Hope: Evangelical Counsels and Theological Anthropology

Paper given at the ESCT Congress, Bratislava, August 2019.

Hope – why and how to be a human person;
Consecrated Life as Theological and Existential Witness

Pope John XXIII called out for us to open the windows, John Paul II, to open the doors. I am staying in an airbnb just a stone’s throw from here. The windows open in two ways: if you turn the handle 90 degrees they open on a vertical axis and if you turn it 180 degrees they open on a horizontal axis. There are two aspects of hope: one concerns more its interior reality in the very life breath of the Church, while the other has a more overt proclamation in the darkness of the world. Both aspects are essential. In this paper I will indicate a theology of Consecrated Life in which a way of hope flows from a soteriological reality which is both at the core of the ecclesial interior identity and also (necessarily therefore) profoundly missionary.

Redemption, meaning of life

Gaudium et Spes tells us that ‘We can justly consider that the future of humanity lies in the hands of those who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping.’[1]  Ultimately these reasons for living and hoping are found in the breadth and depth of the reality of Redemption when this is understood as the fullness of the divine / human encounter.  

I will begin with some observations about Redemption and its connection to the meaning of life according to Pope John Paul II. I will then juxtapose this with a theology of Consecrated Life found in his writing, specifically in his 1984 Apostolic Exhortation Redemptionis Donum, On the Religious Life in the Light of the Redemption.
Referring to the analysis of the contemporary world found in Gaudium et Spes as it ‘treats of the profoundest questions concerning mankind’ Archbishop Karol Wojtyła wrote:

The essential point is the profundity of these questions, like a probe inserted into the depths of the reality of man and man’s existence in the world.[2]

The response from the Church to these “profoundest questions”, according to Gaudium et Spes is

‘the mystery of redemption: the work of Jesus Christ that is continually being effected in the Church and, through the Church in mankind and the world.’ It is the mystery of redemption, ‘closely linked with Jesus Christ, his life, death and resurrection’ which is the key unlocking the meaning of man:
The revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love in Jesus Christ reveals man to man, and gives the ultimate answer to the question, ‘What is man?’ This answer cannot be separated from the problem of man’s vocation: man confirms his identity by accepting that vocation and making it a reality.

The  ‘problem of man’s vocation’ represents the absence of hope and the answer to the problem, which is given here as Redemption, demonstrates the reasons for living and hoping. Wojtyła finds in redemption an anthropology in which man’s meaning is demonstrated by the redemptive love of God. This was later expressed in his first papal encyclical:
The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly – and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being – he must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter into him with all his own self, he must “appropriate” and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deep wonder at himself.[3]
This anthropology, which might tentatively be called a soteriologial anthropology, is part of the foundation of Redemptionis Donum in which Pope John Paul asserts that ‘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.’[4] This observation concerning all Christian vocation is made in the context of Consecrated Life although it is not at that point specific to Consecrated Life. As the text moves on to focus on Consecrated Life it can be seen as a bridge linking a general view of all Christian life with the specific identity and witness of this particular vocation. Thus, if we bring together the questions of the meaning of all life and the specific theological identity of the consecrated life as he goes on to describe it, we can identify in the life of the Religious an existential exposition of meaning and a source of hope in the contemporary world.

Soteriological anthropology, Soteriological Hope

There are two aspects which make up what might be called a soteriological anthropology. Gaudium et Spes speaks of the slavery to sin, struggle and suffering, weakness and sin, life and death. Man is ‘divided within himself’ ‘degraded’, involved in a dramatic struggle between good and evil, and unable on his own to ‘overcome the assaults of evil’.[5] The redemptive encounter on the path of life begins with the intimate experience of man, in his ‘joys and hopes, sorrows and anxieties’, yet man is the object of God’s redemptive love and reaches a full understanding of himself by drawing near to Christ in an interiority in which he experiences both his ‘unrest, uncertainty,… weakness and sin’ and also the redeeming love of Christ. He is thus opened, in hope, to assimilate the love of Christ in the Redemption. Redemption involves this dual aspect in the process of which man learns about himself as a broken sinner, and as a unique person loved, chosen and restored by God. We might call this a soteriological hope.

Evangelical Counsels and Redemption

I now move on to the connection with theology of the Consecrated Life.
The witness to hope of the life of the Evangelical Counsels is very obvious in connection with the witness to “Gospel values”,  to justice and peace, and the preferential option for the poor, and so forth. This is not the aspect which I will develop; I leave it to one side and move on to the identity of Consecrated Life comprising a commissioned co-operation with Christ demonstrating a soteriological anthropology and a soteriological hope.
Traditionally the Counsels are also linked to Redemption through the transformation of the individual vis a vis the threefold concupiscence. The reality of concupiscence relates exactly to the realities of sinful and broken life which call out for Redemption, and the following of Christ in the way of the Counsels thus brings the transformative work of Redemption to the life of the Religious in very specific ways. The bringing close of Redemption is wider than the individual Religious of course. The vowed practice of the counsels is also strongly identified in Conciliar and post-conciliar theology as ecclesial, in that it is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, lived within the Body of Christ. It is Christocentric, patterned on the death and resurrection of Christ, and precisely because it is Christocentric, Pascal and ecclesial, the individual Religious is said to be involved in the wider programme of Redemption:
Along this path the profession of the evangelical counsels opens out in each one of you, dear brothers and sisters, a wide space for the “new creation”[6] that emerges in your human “I” precisely from the economy of the Redemption and, through this human “I,” also into the interpersonal and social dimensions. At the same time it emerges in humanity as part of the world created by God: that world that the Father loved “anew” in the eternal Son, the Redeemer of the world.[7]
John Paul claims that the call of all people occurs within the call of the individual, because of the profound communion of all humanity in the Word. This means that through the charismatic gift of Consecrated Life which belongs to the Church and to humanity the economy of Redemption transfers power of the pascal mystery to the level of humanity, as the individual lives the life of the Counsels.[8] As the individual is transformed a ‘wide space’ has opened in the individual for the ‘new creation’ in the world through which society and culture are also transformed. This too, is a sign and a source of hope and it serves as a bridge to a second way in which the Pope links the counsels to Redemption through a participation in the economy of Redemption.

The Economy of Redemption

To speak of the economy of Redemption is to speak of  the way in which Redemption occurs. John Paul shifts the emphasis from the Christocentric transformation of the individual with its concomitant transformation of culture, to a participation by the individual in God’s chosen way of doing Redemption, an insertion into the dynamics of the Christological, Pascal manner or method of Redemption. This represents a particular moment of hope and a particularly rich conduit of hope through the gift of co-operation with Redemption which is channelled through this specific way of life.
The soteriological connection is now seen in the Evangelical Counsels not so much from the perspective of the ‘bases of Redemption’, that is, the need for Redemption, but from the perspective of the Trinitarian working of Redemption in humanity and all of creation, that is the dispensing of God’s loving desire for intimacy with each and unique person in the restoration of the communion lost in sin. Clearly this is essentially and inalienably missionary within the Church and the world, and it represents a specific role given to Religious within the accomplishment of the economy of Redemption:
In this way, consecrated persons accomplish the interior purpose of the entire economy of the Redemption. … they bring into the midst of this passing world the announcement of future resurrection[9] and of eternal life: life in union with God Himself through the beatific vision and the love which contains in itself and completely pervades all other loves of the human heart. [10]
The announcement of ‘of future resurrection[11] and of eternal life: life in union with God Himself’ is the ultimate announcement of hope. While this reflection is indeed not addressed to the specific or general concrete problems of life what the soteriological anthropology of John Paul proclaims is a foundational, essential reality of the conquest of evil and the advent of empowered purpose which are the key to all attitudes and efforts towards a better world.
In Redemptionis Donum the Pope elaborates the way in which ‘the interior purpose of the entire economy of the Redemption’ is accomplished. The foundation rises in the Redemptive nature of the love from which vocation issues. This is affirmed by placing together the action of Jesus, who ‘looking upon him, loved him’ and the proclamation in John’s Gospel at 3:16 of the eternal love of the Father, whose love sends His Son to save all those who will believe in Him through His love. He writes:

The Son, invested with that love, accepted the mission from the Father in the Holy Spirit and became the Redeemer of the world.[12]

The love with which Jesus looks at the young man is the very love which ‘constitutes the true price of the Redemption of man and of the world.’[13] The one called by this love is therefore called from within the Redemptive mission between the Father and the Son, and the missionary form of the Son’s redemptive love, that is, the economy of Redemption, becomes the form of the specific identity of Consecrated Life, they receive ‘the salvific profile’ of Christ in their lives. Chastity is presented as a participation in the love between the Father and the Son and the love between the Trinity  and humanity. Poverty is an insertion into the self-emptying of Jesus Christ. Obedience is taken into the response of the Word to the Father’s mission of kenosis and self-gift. Thus the Pope can say that ‘consecrated persons accomplish the interior purpose of the entire economy of the Redemption’.
The new creation effected by the redemptive identity of the Religious is also visible in the existential witness of human beings who have experienced the living encounter with the intimate, pascal and transformative love of the Redeemer even as it is operative through faith and out of sight. Both visibly and invisibly these co-workers and lovers of God and of humanity are able to ‘provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping’ through the fullness of their consecration in the Pascal Christ, gift of God’ redeeming love to the Church and the world.
The vigil cry of the Easter Praeconium brings to a climax the recitation of salvation history in the Pascal context which references, through the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the depth of our inability to generate our own source of hope:

O felix culpa, quæ talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!

This is the joyful cry of hope of all Christians, and very particularly of all Religious configured through their consecration in the Redeemer, wherever they are and in whatever circumstances, as they take their place in the vigil of the world still in darkness but already harbouring the Redemptive dawn.

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.  Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1984. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_25031984_redemptionis-donum_en.html.


———. “Encyclical Redemptor Hominis Addressed by the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II to His Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate, the Priests, the Religious Families, the Sons and Daughters of the Church, and to All Men and Women of Good Will, at the Beginning of His Papal Ministry.”  http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_04031979_redemptor-hominis.html.


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


Second Vatican Council. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium Et Spes.  Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1965. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html.



[1] Gaudium et Spes §31

[2] Pope John Paul II, Sources of Renewal : The Implementation of the Second Vatican Council (London: Collins, Fount Paperbacks, 1980) 71

[3] “Encyclical Redemptor Hominis Addressed by the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II to His Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate, the Priests, the Religious Families, the Sons and Daughters of the Church, and to All Men and Women of Good Will, at the Beginning of His Papal Ministry,”  http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_04031979_redemptor-hominis.html,, § 10

[4] 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, (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1984), http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_25031984_redemptionis-donum_en.html § 5

[5] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium Et Spes, (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1965), http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html, § 13

[6] 2 Cor. 5:17

[7] John Paul II, “Redemptionis Donum“, § 10

[8] Ibid. § 11

[9] Cf. Lk. 20:34-36; Mt. 22:30; Mk. 12:25

[10] John Paul II, “Redemptionis Donum“, § 11

[11] Cf. Lk. 20:34-36; Mt. 22:30; Mk. 12:25

[12] 1 Cor. 6:20. John Paul II, “Redemptionis Donum“, § 3.

[13]  ibid., § 3.