Sunday, August 24, 2014

"By Grace, a Religious"

In 1858, the Redemptorist Victor Augustin Isidore Deschamps (1810-1883), the future Cardinal-Primate of Belgium,  wrote “By God’s grace, [I am] a Christian; by God’s grace, a priest; by a greater grace, a religious. Is that not enough? … May we render a good account of these dignities.” (Cf. Joseph McSorley, Isaac Hecker and His Friends, rev. ed. 1972, p. 82).

I began my life as a religious on this date in 1981 when I entered the Paulist Novitiate, then at Mount Paul, Oak Ridge, NJ – some 1100 acres of rocks and trees (wonderful woods for deer-hunters) surrounding a small lake and a plain, school-like structure originally built to house about 30 novices. We were a class of just eight. Together with three priests – the Novice Master, his Assistant, and a retired Paulist missionary – we were a cozy community of 11, living in the chilly charm of northern New Jersey, not far from the Delaware Water Gap.(Out of my class of eight, three of us are priests, but I am the only one still an active Paulist.)

In November, the Church will begin a special “Year of Consecrated Life,” an opportunity for the Church as a whole and for religious communities in particular to reflect on the distinctive role of religious men and women in the Church. In an interview published earlier this year in La Civilta Cattolica, Pope Francis remarked, “evangelical radicalness is not only for religious: it is demanded of all. But religious follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way. It is this witness that I expect of you. Religious should be men and women able to wake the world up.” 

Reflecting of the life and mission of religious communities in the Church in the light of Pope Francis’s 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), the Roman Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life has challenged religious men and women to “become splendid witnesses, effective proclaimers, companions and neighbors for the women and men with whom they share a common history and who want to find their Father’s house in the Church” (A Letter to Consecrated Men and Women, February 2, 2014).

Late in his life, reflecting back on the new community he had founded, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers, observed: “A new religious order is the expression or evidence of an uncommon or special grace given to a certain number of souls in order to sanctify themselves by the practice of certain virtues to meet the special needs of their epoch and in this way to renew the life of the members of the Church and extend her fold. It is this or it is nothing at all; has no reason for its existence.”           

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