Adaptation and renewal of Religious Life: Role of contemplative, monastic Religious Print
Reflections on Religious Life
Thursday, Aug. 06, 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 sixth 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.

In this commentary on the Second Vatican Council's Decree On the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, we have reflected upon the general principles underlying the very existence of all Religious Life.

These include patterning the life on the doctrine and example of Jesus; giving a sign on earth of the heavenly Kingdom; binding the vowed individual in a special way to the Lord; and openness to the action of the Holy Spirit.

Besides these general principles, the council gave special attention to the two main manifestations of Religious Life in the Western Church, which are usually subsumed under the titles of 1) the contemplative and/or monastic life; 2) the active and/or missionary life.

With this reflection, we will examine the council's teaching regarding the first of these, and next month's reflection will take up the second.

The decree addresses the role of contemplative and monastic Religious in paragraphs seven and nine.

Manifestations of deep faith

At the heart of both manifestations of this aspect of Religious Life is deep faith. For it is not always externally evident that the contemplative or monastic vowed Religious is "doing something" for the Church and the world.

The council speaks of their importance, "no matter how pressing the needs of the active apostolate may be . . . " (Par. 7) Their role is to "offer to God a sacrifice of praise . . . (that their) holiness lends luster to the people of God which is inspirited by their example . . . " (Ibid.)

One sees how this takes faith to grasp: the constant round of prayer and simple work tasks performed within the confines of their communities on the surface seem almost unrelated to the command of Jesus to His disciples to "Go out into the whole world and proclaim the Good News . . . " (Mark 16:16).

A life of holiness

But what is at the heart of this "Good News"? Surely it is that God has set apart a people for Himself, saving them through the Paschal Mystery of Jesus' death and resurrection and filling them with His Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). That "setting apart" is "holiness" at its very core.

By concentrating on this life of holiness, through prayer and work in a hidden life set apart from the world’s daily affairs, the contemplative and monastic thus witnesses to the Church, to all people of faith, the calling which ultimately everyone has through the Baptism and Confirmation they have received and which initiated them into God's holy kingdom.

Service in liturgy

As regards monastic Religious in particular, the council Fathers restated the constant tradition of the Church in their regard: their principal duty is to offer a service to the divine majesty, which is principally in the sacred liturgy (Par. 9).

This is true whether they are totally contemplative in lifestyle or take on some apostolic or charitable work as the overflow of their prayer and union with God.

This author himself is engaged in precisely such apostolic work, through his leadership of the Orate Liturgical Institute, based in Madison. The Latin word in the title of the institute, orate, means: pray!

But the primary witness of the entire monastic life calls to the Church to pray. Such an apostolate as a liturgical institute thus fulfills the direction of the council for this particular form of Religious Life.

May the contemplative and monastic form of Religious Life flourish in the Church today, and inspire the whole Christian people to fulfill its proper role in living and proclaiming the kingdom of God in our world today.


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.