The identity of consecrated life and its contribution to the life of the Church and the world

The identity of consecrated life and its contribution to the life of the Church and the world

- Pointers for reflection –
Card. João Braz de Aviz,
Prefetto della Congregazione per gli Istituti di vita consacrata e le Società di vita apostolica

The Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CIVCSVA) has brought together the guidelines that emerged at the Dicastery’s Plenary Assembly in November 2014 and during the reflection that followed, in a small volume.[1] Starting from Jesus’ logionnobody puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and the skins too. No! New wine, fresh skins!” (Mk 2:22), we sought to take up the broader horizons opened up by the Second Vatican Council, to become aware of the ongoing challenges – which we have identified by exploring the vocation and identity of consecrated life – for formation choices, by looking at relationships in the humanum, that is, the reciprocity that exists between man and woman, the service of authority and obedience, relational models and witness regarding the possession, use and administration of goods.

After this overall glance at the challenges, we then asked how to prepare the new wineskins, seeking fidelity in the Spirit, identifying formation models and seeing to the formation of formators, to achieve a gospel-based set of relationships that manifests itself in reciprocity and multicultural processes, the service of authority in its relationship with relational models and Council and Chapter structures.


1. Post-conciliar renewal


More than fifty years have passed since the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis, a religious like ourselves, has offered words and gestures that are a powerful incentive for us to carry forward the renewal that Vatican II proposed for consecrated life, bearing in mind today's needs.[2] The theological and ecclesiological foundations of renewal were implemented by the Council Fathers in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, in Chapter VI (nos 43–47). It is about the spiritual, ecclesial, charismatic and institutional updating of consecrated life in the Church.

Today we can say that the Second Vatican Council has generated impulses and methods of great effectiveness in aggiornamento or updating. It has generated a new understanding of consecrated life. In fact, before the Council, its manifestations and structures were of  “the united and operational force for the life and mission of a militant church seen to be in continual opposition to the world.

In the new season of openness and dialogue with the world, consecrated life felt  pushed to the forefront of exploring the coordinates of a new Church-world relationship to the benefit of the whole ecclesial body ... Along these lines of dialogue and acceptance, consecrated life has normally, if not always, willingly embraced the risks of this new adventure of openness, listening and service.”[3]

The charisms and the spiritual patrimony of consecrated life, in this new climate, have been confidently put at the disposal of this new relationship, but at the same time, it has required taking the risk of these new paths.[4]

In this post-conciliar period, the normative texts and institutional forms were reworked in order to comply with the new Code of Canon Law (1983). “Great effort was put forth by each religious family in rereading and interpreting the ‘original spirit of the institutes’ (PC2). This work had two main purposes: to faithfully preserve ‘the mind and designs of the founders’ (CIC c. 578) and ‘to propose anew the enterprising initiative, creativity and holiness of their founders and foundresses in response to the signs of the times emerging in today's world” (VC, 37).”[5]

New formation approaches, adaptation of governance structures and management of economic assets and activities have been implemented with great responsibility and faith. The Popes of this period have generously supported the journey of consecrated life with their Magisterium, helping to “consolidate new convictions, discern new paths, and guide new choices regarding presence and service with wisdom and ecclesial sense in constant listening to the promptings of the Spirit”.[6] In a very special way, the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consacrata (1996) with its contemplation and reference to the Mystery of the Holy Trinity as a source, enlightens the meaning of consecration, understanding it as confessio trinitatis “also in its grappling with the challenge of fraternal life ‘whereby consecrated persons strive to live in Christ with one heart and soul (Acts 4:32)’ (no.21).”[7]

Pope Francis asked the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CIVCSVA) and the Congregation for Bishops, to prepare a revised version of Mutuae relationes.[8] Meanwhile, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has published Iuvenescit Ecclesia.[9] This letter carries out a lucid detailed exploration of relations between bishops and consecrated individuals, in the light of ecclesiology and spirituality of communion and in the light of the two co-essential principles of the Church: hierarchy and charisms. Thus the new text of Mutuae relationes, which is already in its final draft to be presented to the Holy Father, has been providentially enriched.

Now the experience of the year of the consecrated life and the jubilee of mercy are pushing us to open up new paths. We are challenged by social, economic, political, scientific and technological evolution. Sectors that were once taken up by the zeal of consecrated life are led by the State today. New and unprecedented emergencies, new forms of poverty, the multiplication of voluntary work, the opening to new frontiers of mission, especially the founding of new churches – all these create a new context for consecrated life. We have gone from mono-cultural situations to the challenge of multiculturalism, with international communities present in unknown or multi-religious contexts, inserted within difficult contexts and at risk of various kinds of violence. In many cases, traditional formation schemes are in crisis. These novelties, seen as enrichment, also bring tensions and generate a widespread feeling of fatigue, with the consequent temptation to settle for survival strategies. We understand more and more that we will not be able to make this necessary transition on our own.[10]


2. Ongoing challenges


Let us begin with a fairly obvious observation: “Every established system tends to resist change and works to maintain its position. Sometimes this is done by concealing inconsistencies, other times by accepting to tarnish old and new, by denying reality and frictions in the name of fictitious harmony, or even by concealing its own objectives through superficial adjustments. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of adhesion that is purely formal, while lacking the proper conversion of heart.”[11]

At a time such as the present one, when there is a high degree of abandonment of consecrated life, both after the formative process and in old age, and in every geographical and cultural context, it is important to look for the causes of this phenomenon. It is not only a question of emotional crises, but also of disappointment at a life of community without authenticity. Sometimes the values proposed do not correspond to concrete experience, or the number of activities is excessive and does not allow for a solid spiritual life. There is also the isolation of young people in communities predominantly made up of the elderly. Although there is an openness to transcendence, a capacity to become passionate about the values of the gospel in many young people, a very standardised style of consecrated life blocks them. Thus, often the heart is not touched and transformed.

Integration between different cultures has become a problem in some Institutes: on the one hand, there are a few senior members and on the other a large group of young people from different cultures who feel marginalised, with only subordinate roles. “It is becoming increasingly clear that the most important thing is not the preservation of forms; it is the willingness, in creative continuity, to rethink consecrated life as the evangelical memory of a permanent state of conversion from which intuitions and concrete choices originate.”[12]

In the context of the renewal of the experience of authority and obedience, in the midst of the current crisis in various Institutes, we can say: “It is no coincidence, according to the experience of this Congregation that the main reasons for abandonment are: the weakening of a vision of faith, conflicts in fraternal life and a life of fraternity that is weak in humanity.”[13]

One field where current challenges are particularly ongoing is that of formation choices. The concrete effort of the Institutes and Conferences of Major Superiors (national and international) is remarkable. One of the significant difficulties is that there is still “little integration between theological and anthropological points of view regarding formation, the formative model, and educational pedagogy … (that) does not allow for interaction and dialogue between the two essential and indispensable components of a journey of growth: the spiritual dimension and the human dimension.”[14]

A sensitivity is needed, where formators are concerned, to the values of the various cultures, the new generations, the various contexts of life. And here there is also need for attention to the discernment of vocational motivations present in the various cultural and continental areas.

The urgency of works, in many institutes, especially women's institutes, prevails over the systematic approach to the formation journey. In addition to this, there is often an imbalance between theological and professional formation and thus the formation for discipleship and consecrated life is lacking.

If we look at the formators, we see that insufficient preparation is not uncommon, but also an insufficient number of people. The formation of formators thus becomes one of the most important current challenges. How can we guarantee a personal pedagogy, that is, a personalisation of formation, in which, in the initial period, the formator walks alongside the disciple daily in trust and hope, especially as an expert in the search for God?

The community plays an important role: “It is through the fraternal life that one learns to accept others as a gift from God, accepting their positive traits along wiht their differences and limitations. It is through the fraternal life that one learns to share the gifts received for the building up of all. It is through the fraternal life that one learns the missionary dimensions of consecration (cf. VC 67).”[15]

With regard to ongoing or continuous formation, it has yet to become a true culture, in which the enunciation of theoretical concepts and the ability to review and verify concrete experience in the community go together. It is here, too, that a serious initiation into governance takes place, in order to overcome improvisation, and the improper and deficient exercise of governance.

Remaining still with the human dimension of challenges to consecrated life, a particularly important field is that of reciprocity between men and women. “We are heirs of the ways of life, organisational and governing structures, languages, and collective imagination of a mentality that emphasised profound differences between man and woman, to the detriment of their equal dignity. Even in the Church and not only in society, numerous unilateral prejudices prevented the recognition of the gifts of the true female genius (cf. VC, 58) and the original contribution made by women. This underestimation especially affected consecrated women who were marginalised in the Church’s life and pastoral and missionary activity (cf. VC, 57).”[16]

This scenario began to change beginning with the Second Vatican Council, but “we have yet to reach a balanced synthesis and a purification of the patterns and models inherited from the past. There are still obstacles in the structures and more than a little misgiving when an opportunity arises to give women ‘room … to participate in different fields in various sectors and at all levels, including decision-making processes, above all in matters that concern women themselves” (VC, 58) in the Church and in the practical management of consecrated life.”[17]

There is still a lack of maturity in our consecrated life environments in the reciprocity between man and woman which is particularly necessary in our time. The distance caused even through spiritual and ascetic motivations has caused a mutual impoverishment and a loss of sensitivity to the different views the one has of the other. There is also a reflection of this in consecrated life in the different sensitivities of the young and the elderly: “There is cognitive dissonance between old and young religious. For one group, relations between the feminine and the masculine are characterised by reservedness and even phobia; for the other, by openness, spontaneity and even naturalness.”[18]

We still need to mention “the institutes’ weakness ad intra concerning this anthropological and cultural process of true integration and mutual complementary between the feminine and masculine elements and sensibilities. St John Paul II considered women’s desire for ‘room … to participate in different fields and at all levels’ (VC,58) to be legitimate, yet in practice we still have a long way to go. We also run the risk of gravely impoverishing the Church herself, as Pope Francis said: ‘Let us not reduce the involvement of women in the Church, but instead promote their active role in the ecclesial community. If the Church, in her complete and real dimension, loses women, the Church risks becoming sterile’ (Address to the Brazilian Episcopate, Rio, 27.07.2013).”[19]

Another ongoing challenge concerns the service of authority. Still today in various communities of consecrated life we find “the tendency towards a vertical concentration of the exercising of authority, on both the local and higher levels, thus avoiding the necessary subsidiarity. In some cases, the insistence of some superiors on the personal nature of their authority, almost to the point of thwarting collaboration of the Councils, convinced that they are answering (autonomously) to their own conscience, might seem suspect. Consequently, there is a weak or inefficient corresponsibility in government practices, or even the absence of proper authority. The government may not be centralised in the hands of only one person, thereby circumventing canonical bans (cf. CIC, c. 636). There are still superiors in many institutes who do not take into due account the decisions of their Chapters.”[20] Pre-arranged majorities, use of the logic of taking sides to resolve serious issues are governing behaviour that falls outside of any evangelical logic. Superiors who are so fossilised in power to the point, in some cases, of even changing the Constitutions, cause great damage to their charisms and neutralise the growth of many other brothers and sisters who could help the community more. The conversion of so many superiors so that they can truly help to discern God's will, is indispensable today. In some more extreme cases there are superiors who destroy the maturity of an entire generation of consecrated men and women by building evil relationships of dependence and slavery. We often have to intervene, as a Dicastery, to heal these situations.[21]

Still speaking of the service of authority “it must be kept in mind that true obedience always puts obedience to God first, before authority and the person who obeys, just as if it refers to the obedience of Jesus: obedience that includes his cry of love: My God, my God, why have you deserted me? (Mt 27:36) and the Father’s loving silence.”[22]

Finally, among the ongoing challenges of consecrated life today, we need to say a word on the management of ecclesiastical goods of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in the Church.

It was Pope Francis who called the attention of consecrated life to the administration of ecclesiastical goods. In recent years, CIVCSVA has held two Symposia in Rome on the theme, with the aim of perfecting and updating the care of the goods that have come into possession of consecrated life in the world. From the number of participants we were able to measure the interest shown. Some of the contents of the first Symposium (2014) have been published[23].

“Throughout its long history, consecrated life has always been able to oppose prophetically when economic powers risked humiliating people, especially the poorest people. In this current global financial crisis that Pope Francis often talks about, consecrated people are called to be truly faithful and creative to not fail the prophecy of inward common life and outward solidarity, especially towards the poor and most fragile.

We have passed from a domestic economy to administrative and managerial processes that are getting almost out of control, and that highlight our precariousness and, more than that, our unpreparedness. We must immediately focus again on transparency in economic and financial matters as the first step in recovering the authentic  evangelical meaning of the real communion of goods within communities and practical sharing of those goods with those who live around us.”[24]




Three indications of the Second Vatican Council in particular are at the heart of the reform of consecrated life at this moment in our history: the sequela Christi [discipleship] lived in the light of the words of Jesus with transparency of witness; the return to the core of the charism of our founders and foundresses, dropping those things that are not essential; ongoing dialogue with today’s men and women, to keep us constantly updated on the questions of our time.

A central role is played by the necessary transition to a spirituality of communion lived with intense generosity and conviction in every direction of our relationships.

The Chapter that begins today for you Salesians can truly be a moment of grace to urge the renewal of the Society of St Francis de Sales onwards. Best wishes.


[1] CIVCSVA, Per vino nuovo otri nuovi. Dal Concilio Vaticano II la vita consacrata e le sfide ancora aperte. Orientamenti, [New Wine in new wineskins - The consecrated life and its ongoing challenges since Vatican II] Vatican City, LEV 2017. (Tr. Note: citations are taken from the English translation of this text, available at

[2] Cf. Decree Perfectae caritatis, 1.

[3] New Wine in new wineskins cit., pp.18 ff.

[4] Cf. idem, p.19.

[5] New Wine in new wineskins, cit. p.20.

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Idem p.22.

[8 SCIVCSVA, Criteri direttivi sui rapporti tra i vescovi e i religiosi nella Chiesa, Città del Vaticano 1978

[9] CDF, Iuvenescit ecclesia, lettera sulla relazione tra doni gerarchici e carismatici per la vita e la missione della Chiesa, LEV, Città del Vaticano 2016

[10] Cf. New Wine in new wineskins cit. pp. 23-31.

[11] Idem, pp.33s.

[12] Idem, p.37.

[13] Idem, p.56.

[14] Idem, pp.37s.

[15] Idem, p.41.

[16] Idem, p.43.

[17] Idem, p.45.

[18] Idem, p.46.

[19] Idem, p.47.

[20] Idem, p.47s.

[21] Cf. idem, pp. 50-52.

[22] Idem,p.55.

[23] Sequela Christi, La gestione dei beni ecclesiastici degli Istituti di vita consacrata nella Chiesa, 2014/01, Studi e commenti, pp. 89-148.

[24] New Wine in new wineskins, cit. pp.58s.