Adaptation and renewal of Religious Life Print
Reflections on Religious Life
Written by Abbot Marcel Rooney, OSB   
Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

Reflections on Religious Life column by Abbot Marcel Rooney

Editor's note: During this Year of Consecrated Life, this is the first in a series based on the Second Vatican Council’s document, Perfectae Caritatis (Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life) written by Abbot Marcel Rooney, OSB, former abbot primate of the Benedictine order who now resides in Madison.

Pope Francis has declared this year as one to be dedicated to the Life of Religious Consecration.

This is not a one-sided emphasis, since this is also the year of the Synod of Bishops which will be dedicated to the discussion of married life. It is important to see both ways of life as at the heart of the whole Church's life and calling to witness Jesus.

This commentary will devote itself to the Religious Life, primarily through reflections upon the document issued by the Second Vatican Council, October 28, 1965, Perfectae Caritatis (the Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life).

This is most opportune, since this year marks the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the council decree.

Renewal of Catholic life

The whole of the Second Vatican Council was dedicated to the renewal of our Catholic life. This decree helps to situate the life of vowed Religious men and women in that larger picture of renewal in the entire Church.

Hence, to understand fully the council’s teaching on vowed Religious, it will be necessary to consider the larger issue of the meaning of renewal for the entire Church, which was discussed in another important document, the Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.

Article 1 of the decree (Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life) states clearly where the Church finds the basis for Religious Life: ". . . (we) have shown (in the Constitution on the Church) that the pursuit of perfect charity through the evangelical counsels draws its origin from the teaching and example of the Divine Master. . .”

Jesus Himself, then, is the origin of this special calling in the Church. The whole life of the Church is animated by and directed to charity — love of God and love of neighbor, the two great commandments which Jesus stated as necessary for fulfilling the entire Law of God (Matt. 22:37, 39).

Following a special call

Religious Life, therefore, is not first and foremost a matter of canon laws, but rather is an expression of the grace of the Holy Spirit, driving some men and women to follow a special call to follow Jesus in a particular way.

The practice of what came to be called in the Church as "the evangelical counsels" -- meaning particularly poverty, chastity, and obedience -- is usually considered to be at the heart of this call.

But the main thing is simply, as the council put it, that those called to Religious Life "bind themselves to the Lord in a special way."

Bound by baptism

Everyone who is baptized is bound to the Lord: God’s grace calls us all to become members of Christ's Body, to accept God's adoption of us as His children.

This profound tie to God is a very real consecration of every baptized person. That means that we baptized are "set apart" from the rest of the world -- both for God and for others.

Our response to God’s calling is to give ourselves back to God in love -- the sacred liturgy is a very important expression of our responding to God’s call and love -- and then to give ourselves to others in charity.

Religious Life

What happens in Religious Life is that a person realizes that God is calling him/her in a specific way to live out these two commandments of love.

The profession of Religious vows gives one a freedom to follow Christ, Who was by choice poor (Matt 8:20 – "The Son of Man has no where to lay His head . . . ") and chaste, and Who redeemed and sanctified humanity through His obedience to God's will even to His death (Phil 2:8 — "Although He was in the form of God, He . . . emptied Himself, taking on the form of a slave . . . even to death . . .").

Now there are many people in the world who are poor, but it is hard to find one who is poor by their own choice. What the Religious Life does is respond to the Holy Spirit in such a way that one commits oneself to embrace Christ more and more fully, as well as to serve the Church, which is Christ's Body. As has been said, the vowed life frees one to more easily make these commitments.

Insight into heaven

The result of having the Religious Life in the Church is that a wonderful sign of the heavenly Kingdom is given through this kind of expression by which one lives out the original call of Baptism, and responds to the new call of the Lord and the Holy Spirit.

In heaven, we are not going to need to have lots of "things" — so complete will be our fulfillment in God: vowed poverty anticipates this state.

In heaven, "there will be no marrying . . ." (Luke 20:35-36) — for all will live a new kind of risen life: vowed chastity/celibacy anticipates this state.

In heaven, obedience to the various demands of life and authority will yield itself to total surrendering to the love of God, total contemplation in the most active kind of love: vowed obedience is intended to show and anticipate this.

By professing the counsels in the vowed life, the Religious thus is intended to give people of faith an insight into heaven. That is why the council calls this kind of life a "splendid sign" of what eternal life will look like.

Jesus at center

Jesus is always at the center of the vision of Religious Life. His doctrine and His example are what animate it, in all its varied forms.

Those various forms mirror the variety of gifts which the Holy Spirit fosters throughout the Church. For this reason, various groups of Religious manifest their love of God and neighbor in a great variety of ways: teaching, hospital work, particular care of the poor and needy, missionary efforts, etc.

And so they also manifest God’s infinite Wisdom to be found in the Revelation of His Son and the Holy Spirit throughout the entire life and action of the Church. It is a matter of history. It is a matter of mystery.

All Religious are human, and hence an individual may not measure up perfectly to this ideal presented by the Second Vatican Council. But the ideal was presented with some clarity by the council 50 years ago.

All Catholics cannot help but pray for the continued renewal and flourishing of the "splendid sign" of God’s Presence on earth. Such would mean also the renewal and flourishing of the Church itself.


Abbot Marcel Rooney, OSB, is president of the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music, and Art.  The institute is dedicated to the renewal of the sacred liturgy in our churches and other Catholic institutions. If its work would be helpful in your parish, call 608- 203-6735.