Five years ago the Catholic Church had a Year of the Priest, and now Pope Francis has declared a Year of Consecrated Life. To mark this year, he has issued an Apostolic Letter, building upon Vatican II’s decree on religious life, Perfectae Caritatis (1965), and St. John Paul II’s post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata (1996). While everyone seems to have a concept of the priestly ideal, the unique charism of consecrated life, especially for men, is more obscure. In particular, religious brothers tend to have lower profiles than do priests and nuns.
Francis is the first Pope to have taken vows of consecrated life since Gregory XVI (17651846), who had been a Camaldolese hermit. As with marital vows, vows of consecration have met with varying degrees of fidelity, even by Popes. For example, Pius VII (17421823), a Benedictine, always lived ascetically, whereas Sixtus IV (14141484), a Franciscan, was famous for nepotism and opulence.
Before becoming Pope, Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio was noted for his simple lifestyle, and as Pope he has drawn world-wide publicity for his humility. To whatever extent it resonates with the lay faithful or even with unbelievers, such personal austerity serves as a model for other consecrated people. Still, given Pope Francis’s formation as a Jesuit, he understandably puts emphasis on extroverted activity. In this Apostolic Letter he calls upon consecrated people “to come out of yourselves and go forth to the existential peripheries.”
Young people, enthusiastically discerning a religious vocation, will readily respond to that papal summons. They see groups such as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity and the late Fr. Benedict Groeschel’s Friars of the Renewal, and they are eager to give their lives to such active service. Willingly accepting hardship and even danger for a greater cause: it is the same idealism that leads some young people to the Peace Corps and others to the military.
According to Perfectae Caritatis (9), “The venerable institution of monastic life must be carefully preserved and must shine forth increasingly in its true spirit in both East and West.” Therefore, “the principal duty of monks is to present to the divine majesty a service at once humble and noble within the walls of the monastery.” A brother going quietly about his daily routine inside the monastery is carving out a hidden path to holiness.
Pope Francis recognizes that not all forms of consecrated life are dedicated to ministering to the poorest of the poor. Still, he writes in this Apostolic Letter, “I expect that each form of consecrated life will question what it is that God and people today are asking of them.” Above all, the Pope cautions consecrated people against being “closed in on yourselves.” For example, he suggests that “monasteries and groups which are primarily contemplative could meet or otherwise engage in an exchange of experiences on the life of prayer, on ways of deepening communion with the entire Church, on supporting persecuted Christians, and welcoming and assisting those seeking a deeper spiritual life or requiring moral or material support.”
He uses the image of concentric circles to describe how a monastery involves and influences the wider community. To that end, religious brothers perform an important role in monastic life, so that along with their own prayer lives, brothers can exercise various responsibilities, from guest master to canon lawyer to college president. Within a Carthusian monastery, for example, brothers function in part as liaisons between the cloistered priests and the outside world, whereas among Benedictines, a brother is free to enjoy more enclosure than a priest, who might be called upon to assist at a local (or even distant) parish.
When all is said and done, the purpose of vows of consecrated life is to lead one closer to God amongst one’s neighbors. The vows stand as a witness that is counter-cultural, offering an alternative to secular obsession with competitive glamour. Consider that recurring throughout each issue of The New York Times is an almost subliminal sentence, “Remember the neediest,” nearly buried amidst at least quarter-page advertisements for luxury watches, hundred-dollar cologne, and exotic vacations.
A brother prays for the neediest and wonders whether one way to opt out of the commercial frenzy is to cancel his subscription to the newspaper. Pope Francis urges all of us to turn from Mammon to Christ, and his religious vows have given him the discipline to lead by example. Among religious brothers, that discipline and self-denial may be unobtrusive, but it remains essential to the Church’s mission in the world.
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of St. Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. A graduate of the University of Cambridge, he teaches Church History at St. Vincent Seminary.