Radical discipleship in a changing Church

Challenging times

As we enter this Year of Consecrated Life, Port Pirie Bishop Greg O'Kelly SJ shares some insights as a member of a Religious Order who became the Bishop of a Diocese which may be facing a future "bereft of Religious."

The quotation given to us from Pope Saint John Paul II as a discussion starter states that there is no conflict or opposition between the institutional and the charismatic elements of the Church.

That statement might reflect a conviction held by numbers of Religious Superiors that Pope John Paul II did not really understand Religious Life.

One thinks of the conflict between Bishop Polding here in Sydney and the early Religious; there is the conflict between early Josephites and Dr Cani in Queensland; and of course there is a whole story of Mary Ward and the Loreto Sisters.

There may in the final result might be no conflict, but there are periods in the story of the Church when it has taken time for the institutional and the charismatic to come to terms with each other.

I would like to make my initial remarks from the point of view of a Bishop facing the prospect of his diocese becoming bereft of Religious life, and what will be the impact from that. I looked up the figures for the Diocese of Port Pirie in 1972, the year I was ordained.

There were then seven Religious priests, five Religious brothers and 93 Religious sisters! Today we have no Religious priests, no Religious brothers and 12 sisters, with six of those being seventy years old and over. One must ponder the implications for us.

The first is from the point of view of an ecclesiology. Vatican II describes Religious Life as a manifestation of the holiness of the Church. The existence of Religious Life in the Church is a revelation of its holiness.

What Religious Life brings is, first of all, prophetic witness. It is an indication of how the Spirit can move individuals, drawing them to closer discipleship, in different ways. One thinks of the three Teresa's – the Great Theresa of Avila, the young Therese of Lisieux, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Each was troubled by God at a different stage of life, and each was called in deeply personal and different ways to respond. The prophetic is necessarily an individual gift within the Church. The prophet plays a role vis-à-vis the institution.

One thinks of how Francis of Assisi addressed the Church in his time. Catherine of Siena is another powerful example. The prophets of the Old Testament were called as individuals to confront or challenge the general body of the People of God.

Secondly, Religious Life indicates a witness of radical discipleship. It is perhaps no accident that Religious Life began in the Church at the conclusion of the Age of Martyrs. There always are some called to serve the Lord in a radical following of Him. The three vows encompass that form of discipleship – poverty being all I have; chastity all that I am; obedience all that I ever will be.

Thirdly, there is a contemplative dimension in Religious Life as an indication of an integral feature of discipleship of Jesus. The early founders of Religious Life, the hermits, the hermits of the desert, figures such as St Anthony and St Paul, were essentially contemplatives, and this truth must be part of the reality of Religious Life if it is to be authentic.

Think, then, of the impact on the Diocese when the people living such truths, the consecrated men and women are no longer part of the scene.

Read full article: The Religious made Bishop of a Diocese (catholic.org.au)

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