A few years ago some sisters in my community had a book fair at a nearby Catholic school. One fourth grade boy, looking quite serious, approached the table and asked the sister, “Are you a nun?”
“Yes,” she replied.
He pondered this for a moment and then said, “I didn’t think they existed anymore. I saw one once when I was in kindergarten, but I thought they were extinct by now.”
It may indeed seem like nuns are an endangered species today. But despite this little boy’s assessment, in fact they are not. The Church will never be without sisters, brothers, and members of other forms of the consecrated life. In Vita Consecrata, Pope John Paul II gives reasons for hope that this life will continue not only to exist in the Church, but also to flourish....
Two themes stand out as John Paul II begins his document: thanksgiving and gift. The consecrated life is a wonderful gift of God to the Church, and it calls for a profound sense of thanksgiving. This gift is so important that the Church can never be without it. In fact, “consecrated life is at the very heart of the Church” (no. 3). The grace that accompanies the gift of religious consecration is always at work in those whom God calls to this vocation. In their turn, religious are enabled to make a gift of self that springs from a radical love of Jesus Christ. When they do this and live out their vocation well, they make Jesus visible to the world. Consecrated persons may be found everywhere— helping the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the lonely—sharing Christ’s mercy and compassion with all people.
John Paul II focuses on positive signs of renewal and speaks of some new forms of consecrated life that have been developing since the Second Vatican Council. Yet he does not ignore the difficulties either. He recognizes that consecrated life “has gone through a difficult and trying period . . . a time of tension and struggle” (no. 13). In relation to consecrated life, the winds of change that swept through the Church after Vatican II were more like a tornado than a gentle breeze. Religious sisters in particular welcomed the renewal that the Council called for and took important steps to implement it. Yet along with needed updating and expanding into new forms of mission, problems began to appear. Many members left, vocations dried up, and some institutes had to cut back on their apostolic works. As one religious sister whom I met at a retreat put it, “I feel like I’ve been living an experiment for the past forty years!”
But that wasn’t the whole picture. As the Pope mentions, the situation varied in different parts of the world. By the time Pope John Paul II wrote Vita Consecrata in 1996, other, newer forms of consecrated life had also begun to take root and to grow. The Holy Spirit was at work amid the ferment and continues to inspire new charisms in the Church. Among other forms of consecrated life, the Pope mentions monastic life, the order of virgins, contemplative institutes, apostolic religious life, secular institutes, and societies of apostolic life. New foundations have been made, and while not all of these will endure, they testify to the vitality of the consecrated life.
Despite the many challenges that remain, John Paul II intends to offer encouragement and hope. As the history of the Church has shown,
times of renewal and flourishing have often followed times of difficulty. While we don’t know exactly how things will unfold, we do know that Jesus will be with us just as he was with the apostles in the storm on the lake. He will continue to invite generous persons to “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mk 10:21).
Sister Marianne Lorraine Trouvé, FSP, currently serves as an editor at Pauline Books & Media, the publishing house of the Daughters of St. Paul. She is the author of Angels: Help from on High. This post was excerpted from Sister Marianne Lorraine's Introduction and Commentary in the Anniversary Document Consecrated Life: Vita Consacrata Anniversary Edition, by Pauline Books and Media.