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Special Section: Religious Life

Call to sanctification


During the recent holidays, I spent several days with family: eight adults and eight children ages 6 and under in one house. Besides having my vocation to celibacy affirmed, I had occasion to observe -- and have my observation verified by several of the young parents -- that one of the most challenging aspects of parenting is to gratify every need of a child for the first year of his or her life and then gradually to teach the child to look beyond self to consider the needs and desires of others.

Without successfully negotiating that transition, the child will grow into a self-centered and insufferable adult. But if the transition goes too far and all attention to one’s own needs is abandoned, the adult will be an angry and ultimately frustrated person.

In the language of another age and another mentality, it was frequently said that the purpose of a religious congregation is “the sanctification of its members and the sanctification of others.” In the language and mentality of the present time, to speak of the sanctification of members as a reason for religious life sounds inexcusably self-centered. Perhaps if we reworded these two goals into something more contemporary, we would better understand what is intended: to provide an environment in which one’s own desire for God can be lived out, and at the same time to help others in that desire and to contribute to the transformation of the world toward God.

These two goals or purposes -- the support of the members in their search for God and the apostolic outpouring of the community -- should ideally be as one, each blending into the other. In reality, there is probably always some tension experienced in the life of a congregation and of the individual religious.

Over the centuries, custom has forged a distinction between “monastic” and “apostolic” orders and congregations. (I avoid the terms contemplative and active because I believe it a false distinction -- but more on that later). Even the most monastic orders from the beginning held hospitality as a sacred duty and were willing to share their spiritual goods with guests. Some years ago, I spent a month in a monastery of women, where one day I had the opportunity to question the entire small community about what they considered to be their mission. After some reflection and discussion, one answered: “Our mission is to seek God,” and all agreed.

In that instant, I understood the difference between the monastic and the apostolic spirit, for I knew my mission as a religious of the Sacred Heart is to seek God, yes, but also to give periodic progress reports along the way. That is, my search for God is no less serious, but I have the added responsibility to communicate constantly what I have experienced of God, through whatever means are at my disposal.

The call to religious life is simply the call to witness and give oneself according to a radical reading of the gospel. Most apostolic communities were founded to meet specific needs: preaching for a renewed church, the ransom of captives, education of poor immigrants, nursing the sick on the frontier. At the same time, these communities aimed to provide members the means to live according to their desire for God.

Such congregations are created to meet needs that are not being met, to do what is not being done. On the frontier, that was largely teaching, preaching and nursing. Today in the United States, what are the needs not being met? What do the people of God cry out for and not receive?

While the institutional works of pastoral ministry, education, and health care may still be some of the structures in which we function, I believe that we need to focus on five major areas of need that transcend these structures. The first three of these calls have always been there but today are especially urgent; the last two are responses to new situations.

The first and most important area in which religious can give witness is spirituality. The hunger to know God and to experience what is beyond the senses is endemic in a society that has lost the skill of speaking about God except in humorous clichés or Evangelistic stereotypes, in which God has been so relegated to the private sphere as to be unmentionable in public. If religious cannot witness to our experience of God through prayer and life, who will?

The second area of witness is the possibility and joy of communion to a culture torn by divorce and family breakup, abuse and isolation. It has become commonplace to say that Americans long for community but do not know how to create it. Young people who seek to join religious life are drawn by life in community. They long for a life in which we can rejoice in each other. If religious cannot show the way, who will?

The third area of witness is attention to the most poor and forgotten in the Great Society. This concern is at the heart of the gospel and the original impetus of so many apostolic congregations, from Louise de Marillac’s Daughters of Charity to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. But if religious do not remain faithful to this fundamental gospel demand, who will?

Beyond these calls to spirituality, community and advocacy in the interests of the poor, there are two new directions never envisioned by the founders and foundresses of previous centuries but in which religious life is called to extend its concerns today. The first is response to the bioethical challenges confronting today’s believers. Affirmation of what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called the “seamless garment,” the value of life from beginning to end, is surely a primary way to live the radical message of the gospel and one that must receive attention from religious.

Finally, the global dimensions of consciousness possible today make it urgent that religious expand our vision by witnessing to the possibility of transcending local and national interests to embrace a truly worldwide awareness. International congregations like my own especially have the resources to commit to the creation of international networks for justice education and action.

In none of these areas are religious unique, alone, or necessarily the best. It is not a question of what religious can do better than anyone else. Rather, the question is, “How can religious live and act in ways that both draw on and are faithful to the heritage of religious life in the church and at the same time responsive to the needs of today?”

I said earlier that I do not accept the distinction between “contemplative” and “active” orders. That is because all religious are called to be both contemplative and active by finding the heart of God at the heart of the world. Though we often experience the tension, there is ultimately no dichotomy between prayer and action, between attention to one’s own spiritual life and response to the needs of the world.

The child must learn that giving to others and attending to oneself are not at odds with each other but are all part of being human. The sanctification of others and the sanctification of self are one and the same process. If religious life is to flourish in coming generations, its members will have to learn, perhaps better than we have in the immediate past, to find a single-hearted, simple joy in God, in one another and in our world.

Sacred Heart Sr. Carolyn Osiek is professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999