Just eight months into the petrine ministry of Pope Francis, he attended the conference of the Union of Superiors General (USG). Being a religious and consecrated himself, he took his time, spending about 3 - 4 hours with the leaders of the various religious and consecrated families who were meeting in Rome. During the sessions, the need for updating among the various members of religious and societies of Apostolic Life was strongly observed.
After this gathering, the Holy Father pronounced the year of Consecrated Life beginning from 30th November 2014 first Sunday of advent until the feast of the presentation of the Lord, February 2, 2016. In his apostolic letter establishing this year of grace, he said, "You have not only a glorious history to remember and to recount, but also a great history still to be accomplished. Look to the future where the spirit is sending you in other to do even greater things". He stated that the aim for this special year is to look at the past with gratitude, live the present with passion, and embrace the future with hope. His expectations at the end of this year is that the consecrated should live their lives with joy, for a gloomy disciple is a disciple of doom. He charges the consecrated to wake up the world, living out a spirituality of communion. Finally, he requests that all consecrated should go forth into the world and to the existential peripheries, asking or seeking what God and the people demands of them.
Brief history of Consecrated Life
Patristic Period: This period marks the birth of Christian monasticism. Emphasis this time was on obedient listening of the believer to the word of God. Typical examples here are St Anthony of Egypt (251-356), Pachomius (292-346), St. Basil (330-379). They heard the invitation of God and obeyed. Theirs could be described as reckless charity. They left everything and followed Christ. The same instruction that made the rich young man in the scriptures sad, made these heroes of our faith to turn their lives completely over to Christ. The basic scriptural text which motivated most of the fathers who lived in this manner were Acts 2,42-47; 4,32-35; Matt 5-7; Luke 10,38-42 and these texts are used to encourage both active and contemplative life in the Church. The fruit of such listening was withdrawal into the desert in order to live out the Gospel motivated by a quest for God and a thirst for prayer.
Medieval Period: The intellectual and theological vision of religious life was developed around this time. Monks, Hermits, Canon Regulars, Mendicants comprising both men and women lived around this time. Eusebius, Jerome, Cassian, Francis of Assisi stand out at this period. Features of this time include: (a) general observance of evangelical precepts/values (b) The wish to live totally, completely and absolutely according to the evangelical counsels (Matt 19,10-12; 16-30; 1 Cor 7,25-35; Acts 2,44-47; 4,32). The first way was reserved for lay people while the second way was for priests and religious. The Medieval Period concentrated on following Christ by means of the religious vows. Francis of Assisi is a prominent example in this period.
Vatican II until the present: Vatican II stressed the universal call to holiness (LG 40). Christian life was no longer seen as call to a state of perfection but as a radical way of living the common Christian vocation. The change brought about by Vatican Council II is in the demands a return to the sources of the Gospel. Papal documents and the fruitful studies of modern exegetes and theologians link baptism and religious consecration. Religious life ism no longer seen as a state of perfection but a radical way of living the common Christian vocation.
Mary as model for consecrated life today
By responding to the call of Jesus’ “follow me,” consecrated people leave everything behind, and put themselves at the service of the Kingdom of God imitating Jesus’ way of life. As a sign of their consecration to God, Religious profess vows of obedience, chastity and poverty. Mary is the perfect model for the religious to live in the spirit of these three vows.
In his encyclical 'Crossing the threshold of Hope', St. John Paul II reflects: “During the second world war, while I was employed as a factory worker, I came to be attracted to Marian devotion. At first, it seemed to me that I should distance myself a bit from Marian devotion of my childhood, in order to focus more on Christ. Thanks to Saint Louis of Montfort, I came to understand the true devotion to the mother of God is actually christocentric, indeed, it is very profoundly rooted in the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, and the mysteries of the incarnation and redemption.” Reflecting again in another of his many apostolic letters titled "Rosarum Virginis Mariae", St. John Paul recalled that the inspiration leading to the choice of his apostolic motto (Totus Tuus ego sum, et omnia mea tua sunt. Accipio te in mea omnia. Proebe mihi cor tuum, Maria -I belong entirely to you, and all that I have is yours. I take you for my all. O Mary, give me your heart) came from Louis de Montfort's book "True devotion to Mary”. John Paul II further reflects: "...at one point I began to question my devotion to Mary, believing that, if it became too great, it might end up compromising the supremacy of the worship owed to Christ".
Mary is in fact the sublime example of perfect consecration, since she belongs completely to God and is totally devoted to him. True devotion to Mary is an important element to follow Jesus in a perfect way. Throughout the history of the Church, consecrated persons, both men and women, find their inspiration in the Virgin Mary. she remains an unique model for consecrated people in their endeavour to live a holy life. John Paul II argues that it is only in the friendship with Christ and his mother are the doors of life opened. He attributed his survival of an assassination attempt by Ali Agca to the intervention of Our Lady of Fatima.
The Lord has invited each of us into an intimate, personal, exchange of love with him. Mary is a model to imitate. She walked in holiness of life and points us along the path to her son. Each of us can say "yes" to God, right now, wherever we are. Each of us can respond with our entire being, with a "fiat" of surrender as she did. Mary teaches us to stay afloat in the ocean of life, with all its undertows. The same God who became incarnate within her takes up his residence in us through baptism. He invites us to live "redemptively" for others, to become dwelling places through which incarnate love comes alive for all those around us. We are to respond as Mary did since she remains for ages the perfect model of holiness and consecrated life.
Mary, ever Virgin is the example of consecrated people who give witness to Christ keeping the evangelical counsels, poverty, chastity and obedience. She was and remains the perfect contemplative. She is ever attentive to the needs of others. We have seen this in her visitation to Elizabeth (Lk 1: 39-45) and at the Cana event (Jn 2:1-11).
Community life is the bedrock for fruitful religious and consecrated life. In other wards, no religious life survives well without strong community life. Lamenting the collapse of true community life among the consecrated today, Mary Bride Njokwu said "a religious community living together has become a gathering of strangers who meet occasionally for meals, attend meetings where they share what they must, otherwise they pass each other like ships in the night each very busy about his or her ministry" (Njokwu, Consecrated Life, Towards Deepening Its Understanding. Enugu: Snaap Press Ltd. 2014). God has given us Mary as a model of the perfect Christian and perfect consecrated life. By her cooperation with the will of God, she stands as the model of what we are destined to become in our Christian life
Following the example of Mary, consecrated people work for the Kingdom of God through their prayer and different apostolic activities. As the consecrated, we are called to imitate the integrity of Mary in heart and mind and thus surrender to God developing obedience and faith like hers. Like Mary, we must follow Jesus even in the darkest moments of our lives. Then God will give us the Crown of Glory in the life after death. Mary ever Virgin received the gift from the Holy Spirit to bear witness to God’s graceful love. We also are called to give birth to Jesus in our daily lives by bearing witness to him. Mary, Mother of Jesus is our mother on whom we can focus our hearts to find the ways to follow Jesus in a perfect way. She is our model. She is the model of perfect consecrated discipleship.