It's fitting that the Pope Francis, one of only 20 successors of St. Peter from religious orders and the first since 1846, would be the one to call the first Year of Consecrated Life in Church history
This Sunday the Church joyfully begins the Year of Consecrated Life, announced by Pope Francis a year ago to the surprise and sustained applause of the general superiors of communities of religious men who were then meeting in Rome.
I've always thought that there's a practical genius behind ecclesiastical holy years, because they focus the attention of the Church on an important aspect of Christian faith and life that needs to be better appreciated and lived.
St. John Paul II, who experienced the importance of holy years in forming and strengthening people in faith under communism in Poland, convened holy years to celebrate and give greater attention to our Redemption (1983), Mary (1987), Jesus Christ (1997), the Holy Spirit (1998), God the Father (1999), the Incarnation (2000), the Rosary (2002-3), and the Eucharist (2004-5).
Pope Benedict picked up from there, convoking holy years dedicated to St. Paul (2008-9), the Priesthood (2009-2010) and the Christian Faith as a whole (2012-3).
Now Pope Francis has called his first, at the suggestion, he said, of Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz and Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, OFM, respectively the Prefect and Secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
It's fitting that the Pope Francis, one of only 20 successors of St. Peter from religious orders and the first since 1846, would be the one to call the first Year of Consecrated Life in Church history. It will extend from the first Sunday of Advent through the Feast of the Presentation, which is generally celebrated as the World Day of Consecrated Life, in 2016.
It may seem strange, however, at least on the surface, that Pope Francis is calling the Year of Consecrated Life now, when he is obviously seeking to concentrate his attention and the scrutiny of the Church and the world on the challenges to the family, as we prepare for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September and part two of the Synod of Bishops on the Family next October.
I think, however, that, rather than serving as a distraction from the necessary and urgent consideration that the family needs, the Year of Consecrated Life, if marked and lived profoundly, will serve as a very helpful complement.
Many of the biggest challenges facing the family come from the loss of awareness of the radical spiritual dimension of marriage and family and from the provocations flowing from modern confusions regarding love, freedom, commitment, possessions and community. The prophetic dimension of the consecrated life, lived out as a totally committed, spousal communion with the poor, chaste and obedient Christ, ought to bring much clarity to some of the causes to familial difficulties and dissolution.
Likewise those in consecrated life can learn much from the successes and struggles of married couples and families to help them diagnose why certain communities may be thriving while others are collapsing. Just as for marriages and families to survive and thrive, sacramental graces cannot be taken for granted but must be continuously relied on and faithfully and persistently responded to, so for consecrated vocations and communities to persevere and prosper, the graces of foundational charisms and the call to the perfection of holiness can't be taken for granted but must be steadily renewed.
As helpful as this mutually-enriching connection between consecrated life and the family is, however, it's important not to let the Year of Consecrated Life be eclipsed by the Church's response to the crisis of the family, because the Church truly needs this holy year.
We need this Year of Consecrated Life first to thank God for the gift of the consecrated life.
We need this Year to show appreciation to all those who have said yes to God's calling to dedicate themselves to him as contemplative monks and cloistered nuns, as religious brothers and sisters in education, health care and charity, as members of secular institutes living out their consecration in the midst of the world, as members of societies of apostolic life, as missionaries spreading the faith, as consecrated virgins, hermits, consecrated widows and widowers and in so many new expressions by which they make the life, virtues and values of Jesus more visible and point us from the superficial to the sacred and from the ephemeral to the eternal.
We need this Year to help bring about, in some areas, a much-needed renewal of consecrated life and in all areas a greater attentiveness to God's calling others to embrace this way of life.
And we need this Year to help rediscover the essence of the Christian life and the meaning of our baptismal consecration.
As St. John Paul II wrote in Vita Consecrata, his profound 1996 exhortation on the consecrated life and its mission in the Church and in the world, which I'd urge everyone to read during this upcoming Holy Year: "The consecrated life is not something isolated and marginal, but a reality that affects the whole Church. ... The consecrated life is at the very heart of the Church as a decisive element for her mission, since it manifests the inner nature of the Christian calling and the striving of the whole Church as Bride towards union with her one Spouse. The profession of the evangelical counsels is an integral part of the Church's life and a much needed incentive towards ever greater fidelity to the Gospel."
"By professing the evangelical counsels," St. John Paul II continued, "consecrated persons not only make Christ the whole meaning of their lives but strive to reproduce in themselves, as far as possible, that form of life which he, as the Son of God, accepted in entering this world," imitating through chastity Christ's own pure love of the Father and others, through poverty Christ's own self-emptying to proclaim and obtain the imperishable treasure of the kingdom, and through obedience Christ's own delight in doing the Father's will in all things.
These prophetic choices constitute a compelling response, respectively, to the hedonism, materialism and autonomous individualism of the modern age that undermine faith and communal life. Through living the evangelical counsels, consecrated men and women become an abiding reenactment of Christ's own choices for the kingdom, a powerful affirmation of the primacy of God and eternal life, and a rich manifestation of the path to rediscover the values of fraternal communion that reigned in the apostolic Church.
In the midst of a utilitarian and technocratic culture that can consider the consecrated life a pointless "waste," consecrated men and women remind all of us that the Lord is to be loved with lavish generosity, indeed, with all our mind, heart, soul and strength. They are living signs of the Resurrection who keep the Church's salt from losing its flavor and its love from growing cold. They incarnate for us the truth that "only one thing is necessary" and inspire us to choose "the better part" and the "pearl of great price."
That's why the Church needs this Year and needs it now. Let's pray that that all of us in the Church, and especially those in consecrated life, may live it well -- and radically.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.