Consecrated Life and the Charism of Institutes
Consecrated life finds its concrete expression in the charism of a religious institute (congregation, order, secular institute or a society of apostolic life). There cannot be any genuine living of consecrated life without taking into account the particular charism of a religious institute to which you belong. The Holy Spirit gives rise to the different Charisms in the Church so that she can present Christ to believers and non-believers alike, portraying the face of Christ in contemplation on the mountain, his proclamation of the kingdom of God to the multitudes, his healing the sick, his converting sinners, his solicitude for youth and his goodness to all men (LG 46). The same Holy spirit calls individual persons to live this charism and form a religious family in the Church.
“There is no religious life existing concretely “by itself” upon which is grafted the specific and the particular charism of each institute as subordinate additions.”(PI 17b). Indeed your consecrated life blossoms in the charism of the institute. Your congregation is as prophetic and vibrant as the religious vitality of its members.
“The ongoing configuration to Christ comes about according to the charism and provisions of the institute to which the religious belongs. Each has its own spirit, character, purpose, and tradition, and it is in accordance with these that the religious grow in their union with Christ”. (EE 46)
Charism of the congregation fostered in the Church
Vatican II invited the religious to return to the original spirit of their institutes and to adapt to the changed conditions of our time (PC 2). Authentic consecrated life calls for fidelity to the founder’s spirit and a sensitivity to the signs of the times. The founding charism of an institute and its sound traditions are the proper ground in which a consecrated person gets rooted. Mutuae Relationes (11 b) states:
“The very charism of the Founders appears as an “experience of the Spirit,” transmitted to their disciples to be lived, safeguarded, deepened and constantly developed by them, in harmony with the Body of Christ continually in the process of growth. It is for this reason that the distinctive character of various religious institutes is preserved and fostered by the Church (LG 44; cf. CD 33; 35, 1). This distinctive character also involves a particular style of sanctification and of apostolate, which creates its particular tradition, with the result that one can readily perceive its objective elements.”
Integrating personal gifts within the charism of the Institute
Is there a conflict between a personal charism and the charism of an institute? “Individual religious certainly possess personal gifts, which without doubt usually come from the Spirit. They are intended for the enrichment, development and rejuvenation of the life of the institute, in the unity of the community and in giving proof of renewal. Discernment of such gifts, however, and their correct use will be measured according to the consistency they show both with the community commitment of the Institute and with the needs of the Church as judged by legitimate authority”. (MR 12)
Consecrated life assumes a concrete and unique expression in the observance of the evangelical counsels, the style of life and apostolic activities as defined by each institute in accordance with its own character and purposes (PI 16, EE 25, CC 598 #2). Thus there cannot be any dichotomy regarding charism and mission between that of the individual religious and the institute, but rather an individual religious finds fulfilment and realization of his life and mission within the charism and mission of the Institute.
There are cases of an honest religious finding a vocation within his/her vocation when he/she discovers a personal call to respond to the need of the Church which cannot be met by his/her institute (for example, Mother Teresa founding a new congregation after being with the Loretto sisters). It could be that the Holy spirit coaches a person in an institute to become a recipient of a particular gift for the life of the Church. The Gamalien principle (If it is from God, it will stay) seems to be the best measure to check the authenticity of a newly sprouting religious institute in the Church.
Vibrating the charism of the Founder in yourself
There are people who join a religious institute after prolonged contact with it and a serious discernment about one’s call to that institute. But a large number of vocations join an institute by sheer coincidence or due to mere circumstances without knowing much about its charism. You may be one of them. But beneath it there could be the mysterious guidance of the Holy Spirit who draws people to where they belong. How do you know whether your own unique vocation and mission finds its fulfilment in the charism of an institute?
I think your heart will know whether you are called to an institute by experiential validation through your living of its charismatic values, your personal encounter with the spirit of the Founder, and knowing its history. Eventually you will find the inner harmony between your heart’s longing and the charismatic thrust of the institute and become convinced that you have found the place for your soul to bloom. Even when community infidelities such as power politics in the institute, domestication of its prophetic spirit by opting for mundane values, group fights based on race, caste or regional differences etc., threaten the vitality of the institute and make you sad and angry, you still remain convinced of your vocation within the institute.
But when you have a prolonged experience of inner disharmony between your spiritual longing and the spirit of the congregation in spite of your good community experience and acceptance in the institute, you know that you are in a wrong place. It is wasting time and energy to push yourself to fit in because one day you will give up or unhappily “nest”in the institute. Hence it is important to arrive at an inner clarity before one proceeds to make final vows in an institute. This inner disharmony is of a different order than that of the pains of frustrated desires and ego needs or interpersonal conflicts (for example, undesired transfers, tension with superiors etc) which are pangs of a maturing process. Some naïve religious have foolishly abandoned their religious life due to petty tensions with superiors or normal age-related struggles of living the evangelical counsels.
Creative fidelity to the charism of the institute (MR 12)
Creative fidelity to the charism demands vigilance of the spirit which calls for the following:
- a continual examination regarding fidelity to the Lord and docility to His Spirit
- intelligent attention to circumstances and an outlook cautiously directed to the signs of the times
- the will to be part of the Church and the awareness of subordination to the sacred hierarchy
- boldness of initiatives
- constancy in the giving of self
- humility in bearing with adversities and misunderstandings
It is the discovery and living contact with the founding charism and its sound traditions that can engender love and fidelity to the charism of the founder and make it possible embrace it as an ‘experience of the Spirit’to “to be lived, safeguarded, deepened and constantly developed”(EE 67, MR 7.1, VC 48). The charismatic identity is the basis for the maturity of the members in order to live and work in conformity with the foundational charism and for the identity and unity of the institute (MR 7.2). In the life of a consecrated person his/her charismatic identity progressively becomes the organising principle of one’s entire existence and the deep motivation for his/her life and apostolic activity.
Uniqueness of the charism of an institute in relation to similar charisms
You may wonder how various charisms are different from each other when you see many religious institutes carrying out the same kind of apostolates and living similar styles of life. Perhaps an analogy to the human person may explain the similarity and difference of charisms better. When you look at a person you will see the same physical features (eyes, nose, hands, legs etc.) and similar activities (eat, drink, work..). But each person is distinct because of his unique self which imprints a unique character to all that the person does . Every institute has its uniqueness as expressed in its spirituality which is manifested in the life of the founder and the historical journey of the institute. It is the unique spirit of the institute. Each charism uniquely manifests Christ ‘s life and mission by highlighting some aspect of it in the Church and in the world. We may fail to capture this uniqueness if we merely compare ministries done by the institutes.
Charism and the founder’s life
The founder is chosen by the Holy Spirit to gift a particular charism to the Church. His/her life may become a living witness of the gift received. We have myriads of saintly witnesses of charismatic gifts in the Church. Your own founder may be one of them. I am not aware of any religious institute that began as a result of a political or religious decree. But I know of the birth and death of a new institute decided by the general chapter of a particular congregation.
But a founder has no gift of infallibility and hence he/she, like any other human, can be overcome by sin, greed and inordinate affections. There was a recent case of a founder whose abusive and irresponsible sexual behavior have caused public scandal. Another foundress has left the institute she had founded in order to marry her mentor. But both institutes seem to continue with vitality in spite of the initial shock and pain to its members. These events affirm the role of the Holy Spirit as the real protagonist of the charism of an institute.
Certainly, collective and continuous infidelities to the charism and the loss of its prophetic vigour in an institute open the way to its earliest extinction because the charism is the only reason for an institute to exist in the Church. The best homage you can pay to your religious institute is to seek to joyfully live its charism and creatively carry out its mission as fulfilment of your own vocation and mission on earth.
As you read the following story, you are invited to apply its challenges to your own personal story and that of your religious institute and check the initial spirit and its subsequent changes for better or for worse.
Shipwreck Saving Centre
There was a dangerous sea where several shipwrecks used to happen causing heavy causalities for life. Powerful waves carried dead bodies and, at times, dying persons to the shore. Seeing the plight of these victims, a poor fisherman was inspired to risk his life to save these people. He went with his small boat to the sea to save the victims of shipwrecks. Risking his life he saved several men from drowning and brought them to the shore.
Hearing about the daring deeds of the fisherman many good people volunteered to join him. Some rich women gave money to buy a better boat to save more people. Many volunteered to give a helping hand to feed the victims and nurse the wounded. They built a shed on the shore to take care of the victims. Some volunteers lost their lives during the mission, but lots of lives were saved. The fisherman passed away shortly. News spread about the sacrifices of the fisherman and his boatmen. More money flowed to support the mission and more volunteers stepped in. They bought even a small ship for advanced service and built a bigger building for the volunteers to stay. Additional houses were made for training new recruits. To meet the recreational and heath needs of the volunteers a modern gym, a good stadium and a mini theatre were added to the fast growing Shipwreck Saving Centre on the sea shore.
Efficient personnel were set apart for administration and maintenance of the centre. Only few were willing to go to the sea. The leadership had to hire personnel to go to the sea and rescue some people to keep the mission going and collect money to meet the growing needs of the institution. One day when some badly affected victims were brought into the house by the hired men, the marble floor of the mansion was dirtied. Annoyed at this they built a temporary shed for the victims to stay. Life at the centre became exuberant with birthday parties, feasts and entertainment programs to lift the drooping spirit of members.
One of the members remembered the great founder, his simple life and the original spirit of the mission. He began to question the anomaly of the situation. But he was spurned, ridiculed and finally kicked out of the organisation for disobedience. He managed to get a little boat and went to the sea to save people. Seeing his sacrifice some others joined.
As years went by there arose many ship wreck saving centres with beautiful buildings and little sheds all along the seashore.
Points to ponder
Have you ever fine-tuned your inner spirit with that of your congregational spirit? How consistent is your life with the ideals of consecrated life and the charism of your institute?
How does the present state of your institute express its founding ideals and charism? What is your contribution to keep alive and creatively update the charism of your religious institute?