Charisms in Religious Life

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High interest in the concept of charism (3:460) as a focal element in the renewal of religious life followed closely on the promulgation of the documents of Vatican Council II. A simple reference in Lumen gentium (42) to the evangelical counsels as constituting a gift of God to the Church was elaborated in Perfectae caritatis (1) and developed still further by Paul VI's 1971 apostolic exhortation on religious life (Paul VI Evangelica Testificatio 729). References in these documents to the "proper character of each institute," "the charisms of the founders," and "the dynamism proper to each religious family" prompted religious congregations to develop a new sense of their origins. The deepening understanding of the spirit of the founder, a renewed study of Scripture, and a keener sensitivity to the signs of the times, have become the triadic impetus for revitalizing the religious institute.

Religious Life as Gift within the Church. Vatican Council II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church first situates religious life ecclesially (Lumen gentium 4347), then a separate decree turns to the specific renewal of religious institutes (Perfectae caritatis ). The study of the charism that religious life is, or, of the charisms of particular founders is, accordingly, best done in the context of the general theology of charism within the life of the Church. Seen thus organically related to the life of the Church, the renewal proper to religious life avoids either narrow concern for superficial differences or a diminished appreciation of the place of religious life among the rich variety of gifts given for the building up of the Body of Christ.

From the theology of charism, some principles are of particular value in reflecting on the charism of religious life. These are: (1) that charisms are universally present in the Church; (2) that charisms are frequently of quite an ordinary character; (3) that charisms are apostolic: related, that is, to the building up of the Kingdom of God and given for the benefit, not only of the recipient, but also for others; and (4) that charisms appear in constantly new forms. These principles provide a sound basis on which a religious institute might ground the work of research and reflection on its proper charism.

Prior to the awakened awareness of religious life as a charism, it was common to speak of the call to religious life. Sometimes the connotation was that this call to religious life carried strong meanings of duty or obligation or even of unwelcome intrusion into ordinary life. Viewed as a charism, however, religious life is seen as both a gift and a call. That it is a gift implies that there is a grace given as a power to fulfill joyful religious commitment for the sake of the Kingdom. The screening of candidates for religious life should include discernment of gifts that will enable the candidate to respond. That response is not merely a matter of a good and disciplined will determined to live up to an intellectualized Meal, but rather a response made with a certain ease and freedom of spirit.

Discernment of Charisms. Several ideas are used interchangeably in discussing the charism of religious life. These are "the spirit of the founder," "the spirit of the institute," "the charism of the founder," and the "founding charism." It is more useful, however, to broaden the appreciation of the various dimensions of a community's self-image by distinguishing among the aspects just named, and even to add others, rather than to make them terms interchangeable with charism. In other words, the gift that a particular institute is to the Church is a composite of interrelated qualities. The charism of the founder is the gift and call given enabling the founder to institute a particular religious family. The events of a historical period, the particular geographic location, the cultural milieu, the ecclesial setting, the other persons who joined at the founding of the communityall of these contribute toward the characteristic spirit of the institute. The dynamism of the charism throughout the history of the institute can be explored through the lived experience of the members, the decisions made, the roads taken and not taken. Understanding its charism requires, therefore, that an institute explore it as a continuing operation within a corporate entity in history and not as a static quality inhering in the founder alone. The charism of the present institute, the ensemble of its gifts, are organically related to the founding persons, but it may and probably should exhibit some differences.

The sources for understanding and explicating the charism of religious life or of a particular institute are Scripture, theology of charism, foundational texts, histories, and other archival materials. To these sources must be added an examination of the contemporary needs of the People of God and a realistic assessment of the present members' capacities to respond to these needs. A search process that is reflective, discerning, and dialogic will illumine the meaning of the charism of the institute so that it might be anointed and freed for the service of God and his people.

Bibliography: l. cada and r. fitz, "The Recovery of Religious Life," Review for Religious 34 (1975) 690718. j. c. futrell, "Discovering the Founder's Charism," The Way Supplement 14 (Autumn 1970) 6270. p. kaufman, "The One and the Many: Corporate Personality," Worship 42 (1968) 546556. w. koupal, "Charism: A Relational Concept," Worship 42 (1968) 539545. paul vi, Evangelica testificatio, tr. On the Renewal of Religious Life (USCC Publ. Office, Washington, D.C. 1971). k. rahner, "Observations on the Factor of the Charismatic in the Church," Theological Investigatons 12, tr. d. bourke (New York 1974) 8997.

[g. foley]