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A look at religious life

· ​Consecrated women ‘per evangelica consilia’ ·

Without a doubt apostolic religious life deserves an attentive and scrupulous look because in it should be recognized and valued its capacity for managing the new things of the Gospel as much as its effort to transform itself in these past decades.

Religious congregations are numerous and differ widely from one another. In addition, although today we cannot fail to note a movement of fairly generalized convergence, the institutions are at very different stages in the process of realizing and actualizing their charisms.

Over time and in accordance with the different charisms, apostolic religious life has responded to the needs of the areas it has addressed, creating projects bearing and giving meaning but which have inevitably proved to be going against the cultural tide because it has staked its bet on the values of the Kingdom. But, as Marisa Moresco declared, inviting us to reflection and discernment, “unless we change our counter-cultural projects they will correspond to the culture of previous centuries but not to that of our own century”.

It should be recognized that for several decades now the number of women in religious life has been gradually declining. Communities are ageing and vocations to the religious life are few. The fragility of the institutions is a fact. For this reason in the face of this reality we must ask ourselves with Elena Lasida’s lucidity: is fragility an obstacle or an opportunity?

Every institution is a context which enables a group’s life to be organized with a common project. Starting from this fragility, the possibility of becoming vehicles for change is opening up to the institutions, but this will only be possible if they themselves remain in motion. Might not fragility consist of consenting to the passage from power to fruitfulness? From control, as strength in numbers and uniformity, to otherness and to the integration of difference? From domination, as a purely directive intention, to formation and the deployment of the members’ potential? In these keys, recalled by Elena Lasida, can be seen aspects that touch the relational dimension and communication, that is, something constitutive at the anthropological level, over and above any particular activity. Thus fragility becomes an opportunity to show a hidden wealth. And the Spirit makes use of the fragility which we can no longer hide to foster transformations which we could not make in moments when we were considered stronger.

Thus a change of paradigm is emerging in female religious life. This is observed in the reflection of many Chapters, in the effort of continuing formation, in the increasing collaboration between the different congregations, in the care of listening and inclusive acceptance. A way of giving new meaning to the content of the vows is making headway, that is, a meaning that is more centred on the purpose and on the people whom we wish to address. How should we be with the poor today and how should we live the Gospel with them? How should we love in practice? How should we live on the basis of God’s word listened to assiduously and put into practice in a specific situation? How should we fit into our changing world on the basis of God who manifests himself in history? The new paradigm is played out in the way of life rather than in the change or maintenance of apostolic works and activities.

The religious life of women, over and above the greater or lesser recognition that it may receive from the institutional Church, is obviously something more than a business providing services. Its identity unfolds through the signs of the Kingdom it discovers, which it seeks to live and which it strengthens in the mission it carries out. And ideas for reflecting on three keys to be preserved and cultivated come from the films Dead Man Walking (1996), Des Hommes et des Dieux [Of Gods and Men] 2010 and Marie Heurtin [Marie’s Story] (2014), in which we find clearly reflected these dimensions on which we may conclude these reflections.

It is necessary to grow and to help to grow because speaking of growth is speaking of living and of giving life. And to live growing means starting from the word of God and from human sciences, gradually becoming aware of the keys that move us from our interiority, and to live committing ourselves in reality starting from the Gospel. Female apostolic religious life listens to the call to go out to the existential peripheries and proclaim the Kingdom from below, from within, from close to, and in particular where the lives of the poor and the dignity of the person are at stake, in communion with the One who walks before us.

Community life then enables us to build a context to accept the uniqueness of each one, freeing her, to make her a uniqueness open to reciprocal help and to the gamble on cooperation and friendship. Community life thus seeks to be a place of acceptance, mercy and emancipation, above rivalry, on the basis of mutual support in daily life. This alternative lifestyle wants to be an open space in which other people, whatever their condition, may experience brotherhood. Community brotherhood is extended to lay people and priests when the way becomes a common one. And community dynamism is a process that presupposes interacting, recognizing the riches of others. Obstacles in relationships are not lacking, but through them both the person and the group may grow.

Lastly the presence of the Spirit and the following of Christ in the light of his Word studied and contemplated are leading apostolic religious life to initiate processes and to accompany them, to practise listening and to exercise discernment, to put itself on the side of history’s outcasts – in the case of the Dominican charism, especially through preaching.

Carmen Lanao

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