Religious life in the 21st Century: the prophecy of fragility
2 February, the feast of religious life in the Catholic Church. We asked Marist Brother Emili Turú, Secretary General of the Union of Superiors General (USG-Rome) to help us reflect on the meaning of religious life in today’s world. As an introduction, the Executive Secretary of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG – the Congregations of Women), Sister Patricia Murray, asked some valid questions.
Prophetic Dimension of Religious Life
Living this time of global crisis, in a world fractured by the Covid pandemic, racism, violence and division, calls for a prophetic response from religious men and women. The “I can’t breathe” cries of George Floyd magnify the struggles of millions of people infected by Covid or trampled on by oppressive structures, while in addition many parts of planet Earth are devoid of the oxygen needed for life to thrive. How are we as religious being called to respond? What can our vowed life, lived in community, offer in the midst of this suffering?
Patricia Murray, IBVM
The Covid-19 has accentuated the features of the end of an era, a change of civilisation. History tells us that the period (sometimes long, sometimes brief) preceding the birth of a new civilisation is a period of decadence: a time of chaos and uncertainty, exactly like this moment in which we find ourselves.
Seeking inspiration for the present moment, I turned my gaze to the early Christian communities, which developed and expanded in an inexplicable way during a very difficult period for them, even more so than ours.
In this regard, I was surprised recently, when reading a profound reflection by a pastor of the Lutheran church, to come across the neologism “anti-fragile” applied to the Church. He makes a very suggestive interpretation: mechanical systems are fragile in their complexity; organic ones, on the other hand, are anti-fragile because they are designed to grow under pressure. Some parts of our bodies, like bones or muscles, for example, need pressure to stay healthy and grow stronger. Similarly, the early church was a profoundly anti-fragile system, growing and becoming stronger as the pressure on it increased.
We can apply the same to our communities or congregations. We are born into conditions of stress, of pressure, and we develop best under those conditions. On the other hand, when there is no such pressure, we relax, and we lose strength and become ill.
If living under pressure is part of the normal conditions of the Christian community for its development and consolidation, then it is normal that the early Christians appreciated so much the virtue of patience which, according to the dictionary, is the “capacity to suffer or endure something without getting upset.”
Cyprian of Carthage, Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian all speak about patience, considering it a peculiarly Christian virtue, and the greatest and highest of all virtues. To know that we are in God’s hands, without wanting to control events, to live without anxiety or haste, and without ever using force to achieve the goals we want to reach. Justin describes patience as strange, and stresses that it led to many conversions of pagans.
Its testimony was like the leaven that is put into the flour and leads to fermentation. Both the early Christians and our founders and foundresses were actively involved in the birth of the new in a decadent world.
Although outward signs might give the impression to the contrary, Religious Life has a great relevance today. At the heart of what we are called to be is exactly what today’s women and men need. At the heart of our life is a series of non-negotiables that, lived in authenticity, have enormous germinal power. The ensemble of such a life is a prophetic contrast to the decadent practices of the present moment and a patient leaven of change.
I am counting on you “to wake up the world”, since the distinctive sign of consecrated life is prophecy. As I told the Superiors General: “Radical evangelical living is not only for religious: it is demanded of everyone. But religious follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way.” This is the priority that is needed right now: “to be prophets who witness to how Jesus lived on this earth… a religious must never abandon prophecy”. (Apostolic Letter of Pope Francis to all Consecrated Persons, II, 2)
Not radicality, but prophecy. Or perhaps better still, the radicality of prophecy. Obviously, it is not a prophecy of setting oneself up as a model for anybody in the Church, but rather the prophecy of littleness and fragility, which testifies to God’s mercy. Prophecy – says Br. Michaeldavide Semeraro – is the ability to embrace death, failure, non-visibility, marginality, and to do so as a permanent option for the whole of life.
Emili Turú, FMS