As I look at all of us here present, the first thing that strikes me is how varied we are. I had the opportunity during this year of consecrated life to be invited in different countries to speak to groups of religious. I touched the great variety of situations for consecrated life, for example, from a group very rich in experience in Belgium to a new breath in Lithuania where religious life is restarting after the communist era and is searching for its way, because it has no institutions to fall back on to. I meet great numbers of religious in some African countries, full of dynamism and very great social issues, and the great rarity of Christian and religious witness in some Muslim countries. This is just to tell you that I find it difficult to speak of apostolic religious life in a general way. In some places it is diminishing in numbers, in others increasing. Then there are new ways that are also forming. God has much greater imagination than we have. But I will try to imagine some pathways for the future and some questions that we meet on the way.
- The first path is leading to the depth and we all need to take this path.
At a time when we are tempted to have very superficial relations, virtual relations, we are invited to go to the depths into communion.
Consecrated life remains a life as a follower of Christ, a radical way of living our baptismal calling. “Jesus called those he wanted to be with him and to send them out” (Mk 3). It supposes an ever deepening relationship with the Risen Christ who meets us showing us his wounds. The fascination of Christ has always been behind a founding charism. It is the motivation for our personal and corporate following. However, individually and as Institutes, we can sooner or later fall into apathy, or habit, our ardent love can become cold, we might value what we do more than who we are. One question we need to repeatedly ask, individually and collectively is : Am I still in love? Are we still in love? How does it show? How am I keeping the fire alive? This is the most important question that we need to answer each day. Otherwise, living consecrated life makes no sense.
The depth of our relation with Christ calls for a depth of relation in community and with those to whom we are sent. We need to delve into our own depths, where we meet the Christ, and find the traces of the charism of our institute within our own story, so that when we share in community with our brothers or sisters, we can share what is most true in us, most dear to us. And as a group so that we can discern our presence and so remain creatively faithful to our founding charism, not just repeating what the founder said and did. What is the desire of God for us today, in the context of today’s world? We are challenged to reformulate the Purpose of our Institute, to let go of what is no longer adequate or to adapt it. At this price can we remain fully alive, and not die a premature death, even if our Institute is still living.
Communion calls us to share the gift. I find that rarely do we share from the depth of God’s love for us and our love for God. It is like a closed garden. However, our brothers and sisters, those to whom we are sent, have a right to know where our joy comes from, and to learn how to enter into personal relationship with Christ. (not just learn to say prayers).
Let us then hear the invitation to go to the depth, to the space where the Trinity dwells, the space of communion. This is our main source of joy, a joy no one can take from us. Let us offer others to enter this space
2- A path spreading outwards (full width)
A path to the depth requires a path outwards : At a time when security is paramount, when on many borders between countries walls are built, when we find extremisms of all forms that bind us in fear, we are called to open wide our tent and be brothers and sisters to our contemporaries.
Consecrated life is meant to be lived at the margins of the Church and of society. We are meant to live a prophetic life, a life that is a sign of the presence of a loving God. It is not a comfortable life where one is safe from the insecurity of our world. By our attitudes, thoughts, actions and prayer we need to break down the walls that divide us, that exclude others. We do this by our living in communities, where our love is constantly put to the test because of our difference in thought, in ways of doing things, in our speech; in the way we understand God and community life… To add to the picture, we form very often intercultural and intergenerational communities. Already within our own institute this requires a constant effort, so that our differences become a gift and not an obstacle.
Living in this alternate space within, by the acceptance of our own differences within the Institute, we are sent out to the peripheries, there to shake off our indifference and to create spaces of fraternity and answer new calls. We need to ask ourselves on this path : who do we not see, who do we ignore and why ? Who do we talk to and who do we avoid? How widely open is our tent? I must say that at a meeting we had with religious congregations on the welcoming of migrants and refugees, I was most impressed by the number of Congregations that had opened their houses in this time of emergency
In our globalized world, our relations need to widen to ecumenical and inter-religious relations. We are called together to build God’s kingdom. We need to let drop our prejudices, and our ignorance, to show interest, to get to know the religion and culture of the other, so as to approach the other as a brother or sister, God’s own beloved and to seek to build together with all other persons of good will a better world for everyone.
Let us create a space of fraternity where differences become gifts and open spaces to all others.
3- A path to the height
At a time of superficial analysis, of brief news, of rapid answers, we are called to examine what is happening from God’s point of view and to be bearers of hope.
This is not so easy, because we can only guess what God’s desire is, but we do need to climb on a high mountain and take a long discerning look at what is happening around us. Otherwise we risk to close our hearts, our minds and our wills in rash judgment, cynicism and fear. Why are so many people fleeing their countries? Why is this revolution taking place? What are these young people saying by taking drugs, by sleeping on the streets? By going to join ISIS? We are called to look, and to try to see the invisible, like a midwife does when he or she listens to the unborn child’s heart. In every person and in every people there is a heart that beats. Do I hear it? Do we hear the aspirations of our contemporaries, crying out for more freedom, for dignity, authenticity, for food and shelter, for recognition, for a decent living even if sometimes these cries are accompanied by violence ? When we think that 1% of the world population has more riches that the 99% all together, how can we become bearers of hope?
Our founders knew how to give answers to the issues they saw in their contemporary world. Are we ready to discern what society today is calling us to? How can we offer a reason to live? Today’s world calls us to be rapid responders to emerging needs, ready to be mobile. We can often feel very small and inadequate to respond. Thank God we are often no longer self-sufficient as separate Institutes. And I don’t think we will be in the future, because probably the overall numbers will continue to diminish. Seeing the particular gifts of each group we become not only willing but eager to join forces in order to answer some of the most important challenges that society puts before us. Networking as well as starting inter-congregational ventures, is for me a way into the future, that has already started but that needs to be strengthened.
I can give two or three examples from the UISG – Very challenged by Pope Francis’ visit to Lampedusa, we wanted to invite our members to an action in favor of migrants. The demand was for sisters from different congregations, knowing different languages, having different skills, capable of forming community and willing to work together. We managed to form two communities of five sisters each, coming from eight different congregations and nine countries. They went down to Sicily on the 14th December. This venture is very much supported by the Union of Religious Sicily (USMI Sicily) and by lay groups who are working in the same area, as well as by the diocese and the parishioners. It reveals the abundant gifts there ready to work together. Another characteristic of this project is that the archbishop of Agrigento, Cardinal Montenegro, did not want our sisters to arrive with a definite idea of the work they will do, or with a project ready to be implemented. Instead he wants them to build bridges between the migrants and the local population, and to discern what actions to undertake. He says he needs flying squads of sisters, mobile and ready to go where the migrants are, not vice versa. This is far from the way we have been used to acting by establishing institutions and running them.
Another example is Talitha Kum, the International network of consecrated persons against human trafficking, largely mobilized by women and men from different religious congregations and now present in 70 countries. We need to continue to join forces, especially where the religious men and women are not yet aware of this big scourge. Do we realize that we religious are in the five continents, close to the people who are trafficked or who are traffickers ? What could we do if we did join forces together to give a helping hand to the victims and to denounce perpetrators and unjust laws.?
Another significant project started by the two unions is Solidarity with South Sudan – intercongregational communities of men and women religious working in a country that has hardly any infrastructures to build competence among the local population in teaching, nursing, farming and catechetics. The inter-cultural nature of these communities is a prophetic witness in a deeply divided country and world. Staying and living among the people in contexts that are often fragile and violent is another.
We hope that these types of actions together multiply in different parts of the world. Going beyond each institute’s charism to the fundamental charism of consecrated apostolic life is the basis that allow for such ventures. This does not imply that the different nuances disappear.
4- A path to the centre
At a time when we realize more clearly the effects of each person’s actions on the whole of creation we are called to a space of sincerity.
The path to the centre of our being will make us admit and live with our paradoxes. We are capable of the greatest generosity and heroism, as well as greed, indifference and cowardice. We need to constantly keep together both prayer and action, faith and doubt, the individual and the group.
As we move to the centre of our being, we recognize a call to sincerity, to authenticity : to live what we preach, to live a lifestyle that knows how to say it is enough, to become more aware of the consequences of our decisions and actions so as to care for the planet, to be grateful for what we have and not to constantly seek for more. This means that we know our responsibility towards the present and future generations. It means that we live effective solidarity with the poor because this is what our Master and friend did. He came to serve and not to be served. It also implies what we do with our resources, where and what type of housing we live in, and why. There is a lot to do in this area as Pope Francis reminds us in Laudato Si.
Indeed Religious life is an alternate way of living
In the years I was living in North Africa, I realized how our way of life poses questions. In a world so divided in ethnic groups, seeing us live together from different nations, and our welcoming all the different ethnic groups to come to us and to work with us, was a real sign. In spite of our real difficulties because of our different characters and therefore the constant effort we had to make to be real sisters to each other, this was a powerful witness of living the Gospel message.
I remember the amazement of our Muslim friends when they realized that all our goods were held in common, that each one received what she needed, whatever her salary or social position was and that we had very simple furniture. In spite of all that we could live of jealousy, competition, greed, this way of living evangelical poverty was also a very good witness that often made people think of the values they put in material possession and the race to obtain them. I must say that many also gave us lessons in generosity when we saw how they could share the little they had.
Over the years, the vow of obedience has come to mean to me the ability to discern God’s desire with others. It is far from a blind obedience to a superior. It is the real participation in the reflection as to where God is calling us today. Women religious, especially, are very much leaving behind a hierarchical structure to live more a circular model, where each person and her participation is important in decision-making. This is a better structure for mission. We wish that this model would be more the model used in the Church as a whole, when it comes to decision-making processes, not forgetting that half the population is female, and so to include them in the process. We are still waiting for the Congregation for Consecrated Life to include us in their plenaries.
To conclude, I want us all to remember with gratitude our brothers and sisters in consecrated life who have lived and who are living in extreme conditions of war, of deprivation. Some of them have been attacked, raped, killed. I want to salute these our brothers and sisters who choose to remain in these extreme conditions because they see the suffering Christ in the faces of those to whom they are sent. They often are the only ones who can offer a more or less safe shelter to those who are fleeing the violence. In them we read the permanent call addressed to all of us, to make of our lives a Eucharist.
Sr Carmen Sammut, msola
(Rome, January 31, 2016. Reflection in the International Meeting “Consecrated Life in Communion”, during the days dedicated to Apostolic Religious Life)