Return to original inspirations
How age-old religious families have moved forward and adapted to modern life
By Sr. Loretto Maes, C.PP.S
How have centuries-old religious orders managed to adapt to life in the 21st century?
One response can be found in documents of the Second Vatican Council, and in particular, the decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, Perfectae Caritatis, proclaimed by Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965. In it, men and women religious were called to renew their way of life by returning constantly to the Gospel and to the original inspiration behind their particular institute (or congregation). They were also to adapt their manner of living, praying and working to fit the needs of the times.
For more than 50 years this work has been underway, and I, as a member of the Sisters of the Adoration of the Most Precious Blood of O’Fallon, Missouri, have been an active participant.
What has it meant and what does it mean to return to the Gospel and to the original inspiration of the congregation? Fifty years ago it meant that religious congregations of women, founded in the 18th, 19th or early 20th centuries, began a very serious study of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, particularly the document on the renewal of religious life.
One enormous task that they faced was the rewriting of their rules or Constitutions according to the inspirations of their original foundation (both their specific charism or gifts to the universal Church) and in the light of the Council documents.
Space does not allow even a cursory discussion of all that occurred in congregations in the years and decades following the Council. Suffice it to say there was much change, but not without much prayer, difficulty and tears.
As congregations searched for ways to implement the task of renewal and adaptation, they learned that it was to be an ongoing process, never to be concluded. Scripture study, liturgical renewal, theological reflection all entered into congregational planning. Methods of governing that required active participation of members were initiated. Apostolic activities beyond the traditional institutions were pursued.
In the U.S., the call for social justice encouraged congregations to reach out in new ways to people on the margins of society. All these endeavors were to be carried out in the light of the congregations’ understanding of their original inspiration to live the Gospel.
Today the word charism is regularly used in congregational and ecclesiastical language. Young men and women entering religious orders learn quickly the “charism” of their religious family, as do associate members and persons working in sponsored institutions of the congregations such as hospitals, schools, orphanages and so on. This understanding of the charism is the fruit of long study, discussion, discernment and prayer in congregations.
I well remember the reluctance of some members in my congregation to no longer say that education was our principal avenue of apostolate. Years of being associated principally with this work had overshadowed the fact that our congregation was founded in 1845 for adoration of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus, not for the education of young people. External circumstances, both in Switzerland, where we were founded, as well as in the U.S. had given rise to our teaching activities.
When the revised constitutions of our congregation were last approved by the Congregation for Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in 1985, we stated how we understand our founding spirit today.
“Since our foundation, we have sought to adore and to serve Christ who shed his Blood for the redemption of the world. As our more active apostolate unfolded, we expressed the deep gift of our charism in new ways: our call to reparation evolved into a mission of reconciliation; our worship through perpetual adoration found new expression through active participation in the liturgy of the Church; our service of teaching young girls expanded to include other areas of ministry. Faithful to our heritage and rooted in prayer, we seek to carry out our mission of reconciliation through the Precious Blood of Jesus as he continues to reconcile all creation to the Father.”
At a time when members of many congregations in the western world are aging and active ministry is diminishing, the call to return to the founding spirit, to live out the charism, is of utmost importance. For it is there, rooted in God’s call at the beginning, that one’s fidelity is confirmed and strengthened.
For those members who are at the beginning of their life adventure, the previous work of renewal in congregations has charted a path that continually opens out to offer the Good News to all people without reserve. It is God’s Spirit that directs the course of our lives in every age.
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