Pope Francis himself wrote a letter to open the Year of Consecrated Life in which he said many good things to members of Religious Institutes, Societies of Apostolic Life and Secular Institutes and to all God’s people. He said some things that apply to all those living the consecrated life in all parts of the world. He emphasized that they are especially called to a joyful, prophetic and total embrace of the Gospel life in a rich variety of charisms expressing countless ways of combining fervent prayer and apostolic zeal. He quoted the saying “where there are religious, there is joy” – a joy that young people can find attractive and be led to consider a religious vocation. He pointed out that the distinctive sign of consecrated life is prophecy and challenged those consecrated to God to have the wisdom and courage “to discern and denounce the evil of sin and injustice” around them, to “wake up a world” asleep in comfortable compromises – to let the living of their vows shake it to wake it to an alternative lifestyle – the vow of poverty proposing an alternative to consumerism, chastity to promiscuity and obedience to an exaggerated autonomy. And he called on religious to ask themselves: “Is Jesus really our first and only love, as we promised he would be when we professed our vows?”
The Pope described three purposes of the Year of Consecrated Life for members of Religious Institutes, Societies of Apostolic life and Secular institutes: strengthening their identities by retelling the stories of founders and foundresses in the past with thanks; living their charisms in the present with passion and creativity; and embracing their future with a hope based on the Lord for whom “nothing is impossible.”
But Pope Francis also said things that apply especially to our situation in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. He said that men and women consecrated to God are expected to be “experts in communion.” Their life together in community is a witness to a world that is broken and divided. In Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands religious work to overcome differences and reach across cultures in mixed communities of expatriates and nationals, highlanders and coastals, the old with their wisdom and the young with their energy.
In Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands the call to the consecrated life involves a call to leave something behind: an expatriate leaving behind family and friends in a home country or a national leaving behind customary benefits and tribal traditions. One always remains related to one’s family and clan but a religious, like all other consecrated persons, becomes part of a new family of brothers or sisters sharing a common commitment to the Lord.
In Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, unlike older local Churches, we are still close to the initial planting of the Catholic faith by so many dedicated religious women and men. The early missionaries were almost all religious, long before dioceses were established and local clergy were ordained.
In Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, unlike in more developed countries today, it is the Church that provides most of the education and health services to marginalized people – a ministry performed by consecrated men and women while flavouring their instruction of students and care for the sick with their distinctive charisms. Today there are fewer religious and other consecrated persons working in our schools and health centres but they continue to be needed so that these institutions can maintain a strong Catholic identity.
In Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, the creation of local indigenous congregations of religious women has been a powerful counter-cultural proclamation of the dignity of women in a society where their rights are often ignored.
Perhaps especially in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands it needs to be stressed that consecrated persons are not merely a labour force in the Church’s social services. Without doubt, their contribution to the Church in this area has been and continues to be outstanding. But their most significant contribution to the local Church is their presence and the witness of their lives. They continue to enliven young local Churches by proclaiming in action the richness of a Gospel life in Christ through a variety of distinctive charisms and spiritualities. It could be said that this is their major contribution to a new evangelization.
They offer to lay people an opportunity to identify with one or another of these charisms, formally or informally, as part of each one’s own personal vocation in the world. In his letter, Pope Francis asked: “What would the Church be without St Benedict and St Basil, without St Augustine and St Bernard, without St Ignatius of Loyola?” We could ask: “What would the Church in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands be without St Francis and St Clare of Assisi, without St Teresa of Avila and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, without St John Bosco and St Arnold Janssen, without Julius Chevalier and Jean Claude Colin?” What these and many other holy men and women began continues to nourish the life of the Church in Oceania.
Pope Francis addressed the laity in his letter. He noted that around each Religious family, every Society of Apostolic Life and every Secular Institute, whether mostly active or contemplative, there is a larger family, a “charismatic family” which includes various congregations sharing the same charism with a common focus, for example on the Sacred Heart or the Divine Word or Mary. But this larger family also includes lay faithful who feel called, precisely as lay persons, to share in a particular charism, for example as various lay affiliates or as Secular Franciscans.
It is providential and not only a coincidence that this Year of Consecrated Life falls between two Synods on Marriage and Family Life. For married people and consecrated people have much to learn from each other and to contribute to each other as they come to appreciate fully the distinctive beauty of these two ways of becoming holy. The vocation to be celibate, which is a special mark of consecrated life, and the vocation to be married complement each other. Those living the consecrated life remind married people that fidelity is possible only with God’s grace, and that nothing or no one in this world can fully satisfy a hunger that only the Lord can fill. Married people remind consecrated men and women that at the heart of every vocation is not a work or service to perform but a person to be loved, and that love is always meant to give birth to life in one way or another.
Both the call to marry and the call to consecrated life are calls by God to become holy. Married people in love join not only their bodies but their persons. Consecrated people in loving ministry give to others not only their service but themselves. Faithful married people give themselves to each other and become one as a special sign of Christ’s love for the Church. Faithful religious and other consecrated persons give themselves in mature affection to people in different relationships as a special sign of the Kingdom of Heaven where we will all be perfectly one in Jesus with God.
With Pope Francis, we, the bishops of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, entrust this Year of Consecrated Life to Mary the “first disciple of her beloved Son” and the “model for all those who follow Christ.” We pray that members of Religious Institutes, Societies of Apostolic Life and Secular Institutes will rejoice in the precious gift that has been given to them. We pray that their lives of joyful sacrifice for the Kingdom will attract young people to join with them in living this gift. And we pray that they will inspire all of us to be more faithful in living our personal vocations to build the Kingdom.
+Bishop Arnold Orowae
President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of
Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands
23 April 2015