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Disciplined brotherhood

· Consecrated women ·

The variety of the origins, cultural contexts and the different personalities of founders and foundresses have had a marked effect on the lifestyle, ecclesial purpose and internal organization of the consecrated life. But we can recognize a point of convergence that brings everyone together: community life as a place of relationships and dialogue, co-responsibility and pluriformity, synergy and synodality. If in Benedict’s Rule we can see in the abbot an almost monarchical form of government, in that of Francis the relationship of brotherhood between all the members is central; if in Ignatius’ project the primacy of mission requires a marked decisiveness on the part of those in charge of the Society of Jesus, in Vincent de Paul’s foundation service to the poor is the guiding criterion, and so forth.

In all consecrated men and women, however, the principle of community, sharing and coexistence, as well as of a belonging that is both visible and globalized, is evident in lifestyle, in place of habitation, in the rhythm of time, as an ecclesial diaconate, as a typical identifying vocabulary and also as a visibility. There is a “we”, heavily accentuated and typified in clothing and activities, organization and juridical structure: think globally, act locally. And it is not only a material mish-mash retrieved from history or produced by fortuitous circumstances. It is a source of differentiation and reciprocal identification. It is also, however, an interesting school of relations in many and different directions.

It is a school of inter-subjectivity. This is the first fact that emerges from all this variety of characteristics and traditions. Even if individual solitude was the privileged space at the root of monastic life, spontaneous experiences very soon found in coexistence and synodality their most natural identity, not only in the material sense of one another’s proximity as much as above all, in conversatio, the sharing of life, prayer, work, discernment and evangelical orientation.

Perhaps Pachomius and his followers were more concerned with discipline and the good, orderly (and almost military) management of diversity, but Basil had already understood that adelphotes (brotherhood) was a school of authenticity and maturity. For him insertion into communal life was also the best remedy for selfish isolation. For this reason he wanted foundations in the midst of the population that were mixed (men and women, the young and the elderly) with a love of culture, hospitality and study.

Benedict too was opposed to all roving individualism (such as that of the Sarabaits): the monastery (which in itself recalled the “solitary” monk) had to be a model of socialization, of pactum civitatis in a world which was dissolving with the barbarian invasions. Life in a monastery is an orderly and co-responsible interweaving of skills and characters, experiences and competences, realism and a horizon of faith. The monasteries themselves laid the basis of democratic civilization in the Western world, but they were also laboratories for intercultural dialogue in the scriptoria; with the plough, the cross and their lifestyle they taught people how to heal the sick relations between man and the land, between man and woman, between memory and future, between fidelity and innovation.

A new and creative phase of inter-subjectivity was managed, fermented and interpreted by the pauperist and evangelical movement which gave rise to the movement of the so-called “mendicant” orders, of which the Franciscans are the paradigmatic model. Here the monastic civilization of the great abbatial complexes was replaced by the closer relationship and proximity, itinerant and fraternal, of friars rooted in the territory, in small groups (convents), scattered in towns, interpreters of the religious need of the minores but also involved in the new demand for popular piety and inserted into the more dynamic culture promoted by the universitates studiorum. Still today the model of relations established by the friars – with the people, with popular religion, with nature and with the arts, with itinerant preaching and with journeys and traditions – remains evocative.

Another kind of influence, always positive and creative, was offered by the great congregations born in modernity: from the Jesuits to the latest forms. These were highly respected managerial enterprises with schools, universities, works of charitable assistance and missionary ventures, the thousands of forms of service. Through this variety the possibility was given to men and to women to take on responsibilities of every kind, to develop skills and entrepreneurship enlightened by the religious ideal, and to assume the role of protagonists with a lasting effect at the social level – only think of the spreading of schools for girls or of the promotion of health or of the care for children and for the elderly. They worked as pioneers with a creativity and ingenuity that awaken wonder and that today are lacking, both because of the crisis in vocations and creativity in a society undergoing rapid changes and because of the anthropological transformation under way, which demands greater brilliance.

There is still a future. The more recent foundations of consecrated life – to be quite clear, those of the last decades, although not only these, for there is also ferment among the classical institutions –examined from the viewpoint of their capacity for relations are showing new resources and initiatives which deserve an emphasis.

In the meantime they almost all have the propensity to overtake the classical models of separation between men and women, lay people and religious, believers and atheists, and so forth. This is why there is a capacity for interwoven relationships which break taboos and pull down fences, to the extent that these experiences have become laboratories of new brotherhood, over and above any label or classification.

In the second place, in order to celebrate and live their own identity and projects these new experiences draw from different religious traditions and cultural universes. Thus they become, as it were, a true therapy of cosmic humanization of which we are in such great need, given the ongoing tendencies to aggression, to contemptuous sovereignism, to competitive individualism and to the mythology of one’s own identity.

Bruno Secondin

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