World Day of Consecrated Life will be celebrated on Wednesday, February 2. It is therefore appropriate for us to reflect on the place of Religious within the life of the Church.
People generally make little or no distinction between priests of religious orders and diocesan priests; priests are priests. The same holds for nuns and sisters; people regard them as one and the same and use the terms interchangeably.
While these nuances do not ultimately matter since priests and Religious all serve the same Lord in the one vineyard, it is useful to understand the nuances since they are tied to particular histories and charisms.
In our own archdiocese we have several religious orders and congregations. Some of these have been here for many years and some for a shorter time.
Priests generally serve in the parishes or teach while religious sisters either teach or are involved in social ministry; a few are also parish administrators and function very efficiently. Some of the institutions run by religious sisters have become household names like the St. Dominic's Home, the Lady Hochoy Home and L'Hospice.
Others are more recent like the Credo Foundation for Justice (involving Holy Faith Sisters) and the Missionaries of Charity. All these institutions perform their tasks without fanfare or desire for national recognition, tending to those Jesus calls the “little ones”. With the help of benefactors they live the gospel in the world doing, as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta put it: “something beautiful for God”.
The Tablet (the British Catholic weekly) in an editorial of January 8, 2005 , describes a great truth of religious orders: “[They] are less hierarchical than the secular clergy, and usually operate under democratic principles, both in decision-making and in the election of their leaders.” We see this truth at work in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster of South-east Asia .
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With their greater freedom and flexibility, Religious were reaching remote Indonesian islands long before international aid arrived. They were at the helm of organising volunteers, assisting doctors, bringing food, medicine and clothing to grief-stricken victims.
Many Religious were involved in helping villagers obtain money to purchase new boats, nets and tackle. The sea may have been the villagers' enemy on that fateful day but it remains their only means of livelihood.
A crucial dimension of Religious is their prophetic charism. Their greater freedom allows them to take risks. We see this in the controversy of the 1980s when Religious (not infected with HIV/AIDS) were volunteering to test AIDS vaccines.
People thought it suicide; they saw it as prophetic mission. During World War II in Italy , thousands of Jews were saved as Religious, recognising it was “the hour of charity”, hid them in convents and institutes and helped forge documents in order to secure safe passage out of the country.
This kind of prophetic witness sometimes involves death as we saw in the murdered Jesuits and their lay associates in El Salvador in 1989. As the prophets of the Old Testament knew only too well, death is often the price of prophetic ministry.
At present religious orders are facing serious decline, especially female religious orders. The clergy abuse scandal has also altered their credibility. Furthermore, young people have difficulty with the concept of lifelong commitment.
In spite of these drawbacks Religious remain heroic witnesses of the faith and symbols of charity and justice in the world.