1980–The Contemplative Dimension of Religious Life

(Plenaria of the Sacred Congregation for Religious and for Secular Institutes, 4-7 March 1980)

(Selected texts that deal with formation based on  A. Values and Principles of consecrated life  B. Vocations, C. Initial formation and D. Ongoing formation. )

A. Values and Principles of Consecrated Life


On the basis of extensive research, the Plenaria of the Sacred Congregation for Religious and for Secular Institutes of 4-7 March 1980 considered the contemplative dimension of religious life. The theme had been chosen at the Plenaria of 1978, which dealt with the specific role of religious in the Church’s mission for integral human promotion, especially in its socio-political aspects. In highlighting at the time the fundamental importance of the spiritual in all forms of consecrated life, the Fathers of the Plenaria saw the need and the urgency to stress the absolute primacy of life in the Holy Spirit.

The choice of this theme, which was approved by the Holy Father, was prompted by:

  • – the emergence of many forms of prayer and new forms of contemplative life among the People of God and in many religious communities, and
  • – the need to do away with the harmful dichotomy between interior life and activity in the personal and communal lives of religious in reaction to a certain period of down-grading of prayer and recollection, which has not yet completely disappeared.

The Plenaria did not wish to indulge in a theoretical, theological study; but, on the basis of a sufficiently concrete and accepted doctrinal specification, it desired to draw up some practical and formative guidelines

  • – to encourage the integration of the interior life and activity in institutes of so-called active life and
  • – to promote vitality and renewal in the specifically contemplative institutes.

In presenting here the principal guidelines formulated by the Plenaria, account has been taken not only of the conclusions reached by the Fathers at the time of voting but also of the main ideas that emerged in other sessions (for example, in the group discussions) and which complemented the thought of the Fathers. Furthermore, appropriate headings were sought for the subject matter of the conclusions, their content was arranged in order, and subdivisions were introduced in order to clarify and make more explicit the guidelines, which were very much condensed in the final proposals.

The synthesis consists of three parts:

I. Description of the contemplative dimension.

II. Guidelines for institutes of the active life.

III. Guidelines for specifically contemplative institutes.

B. Vocation

C. formation

D. The contemplative dimension in formation

17. Religious formation. — The principal purpose of formation at its various stages, initial and ongoing, is to immerse religious in the experience of God and to help them perfect it gradually in their lives. With this in mind, there is need to “duly emphasize the apostolate itself” (MR 27). The primary objective of active institutes should be to integrate the interior life and the active life so that each religious will increasingly cultivate the primacy of life in the Spirit (MR 4), from which flows the grace of unity proper to charity.

The strongly ecclesial dimension of religious life (LG 44; ET 50; MR 10) demands that formation in every aspect be imparted in profound communion with the universal Church. This should be done in such a way that religious may be able to live their vocation in a concrete and effective way in the local Church and for the local Church to which they are sent, according to the mission of their institute.

“By your vocation,” the Pope said, “you are for the universal Church; by your mission you are in a definite local Church. Your vocation for the universal Church, then, is exercised within the structures of the local Church. You must make every effort to carry out your vocation in the individual local Churches, so as to contribute to their spiritual development, in order to be their special strength. Union with the universal Church through the local Church: this is your way” John Paul II, to Superiors General, 24 November 1978).

18. Deepening the knowledge of one’s institute. — Knowing the special character (MR 11) of the institute to which one belongs is an essential element in formation for the contemplative dimension.

Under this aspect also, it is important to implement that general principle of renewal which Perfectae Caritatis defines as “a constant return to the sources.”

19. Solid intellectual formation. — A solid intellectual formation, suited to the purposes of the vocation and mission of one’s own institute, is also basic for a balanced and rich life of prayer and contemplation. Therefore, study and updating are recommended as components of a healthy renewal of religious life in the Church and for society in our times (PC 2, c-d; ES II, 16). “Studies should not be programmed with a view to achieving personal goals, as if they were a means of wrongly understood self-fulfillment, but with a view to responding to the requirements of the apostolic commitments of the religious family itself, in harmony with the needs of the Church” (MR 26).

20. The need for suitable qualified formation personnel. –Those who are responsible for formation need to have:

  • – the human qualities of insight and responsiveness;
  • – a certain experiential knowledge of God and of prayer;
  • – wisdom resulting from attentive and prolonged listening to the Word of God;
  • – love of the liturgy and understanding of its role in spiritual and ecclesial formation;
  • – necessary cultural competence;
  • – sufficient time and good will to attend to the candidates individually, and not just as a group.