Hope and consecrated life

On February 2 the Church observed the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life. St. John Paul II instituted this day 20 years ago in 1997, choosing the feast of the Presentation of the Lord for this annual observance. In the United States the bishops’ conference has transferred this remembrance to the weekend after the feast day, so that more people might be exposed to the topic of consecrated life.

In the hullabaloo of Super Bowl Sunday, consecrated life probably was not on the top of most people’s minds. Consecrated Life in the Church is the vocation to live out the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in a stable, lifelong state of life.

Pope Francis, in his homily on consecrated life this year, began with an appreciation of the older members of these religious communities, as well as the deceased earlier generations of them: “God never deceives us. Simeon and Anna [the two people who encountered the Holy Family in the temple], in their old age, were capable of a new fruitfulness, and they testify to this in song. Life is worth living in hope, because the Lord keeps His promise. Jesus Himself will later explain this promise in the synagogue of Nazareth: the sick, prisoners, those who are alone, the poor, the elderly and sinners, all are invited to take up this same hymn of hope. Jesus is with them, Jesus is with us” (cf. Lk 4:18-19).

Giving a message much needed in today’s world, the Holy Father continued, “We have inherited this hymn of hope from our elders. In their faces, in their lives, in their daily sacrifice we were able to see how this praise was embodied. We are heirs to the dreams of our elders, heirs to the hope that did not disappoint our founding mothers and fathers, our older brothers and sisters. Like them, we too want to sing, ‘God does not deceive; hope in Him does not disappoint.’ God comes to meet His people. And we want to sing by taking up the prophecy of Joel and making it our own: ‘I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions’” (2:28).

We don’t just look back to the hopes of our predecessors –— we are called to hope in the Lord as well. “We do well to take up the dreams of our elders, so that we can prophesy in our day and once more encounter what originally set our hearts afire. Dreams and prophecies together. The remembrance of how our elders, our fathers and mothers, dreamed, and the courage prophetically to carry on those dreams.” In other words, our hopes then push us into action, guided by the Holy Spirit. 

The hope God gives us helps us to resist evil. “This attitude will make our consecrated life more fruitful,” Pope Francis said. “Most importantly, it will protect us from a temptation that can make our consecrated life barren: the temptation of survival. An evil that can gradually take root within us and within our communities. The mentality of survival makes us reactionaries, fearful, slowly and silently shutting ourselves up in our houses and in our own preconceived notions. It makes us look back, to the glory days — days that are past — and rather than rekindling the prophetic creativity born of our founders’ dreams, it looks for shortcuts in order to evade the challenges knocking on our doors today. A survival mentality robs our charisms of power, because it leads us to ‘domesticate’ them, to make them ‘user-friendly,’ robbing them of their original creative force. It makes us want to protect spaces, buildings and structures, rather than to encourage new initiatives. The temptation of survival makes us forget grace; it turns us into professionals of the Sacred but not fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters of that hope to which we are called to bear prophetic witness. An environment of survival withers the hearts of our elderly, taking away their ability to dream. In this way, it cripples the prophecy that our young are called to proclaim and work to achieve. In a word, the temptation of survival turns what the Lord presents as an opportunity for mission into something dangerous, threatening, potentially disastrous. This attitude is not limited to the consecrated life, but we in particular are urged not to fall into it.”

As the pontiff said at the end of that paragraph, whether we are laity, clerics or religious, we are all tempted to “give up” when faced with the world we have before us, instead of hoping in the Lord. May the Holy Family, along with Simeon and Anna, intercede for us so that we might put Christian hope into action.

The Blessed Mother placed Jesus into Simeon’s arms. “When Mary let Simeon take the Son of the Promise into his arms, the old man began to sing –— celebrating a true ‘Liturgy’ — he sings his dreams. Whenever she puts Jesus in the midst of His people, they encounter joy. For this alone will bring back our joy and hope, this alone will save us from living in a survival mentality. Hence, it is all the more important for consecrated men and women to be one with Jesus, in their lives and in the midst of these great changes. Our mission — in accordance with each particular charism — reminds us that we are called to be a leaven in this dough. Perhaps there are better brands of flour, but the Lord has called us to be leaven here and now, with the challenges we face. Not on the defensive or motivated by fear, but with our hands on the plough, helping the wheat to grow, even though it has frequently been sown among weeds. Putting Jesus in the midst of His people means having a contemplative heart, one capable of discerning how God is walking through the streets of our cities, our towns and our neighborhoods. Putting Jesus in the midst of His people means taking up and carrying the crosses of our brothers and sisters. It means wanting to touch the wounds of Jesus in the wounds of a world in pain, which longs and cries out for healing.”

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