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Religious are essential to the Church’s mission

Pope Francis highlights the importance of the work of consecrated religious in the daily life of the Church in the October edition of The Pope Video. “Religious, with their prayer, poverty, and patience, are essential to the Church’s mission”, the Pope remarks. Francis expresses the desire that all men and women religious be able to carry out their generous and dedicated work in every corner of the world. “More than ever, with the challenges of today’s world, we need their complete dedication to proclaiming the Gospel”, he says, while encouraging them to be present at the side of those most in need. “Let us pray that consecrated religious men and women may bestir themselves, and be present among the poor, the marginalised, and those who have no voice” the Holy Father said. “Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of missionary enthusiasm!” he added.

According to statistics from the Pontifical Year Book for 2017, there are currently 188,229 male religious in the world, whereas the number of women religious reaches 670,320. With the exception of particular cases, consecrated men and women live three virtues in a special way, also known as the “evangelical counsels”: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Commenting on The Pope Video this month, Fr Frédéric Fornos SJ, international director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network remarks that “the work carried out by consecrated people is immense and invaluable, and it has always been throughout history”. He highlights their contributions to education and healthcare in particular, explaining that many religious “reach those corners of the world where neither States or organisations reach”. According to Fr Fornos, “Many men and women have consecrated their lives to the Lord, and have opened paths to holiness which today are like a guiding light for us”. He adds that “they encourage us to be more faithful to the lifestyle of Jesus Christ, and to be fully present in the existential peripheries”.

Writing on the Pope’s Intention in the October issue of Sacred Heart Messenger, the publication of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network in Ireland, Maeve McMahon OP, who works with JUST, a tutorial programme for adults seeking access to third level education, discusses how Pope Francis has consistently encouraged consecrated religious men and women to be prophets and bring the Gospel to the people of our time. Maeve refers to the Apostolic Letter of Pope Francis to all Consecrated people on the occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life in which the Holy Father tells them “Prophets receive from God the ability to scrutinize the times in which they live and to interpret events. Prophets know God and they know the men and women who are their brothers and sisters. They are able to discern and denounce the evil of sin and injustice. Prophets tend to be on the side of the poor and the powerless, for they know that God himself is on their side”.

Maeve explains that “by publicly expressing vows consecrated men and women express their public commitment to the Church. She quotes comments made by Jorge Mario Bergoglio when he was Auxilary Bishop of Buenos Aires, in an intervention he made at the Synod of Bishops on the Consecrated Life and its Mission in the Church and in the World on 13 October 1994. The future Pope said “Consecrated life is a gift to the Church, it is born of the Church, it grows in the Church and it is entirely directed to the Church”. She acknowledges that the relationship between the ecclesial and prophetic dimensions of religious life can be challenging, and says “it easier for religious to concentrate on the ecclesial identity as they get older and have less energy”, explaining that many consecrated men and women of today “have enjoyed a glorious past, building and administering schools and hospitals for people in need, often doing without themselves”. However, now that they are retired, “life is more comfortable” she states. Maeve boldly suggests that the prayer intention of Pope Francis for October “upsets that cosy picture”.

Noting that the Pope “sees much to be done on the periphery”, she says that Francis makes a clarion call which in summary is “that consecrated men and women may move with life and vigour to the periphery. According to Maeve the Pope believes that consecrated religious will have a clearer vision there, in relation to what they ought to do for the poor and marginalised. She suggests that leaders of religious congregations “while encouraging their best and brightest to go the periphery, should help those who have retired from school or hospital to find ways to connect with the margins”. It is there at the periphery where life may be challenging, Maeve writes, that consecrated religious men and women “can bring to suffering people the joy of their love of Christ”. In conclusion Maeve refers back to Pope Francis who highlights the joyful witness of religious; “Where there are religious there is joy”, the Pope has remarked. But she adds that Francis is aware of “the real challenges to joy” in the lives of religious, highlighting how he remarked that “When there’s no joy in the life of a priest or a nun, ‘people can smell it'”.

Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, who is well known as a social innovator and a member of the congregation of Religious Sisters of Charity, reflects on the Pope’s Prayer Intention for October in Living Prayer, a booklet produced by Messenger Publications and Pope’s Worldwide Network in Ireland. She outlines that Pope Francis “knows what the poor suffer” and that “he recognises that their marginalisation and exclusion is a product of our time and lifestyle”. Sr Stanislaus explains that the Pope “is inviting us to take account of the transformative power of the Gospel for the poor of our time, if we let it”. She remarks that Francis is also highlighting “the hidden power of the poor to transform us religious”. She writes that the poor and vulnerable people “have a kind of a secret power which may be secret even from themselves”, and explains that those who are poor and vulnerable “can change us, when we listen deeply to them”.

According to Sr Stanislaus, “The poor are our teachers. When we listen to the poor we hear their strength, their pain, their wisdom, and learn the potential that is there for change. Listening to the poor frees us from being locked into our prejudices”. She explains that this is the gift of the poor and the vulnerable to us. In conclusion she outlines: “When we listen to the poor with an open heart we discover that the poor are our brothers and sisters in humanity and through our relationship with them we can be transformed”.