Evangelical Counsels and Redemption

Talk given to the Religious of Aberdeen Diocese, 11 June 2015, Deer Abbey, at the request of Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB
© Mary Stevens, August 2015                                                                                  1


St Teresa once wrote of an encounter with a learned Dominican:

I answered him that I didn’t want to benefit from theology if it wasn’t conducive to my following my vocation, my vow of poverty, and the Counsels of Christ [with total perfection]…[1]

I hope to offer you today some insights from the theology of Pope Saint John Paul II which may offer both a little encouragement and inspiration, give you something to chew on, perhaps quietly confirm what your own experience already tells you, give you something to which you can say “ah yes…”, maybe sow a seed which you may want to cultivate…
I am going to look at the Evangelical Counsels and Redemption. I will taking some ideas from the Apostolic Exhortation Redemptionis Donum of Pope John Paul II which he offered to Religious as a reflection on the Consecrated Life in the light of the Redemption. in the Holy Year of Redemption 1983-84.
I’m going to start off by talking a bit about what redemption, and then I will indicate how John Paul connects this to the Evangelical Counsels. Finally I’ll show how he demonstrates this for each counsel in particular.


Redemption is at the very centre of Pope Saint John Paul II’s 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. At the centre of Redemption is Jesus Christ the Redeemer. He began his first encyclical:

The Redeemer of Man, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history. … Our spirit is set in one direction, the only direction for our intellect, will and heart is towards Christ our Redeemer, towards Christ, the Redeemer of man. We wish to look towards him – because there is salvation in no one else but him, the Son of God – repeating what Peter said: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”[2]. [3]

What is meant here by redemption? Catholic Theological Commission at the request of Pope John Paul, published a paper on Redemption in 1995 in which they said:

..the doctrine of redemption concerns what God has accomplished for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, namely the removal of the obstacles lying between God and us, and the offer to us of participating in God’s life.[4]

The saving work of Christ removed the obstacles and once more presented the offer to share in God’s life. Human life itself is a gift given for fulfilment in a multi-layered relationship of love between God and creation, culminating in a participation in God’s life. Thus the human person experiences an incompleteness that is satisfied only in God.  Redemption opens the way which sin had closed in order that creation can come to fulfilment in God’s faithful love.
Theological Commission said: “In other words, redemption is about God–as the author of our redemption before it is about us.”[5] As a foundation for understanding Redemption John Paul takes a verse from St. John:[6]

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.[7]

He emphasises the sheer gift of the gratuitous love of God as the source and means of Redemption effected through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In human life there is a universal experience of suffering and evil which is a sign of the need for salvation and Redemption. 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: we are simply not able to do it, as the Council document Gaudium et Spes points out.[8] This is not because 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.
While it is essential to address in practical terms the difficulties and sufferings of the world, to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, work for justice and peace, etc., we know that the poor will always be with us, that we cannot resolve all justice and peace issues, because we also know that there is a root cause for the problems so evident in the world. The root cause is the disruption of our intimate connection with God the rejection of intimacy with God. So it is that as well as injustice there is also a universal longing, more or less explicit, experienced in a diversity of ways, for something more, for meaning, for love, for beauty, for joy – for God.
I’ve identified three aspects of Redemption: the removal of obstacles between the human person and God, the sharing in the life of God and the re-establishing of the meaning of human life. Redemptionis Donum is a reflection on Religious Life in the light of the Redemption and we can find each of those aspects in the teaching of the document on Religious Life.

Consecrated Life as Redemptive

At the beginning of Redemptionis Donum John Paul situates the call to follow the Evangelical Counsels within an interior encounter with the love of Christ.  “The Father’s love” He points out “was revealed in the Son as redeeming love.”[9] The Father in His eternal love gave His Son so that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life,[10] and it is this love, this redeeming love which once again gives life, restores the life lost, which constitutes the “gaze” with which Christ looks into the eyes of the one whom He calls to follow Him. In that encounter the one called is also commissioned personally to work with Christ. The pope continues:

This love embraces the whole person, soul and body, whether man or woman, in that person’s unique and unrepeatable personal “I.” The One who, given eternally to the Father, “gives” Himself in the mystery of the Redemption, has now called man in order that he in his turn should give himself entirely to the work of the Redemption…[11]

This experience of love, of being loved and being called to give entirely in love, already in itself addresses the meaningless associated with the need for Redemption:

Vocation carries with it the answer to the question: Why be a human person-and how? This answer adds a new dimension to the whole of life and establishes its definitive meaning.[12]

Why be a human person?: Because you are loved and your love is wanted. How to be a human person?: give yourself entirely in love.
Through Profession of vows, through this particular relationship of love, the Religious will be caught up in God’s redeeming love and leaving all to follow Christ become a co-worker with Him in the Divine love which Redeems the world. His or her entire life will be co-redemptive. As Pope St John Paul II reflects on the Consecrated Life he identifies the ways in which each of the Evangelical Counsels traditionally associated with Religious Life both structures and facilitates this participation and gift. What does this actually mean? He says that each one of the Counsels corresponds with a specific aspect of the way in which God’s Redeeming love works in human history, in human life, that each Counsel reflects in a specific way the economy of Redemption. The Counsels not only imitate the life of Christ: more than that, they form within unique, unrepeatable “I” of each Religious the ways of Redemption. How is this?

The Evangelical Counsels and Redemption

John Paul points out that there are many Counsels in the Gospel, “exhortations that go beyond the measure of the commandment, indicating not only what is “necessary” but what is “better.””[13] But among those many three have been chosen according to Tradition as the elements of Religious Profession. Pope John Paul identifies these three as having a clear importance as key elements and in a certain sense as a “summing up” of the entire economy of salvation.[14]
The Evangelical Counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience each identify an aspect of the way in which the God chose to bring about Redemption in the life of Jesus Christ, the way in which His love is Redemptive. Each Counsel in the life of the Religious is an efficacious sign of the way in which God’s love brought about Redemption in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As well as the Counsels being a sign, living them unites the Religious with Christ, so that her or his way of life and love is also redemptive. The Counsels say: God’s redeeming love is like this: Chastity shows the spousal love of Christ. God’s redeeming love is like this: Poverty shows the self-emptying of Christ who made us rich through his poverty. God’s redeeming love is like this: Christ “redeemed humanity and made it holy by his obedience”. To live in the way in which the love of God works to save, that is to live not only proclaiming but also participating in the economy of Redemption.
Through the Consecration of the individual the Counsels effect a transformation of the individual, from within, from the heart outwards. This personal transformation effected by the love of God in the choice of the individual to live in vowed self-gift, works for “the transformation of the entire cosmos through the heart of man, from within.”[15] Through the choice of this specific threefold way of consecration and sacrifice in response to the call of God, experienced in God’s steady gaze of love,[16] the Religious lives within and according to the redemptive self-gift of divine love.
The Son of God is given by the Father so that man might not perish but might have eternal life: the infinite gratuitous love given by Christ is redemptive. It is this gratuitous, spousal and redemptive love of God for the world, for every person in the world, which determines the form and the ethos of the Evangelical Counsels and constitutes the specific identity of the Consecrated Life.


The Pope writes that Christ’s love is “spousal and redemptive love: spousal because it is redemptive”.[17]  It is a love in which each individual is chosen and is loved infinitely and intimately by Christ as Redeemer.[18] God’s total self-gift in love re-establishes the bond between humanity and God, gives once again the share in God’s love. The counsel of Chastity, corresponds and participates in the spousal and redemptive love of Christ. It is the sign and the accomplishment, so John Paul 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] Through chastity, the Consecrated person chooses a total love of Christ above all. This Counsel and the life style it demonstrates and re-presents the spousal totality of Christ’s love for the world.[20] The spousality of God’s love is His free choice to give Himself totally in love to each person, to all people, to re-establish the intimacy with the human person through sharing in God’s love, which was lost, rejected, in sin. The Religious in following the way of consecrated Chastity, is participating in Christ’s spousal love for the world, for each individual. The Religious has a relationship with God which may be described as “spousal” only because God’s love for all His people may be described in this way. The Religious presents in his or her life God’s total gift of love for His chosen people – all His chosen people. This is restoration, by redemption, of the purpose of creation: by chastity, says John Paul, “consecrated persons accomplish the interior purpose of the entire economy of the Redemption”.[21] In choosing to live with God as the love of your life you already personally chose the goal of redemption which is for all: to share in the life of Divine love.
While chastity demonstrates this goal of redemption, poverty and obedience relate more clearly to the way that redemptive love “works”, that is, the economy of redemption.[22]


Pope John Paul writes:

… 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.[23]

He quotes the words of St Paul: The Word became poor that we might become rich.[24] God distributes His “richness” through the poverty of Christ. This richness is a richness of being, rather than having. Being” contrasts in some way with “having,” and poverty, or “not-having,” makes that contrast clearer. The “richness” of God’s life and love is so far from anything we can understand that it can only be glimpsed in a poverty which is a “not-having” a kind of opposite. The invitation of Christ to leave all and follow Him in poverty invites the person to give priority to a way of life that is centred on the value of “being over having” as John Paul expressed it, which Christ showed in His own way of life.[25]
In this way the Evangelical Counsels of poverty demonstrates the anthropological basis of vocation, Pope St John Paul says, 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” in self-gift for the enrichment of others. It shows “how” to be human.
Pope John Paul specifically points to the relevance of this new orientation in a world which pursues wealth, often measuring personal worth by possession, and which then experiences the emptiness which accompanies such an attitude The emptiness experienced by a world which seeks to possess, but is never satisfied, can actually open the heart to the original meaning of human life as union with God. The poverty of the Religious, the “non-having”, demonstrates the source of the satisfaction of life which is found by those who follow Christ in the self-emptying love received seen in the life of Christ and learned from Him. This demonstration is a living reality as the one living in poverty is herself transformed through the way of redeeming love.


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.[26]

Religious therefore, he says, “By living out the evangelical counsel of obedience … reach the deep essence of the entire economy of the Redemption.”[27] By willingly living 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.””[28 Self-emptying is the core of the Evangelical Counsel of obedience, 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.[29]

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.”[30]

Obedience addresses the selfish tendency to dominate rather than to serve. It “enables us” he says “to transform in a radical way that which in the human heart arises from the pride of life.”[31]
Having indicated the Redemptive efficacy of the Consecrated Life I would like draw some conclusions.

Conclusion: The Consecrated Person and the Redemption of the world

In Redemptionis Donum Pope St John Paul identifies all Religious as “given over entirely to the work of redemption”. [32] Redemption as proclaimed by John Paul concerns essentially the removal of obstacles between God and man and the restoration of union with God in Christ and consequently the restoration of meaning and transcendent dignity to the human person.
Religious living in the here and now, in the world, though the consecration of their lives by the love of God participate in the economy of Redemption. John Paul spells this out again:

We are .. speaking here of an overcoming as a transformation, for the entire economy of the Redemption is set in the framework of the words spoken in the priestly prayer to the Father: “I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but to guard them from the evil one.”[33] The evangelical counsels in their essential purpose aim at “the renewal of creation”: “the world,” thanks to them, is to be subjected to man and given to him in such a way that man himself may be perfectly given to God.

The ministries done by Religious 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 transform the world through the restoration of the foundation of human life in union with God through the Redemptive love and life of Jesus Christ. 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 of the Counsels are certainly not denied and they do have an important part to play: but the Consecration of the Religious initiates the Christian into a deeper co-operation with the essence of Redemption. The gratuitous love of God consecrates through the profession of the Evangelical Counsels, and by that gratuitous love the entire life of each religious, united with Christ, become co-redemptive. This co-redemptive identity of Religious is founded not on the life of prayer, or on apostolic work and service as such, but on the Evangelical Counsels. The individual, his or her unique “I,” in the most intimate depths of his or her personal being, is taken into the economy of redemption by the spousal love of God through profession of the Evangelical Counsels.
If the Religious, specifically through their consecration, are given entirely to the work of the Redemption,[34] then all their work, all their living, even if it is not specifically an aspect of “ministry,” not a “social work” is imbued with the apostolic efficacy.

Thank you.

[1] St. Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, the Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila.  Vol. 1, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington: ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1976). 304
[2] Jn 6:68; cf. Acts 4:8-12.
[3] Pope John Paul II, “Redemptor Hominis,”  http://www.vatican.va/edocs/ENG0218/_INDEX.HTM. 1, 7
[4] 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). § 2
[5] Ibid. § 2
[6] Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, trans. Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994). 54.
[7] Jn 3:16.
[8] “Gaudium Et Spes,” in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (New York/Dublin: Costello /Dominican, 1996); Pope  John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1979).
[9] 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,”  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_25031984_redemptionis-donum_en.html. §3
[10] Jn 3:16 ibid.§ 3
[11] Ibid. §3
[12] Ibid. §5
[13] Ibid.§ 9
[14] Ibid. § 9
[15] Ibid. § 9
[16] Mk 10:17
[17] John Paul II, “Redemptionis Donum”. §8
[18] Ibid. § 3, 15
[19] Ibid. § 11
[20] Ibid. §8, 3
[21] Ibid. § 11
[22] Ibid. § 11
[23] Ibid. §12
[24] 2 Cor 8:9
[25] John Paul II, “Redemptionis Donum”. § 4
[26]  Rom. 5:19.
[27] John Paul II, “Redemptionis Donum”. § 13
[28] Ibid. § 13
[29]  Phil. 2:6-8.
[30] John Paul II, “Redemptionis Donum”. § 13
[31] Ibid. § 9
[32] Ibid. § 3
[33]  Jn. 17:15.
[34] Ibid. § 3


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.
“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. “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.”  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_25031984_redemptionis-donum_en.html.
———. Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Translated by Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee.  London: Jonathan Cape, 1994.
———. “Redemptor Hominis.”  http://www.vatican.va/edocs/ENG0218/_INDEX.HTM.
John Paul II, Pope Redemptor Hominis [in Translated from the Latin.].  London: Catholic Truth Society, 1979.
Teresa of Avila, St. The Book of Her Life, the Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila.  Vol. 1 [in English]. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez.  Washington: ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1976.