Europe and Consecrated Life

A Vision for Europe: the Theology of Consecrated Life of Pope John Paul II in Conjunction with the Address of Pope Francis to the European Parliament

A paper given at the CSRP seminar, St Mary’s College in April 2015 © Mary Stevens April 2015


In this paper I will give an introduction to the theology of Consecrated Life of Pope John Paul II according to his Apostolic Exhortation Redemptionis Donum, in which he reflects on Religious Life in the light of the Redemption. In order to highlight some aspects of this theology and to suggest its importance in the contemporary world I am going to look briefly to the European Union, referring to an address which Pope Francis delivered to the European Parliament at the end of November last year. I hope this will highlight both the meaning of Consecrated Life and its importance within the Church and the world. Although this attempt comes from the European perspective, the theological vision which I hope to present is not Eurocentric but Christocentric and thus applies to any social context in the world.

What follows will therefore be in two parts. Firstly, I will briefly introduce the biography of Pope John Paul II, and show why I will be connecting his theology with the address of Pope Francis to Europe. I will then introduce some insights from the theology of Consecrated Life of Pope John Paul II in Redemptionis Donum. In the second part of the paper I will turn to Europe. For that, I will briefly introduce the Council of Europe and the European Union and I shall refer to some points from the addresses of Pope Francis to the European Parliament. Finally I shall bring together the aspirations of the two threads.

Part One:

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II was born as Karol Wojtyła in Poland in 1920. The Second World War, Nazism, Stalinism and Communism, as well as the efforts to rebuild Europe after the War, all formed part of the context in which he matured as a man, as a theologian, philosopher and priest. He was ordained priest in 1946 and then after a brief spell in parish ministry he completed his Habilitation Thesis and went on to become a professor of philosophy.

Pope John Paul II made it absolutely clear in his writing that the recent history of Europe was a major catalyst in his thinking.[1] He was developing as a theologian and philosopher at the same time as the crafting by statesmen and politicians of the Council of Europe, and the beginnings of what became the European Union. Each in their own field were striving to rebuild a better world.

Wojtyła brought all his skill and insight as a philosopher and theologian to the questions which tore at the minds and hearts of those who lived through these times. What is the human person? How does she or he know, act, find meaning? What is the goal of life? How are we to be saved from the evil we both suffer and are able to perpetrate?  As a Christian his response was centred on Christ, on His life, death and resurrection, and His mission as Redeemer. After his election as Pope in 1978 he began his first encyclical with these words:

THE REDEEMER OF MAN, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history. To him go my thoughts and my heart in this solemn moment of the world that the Church and the whole family of present-day humanity are now living.[2]

He went on to spell out what this means for the understanding of human life:

Through the Incarnation God gave human life the dimension that he intended man to have from his first beginning; he has granted that dimension definitively – in the way that is peculiar to him alone, in keeping with his eternal love and mercy, with the full freedom of God – and he has granted it also with the bounty that enables us, in considering the original sin and the whole history of the sins of humanity, and in considering the errors of the human intellect, will and heart, to repeat with amazement the words of the Sacred Liturgy: “O happy fault… which gained us so great a Redeemer!”[3]

The Redemption is for Pope John Paul II the definitive answer of an infinitely loving God to the world that is so damaged by sin.  His own pastoral project was founded on God’s saving of the world by His love and humble power. This was the bedrock for him of the rebuilding of the war-torn world in which human dignity and well-being had sunk to new depths of horror.

I will now move on to his theology of Consecrated Life.

Pope John Paul II and Consecrated Life

Firstly, what is meant by Consecrated Life? (I should say that the terms “Consecrated Life” and “Religious Life” both refer an almost identical reality, the differences between which are irrelevant in the present context and I shall be using both terms.) I will draw directly from the magisterium of the Second Vatican Council to give a brief introduction to basic Roman Catholic theology of Consecrated, or Religious, Life, before moving on to the theological insights specific to the work of Pope John Paul II. What follows is taken from the teaching of The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, of the Second Vatican Council, known as Lumen Gentium.

All the baptised, through baptism, are consecrated to God: that is, they become children of God, belonging to the family of God through incorporation into the Body of Christ. All their being and doing is henceforth “consecrated”, “made holy”, “set aside for God”, oriented to the Father in the Son by the working of the Holy Spirit. The baptised person shares in the three roles of Christ as prophet, priest and king. This is the first and essential consecration which pertains essentially to all baptised Christians.[4]

The so-called “Consecrated Life” or “Religious Life” is a development of this by which some people, in response to a calling by God which is recognised by the Church, take vows to follow Christ in a permanent commitment to a life of chastity, poverty and obedience. These three virtues are among what are known as the Evangelical Counsels, that is, counsels regarding virtue beyond the commandments, counsels which were addressed by Christ to all his followers. All Christians are guided by them in ways appropriate to their situation in life: Religious, on the other hand, take vows which are recognised by the Church to follow Christ according to these three counsels, becoming conformed to Christ, who became poor, chaste and obedient. The way of life initiated by the vows and followed in communities whose way of life is approved and guided by the Church, is recognised as a gift of the Spirit which belongs intrinsically to the life and holiness of the Church. Religious live in the service of God through the Church, presenting various ministries in the service of all people and for the spread of the Gospel. These ministries are motivated by the teaching of Christ and His commandment to love, and they involve work in different areas that are concerned with the dignity and well-being of the human person and the human family: works for justice and peace; care of those in need; the alleviation of poverty; education; health care; work for refugees and immigrants; prison ministry and myriad other works in service of others. [5]

There is an obvious connection between Religious and those who work in similar ways across the whole world, those of all faiths and none. This forms a contact point, if you will, between the Religious and any who work for these goals.

Pope John Paul develops this basic teaching of the Catholic Church on Consecrated Life and in order to do that I will first spend a few moments on Redemption.


For Pope John Paul II, as I indicated earlier, Redemption is at the very centre of his understanding of God’s relation with humanity, the Trinity made known to us and making us known to ourselves, through the saving intervention of love in the Incarnation. The Redemption is found throughout his own work, and Pope John Paul proposed the study of the Redemption to the International Theological Commission of the Catholic Church between 1992 and 1995.[6]

“Redemption is primarily about the glorious goodness of God”[7] so says Catholic theology, yet Redemption also concerns the most fundamental need of the human person for God, the most essential relationship for which we were created. From this relationship flows the right ordering of the human person, of interpersonal relationships and ultimately of social and civil life. Clearly this can only be a gift of God and Redemption must be the gift and the work of God Himself, as the Council says in Lumen Gentium:

The God who saves is the Father who desires to save man; he is the Son sent by the Father to bring this about, through his incarnation and human nature, the renewal of all things and above all the adoption of men as sons of God; and finally he is the Holy Spirit who was sent after the Son had accomplished the work entrusted to him by the Father “in order the he might continually sanctify the Church”….[8]

In human life there is a universal experience of suffering and evil, and if we look at the human person vis à vis the problems of the world, we find that we cannot overcome the ills of human life and of the world on our own[9] we simply are not able to do it, as the Council document Gaudium et Spes points out. This is not because simply the difficulties are quantitatively too great, but because the root of these ills lies in the rupture of our connection with God, a connection which only God can repair. Redemption, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, re-forges the link of men and women with God, restoring the purpose and meaning to their lives intended by God at creation and offering us a share in His own divine being in and through Jesus Christ.

Redemptionis Donum

In 1983 Pope John Paul II wrote an Exhortation to all Religious, known as Redemptionis Donum, which is a theological reflection on Consecrated Life “in the light of the Redemption”.[10] I am going to look here at the Pope’s reflection on the Evangelical Counsels in this document.

If we take the image of looking at Religious Life “in the light of” the Redemption, we can see both an illumination of the Evangelical Counsels and also the Counsels become openings through which light shines on to the way in which the Son, sent by the Father, brings about Redemption.  Yet there is more: according to John Paul, by the gift of the Holy Spirit who continually sanctifies the Church, the Counsels not only illuminate but they also insert the member of the Church who walks with Christ according to these Counsels into Christ’s work of Redemption.


The Religious Profession of vows of poverty, chastity and obedience gives the form to a totality of self-gift of the human person to God by which he or she gives “himself/herself entirely to the work of the Redemption through membership in a community of brothers or sisters, recognized and approved by the Church.”[11] The one called to self-gift is called as part of the community of Redemption. John Paul writes:

For in every consecrated person the Israel of the new and eternal covenant is chosen. The whole messianic people, the entire Church, is chosen in every person whom the Lord selects from the midst of this people; in every person who is consecrated for everyone to God as His exclusive possession.[12]

The calling and consecration of the individual participates in the Consecration of Christ who is consecrated for all, working for the Redemption of all. John Paul says:

While it is true that not even the greatest saint can repeat the words of Christ: “For their sake I consecrate myself”[13] in the full force of these words, nevertheless, through self-giving love, through the offering of oneself to God as His exclusive possession, each one can through faith stand within the radius of these words.[14]

The Religious is consecrated by God through the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Taken together, the Evangelical Counsels, John Paul writes, have a clear “importance as key elements and in a certain sense as a “summing up” of the entire economy of salvation.”[15] Pope John Paul reflects in turn on each of the Counsels, demonstrating how they penetrate the depth of Redemption and effect, so he says, the “transformation of the entire cosmos through the heart of man,” transforming both the Religious and through the Religious, the wider human family. This transformation is the project of the vowed Consecrated Life.


Through chastity, the Consecrated person chooses a total love of Christ above all. This Counsel and the life style it comprises demonstrate the spousal totality of Christ’s love for the world.[16] The Pope writes that Christ’s love is “spousal and redemptive love: spousal because it is redemptive”.[17]  It is a love in which every single individual is chosen and is loved infinitely and intimately by Christ as Redeemer.[18] In this one counsel, which corresponds and participates in the spousal and redemptive love of Christ, there is the sign and the accomplishment, so he says, of the “interior purpose of the entire economy of the Redemption,” that is to say, the reuniting with God in intimate love of the human person and human community.[19]


The Counsel of poverty reflects the emptying of the Word who became poor that we might become rich.[20] Quoting these words of St Paul, Pope John Paul says that

poverty actually enters into the interior structure of the redemptive grace of Jesus Christ. Without poverty it is not possible to understand the mystery of the gift of divinity to man, a gift which is accomplished precisely in Jesus Christ.[21]

The invitation of Christ to leave all and follow Him invites the person to give priority to a way of life that is centred on the value of the human person, the value of “being over having” as John Paul expressed it, which Christ showed in His own way of life.[22] Poverty demonstrates the anthropological basis of vocation by re-orienting the person who, called by Christ turns around from the pursuit of “things”, of “having” and “possessing”, and embraces a way of “being” as a follower of Chris,t whose worth, dignity and meaning flow from the relationship of the love of God.

Pope John Paul specifically points to the relevance of this new orientation in a world which pursues wealth, often measuring worth by possession, and then experiencing the emptiness which accompanies such values. The emptiness experienced by a world without God can actually open the heart to the original meaning of human life lived in friendship with God.


The obedience of Consecrated Life is modelled on the obedience of Christ who:

though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.[23]

In the obedience of Christ, according to John Paul the very essence of Redemption is found, as shown in the letter to the Romans:

For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.[24]

Religious therefore, he says, “By living out the evangelical counsel of obedience … reach the deep essence of the entire economy of the Redemption.”[25]

Through this Counsel the Religious:

with all the sinful background of their own human nature, with all the inheritance “of the pride of life,” with all the selfish tendencies to dominate rather than to serve, … precisely by means of the vow of obedience they decide to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, who “redeemed humanity and made it holy by his obedience.”[26]

By willingly taking on a self-emptying through obedience modelled on that of Christ the Religious, John Paul says, “gain a special sharing in the obedience of that “one alone” by whose obedience all “will be made righteous.””[27]

Having indicated the Redemptive efficacy of the Consecrated Life I would like to move on to indicate a link between the interior purpose of the Consecrated Life and the message of hope which Pope Francis offered to the European Parliament.

Part Two: The Council of Europe and the European Parliament

First of all I will give a brief reminder of the genesis of the European institutions which Pope Francis addressed in his visit last November. This will help to tie it to the context in which Pope John Paul matured.

Both the Council of Europe, and the European Union, (of which the European Parliament is an official organ), originated with the effort to build up Europe economically and politically after the Second World War, in such a way that “co-operation and peace might be the foundation of the recovering Europe.” as the Council of Europe says on its website.[28] This is the same period of time, the same post war experience, in which Karol Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II, was developing his philosophy, theology and the foundations of his ministerial approach. The Catholic Church actively supported the political and economic rebuilding of Europe, with Pope Pius XII sending an observer to the very first European assembly in the Hague, which was convened by Winston Churchill in 1948. To quote Pope Francis:

The dream of the founders was to rebuild Europe in a spirit of mutual service which today too, in a world more prone to make demands than to serve, must be the cornerstone of the Council of Europe’s mission on behalf of peace, freedom and human dignity.[29]

And to quote Pope John Paul II, who in turn quotes from the founding charter:

Your Council has the beautiful and great vocation of drawing the nations of this continent together to strengthen “peace founded on justice” for “the preservation of the human society and civilization” in an unwavering attachment “to the spiritual and moral values which are the common patrimony of her peoples”, to quote but a few of the essential expressions of the preamble of your statutes.[30]

The work of both the Council of Europe and of the precursors of what became the European Union was the urgent endeavour made by politicians and statesmen to save Europe after the devastation of war and to bring it back to a new health in peace, co-operation and prosperity.

Now I will move on to the address of Pope Francis.

Pope Francis to Europe

It’s worth pointing out here that the MEPs whom the Pope was addressing, as well as the majority of those who elected them, just as the majority of those reading the theology of Pope John Paul II, almost certainly had little or no experience of the Second World War, or of large scale international warfare and conflict, particularly in Europe. So, crucially, the foundations of the European institutions represent an endeavour to rebuild from a devastation, unknown to us, which starkly identified essential problems and questions to which solutions and answers must be found.  While there is no aspect of life in the 21st Century which is untouched by the two world wars, now the effects are felt at some remove: we are cushioned from the initial political, economic and existential chaos and the inescapable questions they raised.

Pope Francis, recalling to the European Parliament its roots, reminds us of these questions. He praised the work of Europe for human rights, justice and peace and the rule of law in democracy. There is an obvious contact point between the Church and secular society in the work for these issues, but I would like to refer to other comments of his as particularly appropriate for reflection on Consecrated Life. Pope Francis indicated that at the heart of the European project lies an understanding of the human person:

At the heart of this ambitious political project was confidence in man, not so much as a citizen or an economic agent, but in man, in men and women as persons endowed with transcendent dignity. I feel bound to stress the close bond between these two words: “dignity” and “transcendent”. [31]

By stressing the transcendent nature of dignity Francis is emphasising the dignity of the human person  inherent in the fundamental worth of every single human person, a dignity which cannot be denied or refused, which is prior to and greater than anything conferred by society. He leans here towards the more philosophical and religious rebuilding of Europe which preoccupied Karol Wojtyła as philosopher and priest. In this vein Pope Francis has a message of hope for Europe, a hope which was:

based on the confidence that our problems can become powerful forces for unity in working to overcome all those fears which Europe – together with the entire world – is presently experiencing. It is a message of hope in the Lord, who turns evil into good and death into life.[32]

This is a striking statement: the very problems themselves are to become a force for unity as we work together to overcome our fears, and this is not merely because co-operation in itself is a good thing, but because of the “the Lord, who turns evil into good and death into life”.

It is vital for the Christian engaged in any form of altruistic work to remember from where this work finds its motivation and strength. This was emphasised in a different context by Pope Benedict XVI writing on the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of Lumen Gentium:

It often happens that Christians are more concerned for the social, cultural and political consequences of their commitment, continuing to think of the faith as a self-evident presupposition for life in society. In reality, not only can this presupposition no longer be taken for granted, but it is often openly denied.[33]

It is here that I make the connection with theology of the Consecrated Life. The majority of Religious are involved in pastoral ministries in the service of others, but I want to return to the interior reality of the Consecrated Life in the light of the Redemption in the theology of Pope John Paul II.

Conclusion: The Consecrated Person and the Redemption of the world

Pope John Paul II’s introduces the Redemptive meaning of the Consecrated Life formed by the Evangelical counsels. Redemption as proclaimed by John Paul, as we have seen, concerns essentially the restoration of the union of friendship with God in Christ giving meaning and transcendent dignity of the human person: the right ordering and building up of social and civil life is founded on that. The ministries done by Religious and the contribution of all Christians to the secular state are necessary for the healing of the world: but they flow from the Redemptive identity of the Evangelical Counsels. In Consecrated Life we are looking at a life which not only facilitates practical service but also helps to restore the foundation of human life in union with God. So it is that Chastity is not merely a life style free from family ties thus promoting greater availability to serve; obedience is not merely as an effective organisational tool in ministry; poverty is not merely a responsible distribution and use of goods. Those aspects are certainly not denied and they have an important part to play: but the Consecration of the Religious, -and indeed the consecration of all the baptised – initiates the Christian into a deeper co-operation with the essence of Redemption.

This co-operation, this becoming as it were co-redeeming through union with Christ, is part of the life of all the baptised, but in those whose lives are publicly vowed to the following of the Counsels this redemptive aspect of Christian living becomes a visible, powerful sign.  We can draw this further because if the Religious, specifically through their consecration, are given entirely to the work of the Redemption,[34] then all Christians consecrated in Baptism can also be working for Redemption, even if their work is not specifically an aspect of “social work” but could be that of a cabinet ministers or a street cleaner.  Following Pope John Paul II it can be said that the effectiveness of the presence of the Christian in the world ultimately depends on conformity to Christ, poor chaste and obedient in the Divine work of Redemption.  This becomes the exclusively Christian contribution to the development of Europe through the death and new life brought by Christ, which is the message of hope of Pope to Europe.

I suggest that thus the theology of Consecrated Life of Pope John Paul II and the address of Pope Francis together promote a theological understanding, an aspect of soteriology, which identifies in the life of the Baptised a message of hope to the world and a call to co-operate in God’s work of the Redemption.

Thank you.

[1] Cf for example Pope John Paul II, Memory and Identity, Personal Reflections (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005). Crossing the Threshold of Hope, trans. Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994).
[2] Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1979). §1
[3] Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1979). §1
[4] Second Vatican Council, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium,” §7; 11; 13
[5] Ibid. Chapter VI; “Perfectae Caritatis,”
[6] Catholic Church International Theological Commission, “Select Questions on the Theology of God the Redeemer,” in The International Theological Commission. Vol 2, 1986-2007: Texts and Documents, ed. Rev Michael Sharkey and Fr Thomas Weinandy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009).
[7] Ibid. 96 § 3
[8]Council, “Lumen Gentium”. § 4. Pope John Paul II, Sources of Renewal : The Implementation of the Second Vatican Council (London: Collins, Fount Paperbacks, 1980). 58
[9] “Gaudium Et Spes,” in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (New York/Dublin: Costello /Dominican, 1996); John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis.
[10] Pope John Paul II, “Apostolic Exhortation of His Holiness Pope John Paul II Redemptionis Donum to Men and Women Religious on Their Consecration in the Light of the Mystery of the Redemption,”
[11] Ibid. §3
[12] Ibid. § 8
[13] Jn. 17:19.
[14] John Paul II, “Redemptionis Donum”. § 8
[15] Ibid. § 9
[16] Ibid. §8, 3
[17] Ibid. §8
[18] Ibid. § 3, 15
[19] Ibid. § 11
[20] 2 Cor 8:9
[21] John Paul II, “Redemptionis Donum”. §12
[22] Ibid. § 4
[23] Phil. 2:6-8.
[24] Rom. 5:19.
[25] John Paul II, “Redemptionis Donum”. § 13
[26] Ibid. § 13
[27] Ibid. § 13
[29] Pope Francis, “Address of Pope Francis to the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, France , Tuesday, 25 November 2014,”
[30] Pope John Paul II, “Address of Pope John Paul II to the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, France , Saturday, 8 October 1988,”
[31] Pope Francis, “Address of Pope Francis to the European Parliament Strasbourg, France , Tuesday, 25 November 2014,”
[32] Ibid.
[33] Pope Benedict XVI, “Apostolic Letter “Motu Proprio Data” Porta Fidei of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI for the Indiction of the Year of Faith,” Vatican, § 2
[34] John Paul II, “Redemptionis Donum”. § 3


Benedict XVI, Pope. “Apostolic Letter  “Motu Proprio Data” Porta Fidei of the Supreme Pontiff  Benedict XVI for the Indiction of the Year of Faith.” Vatican,

Commission, Catholic Church International Theological. “Select Questions on the Theology of God the Redeemer.” In The International Theological Commission. Vol 2, 1986-2007: Texts and Documents, edited by Rev Michael Sharkey and Fr Thomas Weinandy, 465. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009.

Council, Second Vatican. “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium.”

———. “Perfectae Caritatis.”

Francis, Pope. “Address of Pope Francis to the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, France , Tuesday, 25 November 2014.”

———. “Address of Pope Francis to the European Parliament Strasbourg, France , Tuesday, 25 November 2014.”

“Gaudium Et Spes.” Translated by O.P. Ambrose McNicholl, Ronan Lennon, O.Carm., Senan Crowe, O.P. In Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, edited by Austin Flannery. New York/Dublin: Costello /Dominican, 1996.

John Paul II, Pope. “Address of Pope John Paul II to the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, France , Saturday, 8 October 1988.”

———. “Apostolic Exhortation of His Holiness Pope John Paul II Redemptionis Donum to Men and Women Religious on Their Consecration in the Light of the Mystery of the Redemption.”

———. Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Translated by Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee.  London: Jonathan Cape, 1994.

———. Memory and Identity, Personal Reflections.  London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005.

———. Sources of Renewal : The Implementation of the Second Vatican Council [in English].  London: Collins, Fount Paperbacks, 1980.

John Paul II, Pope Redemptor Hominis [in Translated from the Latin.].  London: Catholic Truth Society, 1979.