Religious (Men and Women)

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A religious is a member of the Christian faithful who follows the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience by profession of vows, living a life in common in an institute of consecrated life in a manner of life approved by the Church. Those who are members of secular institutes, which are also institutes of consecrated life, differ from religious in that they do not necessarily live a life in common and they do not give the same manner of public witness. Members of societies of apostolic life live a style of life that resembles religious, but the former do not profess vows.

Before the Second Vatican Council, many religious lived rather similar lives with similar schedules, customs, spirituality, prayer, and the like. With the Second Vatican Council, there came a directive to institutes to rediscover their roots and to return to the charism of their founder or foundress. With the 1983 Code of Canon Law, there came a new emphasis on proper law and subsidiarity. Thus, religious life began to manifest a variety of forms based upon the unique charism, mission, and situation of each religious institute.

Nonetheless, all religious in whatever institute they may live do live lives with important elements in common. Most notably, all are bound by the three evangelical counsels: obedience, poverty, and chastity. The evangelical counsels are a means to the most important goal of a religious, following Christ. While many of the externals and practices surrounding these counsels have changed, their essentials continue to form the foundation of religious life.

Religious Vows (c. 607). Religious profess a vow of obedience recognizing that the competent religious superior has the right to exercise authority. Superiors are to exercise this authority in a spirit of dialogue, treating the religious as a member of a family rather than a subject. Religious find their model of obedience in Christ who always fulfilled the will of the Father. The religious and the superior are to collaborate in discerning God's will, considering the good of the religious and the institute. This collaboration ends with the decision of the superior if the two cannot reach a common agreement. The living of this counsel is a challenge to a secular need for autonomy and individualism.

Religious profess a vow of chastity which is meant to free the religious for a greater love of Christ and others. Again, the model for this counsel is Christ who gave away his life in love for all persons. While the essence of living this counsel has not altered, much of its rationale has deepened; the emphasis is not on a denial of self but rather on being available to others and being free for apostolic work. Some externals associated with this practice have been discarded; for example, the principles that religious must always be together and should not have close friendships with persons of the other gender. It is recognized that healthy celibates should have authentic friendships with women and men. Following this counsel sets the religious apart from a secular society that sees love solely from a physical or romantic perspective or as a commodity.

The vow of poverty means that religious cannot use property for their own benefit. Whatever a religious acquires, with some exceptions, is acquired for the institute. The model for this counsel is Christ who was rich but for our sake became poor. It is also following the gospel command of Christ to the rich young man to go, sell everything, give it to the poor and follow Christ. Religious who follow a solemn vow tradition renounce both the acquisition and the use of property. Religious who follow a simple vow tradition renounce only the use, such that any property to which they may be entitled is still owned by them, but is administered by another. In following this counsel, religious should be like Christ who depended on the providence of God. The practice of poverty probably seems less strict than it had been; since most religious have apostolates and duties outside their religious houses, and since many must from time to time travel significant distances, most religious must use credit cards and they have access to larger amounts of cash than previously. Nonetheless religious making use of such community funds are expected to live a simple lifestyle. There is also a communal dimension to this counsel since the institute and its members are to be concerned about the poor and work to alleviate their needs. Living out this counsel is a challenge to the consumerism and materialism of society.

Rights and Obligations (cc. 66272). Most religious live a life in common. Some religious for reasons of apostolate or study or health do not live in a community, but this is not intended as a permanent situation. Small local communities are less institutional, with greater likelihood that there may be few, if any, members home at any one time. This is frequently accompanied with less emphasis on community liturgy and prayer.

Religious houses must have a cloister or enclosure, an area that is reserved to the religious alone. This is done so that religious may have space and quiet for prayer and study. The superior may allow others to enter the enclosure on occasion. Often, areas that may have once been commonly enclosed such as dining rooms and community rooms may now be open to visitors. For many institutes, their charism of hospitality means inviting others into their houses so that they are not so separated from neighbors and those whom they serve.

It is traditional for religious to wear a habit or a distinctive medallion or logo that identifies their affiliation to a particular institute. The constitutions of the institute define the distinctive garb.

Religious are expected to have a strong life of prayer. The living of the evangelical counsels is rendered much more difficult if the religious does not have a strong relationship with God through prayer.

Many religious institutes are contemplative, which means that their members spend much of their day celebrating the liturgy of the hours, participating in Mass, and engaging in private prayer. Most of these groups are cloistered and do not as a rule have apostolates outside the enclosed area. Other institutes have what may be called an active apostolate, such as teaching, health care, or parish work. The nature of the apostolate very much affects the nature and way of life within the institute.

The religious institute is obligated to provide its members with what they need to live and fulfill their vocations. What is necessary may vary from institute to institute depending on its proper law.

Recent Trends. Among the more recent trends in religious life is a decline in vocations among most institutes. This is coupled with an increase in the average age of the membership. Many institutes have had to give up many apostolates and change the way that the charism of the institute is expressed in the apostolates that it retains. The decline in numbers also can affect the quality or manner of community life.

Since the Second Vatican Council many religious and religious institutes have manifested a deep concern for social justice. In many cases they believe that it is not enough to provide charitable assistance to the needy, but that they must also work to counteract systemic injustice and inequality in the societies in which they minister. A number of religious work to raise the consciousness of members of their institute and society at large about matters of peace, justice, and the environment.

Religious Clerics. Consecrated life is neither clerical nor lay; nonetheless many religious orders are clerical or lay. Many orders of religious men consist of either clergy alone or priests and lay brothers, the latter being members who profess the vows but are not ordained. These clergy are incardinated in their orders, not in a diocese; the major superior is usually a local ordinary under canon law. Religious clergy often work within a diocese and so are subject to the diocesan bishop in terms of their ministry to the people in the diocese, as well as being subject to their religious superiors in terms of living their religious life. A clerical order is ordinarily under the supervision of clerics; ordinarily the priests and brothers in such orders are essentially equal but the lay brothers cannot hold certain offices.

Bibliography: vatican ii, "Decree on the Up-To-Date Renewal of Religious Life" (Perfectae caritatis ), Oct. 28, 1965 (in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 58 [1966] 70212). john paul ii, apostolic exhortation Vita consecrata, March 25, 1996 (in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 88 [1996] 377486). d. fleming and e. mcdonough, eds., The Church and Consecrated LifeThe Best of the Review (St. Louis 1996). p. philibert, ed., Living in the Meantime (New York 1994). c. yuhaus, ed., Religious Life: The Challenge for Tomorrow (New York 1994).

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Religious (Men and Women)

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