Archbishop Paul S. Coakley
The 2000-year history of the Church is a story of reforms and renewals associated with men and women whom the Lord raised up at precisely the right moment. These holy witnesses have helped the Church refocus on some aspect of the Gospel that perhaps had been in eclipse. Many of these individuals were founders and foundresses of new forms of consecrated life.
When Rome and its ancient civilization were crumbling before the advance of barbarian invasions, the Lord raised up Saint Benedict of Nursia. Saint Benedict gathered a family of brothers and established a monastic rule of life based on a simple rhythm of work and prayer. The common life and the cloister were hallmarks of this renewal. Benedictine life became the basis for the flourishing of a new Christian culture throughout Western Europe.
At a moment in history when that Christian culture was becoming too enmeshed with temporal powers and influence, the Lord raised up Saint Francis of Assisi, the “little poor man.” His radical embrace of the Gospel, especially evangelical poverty, struck a chord. Soon, there were thousands of friars walking the highways and byways, preaching and bearing witness to the Gospel in villages, towns and cities throughout Europe and as far afield as North Africa and the Holy Land.
During the Age of Discovery when Christopher Columbus and other voyagers were exploring vast new worlds beyond Europe, the Lord raised up Saint Ignatius of Loyola. This soldier-convert established a new form of consecrated life well suited to the times. The Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, were neither monastic like Benedictines, nor mendicants like Franciscans.
They were thoroughly apostolic. Their whole genius was to remain free and available in order to be sent on mission, wherever they were needed. They carried the Gospel to the ends of the earth, literally. They found ways to acculturate the Gospel among native cultures in the Americas, India and China making it accessible to all.
Closer to our time, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was set apart to remind the world of God’s tender love for the poorest of the poor. While the dignity of the human person was being assaulted by the sins of abortion, consumerism, greed and indifference, Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity witnessed to the infinite value of those whom the world had discarded as without value. Every human life has value in the eyes of God.
Here in Oklahoma, the contributions of religious women and men have been equally significant in the initial evangelization and ongoing life of the Church. It was the intrepid Benedictines who first brought the Catholic faith into Indian Territory. Their early efforts were augmented by the Sisters of Mercy who established schools so that together they might provide educational opportunities for native and, later, other children.
Many other congregations of religious women and men followed. Their apostolic works in close collaboration with the bishop flowered in the establishment of hospitals, care for immigrants and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. They have been tireless advocates for justice, for the family and for the sanctity of life. But even beyond what they have done, it has been the witness of their lives that always has pointed us toward the enduring values that speak of the Kingdom of God breaking into the world: God’s reign of truth, justice, mercy and reconciliation.
This is just a sampling of how the consecrated life has been such a dynamic force throughout the history of the Church. Pope Francis, the Church’s first Jesuit pope, has called for a yearlong observance to highlight the priceless witness of consecrated women and men. On the First Sunday of Advent, the Church began a Year of Consecrated Life, which will conclude on Feb. 2, 2016.
The theme for this year is “Wake Up the World!” That always has been the special value of consecrated persons: their witness awakens in the Church a deeper sense of the dignity of every baptized person who is called to be holy, who is called to be a witness, who is called to be a missionary disciple drawing the world to Christ.
Throughout the year ahead we will be offering special features in these pages highlighting a number of activities and events celebrating the Year of Consecrated Life.