Our Christian Vocation and a Religious Vocation

(By Bishop Victor Phalana)

A religious vocation is always seen as the initiative of God and the generous response of the one who is called. As early as the age of 12 a person may feel an inclination towards a religious calling. This can be the result of a spiritual experience (a retreat, a sermon, vocation camp, etc.), a religious event (religious profession, ordination, etc), a song or a prayer, which might stir certain emotions towards religious life. Sometimes the motivation of a parent, a teacher, a catechist can help a young person to see the need to respond to God’s call. A person might join religious life for wrong motives: either running away from family, from responsibility, from the difficulties of life and from self. The only motivation should always be the love of God and love of neighbour. There must be a willingness to spend oneself, to serve, to share one’s life and love, to help people experience the love of God and the values of the kingdom in their life situation. There is no doubt that in the process of formation, one’s motives can be purified.

A call is initiated by a loving God, it is gratuitous and His prevenient choice. It is a call first and foremost for an exclusive relationship with God and is also a call for service, a call for people who can be agents of evangelisation, agents of change and agents of justice and hope. The one who is called is free either to listen or not to listen. The person is free to respond or not to respond. God the Creator respects the freedom of those who are chosen and called. There is a mystery here: when one looks and the initiative of divine grace and human respond. The mysterious part of a Christian vocation is that it is divine initiative, coming in most cases, through a human mediation. There is the spiritual and the human, the natural and supernatural involved. This is a reason why Jesus spent the whole night in prayer before choosing the twelve (Lk 6:12-16). We cannot afford to reduce the mystery of a Christian vocation because if we do, we will lose the theocentric aspect of this vocation and only look at it as a human project. Every formation programme is based on the fact that after the choice of the Twelve, Jesus stayed with them for a period of about three years, living with them, forming them and teaching them.

1. CONSECRATION

The first effect of consecration is to mark a person as sacred. The person becomes set apart for God alone. God has a particular right and dominion over him/her. The person is now espoused to Christ. This is a new bond or marriage, a mysterious bond; it is an intimate bond and a unique bond. “This bond”, Pope John Paul II says, “is contained in the Sacrament of Baptism. Religious profession is deeply rooted in baptismal consecration and is a fuller expression of it. In this way religious profession, in its constitutive content, becomes a new consecration: the consecration and giving of the human person to God, loved above all else… Upon the sacramental basis of Baptism in which it is rooted, religious profession is a new “burial in the death of Christ”: new, because it is made with awareness and by choice; new, because of love and vocation; new, by reason of unceasing “conversion”. This burial in death” causes the person “buried together with Christ” to “walk like Christ in newness of life.” (Cf. Rom 6:3-11)1

There is freedom here either to accept or to refuse. When a person gives (him) herself entirely to Christ, and Christ, through the Church accepts his/her gift, he/she is transformed into a sacred person. The spousal union, created by the vow of chastity, is the fundamental and distinguishing characteristic of the consecration. The soul is freed from earthly concerns of caring for family and gives one the chance to give a more undivided attention to Christ and His people. “This is how the special covenant of spousal love is made, in which we seem to hear an unceasing echo of the words concerning Israel, whom the Lord “has chosen as his own possession” (Psalm 135/134:4). For in every consecrated person the Israel of the new and eternal covenant is chosen. The whole messianic people, the entire Church, is chosen in every person whom the Lord selects from the midst of this people; in every person who is consecrated for everyone to God as His exclusive possession.”2

A person is consecrated for service, for a life of prayer (Liturgy of Hours, the Eucharist, meditation, spiritual reading, spiritual direction, and other types of prayers and devotions); penance (simple lifestyle, practice of moderation, turning away from sin towards God), and Apostolic work (active apostolate for those in apostolic life, and community work and works of mercy for contemplatives). “When Consecrated Life is lived to its full capacity, it reflects holiness of life and action which are shown in the way the members strive towards perfection by witnessing to the gospel values. Such a holy life lived within Africa’s local conditions, constraints and limitations will enhance the inculturation of the Gospel so that it bears abundant fruit; fruit that will last. A holy religious emerging from the African cultural background will, certainly, demonstrate that the African culture is not incompatible with Christian tenets. Holiness of life is the gauge for evaluating the authenticity of Consecrated Life as a witness to the Gospel and of determining how far it has been integrated within a given culture.”3

Pope John Paul II says: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Lk 4:18). The Spirit is not simply “upon” the Messiah, but he “fills” him, penetrating every part of him and reaching to the very depths of all that he is and does. Indeed, the Spirit is the principle of the “consecration” and “mission” of the Messiah: “because he has anointed me, and sent me to preach good news to the poor…” (Cf. Lk 4:18). Through the Spirit, Jesus belongs totally and exclusively to God and shares in the infinite holiness of God, who calls him, chooses him and sends him forth. In this way the Spirit of the Lord is revealed as the source of holiness and of the call to holiness.”

The Pope continues: “This same “Spirit of the Lord” is “upon” the entire People of God, which becomes established as a People “consecrated” to God and “sent” by God to announce the Gospel of salvation. The members of the People of God are “inebriated” and “sealed” with the Spirit (cf. 1Cor 12:13; 2 Cor 1:21ff; Eph 1:13; 4:30) and called to holiness… If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5; 25). In these words the Apostle Paul reminds us that a Christian life is a “spiritual life”, that is, a life enlivened and led by the Spirit towards holiness or the perfection of charity. The Council’s statement that “all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity” applies in a special way to priests. They are called not only because they are baptized, but also and specifically because they are priests, that is, under a new title and in new and different ways deriving from the Sacrament of Holy Orders.”4

2. EVANGELICAL COUNSELS

The three vows are the three paths of love, obedience and poverty. A religious is expected to take the three radical ideals for Christian discipleship without force or coercion.

(i) Chaste Love

Chaste love is a way for loving all with the tender and warm love of Christ. It involves renunciation of all exercise of sex, complete abstention from sexual relationships (Mt 19:10-12; 1 Cor 7:28-40). “To make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” is not in fact merely a free renunciation of marriage and family life, but a charismatic choice of Christ as one’s exclusive Spouse. This choice not only specifically enables one to be “anxious about the affairs of the Lord” but – when it is made “for the kingdom of heaven” – it brings this eschatological kingdom of God close to the life of all people in the conditions of temporality, and makes it in a certain way present in the midst of the world”.5 Chastity and celibacy are not totally foreign to Africa and to Africans. We do have models of chastity and celibacy like traditional healers, traditional priests, traditional leaders, rain-makers, eunuchs, widows, virgins serving at royal palaces and married healers who abstain from sexual contact during important seasons and treatments. “Consecrated Chastity focuses on the purity and selflessness of love; love for God that enables the human heart to express love for others especially the poor and needy without asking and hoping for anything in return. This relates well to the traditional value where love and sacrifice for loved ones are extolled. A mother is the best example in this regard. She lives virtually for her children and has no other existence outside caring for them. Another traditional value in this area is the demand for self-control and modesty expected of young girls in most African cultures. This high regard for chastity is shown in the way society treats unwed mothers. They are ridiculed through derisive songs, ostracised from their age groups and shunned in gatherings and market places.”6

In Africa chastity and celibacy are rare and are considered sacred, given only to a few, special people who have received a particular call from the Divine and from ancestors. It is always connected with a special vocation. If it is not connected to a call, it might be regarded as a curse and maybe a result of witchcraft. For religious in Africa, chastity is a total gift of self and this exclusive relationship with the Spouse does not allow any other ‘marriage’ on the traditional-cultural level. It does not leave room for an intimate and exclusive relationship with the ancestors. Traditional healers can enjoy that relationship with the ancestors since they have not committed themselves to an exclusive relationship with the Lord. In Africa you do not give a gift and then withdraw it or claim it to give it to somebody else. Once you give your gift to the Lord, it is given and sealed forever.

(ii) Obedience

In Obedience, you commit yourself to read the signs of the times, to surrender your will to the Father as Jesus did, and obey the leadership and the rule of the religious institute (Heb 5:8; Jn 15:10). Obedience is a commitment by the community to listen attentively to the Spirit and to one another to discover together the will of God for them. “Through the vow of obedience consecrated persons decide to imitate with humility the obedience of the Redeemer in a special way. For although submission to the will of God and obedience to His law are for every state a condition of Christian life, nevertheless, in the “religious state,” in the “state of perfection,” the vow of obedience establishes in the heart of each, the duty of a particular reference to Christ “obedient unto death.”7 In Africa, there is always respect for legitimate authority and for authority figures who use their powers and position to give life and to coordinate the community.

Obedience is a gift and a commitment. “Obedience was an outstanding feature in the traditional African society. Respect and regard for elders and those in authority were highly esteemed and upheld. The wisdom of the elders was sought after and appreciated because they were taken to be the pillars of truthfulness, fairness and justice. They were looked upon as the link between the past and the present, ancestors and the people.”8

(iii) Poverty

In Poverty you commit yourself to dedicate your material goods to God, to share with others and to live in solidarity with the poor. Your heart is no longer on the material things of this world, on its wealth, riches and treasures (Mt 19:21; Mt 5:3; Lk 2:12). In Africa, poverty is at times dehumanising and evil. For some Africans it is valued. A wealthy traditional healer is regarded in traditional societies as inauthentic and greedy. People expect simplicity and availability as signs of a true traditional calling. Some of those who are called to religious life and to the priesthood are people from disadvantaged communities.

Poverty is still relevant to them in Africa and wherever they go as missionaries. Poverty remains for them a call to simplicity, a simple lifestyle, a life of service and dependence on God’s providence. It is a call for simplicity of mind, heart and attitude. It is a call for compassion and for solidarity with the poor, to be friends of the poor. In this world of materialism, individualism, wastage, greed and consumerism, an African religious remains a sign and a symbol of love, sharing and justice. “Evangelical Poverty provides an opportunity to those in Consecrated Life to be generous, kind and open to the needs of others. This is a value that is very relevant to the African situation where exploitation of the poor, the marginalised and the less privileged has reached alarming proportions. These socio-cultural conditions call for a preferential commitment to the poor. By professing Evangelical Poverty, religious men and women pledge themselves to share the much or little they have with the poor around them. By so doing they make the Gospel concrete and fruitful to the people.”9

(iv) Implications of Consecration and the three Evangelical Counsels

These vows call for fidelity and generosity. They are truly radical. Faithfulness and generosity are required. Faithfulness is not success as such. It is clinging steadfastly to the Lord, to personal vocation and to mission (Vita Consacrata, 64).10 This is done for the sake of the reign of God preached by Jesus Christ; it is that divine act of salvation, which is coming not as a reward for human merits but as sheer gift from God’s kindness.

This call demands a complete gift of self and exclusive devotion (Vita Consacrata, 17). The freer the heart is from earthly bonds, the more unreservedly it can give itself to Christ. The three vows can assist and foster freedom from creatures, undividedness and emptiness which are conditions for greater union with Christ. This life demands total self-donation. It challenges one to focus on Christ and to depend on Christ who taught us: “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Self-donation and self-sacrifice imply the willingness to strip ourselves of all symbols of power, prestige and domination. Our total self-giving in poverty, chaste love and obedience, is an invitation to compassion and hospitality. It is a contradiction for a person to take evangelical counsels and to be unavailable, inaccessible, inhospitable and merciless. It does not make sense at all. When our parish offices and convents are totally inaccessible to the poor and to parishioners, then we are not true to our commitment. If our passion in pastoral activities is a passion without compassion, then we will end up as great achievers, but leaving behind bleeding hearts and sorrow. If our vow of chastity leaves us as people who are angry, unloving and cold then it does more harm than good. This is a vow that should release us to love others unconditionally and relate to people with respect and warmth.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that: “Already dedicated to him through baptism, the person who surrenders herself to the God she loves above all else thereby consecrates herself more intimately to God’s service and to the good of the Church. By this state of life consecrated to God, the Church manifests Christ and shows us how the Holy Spirit acts so wonderfully in her. And so the first mission of those who profess the evangelical counsels is to live out their consecration. Moreover, “since members of Institutes of Consecrated Life dedicate themselves through their consecration to the service of the Church they are obliged in a special manner to engage in missionary work, in accord with the character of the institute” (932).11 The Holy Spirit moulds the hearts of those who are called. The spirit guides them on a journey of purification, leading them to become more like Christ. Those who are consecrated continue to witness powerfully to the Trinitarian life, which is the Christian life (Vita Consacrata 20, 21).

(Bishop Phalana requests you NOT to use this article without his prior permission. Per favour!)

1 John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Redemptionis Donum: To men and women religious on their consecration in the light of the mystery of the redemption (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000), p.15.

2 Ibid., p.16.

3 Sr M. Gerard Nwagwu, Inculturation Of Consecrated Life In Africa in AFER, June, 1997, Vol. 39, No. 3, p.133.

4 John Paul II, I will give you shepherds: Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, No.19,

5 Ibid., p.24.

6 Sr M. Gerard Nwagwu, op.cit., p.136-137.

7 Ibid., p.29.

8 Sr M. Gerard Nwagwu, op.cit., P.139.

9 Ibid., p.137.

10 Cf. John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consacrata: The Consecrated Life (Nairobi: Paulines Publication Africa, 1996).

11 Cf. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 1995.)

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