THE COUNSELS AND MISSION
Quirico Pedregosa, Jr., O.P.
Quirico Pedregosa, Jr., O.P.
First, we shall look at mission briefly. Then we shall indicate in what sense the evangelical counsels are oriented to mission. Afterwards, we shall spell out how each of the three counsels is oriented to mission.
WHAT MISSION MEANS
Mission springs from the mystery of God who is love (1Jn 4:16), from his overflowing and boundless love of the whole humanity and creation. There is but one mission: God’s mission, his love reaching out to the whole humanity and creation. It follows that mission is what the Triune God is doing, what God accomplishes in his love. In many ways, God precedes the Church and her missionaries in loving people. God is in mission since creation.
In “the fullness of time”, this love sent Jesus among us (cf. Jn 3:16). Jesus is one who is “sent” by the Father. He has come to be a personal revelation, a living witness of the Father’s love. Mission belongs to Jesus’ identity. To follow Jesus is to participate both in his life and in his mission. Those whom Jesus calls, he chooses them in order to send them out to others that they may preach the gospel (cf. Mk 1:18; 3: 14). Christian discipleship is a discipleship in mission. All Christians participate in God’s mission, in his love for the whole creation. This is made possible by the love of God that comes to us and unites us with Christ and sends us out to others that we may bear fruit (Jn 15:17). It is this love that “impels us” (2Cor 5: 14) to step out of our narrow selves, our selfish worlds, our lives of safety and security, our homes and homelands—to encounter others in love. Thus, mission is seeking out the other in love, a going forth to the other in love.
To be sent out by Jesus to others to witness to his love belongs to the very identity of his disciples. With or without, a geographical movement from one place to another or moving out from one’s culture to another, it is this identity and consciousness of being sent out to others that makes one a missionary. It is in this sense that every Christian, every religious is a missionary, regardless of the place where he or she puts oneself in the service of the gospel. The same holds true even for cloistered monks or nuns. In spite of being hemmed inside the cloister, they live a life of fruitful love for others, for the Church and the world.
Every religious, in fact, has deepened his missionary identity by virtue of his religious consecration. By profession, one consecrates himself to Christ and to his mission of proclaiming God’s reign to others. “The task of devoting themselves wholly to "mission" is therefore included in their call; indeed, by the action of the Holy Spirit who is at the origin of every vocation and charism, consecrated life itself is a mission, as was the whole of Jesus' life.” In this light, it is not sufficient to count mission as one element of religious life. Rather, it has to be seen as its defining element and finality, to which all other elements of religious life are oriented. Consecrated life exists for mission. This applies to all institutes of consecrated life, taking into account certainly the specific charism of each institute.
It is obvious that the Dominican religious life is completely oriented to mission. The Order of Preachers exists for the goal of mission, of preaching the gospel in imitation of the life of the Apostles. It is wholly committed to “preaching everywhere the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” , of his personal presence and loving action in the world. Dominicans are called to make of themselves living instruments of Christ’s love in the world.
VOWED TO MISSION
In what sense are the counsels oriented to mission?
In the Dominican context all the elements of the Order’s life are oriented to the mission of preaching the gospel. Creating a new form of religious life, St. Dominic adopted and joined to the ministry of preaching other elements of the religious monastic life of his time, namely, the common life, the three evangelical counsels, prayer and liturgy, regular observance and study. All these were traditional elements of religious life but by adopting them all as means to his goal of preaching, St. Dominic imparted to them all a new orientation or “twist”. He gave them all a missionary or apostolic “twist”. Thus speaking of the evangelical counsels, St. Dominic saw them not only as means for the members of his Order to grow in the life of contemplation and personal sanctification but also and more importantly as potent means to their mission of preaching the gospel. It is a well known, for example, that St. Dominic embraced evangelical poverty and wanted his first companions to do the same for the purpose of making their preaching credible and irresistible to its hearers.
Whether in the Dominican life or in religious life in general, the link between the counsels and mission is not accidental or circumstantial but essential. This becomes clearer, when we consider the finality of the counsels. Indeed religious men and women do not profess the counsels as ends in themselves. The counsels are not terminal values, but rather instrumental values. For what purpose or value then do religious profess the counsels?
St. Thomas Aquinas gives us a classic insight: the finality of the vows is love. That is to say, the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience are ordained to the counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience; and the latter are further ordained to love. Vatican II, affirming this doctrine, explains: the counsels are “means to and instruments of love” (Lumen Gentium, 44).
John Paul II affirms this same insight. In a general audience on October 26, 1994, he says, “the purpose of the vows is to scale the heights of love: a complete love dedicated to Christ under the impulse of the Holy Spirit and, through Christ, offered to the Father.”
Five years after the publication of Vita Consecrata, the Congregation of Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life issued a letter of instruction, entitled “Starting Afresh from Christ: A Renewed Commitment to Consecrated Life in the Third Millennium”. The document invites the consecrated persons to start afresh from Christ by coming home to his love. It says: “Starting afresh from Christ means once again finding one’s first love, the inspiring spark which first gave rise to the following. The primacy of love is his. The following is only a response in love to the love of God.” Then it goes on to speak of the vows: “the vows with which one commits oneself to live the evangelical counsels confer their radicalness as a response to love.”
In sum, the counsels are a response of love to love. By professing the counsels, religious men and women are vowed to love. Their vow of vows is to love. It is a two-fold vow: to love God and to love the neighbor as Christ has loved us. The counsels then, by reason of their finality, are essentially oriented to mission. They express and witness to the love of the religious not only for God but also for neighbor and the whole creation. They motivate and empower them to seek out others in love and service. The counsels, so to speak, are “means to and instruments” of loving the world, of bringing the love of God to others. The counsels are means and instruments of mission.
CELIBATE CHASTITY: GOD’S BOUNDLESS LOVE
A Primary Love-Commitment
In discussing the evangelical counsel of celibate chastity, one may look at it from the aspect of the renunciation of marriage. But, such perspective is negative. The focus is on the state of being “unmarried”, which in itself is not a virtue. The emphasis is on what one has renounced, not what one has positively committed to. The challenge is to see celibate chastity for what it is what it positively signifies. There is more to it than a “marriage-less” life.
In our time, in spite of caricatures of marriage and factors undermining the stability of and fidelity to the marital vows, there is a greater appreciation of marriage as a viable option in life than celibate chastity. In addition, the present-day predominant culture is very much given to the pursuit of sexual gratification, within or outside of marriage. Undertaking celibate chastity runs against that grain. In the Church today, there is greater appreciation of marriage as an authentic following of Christ, with its own goodness and beauty. It is a form of life embraced by most of Christ’s disciples. In this context, who would care to embrace celibate chastity? If celibate chastity has to make sense, it must be a free choice on its own. It can be a meaningful option if it is chosen for a positive and real good reason.
It then pays to ask, “Why do religious opt for celibate chastity?” It can be admitted that that there have been less noble motives that have emerged in history for opting for celibate chastity. Nevertheless tradition also testifies that Christian love has been the primary and finest positive reason for undertaking it. One clear case was that of the first religious men and women, namely, the virgins and the widows during the early life of the church. Virgins were women who renounced marriage because of their single-hearted love of Christ. Widows gave up the possibility of second marriage in favor of dedicating themselves wholeheartedly to the love of God by the pursuit of prayer and service to the needy. The same motive of love of God and of neighbor has come down to our time as the positive reason in opting for celibate chastity. That is to say, it is because one loves Christ so much, one cannot but decide to make a total gift of one’s whole self to Christ in love. One chooses to enter into a primary love-commitment with the person of Christ. One, who vows celibate chastity, renounces marriage or excludes it as a possible option, only in so far at it is another primary love-commitment. Celibate chastity then is eminently positive. It is a primary love-commitment of the vowed person with Christ.
Thus, celibate chastity is first a question of the human and Christian vocation to love. It is never meant for those who are afraid to love, or for those incapable of entering into a love-commitment. It is not an escape from the duties and responsibilities of married life. Those who can embrace it are those who in the first place have discovered and freely own their vocation to commit themselves to love.
Celibate chastity is rooted in the overpowering reality of God’s love, which fills and empowers a human heart, in its human condition, to give itself completely to God in love. Indeed this is a gift given to some, not to all (cf. Mt. 19:12). In this regard, the initiative belongs to God. It is God in Christ who offers his love to the person he calls. It goes to say that the one who opts for celibacy must first have been deeply wounded by the love of Christ; deeply touched and fascinated by his love. At some point, before making the commitment, one must have fallen in love deeply with Christ. This is the kind of experience and response that ground one’s choice of celibate chastity, a whole way of life organized around the value of total self-donation to the love of Christ.
It follows that there are two fundamental signs that are to be are to be verified in candidates intending to profess the vow of chastity: (1) the human capacity to commit themselves to love (2) and the depth of their love for God in response to his love for them. It is the task of formation to facilitate the “birthing” of these two pre-requisites to celibate chastity, in the persons of candidates to religious life.
To sustain the living out of celibate chastity as a primary love-commitment with Christ, a deep relationship of prayer is required. A religious needs to grow in his/her personal intimacy with Christ. He must be one’s dear or best friend.
An Authentic Way of Loving
But, is celibate chastity truly a way of loving? This is the primary challenge posed today to those vowed to chastity.
Generally speaking, the approach in the formation and living out of the vow of celibate chastity until the recent past has been negative and one-sided. The emphasis has been on the renunciation of marriage and the focus has been on the control of physical sexual impulses, desires, thoughts and feelings. This has led to undue fear of physical sexuality, not to say the lack of appreciation of the physical dimension of human sexuality. This has caused many religious men and women not to feel at home with their bodies and avoid physical contacts and expressions of care or love. This too has led to the neglect of the religious of their psychosexual life, resulting to sterile emotional-affective life, to rigid and cold interpersonal relationships with others. Such one-sided emphasis and focus have resulted to repression of loving as human sexual beings. To say the least, many people vowed to chastity have lost much of their spontaneity in expressing love to others, if not their capacity to show love to others.
Such negative and one-sided formation and practice of chastity should be abandoned now by all means. It must be clear that the vow to celibate chastity is not a renunciation of the human vocation to love and be loved. Neither it is a renunciation or negation of human sexuality. What religious have renounced is but the conjugal sexual form of love. Religious cannot but love and be loved. They cannot but love as sexual human beings: as man or woman, masculine or feminine. It involves the whole human person: the unity of body and soul. It entails the integral sexuality of the human person in concrete, not just the intellect and the will, but also the body, the external and internal senses, feelings, emotions and passions of the person. It is love of a human and sexual person.
It is the challenge of religious today to recover the goodness and beauty of the human and sexual expression of love. Celibate chastity as a virtue is not the repression of the human physical sexuality but the “perfection” of the human and sexual love of single adults. For chastity to be credible in our time, as Vita Consecrata, puts it: “consecrated life must present to today's world examples of chastity lived by men and women who show balance, self-mastery, an enterprising spirit, and psychological and affective maturity.” Chastity has to be lived today as an authentic human and sexual way of loving God and others.
Furthermore, religious are called today to model in their persons a warm and joyful human love in the face of the technocratic and utilitarian culture of our time. In such a culture, people are primarily given to work, to the pursuit of efficiency, economic profits, and to the usefulness of things. People are priced according to the value of their work and are rated by their productivity. Persons are sometimes treated as commodities, as goods up for sale and service. Religious can be also be affected by such culture.
Without spouses and family to care for with love, at times, religious are tempted to place greater value on work and efficiency than on persons and meaningful interpersonal relationships. They may tend to be impersonal, less welcoming and caring of persons with whom they live or work. Some, overtaken by incessant activities, have lost touch caring for the persons of others and of theirs. This situation raises a crucial challenge for religious today. By their chastity, they are called to witness to the primacy of persons over things, to the primacy of relationships and of love in human life. Theirs is the vocation to put persons and love first in their lives. They are called to find joy in persons; they are called to be joyful in loving them and God. Otherwise, they will fail gravely against their vow of chastity.
By professing celibate chastity it seems that the religious move towards the pole of sterility. But, the heart of that choice is the commitment to love. And there is no stopping to love’s fecundity; love is always creative and fertile. Thus, the mark of a genuine practice of celibate chastity is the liberating fecundity it brings about in the persons of the religious.
First, celibate chastity liberates religious from the narrow and suffocating pre-occupation with the self. Our consumerist culture seeks above all to feed the ego and its seemingly limitless desires. I remember one evening, stepping out of the train station, at the Shibuya district, in Tokyo, a gathering place for young people in the evening. Standing before the square, I was struck by the gigantic electronic and digital commercial billboards all around the place, in different shapes and colors, dwarfing and overpowering onlookers with one singular message: “Have me and you will have your desires satisfied.” Everything is for the satisfaction of the self.
Only a love that is directed to the good of the other can upset such overwhelming search for self-gratification. And this is the kind of love that lies deep in one’s commitment to celibate chastity. Celibate chaste love changes the focus of one’s interests and concerns, away from the self towards the other. It opens up and widens one’s vision and horizon of life. Apart from the self there is the other. God and the neighbor come first. Celibate chastity is a commitment to an unselfish love. This is not to say that the religious do not run the risk of becoming self-centered. Even for them dying to narcissistic love takes a long time and process. If they are not responsive to the daily demands of loving others within or outside the community, they can become too prisoners of their own self-centered desires and needs. In the final analysis, only a daily practice of the love of God and others could transform a self-centered heart into an unselfish one.
Second, celibate chastity is a commitment to a self-transcendent love. It gives religious men and women a cause beyond the self, worthy and big enough to live and die for in love: namely, the Lord and “the things of the Lord”, as referred to by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. For the Apostle, virginity or celibacy liberates a man or woman from so many other concerns that he or she might be anxious of in order to focus on the affairs of the Lord and on pleasing him ((1 Cor 7:32-35). The evangelist Matthew indicates that the motive of Jesus’ celibate life was his self-giving to the preaching of the reign of God (Mt 19:12). It is this absorption with Lord and his affairs or “the kingdom of God” that releases to the full the capacity of men and women to love. Stretching their love to the full, it becomes fertile, producing abundant good things in the service of the life of others and of the love of God. It will enable them to brave insurmountable obstacles and difficulties, even the danger of death, that God’s reign may be proclaimed in and out of season. Celibate chastity makes the persons of religious productive and creative in the service of mission.
Thirdly, the liberating fecundity of celibate chastity goes beyond the persons of the religious. It extends to the beneficiaries of their love. Celibate chastity liberates the religious from a possessive kind of love. It will be a great irony if those who renounce marriage and raising a family, of having spouses and children of their own, would seek to posses as theirs those whom they serve and love. Celibate chastity is an unpossessive love. It seeks not only to promote the autonomy and independence of others; more so it sets the others free to attain the fullness of their being and potentialities. Religious are faithful to their vow of chastity if because of their love others become more good and beautiful; others grow and develop more in their human persons and in their dignity as God’s children. Celibate love does not aim to unite others to oneself but to God and to community.
Religious can look to the love of Jesus as the example par excellence of this kind of love. His is a gift-love for the sake of the life of others. “I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:10-11). It is life giving: creative of life and at the service of life of others. Paul paints the same life-giving love of Jesus: “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2: 20).
The words of John Macquarrie are a fitting description of such liberating and life-giving love. “Love is letting-be, not of course, in the sense of standing off from someone or something, but in the positive and active sense of enabling-to-be. When we talk of ‘letting-be’, we are to understand both parts of this hyphenated expression in the strong sense—‘letting’ as empowering, and ‘be’ as enjoying the maximal range of being that is open to the particular being concerned. Most typically, ‘letting-be’ means helping a person into the full realization of his potentialities for being; and the greatest love will be costly, since it will be accomplished by the spending of one’s own being.”
An Inclusive Love
Celibate chastity is a way of loving that exemplifies the inclusive character of the love of Jesus. In the gospels, we see the love of Jesus as radically inclusive. He welcomed the poor, the sick, sinners, children and women. He drew into his fellowship, compassion and friendship all kinds of people excluded, marginalized, neglected and abandoned by the society of his time. We see him as always reaching out in love to others, crossing beyond accepted social, religious, and ethnic boundaries. He invited himself to the house of the tax collector Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10), dined at the house of Simon the Pharisee (Lk 7: 35-40), healed the centurion’s servant (Mt 8: 5-13), and conversed with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4: 1-26). He was paid the ridicule or compliment of being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Lk 7:34-35). Yet, it is by way of this inclusive love that Christ gathers in the members of the new community of God’s household.
Celibate chastity is a living sign in the Church and in the world of Christ’s inclusive love. It is a love extended to each and every human being, not on the basis of any filial, conjugal or blood relationship or by reason of affinity, but solely on the ground of agape, a mature gift-love for the sake of the other. It is a love that makes room in one’s heart for any person who comes. It is a love that excludes no one, regardless of race, gender, culture, religion, political affiliation or socio-economic status. It empowers the religious to reach out to everyone, excluding no one.
Our world today is marked by the stark difference of the other. This is not only true in the numerical sense but also in the qualitative sense. “Have we ever been so starkly confronted by the realities of difference? Are we conscious of how forcefully difference is resisted, of our inability to live with difference? Ours is a world of falling back on primary identities, of hatred of the other, of the cult of the same.” The challenge of mission today is to love the other in his otherness. To respond to that challenge, a missionary inevitably needs to be schooled in hospitable love.
In the gospels, the same inclusive love of Christ has been interpreted as God’s hospitable love. “Jesus challenges narrow definitions and dimensions of hospitality and presses them outward to include those with whom one least desires to have connections.” In the banquet of God’s kingdom, all are invited, especially those who are not conventionally considered worthy, like the poor, maimed, lame and blind (see Lk 14:12-14, 15-24). Celibate chastity as hospitable love educates the human heart to welcome all kinds of others. It can make religious men and women effective missionaries for our time, ready to reverence and accept others as different and love them in their otherness. Theirs is the call to witness to God’s love that is boundless, that accepts no bounds. Theirs is missionary love, a love that embraces everyone.
POVERTY: GOD’S GRATUITOUS LOVE
How can one speak meaningfully of the counsel of poverty? Economic poverty in itself signifies unwanted lack and deprivation. It could never be good; it is not a value in itself. It is a painful scandal that poverty marks the life of many communities and societies in the world. By all means, poverty must be eradicated. Does it make sense to make the vow of poverty when everyone else in the world seeks to come out of poverty? Besides, our culture is frantically given to the acquisition and consumption of material goods. What does it mean to choose to be poor? Clearly, poverty cannot be chosen for the sake of itself. Like all the vows, it is but a means. It can only be embraced for a real good reason.
Traditionally, much of the reasons given for the choice revolve around the dangers of wealth and of material things to one’s spiritual life. One chooses to be poor in order to free oneself from the burdens and concerns of having and of administering material goods. It is undertaken as a form of ascetic discipline in order to cultivate the values of detachment, simplicity and trust in divine providence. It is intended to free one from the clutter and glitter of money and wealth in order to dispose oneself to the contemplation of divine and eternal things. Though these reasons may still have value to many people until today, still there is a need to search for a more positive and meaningful reason for undertaking evangelical poverty.
A Self-Emptying Love
In the Christian tradition, the choice of voluntary poverty traces its origin to the very life-example given us by Jesus Christ. When he came among us, he decided to be born, to live and die as a poor person. His poverty was not only at the level of having but radically at the level of being. Off hand, one can say that his lifestyle as a poor person was a means to his itinerant ministry of preaching the good news of the in breaking of God’s kingdom. Furthermore, it must have made his preaching credible to the eyes of his hearers. But, there must be something more to Christ’s poverty.
It would help to re-visit St. Paul’s understanding of the poverty of Christ. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul presents Christ as a poor person to the core. Paul illustrates this in his letter to the Philippians, in his hymn of the self-emptying of Christ (2: 6-11). In said passage, the self-emptying of Christ was absolutely a personal choice. That he “emptied himself’ and “humbled himself” were voluntary acts of him. There is nothing to suggest that these were imposed upon him. Paul here describes the startling self-divestment of Christ. He emptied himself of all that belonged to him as being “in the form of God”, not only by his “coming in human likeness” but more so by “taking the form of a slave”. As an ultimate expression of poverty, Christ divested himself of his greatest good, life itself. “He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, death on the cross.” “In Paul’s world only the gods were thought to live forever. Accordingly, the right to the privilege of incorruptibility was effectively the right to be treated as god. Christ, however, did not turn this situation to his own advantage. He did not demand the treatment that his condition merited. On the contrary, he gave himself over to a mode of existence that was not his by accepting the condition of a slave, a situation that involved suffering and death.”
The motive for this total self-divestment of Christ is love. Paul recognizes that Jesus’ death was motivated by the will of his Father. God “did not spare his own Son, but give him up for the sake of us all” (Rom 8:32). But, in this, God was acting out of love. “Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But, God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6-8). Clearly, the love of God, revealed in this case, is completely gratuitous; it is not only given for free, but also undeserved and uncalled for. It also reveals the gratuitous love of Christ’s for us. Paul, in another letter of his, would write briefly but more cogently of the same voluntary poverty of Christ. “You are well aware of the generosity which our Lord Jesus Christ had, that, although he was rich, he became poor for your sake, so that you should become rich through his poverty” (2 Cor 8:9).
In sum, Christ’s poverty, over and above all, is a revelation of God’s and of his own gratuitous love for us humans and the world. It is a self-forgetting and self-humbling love. It is a love that spares nothing to give up for the sake of others. The poverty professed by the religious has meaning no less than that. It is meant to be a manifestation of God’s gratuitous love, caritas, a pure gift given for free. What religious men and women freely divest of themselves, through the vow of poverty, vary from place to place. There is no universally accepted yardstick on what it means to be poor for the religious. It is always something that is to be determined within a given context. But, all the same, they are called to live vowed poverty as a “means to and instrument” of God’s gratuitous love. And this is the kind of love that makes religious and others do mission effectively.
Paul, the greatest missionary of his own time, lived such poverty in his own life and ministry as an apostle. He exemplified in himself a self-forgetting and self-humbling love, motivating him to refuse even to accept what was due to him, like the financial support of the beneficiaries of his ministry. Instead with his own hands, he earned his own means of living. His example invites us to avoid self-self-serving interests in our relationships and work with the people we serve, even if it concerns our legitimate rights and privileges.
This is a great challenge to respond to. On one hand, in many cultures people tend to shower with material gifts on their spiritual guides and shepherds, at times to the point of spoiling them. On the other hand, in many societies today almost everything is turned into a consumer good or commodity for sale at a price. Nothing is for free. In both, a counter-witness of gratuitous love is eminently important.
Sharing in the Service of Love
Christ’s poverty was not only his self-emptying but also at the same time his self-giving out of love to God and to us. His self-emptying was at the same his offering of all that he is and has to God and the world. That makes gratuitous love definitely positive—it is a gift of self.
The first Christian community in Jerusalem exemplified such positive understanding of Christ’s poverty (Cf. Acts 4: 32-35). Many of the members of that community were economically speaking poor. Of course, some had more than what they needed. So some gave up and sold what they had for the needs of the community. They pooled together their resources in common, from which things were shared according to the needs of each one. Because they shared whatever they had, no one was needy among them. They enriched one another by each other’s poverty. Seeing their life of sharing, the pagans were led to exclaim: “See how they love one another”. “How Christians have fallen in love quickly with each other.” People understood the radical sharing among Christians as love—an expression of gratuitous love. .
Vowed poverty, likewise, must mean in our time as sharing for love with others whatever one has. In fact, the most common present form of vowed poverty until today is holding things in common and sharing them with one another. No one is meant to be richer or poorer than others, but each is provided according to his needs. It frees the religious from envy, competition and division on account of economic advantage of one over another. It helps them develop a healthy dependence on God and interdependence on each other. Vowed poverty in practice becomes sharing of goods in the service of love of God and neighbor. Such sharing of goods goes beyond the sphere of material things. This includes sharing of responsibilities, gifts, talents, aspirations, spiritual experiences and graces, apostolic ideals and charitable service.
Poverty as sharing makes the practice of the vow of poverty positive and active. Sharing shifts the focus of the religious to one’s capacity to give freely to others whatever one has and is. It is rooted in stewardship. It positively enables the religious men and women to become responsible stewards of the material resources they wield in their hands and to channel their use for the betterment of the lives of the deprived and needy. It leads too to simplicity. It inspires the religious to live simple lives so that they will have more to share. Through the value of sharing religious can grow in the spirit of detachment and overcome the divisive potential of material things in their own communities, as well as between them and the people whom they serve.
Sharing is a counter-witness to the acquisitive characteristic of the present-day culture. It is a critique of greediness, extravagance, hoarding and stinginess. It is a corrective value to the excessive pursuit of material things by the rich, heedless of the needs and sufferings of the poor and at the expense of the ecological balance. Sharing is a positive witness to gratuitous love—a love given for free and seeks no return.
Solidarity with the Poor
It is ironical that in the midst of the riches of the world the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. Multitudes of people are victims of unjust poverty, ruthless violence, oppression and exploitation. Things are not getting better for the many poor of the world. If vowed poverty means the gift of goods and of self for the life of others, then those vowed to poverty cannot but give a preferential attention to the poor. They are called to manifest God’s gratuitous love for them. They are called to be in solidarity with them. This solidarity means a two-fold commitment.
First, it means the commitment of seeing things from the optic of the poor. This asks the religious to go to the poor, to reach out to them, to enter into their world
and to know and understand their miserable lot. It will mean learning to see things from the perspective of the poor, in the light of their own experiences and struggles, hopes and dreams for a new and better world. Paradoxically, the poor, besides their human weaknesses, have many things to teach the religious: what poverty is and what it means to be poor, perhaps including what it means to believe, to hope and to love. The rich and the powerful of this world have something to learn from the needy and weak people at the margins of our societies.
Secondly, it means being becoming one with the poor in their cause to overcome injustice, oppression and exploitation, as the cause of God. It is listening to the “cries” of the poor and joining hands with them in the efforts and task to give a voice and expression in public to “the joy and hope, the grief and the anguish” of theirs, which painfully are ordinarily not heard and seen by those who are the key players and decision-makers of our societies. It is being in solidarity with the poor in their struggles and appropriate actions, in the light of the designs of God’s reign, to turn around their lot, not only for their good, but also for the common good of the communities and societies to which they belong.
There is no easy answer how these two-fold commitment will concretely take shape in practice. It might entail a complicated process, but definitely it has to be determined concretely in each case depending upon a concerned particular context. Religious themselves may at times doubt the validity and place of solidarity with the poor in living out their vowed poverty. In this option, they may not receive the necessary support from others. They might probably be questioned, persecuted or marginalized on account of their commitment to the poor, by those in authority or power. But, they can only be consoled by the faith in their hearts that being in solidarity with the poor, is a constitutive part of witness to God’s gratuitous love; that with and among the poor vowed poverty finds a home and its finest expression as gratuitous love.
To conclude, vowed poverty is a witness to God’s gratuitous love. It is a participation in God’s mission, that is, in his love giving itself out to the world freely and generously.
OBEDIENCE: FREEDOM TO LOVE
It may appear to some that there is a contradiction between freedom and obedience. Or at least, the latter is a subversion of the former. At a closer look, things will reveal that said impressions are far from true. On one hand, obedience presupposes freedom. One can only heed what is commanded if one has the power to choose the good, if one is free. On the other hand, heeding to do what is genuinely good educates one in freedom. Obedience can be a path to freedom. Thus, obedience and freedom are not opposites but correlatives.
In a time, like ours, given to the emphasis and promotion of individual freedom, vowed obedience seemingly is out of synch. Contemporary man or woman is happy being his or her own person, following one’s own thoughts and feelings. People go for individual autonomy and freedom of self-expression. The tendency is “to do one’s own thing” without due regard to what others might say or think, or worse, with no reference to moral good. Life is seen more often as an individual personal project. There is pride in becoming a self-made man or woman. In such a context, how then could one meaningfully make the vow of obedience?
Freedom to Love
The fundamental value at stake in obedience is freedom. In discussing obedience, it is productive to talk first about freedom. What is freedom? What freedom do men and women who profess the vow of obedience have?
As the evangelical counsel of obedience took its inspiration from the obedience of Jesus, the best way to start is to look back at the freedom of Jesus. It is interesting that Jesus linked his freedom with doing the will of his Father. As early as the age of twelve years, Jesus manifested his positive regard for his Father’s will. After the feast, the boy Jesus stayed in Jerusalem without his parents’ knowledge. When they found him, three days after, Mary said, “My child why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you.” Jesus answered, “Why were you looking for me?” Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs”? (Lk 2: 41-52) It is revealing to note that the twelve-year old boy had the confidence to assert his own identity and duty to his heavenly Father. For Jesus, his freedom finds its fulfilment in giving himself to his “Father’s affairs”. Later, during his public ministry, he would say, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work” (Jn 4:34). Like food, what gives him strength and makes him grow is the fulfilment of the will of his Father. It is also what gives him joy. He delights in doing his Father’s will. “I do nothing on my own, but I say only what my Father taught me. The one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, because I always do what is pleasing to him” (Jn 8: 28-29). The last verse gives us the clue why Jesus sought always to do the will of his Father; it was his way of pleasing him. Obviously, he sought to please him because he loved him.
Surely obedience was not without pain for Jesus. He struggled to obey God’s will until the end of his earthly life. “Son though he was, he learned obedience through suffering” (Heb 5:8) “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (Jn 12: 27-28). He was obedient to the point of suffering and death on the cross. Yet, it is precisely by his being “lifted up from the earth”, by his obedient death on the cross, that Jesus revealed the immense love of the Father for the world, and his own authentic identity as a Son who loves the Father (Jn 12:32). John interprets the same act of Jesus as the greatest expression of his love for us. “Greater love than this no man has that a man lays down his life for his friends” (Jn 15: 13). Or as he writes in his first letter: “This has taught us love that Jesus gave up his life for us” (1Jn 3:16). Clearly, Jesus’ obedience unto the cross was the peak expression of his freedom to love his Father and the world. His sole freedom was to love!
It is the same freedom to love that Christians have received in their hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. First, the Spirit that they have received is the Spirit not of slavery but of adoption, the Spirit that has made them children of God. (Rom 8:14-17). “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2Cor 3:17). Paul, in Galatians, delineates what this freedom of the Spirit is for: “serve one another through love” (Gal 5:13). It is freedom to serve; it is freedom to love. Thus the freedom that God’s children enjoy is the freedom to love. This is the freedom that Christian men and women have and decide to make more by making the vow of obedience. As God’s children, they make a public promise to love in the freedom of the Spirit. What is at stake then in vowed obedience is the freedom to love God. Because one loves God, one seeks to please him by making a promise to know and do his will in love.
Unfortunately, vowed obedience is at times misconstrued as sheer submission of one’s will to the will of the superior. But the truth is, obedience is directed to the will of God to the fulfillment of God’s will. The claim that “the voice of the superior is the voice of God” is, to say the least, a misleading figure of speech. There is no equivalence between the voice of God and the voice of the superior. Neither the will of the superior is infallibly the will of God. Abuses and violations against human persons, both within and outside of religious life, were results of such misleading view of obedience.
Nevertheless, it remains true that by the vow of obedience religious renounce their “self-will” and promise to obey their superiors according to the rule and constitutions of their respective institutes. However, this must be properly understood.
Freedom to Listen
What is crucial is to see rightly how the dynamic process of obedience takes place. Obedience is derived from the Latin verb, oboedire, to listen. This verb comes from two Latin words, ob-intensive prefix, and audire-to listen. Thus. Obedience means listening intently. It is interpersonal, involving at least two persons: the one who tells or gives an order about something to be done; and the other who hears/listens and follows the command. It is a two--way communicative process on something to be done between two persons. It entails the use of intelligence and will of both parties, in freedom. Of special concern to be safeguarded is the free use of intellect and will on the part of the one who follows an order. Otherwise, obedience becomes dominative or manipulative. It does not aid the person to grow in the knowledge of truth and exercise of freedom.
It is interesting that according to St. Thomas Aquinas, obedience is first an act of the intellect before it is an act of the will. Why? The act of knowing and understanding of what is commanded (of the practical truth or good to be done), which is an act of the practical intellect, precedes the act of “willing” or agreeing to what is commanded (which is the act of the will). True obedience first knows the demand of God’s will before doing them. It requires the exercise of both the intellect and the will, animated by faith and love, of all the parties involved. The popular axiom: “Blind obedience is perfect obedience” is no obedience at all. It is nothing but a “blind” act and does not even qualify as a human act. A human act must be both deliberate and free.
The heart then of vowed obedience is the attitude of seeking to know and to do the will of God. But, and this is a big but, humans do not know immediately the will of God. Ordinarily, the will of God is mediated to human individuals both by objective and subjective sources. Among the objective sources are: sacred scriptures, divine tradition and the official teachings of the Magisterium of the Church, human experiences and events in history. For the religious we have to add: the religious rule, constitutions, directories, other legislations and sound traditions of each religious institute. The following can be named among the subjective sources: the pope, Episcopal college, and bishops. For the religious, we have to include, the legitimate superiors and members of their communities. In both spheres of the objective and subjective sources, the quest of knowing God’s will and its demands is a communitarian or ecclesial effort and process. No one has the monopoly of truth, of the exercise of the gifts of discernment, wisdom and knowledge. All are participants and partners in the search for God’s will. The Holy Spirit is present and active in each and every member of the religious community.
That goes to say, the search for God’s will, required by obedience, cannot but be interpersonal and dialogical. It is seeking to know and do God’s will, not by oneself alone, but rather with the help of others. It entails dialogue, a mutual speaking and listening to one another. Not only the superiors but also every individual member of the community has a word to say and have to be listened to. It is a dialogue involving superiors and members of religious communities. This presupposes that parties involved in dialogue mutually take each other as mature and responsible persons and as equals. In this way, every person is able to share truthfully and freely his/her thoughts, feelings, insights and experiences about any matter under consideration. Though each has his/her own mind and thinks differently, all strive to think together and learn from each other, aiming to arrive at a consensus on what is to be done. Obedience draws the members of the community to become one heart and one mind in learning the truth and doing together the good to be done. It draws them closer to one another in truth and love. Obedience is a means to and instrument of seeking and doing God’s will in truth and love. It is a means of loving God in freedom; conversely, it also a means of growing in one’s freedom to love God.
“Dialogical” obedience is corrective of the practice of obedience as mere subjection to the will of superiors. Such view of obedience is oftentimes viewed as a necessary evil; something that one will do away with, if only there is another way of doing things in community. Worse, it is done not without fear, misgiving, hurt feelings and grumbling which altogether drive persons farther away from one another. On the contrary, dialogical obedience fosters harmonious or loving relationships among those who seek to know and do God’s will. It is a means of loving one another.
Dialogical obedience, far from detracting us from the will of God as the center of our lives, invites us to intensify our seeking to know and to do God’s will. It is a dialogue with God. It asks the person vowed to obedience to be attentive to all possible sources of mediation of God’s will. It is a call to listen intensely to God and his word. Sacred Scriptures insist on intense listening to God’s word, to the point of understanding and doing it (cf. Lk 8:1-21). It is a call to listen to God revealing his will and its demands in prayer, lectio divina, celebration of the liturgy and events of life and history.
Moreover, our contemporary life is characterized by noise and incessant activities. People are always up on their feet, on the go, racing against time to meet big targets or quotas, driven by the goals of efficiency and profits. The fast paced and pressure-laden life dulls the capacities of people, including the religious, to listen. Dialogical obedience invites them to look deeply into the nature of things, to reflect on the complexities of life, to listen to God speaking to their hearts, through the stirrings and voices of others.
Often times, we imagine or think that the other has nothing to say to us; that we know better than others. Obedience does exactly the opposite. It makes us invite the other, as a bearer of God’s word, to say something to us. The other person is a partner in the search for truth, from whom one can receive and learn the meaning and demand of God’s will. Obedience liberates the religious from the conceit of pride and the arrogance of individualism.
In many places of the world, the interests and voices of the poor, the weak and minorities are silenced or unheeded. They have no say at all in matters that profoundly concerned them. They are exploited and manipulated by the mighty and wealthy in society. Those in positions of authority are prone to become dictators, manipulators, or pawns of influential groups with vested selfish interests. Dialogical obedience is a critique and an alternative value to the imposition of will by force and violence and the domination of the weak by the strong. It honors the freedom of the weak, the poor, and the lowly people.
Freedom for Mission
It pertains to Jesus’ freedom to love to give himself entirely to the mission given him by his Father. He experienced this freedom upon the Spirit’s descent on him at his baptism (Mk 1: 10). Immediately, thereafter, he braved the desert to face his temptation and then plunged into his mission of proclaiming the reign of God with freedom (Mk 1: 11-10). As can be gleaned from the gospels, Jesus did the Abba’s will in word and deed regardless of what others thought or said. He was fearless and feared nobody, even those who were after his life. He was completely free to relate, reach out, and love all those he met, particularly the poor, the nobodies and outcasts of his time.
Moreover, he manifested a great sense of freedom to go to places where he needed to proclaim the good news. He refused to be settled in a place. “Let us go on to nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose I have come” (Mk 1:38). He was free to be itinerant. He was courageous to go to pagan town and cities and to pass through the place of the Samaritans. He was highly mobile for the sake of preaching of the gospel.
To the point of death, he was free to give his life to God and for the sake of others. “No one takes it (my life) from me, but I lay it down on my own” (Jn 10:18). “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). In Jesus life and ministry, we see his resolute freedom to make a gift of himself to his mission. The same passionate freedom for mission should mark the exercise of vowed obedience among the religious. Theirs is the commitment to make a gift of self to the cause of mission. True, it is not possible to chart concretely what such commitment will demand from the religious.
But, I would like to single out here three constant demands for freedom for mission to be real. First, it requires from the religious availability to heed whatever responsibilities or assignments the community or institute gives them. Vowed persons have identities larger than their own persons. By profession they have incorporated themselves to the community; they have become part of its corporate identity, life and mission, for which they are co-responsible. Consequently, the community has the right and duty to ask them to fulfil certain responsibilities. Theirs is the corresponding freedom to respond with openness and joy to what the community calls them to fulfil. In particular instances though there might be objective and valid reasons for the religious to say no.
Second, it demands from the religious the spirit of itinerancy, that is, the freedom to move on, to face something new, to welcome the different. At times, there is the strong temptation to be “settled” or to “grow roots” in a place, task, or mentality or attitude, etc.” But, by all means, one must be ready to be “disturbed” or “unsettled” for the demands of community life and mission.
Third, obedience may demand from the religious the courage to die to something of value in one’s life so that new life may be born. This will at times be costly and painful to religious. It would not be easy to give up a dear project, profession, office, expertise, institution, homeland, etc. The hardest thing is to die to one’s own form of security. This might even mean the eventuality of giving up one’s life. But there is no other way to learn freedom for mission except by walking on the same road of the paschal mystery of Christ, whose death gifted humanity the freedom to live and love as God’s children.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
We have seen that mission means what God is doing in his love in the world and in the whole creation. Every disciple of Christ participates in that mission by being a living witness of the love of God to others. Every religious by his profession has deepened his commitment to mission, to seek out the other in love, to participate in God’s love present and active in the world and the entire creation.
The finality of the counsels is love. By reason of that finality, the counsels are oriented to mission; they are means and instruments of mission. They empower the religious to grow in the love of God and bring that love to others.
We have unravelled here a fuller orientation of each counsel to love. By doing so, it is seen that each counsel does not only enable the vowed person to live and imitate the love of God revealed in Christ. In a great sense, each counsel also empowers the religious to participate all the more in mission, by making him/her a living extension, or link of God’s love to others. When the orientation to love of each counsel is pursued to the full, each counsel is unmistakably rediscovered as a potent means and instrument of mission. And this is the urgent call for religious in living the counsels today.
February 12-14, 2008