Pope Francis has designated this year as the “Year of Consecrated Life,” inviting the Church to come to a deeper understanding of the gift of the consecrated life in the midst of the contemporary world. What is consecrated life? To be “consecrated” means to be set apart, made holy to the Lord. Each of us in consecrated to the Lord in Baptism, and yet some individuals in the Church are called to a different sort of consecration, one that submits them entirely to God through the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Through the consecrated life, men and women are called to devote themselves to God, offering all that they are in a life of imitation of Christ.
One way of reflecting further on the consecrated life is to consider the meaning of obedience. Through obedience, the religious makes a gift of himself or herself, a sacrifice to the Lord. But this is not a sacrifice that leads to death, it is rather a living sacrifice that burns without being consumed, like the burning bush in which Moses encounters the Lord. For the Fathers of the Church, Mary is understood to be like the burning bush, a Virgin in the midst of childbirth, aflame but never burned. Through the vow of obedience, each consecrated person becomes like that burning bush, lighting up the world and serving as a pillar of flame in the midst of the darkness of this world. All Christians are meant to be the light of the world, reflecting the light of Christ who is the light of the nations, and yet consecrated persons are called to burn with a special brightness. Through obedience, the consecrated person is devoted for God, becoming free to serve the Lord with all his or her powers. This obedience relies on the theological virtue of hope, which entails the conviction that the Lord will be able to make something of this living sacrifice, that the Lord will make something beautiful from our own paltry efforts.
There are many modes of living the consecrated life within the Church: monks and cloistered nuns lead lives of seclusion from the world, focused on the praise of the Lord; active sisters and brothers care for the needs of the sick, the poor, and the ignorant through ministries of service, teaching, and evangelization; others combine the contemplative and the active life through a mixture that aims at a contemplative mode of preaching. Others live consecrated to the Lord in the midst of the world without special distinction of dress or custom, as consecrated virgins and consecrated lay persons. In each of these ways, men and women respond to the call of the Holy Spirit to devote themselves to the Lord, to hear his voice, and to do his will.
One form of consecrated life that has often received less attention than others is that of the religious brother: a man who is consecrated to the Lord in a particular religious institute, but who does not receive holy orders. Different religious Orders have different terms for this way of life: some emphasize the non-clerical character of these men by naming them “lay brothers”; others emphasize their role of service within the wider Church by describing them as “cooperator brothers”; others draw attention to their conversion of life by describing them as “converse brothers.”
Today, the Church celebrates the feast of St. André Bessette, a Holy Cross Brother who devoted his life to prayer, serving the Lord in the sick and afflicted, and drawing men and women to a greater devotion to St. Joseph. In the midst of his duties as porter (or door keeper) at his community in Montreal, St. André was led by his devotion to St. Joseph to build a shrine to the foster father of Jesus. Although he had few resources at his disposal, St. André trusted in the Lord—and St. Joseph himself—putting a statue of St. Joseph on the property he had acquired for the shrine and asking him to build a roof for himself! In 1904, St. André began construction of a modest wooden chapel. In 1917, a larger church was constructed to accommodate the growing crowds, and in 1924 the construction of a basilica to St. Joseph was commenced. At the time of St. André’s death on January 6, 1937, the construction of the new basilica was still incomplete—and it would not be finished for another thirty years. Despite these delays, St. André did not despair of his project, for he knew that if the Lord does not build the house the builder labors in vain. It mattered little that St. André did not live to see the completion of the new basilica, because he entrusted his hope to the Lord.
In his recent apostolic letter on the year of consecrated life, Pope Francis stresses the importance of hope in the midst of uncertainty:
But it is precisely amid these uncertainties, which we share with so many of our contemporaries, that we are called to practice the virtue of hope, the fruit of our faith in the Lord of history, who continues to tell us: “Be not afraid… for I am with you” (Jer 1:8). This hope is not based on statistics or accomplishments, but on the One in whom we have put our trust (cf. 2 Tim 1:2), the One for whom “nothing is impossible” (Lk 1:37). This is the hope which does not disappoint; it is the hope which enables consecrated life to keep writing its great history well into the future. It is to that future that we must always look, conscious that the Holy Spirit spurs us on so that he can still do great things with us. So do not yield to the temptation to see things in terms of numbers and efficiency, and even less to trust in your own strength.
St. André Bessette, teach us to hope in the midst of our own difficulties; teach us to hope in the Lord, for whom nothing is impossible.
Photo Credit: Alexis Birkill, Oratory of St. Joseph (Montreal)