Adaptation and renewal of Religious Life: Role of 'active,' apostolic Religious Print
Reflections on Religious Life
Thursday, Sep. 17, 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 seventh 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 decree of the Second Vatican Council Decree On the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, we have reflected upon the meaning of Religious Life expressed by the council fathers.

The fathers gave special attention to the two main expressions of Religious Life in the Western Church: 1) the contemplative and/or monastic life; 2) the active and/or missionary life.

In the previous installment, we reflected upon the contemplative expression of Religious Life. This seventh reflection will consider the council's teaching on the "active" or apostolic expression of the special call to Religious Life.

Apostolic outreach takes many forms

There are many communities in the Church, the council teaches, both clerical and lay communities, which are called to express their response to God's special call through the apostolic outreach which expresses the many gifts of the Holy Spirit which are found in the Church.

Examples of these communities are: teaching orders, which share God's truth in many forms for students and learners of all ages; preaching orders, which are dedicated to bringing God's Word alive in the hearts of listeners; and orders dedicated to care of the sick and needy, the poor, and any in distress -- these make the love of God very concrete in the lives of people.

Personal relationship with God

For this expression of Religious Life, "apostolic and charitable activity belongs to the very nature of their religious life" (Par. 8). But what makes this activity unique is that those Religious called to this form of the life are drawn to it because of their intense love of God, first of all.

They are devoted to responding to the Lord's call to them, to surrendering to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.

This means they have an intense personal relationship with God, a closeness to Jesus, and openness to the Spirit which is truly a gift from God.

Without such a personal relationship, their activities would be mere social work. Now, social work can be a very good thing in itself, but it is not part of the special calling that is Religious Life.

In other words, all the apostolic activities of "active" Religious are animated by the vowed person's special relationship with God, a relationship which fundamentally is that of love.

Expressing love of God

Filled with divine love, the vowed Religious then wants to go out to express it in many forms genuine love of neighbor. Love of persons whom these Religious serve is thus a kind of sacrament -- an outward expression of the divine love which animates them inwardly.

The goal is that these Religious become the mouth of Jesus, proclaiming His Kingdom; the hands of Jesus healing the sick; the compassion of Jesus for those in need.

Because the outreach of Religious is so important in the life of the Church, the council saw the need for its renewal and adaptation. That renewal has barely begun: the 50 years that have elapsed since the council have shown us that Religious Life cannot merely continue to repeat the old forms without reference to today’s changed situation of life -- or it will die.

On the other hand, the same period has shown us that Religious cannot simply plunge helter-skelter into activity either -- since they will soon lose the moorings which the vowed life gives to them and become part of the secular landscape, rather than expressions of divine grace -- and hence they too will die.

A wonderful reappraisal of this aspect of the council's teaching is going on at this time. May it bear fruit in a new and vibrant expression of this part of the Church's life -- an expression which bears powerful witness to our Christian call to love of God and to love of neighbor.


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.