Theology of Consecrated Life
One of my special interests as a theologian is in the Theology of Consecrated Life, particularly as a demonstration of an approach to living and to the meaning of life. My own doctoral thesis concerned the Theology of the Consecrated Life in the Apostolic Exhortation Redemptionis Donum of Pope John Paul II, with Particular Reference to his Theological Anthropology, Soteriology and Sanjuanist Spirituality. I am particularly interested to be in conversation with anyone with similar interests, especially in the Religious Life, whether theologian or practitioner or both.
In the context of my theological interests and expertise a word about my own experience is in order. I was a cloistered, contemplative Carmelite nun for 33 years, entering only six years after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. I experienced the hope and enthusiasm generated by the Council, and years of hard work put in to understanding what Conciliar theology had to say. Primarily, however, I experienced not merely a way of life, but the very heart of this way of life as I grew in deeper love and knowledge of God, and deeper understanding of the Church, the people of God and body of the Redeeming Christ, and in deeper understanding of myself and my own life. Latterly this experience has prompted and enriched my developing understanding of human life, meaning and purpose with its massive complexity, diversity, puzzles and beauty. Running parallel with this has been my conviction of the need for the development of new insights and new articulation of the theological underpinning of the consecrated life, both in itself and as a meaningful current within its contemporary ecclesial and societal context.
At the heart of the Second Vatican Council is found the emphasis on the universal call to holiness which devolves from baptism. This goes hand in hand with a profound exploration of the meaning and place of the Church in the world and for the human person. This shone a new light on the life of all Christians and simultaneously and consequentially there was an urgent call for the renewal of the whole Church. The call for renewal applied very specifically of Religious Life and, largely because there had been a popular tendency to see Religious as the ones called to holiness, it implied the need for a new reflection of the place of Religious within the universal church. The Constitution Lumen Gentium provided a rich theology of Religious Life. The Decree Perfectae Caritatis called all Religious to renewal through return to the sources of the Gospel and the teaching and example of the founders and foundresses in the context of the contemporary world.
The Second Vatican Council articulated an understanding of the human person which was more in conversation with the contemporary world and which had heeded some currents in the changed understanding in the secular world. On the other hand, most Religious Orders and Congregations were founded in past centuries since when both society and culture have evolved dramatically throughout the world. The understanding of human life itself and of the human person have changed in fundamental ways since the Enlightenment. One specific sign of the societal changes is that many of the works undertaken by Religious Orders and by Monasteries have been assumed by governments, other civil groups and individuals. Those which are still in the hands of Religious face profound new challenges. Yet in the eyes of many, the Religious were identified with these activities. This reality, itself a sign of deeper changes, has been instrumental in forcing a self-questioning for Religious Life.
I lived through the years of apparent decline of Religious Life, knowing both the days when nuns seemed to be numerous in parishes, schools, hospitals and missions, and the contemporary Western European situation in which Religious are few and far between. Entire Congregations disappear and many question the very meaning and future of their way of life. While some of the questioning was spared from the contemplative orders (such as the Carmelite Order to which I belonged) because the purpose of the life of prayer and union with God appeared to be more stable than the life of active ministry and service, nevertheless vocations are in decline and hence the questions do inevitably arise. The theological root and identity of both forms of life is the same; the humanity of the practitioners is the same; and the foundations of the questions asked by all will be the same.
The importance of Religious Life and Monastic life in the Christian church and in the world throughout the centuries is indisputable. The influence on civilisation of this way of life and of the people who lived it has been vast and wide-ranging and arguably this is the result not merely of the social and cultural works they have undertaken but of the philosophy and spirituality on which these were founded. Religious Life continues in our own times, but its place in the Church and in the world may be less prominent and its meaning less obvious. Questions are implied throughout societies and cultures in crisis, crises often provoked by the crumbling of coherent and shared frames of reference and understanding.
The understanding of Religious Life has been the object of serious theological reflection since the Second Vatican Council and it remains vital to the life of the Church. It has been undertaken by Religious and Monastics across the globe for decades. Academic theology must also play a role in this important work.
© Mary Stevens January 2019