By Br. Peter Acho Awoh
Every evening at sunset, a Rabbi walked through the town in which he lived as far as its outskirts. This daily routine gave him time to reflect and also to keep up on the comings and goings of his neighbours.
Wealthy landowners living on the town’s outer edge had the custom of hiring watchmen to guard the perimetres of their property at night. One evening, the Rabbi came across one of these guards and asked him for his employer’s name. A familiar name was given in return.
To the Rabbi’s surprise, the watchman asked him next about his employer. The question stunned him. Was it not obvious to the guard, indeed to the entire world, that he worked for the Master of the Universe? Growing unsure of himself, the Rabbi delayed giving an answer to the watchman.
Eventually, he said, “I am sorry to say, that I am not sure that I really work for anyone. You see, I am the Rabbi in this town.”
After a long silent walk together, the Rabbi asked the guard, “Will you come and work for me?”
“Yes,” replied the watchman, “I would be willing to, but what would my duties entail?”
To which the Rabbi replied, “Oh, there would be just one thing that you would always do. Remind me for whom I work, in whose employ I am, and why I am here. Just remind me—that is all.”
What do we mean by identity?
On an individual level, it is that feeling of knowing who you are and where you are going in life. The identity of a group or organisation is much the same. When asked what it stands for, an institution with a strong identity has a ready and compelling answer to give. Just as personal identity helps make each of us unique, a religious Institute’s identity helps its members answer these two questions, “Who are we?” and “What do we stand for?”
To form an identity, a religious institute and its members must, first of all, take an honest look at its available options. Since Vatican II, in the light of the charism of each religious institute and in response to the Church’s and world’s calls, changing realities, and new needs, religious institutes have asked: Which ways of being in the world will foster a radical dependence on God and further the mission of Jesus?
Similar to the challenges that must be faced when creating a personal identity, the second step in the process of identity formation for any Institute entails dealing with those inevitable crises that follow any process of exploration. Over the past five decades, religious institutes have learned two hard lessons as an institute: exploration leads to crises, and the more possibilities for living that religious institutes uncover, the greater our number of crises.
Once again, as with the formation of an individual’s identity, for any group the third and final step in the process involves commitment. To bring any period of exploration, change, and transition to fruition, some choices have to be made. After assessing many competing, and possibly equally compelling possibilities, religious institutes must decide where they stand, what points of view they hold dear, and how they plan to live their lives.
If anyone is curious about the source of confusion over the identity of contemporary Consecrated Life, look no further than Vatican II. In the minds of many, decisions taken at that historic gathering, though necessary and long overdue, brought to an end the ideological framework upon which the entire way of life for the religious had been built for centuries.
From the early Middle Ages until Vatican II, most Catholics accepted unchallenged a three-tiered hierarchical ranking of the clerical, religious, and lay states within the Church. The prevailing thought was that priesthood was the “highest calling” in terms of a vocation and every other thing was model on this assumption. Consecrated Life came second. Conventional wisdom held that only vowed members of religious orders could achieve spiritual perfection. The lay state, unfortunately, ranked a distant third. Many lay men and women, not called to the priesthood or religious life, felt like second class citizens in their own Church.
Vatican II turned this three-tiered model right on its head. “Consecrated Life,” the Council Fathers declared, “from the point of view of the Church’s divine and hierarchical nature, [was no longer] to be seen as a middle way between clerical and lay states of life. Rather it [was to] be seen as a way of life to which some Christians are called by God, both from the clergy and the laity.” Religious life itself is neither lay nor clerical.
In retrospect, we realise that those who participated in Vatican II faced forthrightly the necessary and urgent task of redefining the rightful place of lay men and women within our Church community. They were, however, less successful in their attempts to redefine clearly the nature and purpose of the way of life of religious. Perfectae Caritatis, having come to life in a difficult and complex way, fell far short of advancing for men and women religious the type of theological thinking that Lumen Gentium had done for the laity.
Later in, Vita Consecrata, John Paul II observed that each of the fundamental states of life within our Church expresses one or another aspect of the mystery of Christ. Lay men and women, for example, take on the responsibility or mission of insuring that the Gospel message is proclaimed in the temporal sphere.
Religious life, on the other hand, which is meant to mirror Christ’s own way of life, has, in the Pope’s words, the responsibility for showing forth the holiness of God’s People. It is meant to proclaim and, in a way, anticipate a future age when the reign of God will be achieved. It is a more complete expression of the Church’s purpose: the sanctification of humanity.
As mentioned above, the Council Fathers identified but two states of life within the Church’s structure: clerical and lay. Vita Consecrata, even with its flaws, reminded us all that within the Church’s experience, there are three states: the lay, clerical, and religious. With those words, Consecrated Life began to find a place in our Church and the means to begin re-imagining itself for the new millennium.