(From the paper presented to the 66thmeeting of Superior Generals in Rome in 2006 by Fr. Edward Mercieca S.J., tittled, “Present Challenges: Ways and Means that Superiors and Governing bodies of Religious Congregations may undertake”.)
The young adult:
From the search for an apostolic religious identity – to work done with love and peace.
After years of formation there comes a time for the first apostolic responsibilities. Frequently one feels empty handed: What to do? How can one begin and how can one go ahead? How can one honour his commitments in a proper way? Apostolate attracts, at last one is exercising fully his service to the world. However, indeed, it is disconcerting because one’s work does not always result in affective repercussions, team work has a cost; collaborating with the laity is a desired goal but it is not an easy task. Also it is disturbing not to know how to balance the apostolate, community life, prayer and rest. Work facilitates growth but it also shows one’s limitations: low self-esteem, complexes as well as problems in relating to others. Difficulties arise when one has to accept one’s talents and use them to serve others without entering into competition with others. Even at this adult age, one is still seeking to be a protagonist, to concentrate on appearances or on the approval of others. Deep down the young adult is searching for his own apostolic identity. Who am I now, working apostolically?
All the above mentioned difficulties cause inner suffering. The sensation that others, more so if they are your superiors, do not understand you may generate bitterness and even sadness. To con-front this situation in time is fundamental; otherwise it may cause great damage. Lack of response to apostolic efforts and initiatives also discourages. Year after year one works with the same persons and groups without being able to measure well the fruits! It hurts. Perseverance becomes an austere affair. When no peers are there to share with your yearnings and fights, suffering may become acute and deceitful. Apostolic commitment and action may blur the spiritual accompaniment and the community itself. To isolate oneself at this stage has fatal consequences.
Crisis facilitates growth: this stage of life is a time of human and apostolic vitality when the committed religious feels at ease and satisfied with his calling. Moments of spiritual consolation during pastoral work and silent prayer give interior energy. There is an evangelical joy in action and in relationships with others. The tendency to make more commitments than is humanly prudent is common even if love and enthusiasm help the situation. In the midst of this, the religious abandons himself definitively and confirms his option for consecrated celibacy. Other signs of growth may express themselves in not being afraid to try new apostolic fields and commit¬ments, in confronting difficult situations and frustrations in a better way, in working and sharing life peacefully with others. ,
• Regular personal and apostolic sharing with peers, ideally with the presence of some major superior or an experienced religious. During the first four or five years after ordination/final accept-ance in the congregation, superiors should facilitate and people concerned should know beforehand of this mutual-help instance.
• Trust and real responsibilities given: The apostolic identity of the religious grows if he is honestly trusted and if real responsibilities are given to him. He should not be left alone or worste still Uve alone. There is nothing more energizing and refreshing [with direct impact on perseverance and growth] than to have a positive and rich apos¬tolic experience.
• Supporting structures are needed all along the life of religious life. At this stage perhaps and after the first years of formation, structures valid during the study years do not prove helpful. New support structures are needed to respond to the new reality of the reli¬gious where rhythm and style of life and apostolic commitments, are different and more demanding. In this phase of religious life, one needs creativity together with the help of the same group.
From passivity and the loss of hope – to interior freedom, confidence in God and apostolic fruitfulness.
Mid life does not coincide with a fixed age, even if for our purposes we may think of it as around fifty. Psychological conscious¬ness of this period in life comes later than chronological age. In our modern culture where life tends to be longer – and more so in the case of religious life where official retirement comes only with grave sickness! – interior consciousness and acceptance of this stage comes later. This phenomenon is not something that takes place abruptly, although in a given time things happen – internally and externally.
Losses: physical strength diminishes. The person experiences a sort of general fatigue and is less open to new enterprises and learning. Among family members and friends, sad things occur: non self – supporting parents, deaths, diseases, problems of all type. Personal limitations are perceived with greater realism, sensing bet¬ter the choice as to which commitments to make and which com¬mitments to refuse. Many apostolic plans and dreams of evangelization remain filed and disordered affections continue to be present. The fragile and provisional aspects of life appear with force.
Life in the Spirit: God is perceived as being distant and quiet rather than active, although one is faithful to his commitments. When will this state of the soul continue? The fruit of trying and testing different types of prayer seems useless. For the religious who loves his vocation, and who continues faithful in his personal and apostolic Life, this is a painful purifying experience. One is rather disconcerted. Also, at this stage of life it becomes more difficult to ask for help.
Gains: This process of transition, if faithfully lived will end up in a more mature human and spiritual person. The purification process of these years facilitates a more radical offering in the hands of God; it comes to be a school of learning to trust in the Lord, in others and in one’s own experience. This trust is of a different class from that experienced in previous stages of life. “Humility” in living with deep-er authenticity and truth is the fruit of this transition.
As never before God will be leading. The way He is present to us and his visits come to be more interiorised, spiritually wise. Paradoxically, as one tends to disappear as the chief protagonist and becomes less self-centred, learning to let go in the hands of God and reality, the strength and horizons of apostolic endeavour grow. The religious is more universal now, more compassionate, more in communion with the Lord our God. Losing is finding. God’s habitation came to be the ultimate support of one’s religious identity.
• Friendships – sharing moments with particular persons whom we trust.
• Spiritual Reading and time for contemplation; giving time to be with what happens interiorly amidst apostolic commitments and returning it to the Lord.
• Learning to go on with a life of service, to let go of the self -seeking ventures and successes, to go on with apostolic work in a disinterested way, to let go of oneself and let the Lord take over. [“Letting go, go on, go with God”]
Third age, being old:
From physical, psychic and intellectual weakening to a strengthening of interior courage, charity and prayer.
There is no fixed date to declare that one is old, a member of the third age. Mostly it is others who help one become aware of this new state – a state with less physical strength – a state where there are less plans for new projects. In religious life getting old is more natural since one goes on helping and being apostolically committed. Many of our works today will be at a big loss without the active collaboration of many older brothers. The dynamism and sense of mission energizes the religious to go on serving through the years.
The feeling of physical, psychic, intellectual losses accompanies the third age. Even psychologically and spiritually healthy persons experience anxiety, fear and loneliness. Interior suffering results from feeling that one is less useful, less consulted, less valued and substituted by others for specific works. The world becomes smaller and the circle of friends more limited. Loss of memory and less of an ability to concentrate follow.
Yet this is a time for courage, charity and prayer. A religious developed in humanness and in the Spirit, shines forth joy, peace, hope. Even though life becomes weak, yet through the religious’ eagerness for definitive communion, one experiences the fruits of the Resurrected Lord. One needs spiritual courage to face the future with a young heart. It is a great opportunity to grow in gratuity of love: love expressed in small day to day gestures such as words said to someone on passing, visits to sick or needy people, a telephone call. Welcoming and wise old religious transmit the best of the congregation’s tradition to the young and are witnesses of the specific charism lived faithfully to the end.
This is a privileged time for prayer and for encounters: letting go in God one reaches the depth of the soul: rest, peace, contemplation. There is more time for reading. Prayer of sheer presence and offering dominates; more time is spent before the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary rediscovered in its mysteries, prayer for the church and for humanity come naturally. Carrying the cross in suffering, sickness and passivity needs faith. This is the time to experience an accompanied solitude, “Take Lord and receive”.
• Some congregations organize “a one week seminar” annually, for religious just over seventy to share their human, spiritual and apostolic experiences; and to grow in consciousness and acceptance of their new Life reality, projecting the future.
• Reading and writing, spiritual reading, more time for contemplative and passive prayer.
• To dare to accompany others as ministry [this goes from a welcoming presence in the community, listening to someone, visits to hospitals or needy persons to counseling and spiritual direction].