When most of us think of starting a new year, we think of Jan. 1st. In the life of the Church, we begin a new year with Advent, which began on Sunday, Nov. 30th this year. But this Advent is different than years past because Pope Francis has decided to launch a Year of Consecrated Life at the same time.
This Year of Consecrated Life is dedicated to celebrating the consecrated vocation and to promoting renewal among those who have already answered Christ’s call. On Nov. 21, Pope Francis wrote an apostolic letter to all consecrated people, which can be found at the Vatican website. I encourage you to read the letter. Pope Francis notes, “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.”
As we enter into this year, I ask you to join me in giving thanks for the tens of thousands of consecrated men and women who have given their lives to Christ and his Church. At the same time, I also encourage anyone who is discerning God’s call for their life to ask whether he might be calling you to the consecrated life.
Every Christian is called to radically follow the Lord, to leave everything. Pope Francis posed a question to consecrated persons that is valid for every authentic disciple in his apostolic letter, “… we have to ask ourselves: Is Jesus really our first and only love, as we promised he would be when we professed our vows? Only if he is, will we be empowered to love, in truth and mercy, every person who crosses our path.” I encourage everyone to meditate on this question throughout this year.
Currently, we are blessed to have 28 men’s religious communities and over 30 women’s religious congregations serving in the Archdiocese of Denver. Through their generous love for Christ, the Church in northern Colorado is able to care for the sick, the poor and elderly, to provide education, and to serve in our parishes. The Church and the world at large are also supported by the hidden prayers of those men and women who answer the call to contemplative life.
At a November 2013 meeting with religious superiors, Pope Francis also addressed the question of how to promote renewal within religious life and attract more people to it. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, he said, “… religious life ought to promote growth in the Church by way of attraction.”
“The witness which can really attract,” Pope Francis said, “is that associated with attitudes that are uncommon: generosity, detachment, sacrifice, self-forgetfulness in order to care for others.”
This way of living “sounds an alarm” for people and shows them that it “is possible to live differently in this world.”
“The Church must be attractive. Wake up the world! Be witnesses of a different way of doing things, of acting, of living!” Pope Francis challenged the superiors.
Doing this requires a renewal of consecrated life, a willingness to seek God and return to the “joy of the moment when Jesus looked at me.” This is something that every believer, no matter their vocation, should do. In a particular way, those called to the consecrated life should let Jesus’ loving gaze nourish and inspire their soul, their prayer, their ministries and their religious communities. The Gospel in its fullness and truth must be at the heart of every community.
When love for Christ and his Church is the foundation of a consecrated person’s life, then it will inevitably lead to the attractive witness of joy.
At a July 2013 meeting with seminarians and novices, Pope Francis described the joy that comes from this encounter with Christ. “In calling you God says to you: ‘You are important to me, I love you, I am counting on you.’ Jesus says this to each one of us! Joy is born from that! The joy of the moment in which Jesus looked at me. Understanding and hearing this is the secret of our joy.”
No matter what God’s vocation is for you, the result of faithfully following him will bring joy to your heart. That does not mean you will be free from suffering, the cross is promised to us by the Lord, but it does mean that you will be sustained by the deep joy of knowing that you are loved by God—a joy that no one can take away from you.
Let us begin this Advent and the Year of Consecrated Life by recognizing the gift of the men and women who have given their lives to Christ, and by listening to Jesus’ personal call to each of us. Then we will be able to encounter Jesus with a deeper joy when we celebrate his birth at Christmas, as he gazes at us with love. This Advent season, may your hearts be filled with courage and strength to respond to the call of the God who is love!