manifestation of the very nature of the Church herself.
A religious community loves the particular Church, enriches it with its charisms and opens it to a more universal dimension. The delicate relationships between the pastoral needs of the particular Church and the charismatic specificity of the religious community have been dealt with in Mutuae Relationes. In addition to the theological and pastoral orientations it provides, that document has made an important contribution to more cordial and intense collaboration. The time has come to take another look at that document, in order to give a new thrust to the spirit of true communion between religious community and the particular Church.
The growing difficulties of mission work and the scarcity of personnel can tempt both a religious community and the particular Church to a certain isolation; this, of course, does nothing to improve mutual understanding and collaboration.
The religious community runs the risk, on the one hand, of being present in the particular Church with no organic link to its life or to its pastoral programme and, on the other hand, of being reduced to merely pastoral functions. Moreover, if religious life tends more and more to emphasise its own charismatic identity, the local Church often makes pressing and insistent demands on the energies of religious for the pastoral activities of the diocese or parish. The guidelines provided by Mutuae Relationes take us far from the isolation and independence of a religious community in relation to a particular Church and far from the practical assimilation of a religious community into the particular Church.
Just as a religious community cannot act independently of the particular Church, or as an alternative to it, or much less against the directives and pastoral programme of the particular Church, so the particular Church cannot dispose, according to its own pleasure and according to its needs, of a religious community or of any of its members.
It is important to recall that a lack of proper consideration for the charism of a religious community serves neither the good of the particular Church nor that of the religious community itself. Only if a religious community has a well-defined charismatic identity can it integrate itself into an "overall pastoral programme" without losing its own character. Indeed, only in this way will it enrich the programme with its gift.
We must not forget that every charism is born in the Church and for the world and the link to its source and purpose must be continuously renewed; each charism is alive to the extent that one is faithful to it.
The Church and the world make possible its interpretation, request it and stimulate it to continued growth in relevance and vitality. Charism and particular Church should not be in conflict but should rather support and complete one another, especially now that so many problems of living out the charism and its insertion into changed situations have arisen.
It is earnestly recommended that all diocesan theological seminaries include a course specifically on the theology of consecrated life, including study of its dogmatic, juridic and pastoral aspects; religious should in turn receive adequate theological formation concerning the particular Church.(74)
Above all, however, a truly fraternal religious community will feel in duty bound to spread a climate of communion that will enable the entire Christian community to consider itself "the family of the children of God".
In some regions, the difficulties of living in community while being active in parish ministry create considerable tension for religious priests. At times, the heavy commitment to pastoral work in the parish is carried out to the detriment of the institute's charism and to community life, to the point that parishioners, secular clergy and even religious themselves lose sight of the particular nature of religious life.
Urgent pastoral needs must never lead us to forget that the best service a religious community can give to the Church is that of being faithful to its charism. This is also reflected in accepting responsibility for parishes and running them. Preference should be given to parishes which allow a community to live as community and where the religious can express their charism.
Here too, it is worth repeating, their presence will be all the more fruitful, the more the religious community is present in its charismatic character.(75) All of this can be a great advantage for both the religious community and the pastoral work, in which religious women are generally well accepted and appreciated.
Ecclesial movements in the broadest sense of the term, endowed with lively spirituality and apostolic vitality, have attracted the attention of some religious who have become involved in them, sometimes deriving fruits of spiritual renewal, apostolic dedication and a reawakening of their vocation. Sometimes, however, such involvements have also brought divisions into the religious community.
Also, there can be different degrees of involvement on the part of consecrated persons: some take part only as onlookers; others participate occasionally; still others are permanent members while remaining in full harmony with their own community and spirituality. However, those whose principal membership goes to the movement and who become psychologically distanced from their own institute become a problem. They live in a state of inner division: they dwell within their communities, but they live in accordance with the pastoral plans and guidelines of the movement.
b) these movements can be a fruitful challenge to a religious community, to its spiritual dynamic, to the quality of its prayer life, to the relevance of its apostolic initiatives, to its fidelity to the Church, to the intensity of its fraternal life. A religious community should be open to encounters with these movements, showing an attitude of mutual recognition, dialogue and exchange of gifts.
For those religious who seem to live more in and for a particular movement than in and for their religious community, it is good to recall the following statement in Potissimum institutioni: "An institute... has an internal cohesiveness which it receives from its nature, its end, its spirit, its character, and its traditions. This whole patrimony is the axis around which both the identity and unity of the institute itself and the unity of life of each of its members are maintained. This is a gift of the Spirit to the Church and does not admit any interference or any admixture. A dialogue and sharing within the Church presumes that each institute is well aware of what it is.
"These exigencies remain after the religious profession, so as to avoid appearance of divided loyalties, either on the level of the personal spiritual life of the religious or on the level of their mission".(76)
In recent years, poverty has been an issue which has involved religious very intensely and which has touched their hearts. Religious life has seriously faced the question of how to be available for the task of evangelising the poor (evangelizare pauperibus). But religious have also wanted to be evangelised through their contact with the world of the poor (evangelizari a pauperibus).
In this huge mobilisation, in which religious have chosen as their programme "everyone for the poor", "many with the poor", "some like the poor", some accomplishments in the area of being "like the poor" deserve special mention.
In face of the impoverishment of great masses of people, especially in abandoned and marginal areas of large cities and in forgotten rural areas, "religious communities of insertion" have arisen as one of the expressions of the preferential and solidarist evangelical option for the poor. These communities intend to accompany the poor in their process of integral liberation, but are also fruit of the desire to discover the poor Christ in marginalized brothers and sisters, in order to serve him and become conformed to him.
It is a reality which cannot but arouse admiration for the tremendous personal dedication and great sacrifices which it involves; for the love of the poor which carries one to share their real and harsh poverty; for the effort to make the Gospel present in sectors of the population which are without hope; to bring them closer to the Word of God, and to make them feel a living part of the Church.(77) These communities often live in areas deeply marked by a violence which gives rise to insecurity and, sometimes, to persecution, to the point of real danger to life. Their great courage is clear testimony to the hope that it is possible to live as brothers and sisters, despite all situations of suffering and injustice.
Often sent to the front lines of mission, sometimes witnesses of the apostolic creativity of their founders, such religious communities ought to be able to count on the good will and fraternal prayer of the other members of their institute and on particular care from their superiors.(78)
b) These religious communities should not be left to themselves; they must be helped to live a life of community. This requires space for prayer and fraternal exchanges, in order to ensure that the charismatic originality of their institute not appear to them relatively less important than undifferentiated service to the poor, and in order that their evangelical witness not be clouded by partisan interpretations or exploitation.(79)
c) We should also applaud the efforts of the other religious communities who are effectively committed to the poor, whether in traditional ways, or in new ways more suited to new forms of poverty, or by raising awareness at all levels of society of the problems of the poor -- thus generating among the laity vocations to social and political commitment, charitable projects and voluntary service.
All of this bears witness that the faith is alive in the Church, that the love of Christ is active and present among the poor: "as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me" (cf. Mt. 25:40).
Where insertion among the poor has become, for both the poor and the religious community itself, a true experience of God, there is experienced the truth of the affirmation that the poor are evangelised and the poor evangelise.
a) Other social factors have also influenced communities. In some more economically developed regions, the State has become more active in areas such as education, health and social services, often in ways that leave little or no space for other agents, such as religious communities. On the other hand, the decrease in numbers of men and women religious and, here or there, a limited understanding of the presence of Catholics in social action, seen more as supplementary rather than as a genuine expression of Christian charity, have made it difficult to carry on complex projects.
Hence, in some regions, there has been a gradual abandonment of traditional works -- which for many years had been in the hands of strong and homogeneous communities -- and an increase in small communities available for new kinds of services, more often than not in keeping with the institute's charism.
b) Smaller communities have also become more frequent as a result of deliberate choices made by certain institutes in order to promote fraternal union and collaboration through closer relationships among persons and a mutual and more broadly based sharing of responsibility.
c) Small communities, often situated in close contact with the daily life and problems of people -- but also more exposed to the influence of a secularised mentality -- have the important responsibility of being visible places of happy fraternity, enthusiastic industry and transcendent hope.
It is therefore necessary that these communities be given a programme of life which is solid, flexible and binding, approved by the competent authority who is to ensure that the apostolate have a community dimension. This programme should be suited to the persons and demands of the mission in such a way as to promote balance between prayer and activity, between moments of community intimacy and apostolic work. It should also include regular meetings with other communities of the same institute, precisely to overcome the danger of isolation and margination from the broader community of the institute.
d) Even if small communities can offer advantages, it is not normally recommended that an institute be made up of only small communities. Larger communities are necessary. They can offer significant services both to the entire institute and to the smaller communities: cultivating the life of prayer and celebrations with more intensity and richness, being preferred places for study and reflection, offering possibilities for retreat and rest for members working on the more difficult frontiers of the evangelising mission.
These communities should be recognisable primarily for the fraternal love which unites the members, for the simplicity of their lives, for the mission they undertake in the name of the community, for persevering fidelity to their charism, for the constant diffusion of the "sweet perfume" of Christ (2 Cor. 2:15), so that in the most diverse circumstances they may point to the "way of peace", even for the confused and fragmented members of modern society.
One of the realities encountered from time to time is that of men and women religious living alone. Common life in a house of the institute is essential for religious life. "Religious should live in their own religious house, observing a common life. They should not live alone without serious reason, and should not do so if there is a community of their institute reasonably near".(81)
There are, however, exceptions which must be evaluated and can be authorised by superiors(82) by reason of apostolate on behalf of the institute (as for example, commitments requested by the Church; extraordinary missions; great distances in mission territories; gradual decrease in the membership of a community, to the point that a single religious is in charge of one of the institute's works), or for reasons of health and study.
While it is the responsibility of superiors to cultivate frequent contacts with members living outside community, it is the duty of these religious to keep alive in themselves the sense of belonging to the institute and a sense of communion with its members, seeking every means suitable for strengthening fraternal bonds. Periods of intense communal living must be scheduled, as well as regular meetings with fellow religious for formation, fraternal sharing, review of life, and prayer, for breathing in a family atmosphere. Wherever they may be, members of an institute shall be bearers of the charism of their religious family.
A religious living alone is never an ideal. The norm is that religious live in fraternal communities: the individual is consecrated in this common life and it is in this form of life that such men and women normally undertake their apostolate; it is to this life that they return, in heart and in person, as often as it is necessary for them to live apart for a time, long or short.
a) The demands of a particular apostolic work, for example of a diocesan work, have led various institutes to send one of their members to collaborate in an inter-congregational team. There are positive experiences in which religious who collaborate in serving a particular work in a place where there is no community of their own institute, instead of living alone, live in the same house, pray together, have meetings to reflect on the word of God, share food and domestic duties, etc. As long as this does not become a substitute for living communication with their own institute, this kind of "community life" can be advantageous for the work and for the religious themselves.
b) Also, requests for attending to elderly and sick parents, often involving long absences from community, need careful discernment and possibly such needs can be satisfied by other arrangements in order to avoid excessively long absences of the son or daughter.
c) It must be noted that the religious who lives alone, without an assignment or permission from the superior, is fleeing from the obligation to common life. Nor is it sufficient to take part in a few meetings or celebrations to be fully a religious. Efforts must be made to bring about the progressive disappearance of these unjustified and inadmissible situations for religious men and women.
d) In each case, it is helpful to recall that religious, even when living outside community, are subject in areas relating to apostolate to the authority of the bishop,(83) who is to be informed of their presence in his diocese.
e) Should there be institutes in which, unfortunately, the majority of members no longer live in community, such institutes would no longer be able to be considered true religious institutes. Superiors and religious are invited to reflect seriously on this sorrowful outcome and, consequently, on the importance of resuming with vigour the practice of fraternal life in common.
Fraternal life in common has special value in areas of the mission ad gentes because it shows the world, especially the non-Christian world, the "newness" of Christianity, that is, the charity which is capable of overcoming divisions created by race, colour, tribe. In some countries where the Gospel cannot be proclaimed, religious communities are almost the only sign and silent and effective witness of Christ and of the Church.
But not rarely it is precisely in mission territories that religious come up against notable practical difficulties in building stable and viable communities: distances which require great mobility and widely scattered communities; belonging to different races, tribes, and cultures; the need for formation in inter-congregational centres. These and other factors can be obstacles for a community ideal.
The important thing is that the members of the institute be aware of the unusualness of the situation, that they promote frequent communication among themselves, that they promote regular community meetings and, as soon as possible, set up fraternal religious communities with a strong missionary character so that they can offer the missionary sign par excellence: "that they may all be one..., so that the world may believe" (Jn. 17:21).
Changes in cultural and ecclesial conditions, internal factors in the development of institutes and changes of their resources can require a reorganization of the works and of the presence of religious communities.
This task, not an easy one, has real implications touching on community. Generally, it is a question of works in which many brothers and sisters have expended their best apostolic energies and to which they are tied by special psychological and spiritual bonds.
The future of these works, their apostolic significance and their reorganization require study, comparison and discernment. All of this can become a school for learning to seek and follow the will of God, but at the same time it can be an occasion of painful conflicts not easily overcome.
Criteria which cannot be overlooked and which enlighten communities at the time of decisions, sometimes bold and painful, are: commitment to safeguard the significance of their own charism in a specific setting, concern to keep alive an authentic fraternal life and attention to the needs of the particular Church. A trusting and ongoing dialogue with the particular Church is therefore essential, as is effective connection with those responsible for communion among the religious.
In addition to attention to the needs of the particular Church, religious communities must be concerned also for all that the world neglects -- that is to say, for the new forms of poverty and suffering in the many forms in which they are found in different parts of the world.
Reorganization will be creative and a source of prophetic signs if it takes care to announce new ways of being present -- even if only in small numbers -- in order to respond to new needs, especially those of the most abandoned and forgotten areas.
One of the situations which community life faces more often today is the increasing age of its members. Ageing has taken on particular significance both because of the reduced number of new vocations and because of the progress of medicine.
For a community, on the one hand this fact means concern for accepting in their midst and esteeming deeply the presence and services which elderly brothers and sisters can offer and, on the other, it means attention to provide fraternally and in a way consistent with consecrated life those means of spiritual and material assistance which the elderly need.
The presence of the elderly in communities can be quite positive. An elderly religious who does not allow himself or herself to be overcome by the annoyances and limitations of age, but keeps alive joy, love and hope, is an invaluable support for the young. The elderly provide a witness, wisdom and prayer which are a constant encouragement to the young in their spiritual and apostolic journey. Moreover, religious who take care of the elderly give evangelical credibility to their own institute as a "true family convoked in the name of the Lord".(84)
Consecrated persons also should prepare themselves long in advance for becoming old and for extending their "active" years, by learning to discover their new way of building community and collaborating in the common mission, responding positively to the challenges of their age, through lively spiritual and cultural interests, by prayer, and by continued participation in their work for as long as they can render service, even if limited. Superiors should arrange courses and meetings to assist personal preparation and to prolong and enhance as much as possible the presence of religious in their normal workplaces.
When in time these elderly members lose their autonomy or require special care, even when their health is cared for by lay persons, the institute should be very much concerned with supporting them so that they continue to feel a part of the life of the institute, sharers in its mission, involved in its apostolic dynamism, comforted in their solitude, encouraged in their suffering. They never leave the mission but they are placed at its heart, participating in it in a new and effective manner.
However invisible, their fruitfulness is not less than that of more active communities. These derive strength and fruitfulness from the prayer, the suffering, and the apparent lack of influence of the elderly. Mission has need of both, and the fruits will become visible when the Lord comes in glory with his angels.
69. Problems posed by the growing number of elderly religious become still more striking in some monasteries which have suffered a lack of vocations. Because a monastery is normally an autonomous community, it is difficult for it to overcome these problems by itself. So it is helpful to recall the importance of organisms of communion, such as federations, for example, in order to overcome situations of great need of personnel.
Fidelity to the contemplative life requires the members of a monastery to unite with another monastery of the same Order when a monastic community, by reason of the number of its members, age, or lack of vocations, foresees its own extinction. Also in the painful situation of communities no longer able to live according to their proper vocation because the members are worn down by practical labours or by caring for the elderly or sick members, it will be necessary to seek reinforcements from the same Order or to choose union or fusion with another monastery.(85)
Conciliar ecclesiology has shed light on the complementarity of the different vocations in the Church which are called to be, together in every situation and place, witnesses of the Risen Lord. Encounter and collaboration among religious men, religious women, and lay faithful are seen as an example of ecclesial communion and, at the same time, they strengthen apostolic energies for the evangelization of the world.
Appropriate contact between the values characteristic of the lay vocation, such as a more concrete perception of the life of the world, of culture, politics, economy, etc., and the values characteristic of religious life, such as the radicality of the following of Christ, the contemplative and eschatological dimension of Christian existence, etc., can become a fruitful exchange of gifts between the lay faithful and religious communities.
Collaboration and exchange of gifts become more intense when groups of lay persons share, by vocation and in the way proper to them, in the heart of the same spiritual family, in the charism and mission of the institute. In this way, fruitful relationships, based on bonds of mature co-responsibility and supported by regularly scheduled programmes of formation in the spirituality of the institute will be established.
In order to achieve such an objective, however, it is necessary to have: religious communities with a clear charismatic identity, assimilated and lived, capable of transmitting them to others and disposed to share them; religious communities with an intense spirituality and missionary enthusiasm for communicating the same spirit and the same evangelising thrust; religious communities who know how to animate and encourage lay people to share the charism of their institute, according to their secular character and according to their different style of life, inviting them to discover new ways of making the same charism and mission operative. In this way, a religious community becomes a centre radiating outwardly, a spiritual force, a centre of animation, of fraternity creating fraternity, and of communion and ecclesial collaboration, where the different contributions of each help build up the Body of Christ, which is the Church.
A religious community has its own needs of animation, horarium, discipline and privacy,(86) such as to render unacceptable those forms of collaboration which imply cohabitation and the living together of religious and laity, even when such arrangements specify conditions which are to be respected.
74) Cf. MR 30b, 47.
75) MR 49-50.
76) PI 93.
77) Cf. SD 85.
78) Cf. RHP 6; EN 69; SD 92.
79) Cf. PI 28.
80) Cf. ET 40.
81) EE III, §12.
82) Cf. can. 665 §1.
83) Cf. can. 678 §1.
84) PC 15a.
85) Cf. PC 21 and 22.
86) Cf. can. 667, 607 §3.
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