The weekend before Lent, I spoke of the need to foster vocations to the priesthood. I had intended on immediately following up with a reflection on vocations to religious life. Lent, though, had already arrived, requiring a shift in focus. However, now that we have begun the joyous season of Easter, I wish to return to the blessing of religious life.
When we refer to religious life, we are referring to those who have become religious sisters or brothers, nuns or monks. These are men and women who have chosen a particular way of leading the Christian life, which was established, exemplified, and taught by their founder. So, for example, Benedictine monks and nuns following the way of life and teaching of St. Benedict who established this way of life in 529AD. Franciscans and Poor Clares follow the example and teachings that Sts. Francis and Clare established in the 13th century; and our own Sisters of Providence follow the example and teaching of Emilie Gamelin who founded their congregation in 1843. Over the history of the church, hundreds of different groups of religious life have been established. Some, like the Benedictines, lasting for well over a thousand years, others enduring only for a short span.
It should not surprise us that there are so many. There are as many different expressions of the Christian life as there are people. However, some of those lived the faith in such an outstanding way, that it drew others to follow their example in close imitation. This is the seed of every group of religious men and women.
As diverse as these various groups of religious men and women can be, there is one thing which they all share in common and which binds them all together. It is the choice to embrace the Evangelical Councils. The Evangelical Councils are three in number: poverty, chastity, and obedience.
They are called the Evangelical Councils precisely because they have their origin in the Gospels, which are called Evangelia in the original Greek. Two of the councils can be found explicitly in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 19. Here we encounter a young man who asks Jesus what is necessary to enter into eternal life. Jesus answers, “keep the commandments.” But when the man indicates that he has done so, and wishes to go further, Jesus adds, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Here we have the establishment of the Council of Poverty. To renounce all worldly possessions in the pursuit of living for Christ alone.
Elsewhere in the same chapter we hear him say: “Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.” Here we have Christ establishing the Council of Chastity (or celibacy) for the sake of the Kingdom.
The council of obedience is implicit in the scriptures, but is still clearly present for those who seek perfect union with Christ. For the scripture states that our Lord “humbled himself, becoming obedient, even to death on a cross.”
Religious men and women, therefore, choose to consecrate themselves to Christ in a special way, be embracing and living the Evangelical Councils of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It is because of this consecration that religious life is also often called consecrated life.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!