To live a life of perfect charity: that’s the goal of all Christians and of religious in particular.
So said seminary professor Sister Esther Mary Nickel, a Religious Sister of Mercy of Alma, Mich., speaking to a group of 20-plus religious and college mission students gathered for a talk and discussion on the Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life March 25.
The Vatican II document, also known as “Perfectae Caritatis” (Perfect Charity), and another, “Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, are marking 50 years during this Year of Consecrated Life called for by Pope Francis. The special year also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.
In promulgating the Year of Consecrated Life, which started Nov. 30 and runs through Feb. 2, 2016, the pope wants the Church to revisit the two documents so as to bring their implementation to fulfillment. Sister Nickel’s talk, hosted by the Little Sisters of the Poor at Mullen Home in northwest Denver, was the second in a three-part series to build awareness of what they say.
In the midst of the social and political revolution of the 1960s, the Catholic Church was experiencing her own transformation as she convened and began carrying out changes called for by the Second Vatican Council. The era played a significant role not only in how the 1962-1965 council was understood but also in how it was implemented, Sister Nickel said.
“A Church history professor (of mine) used to say, ‘It usually takes 50 years to implement a council … but we’ve made a few mistakes so it’s going to take us a little longer,” she said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Misinterpretations by some in the Church and media misrepresentations contributed to the confusion that followed Vatican II as parishes grappled with the changes. She urged those in attendance to read “Lumen Gentium” and “Perfectae Caritatis,” which are vital for understanding the roles of religious and of laity in the Church.
“Lumen Gentium,” she noted, recovered Christ’s universal call to holiness.
“That was very different,” Sister Nickel said, adding that prior to Vatican II holiness was seen as the domain of clergy and religious but the document affirms that, “Everyone is called to holiness.”
Holiness, she said, is achieved in the perfection—or fullness—of charity (love), which every Christian is called to and which consecrated men and women are called to in a specific way.
“(Religious) are striving toward a fuller and more intense participation in the life of God, in the charity of God,” she said.
The role of religious, Sister Nickel said, is to be a sign and a reminder that Christians are mere pilgrims on earth.
“Our consecration, our fully giving our lives to the Lord,” she said, “gives witness to the truth that we’re not here to stay, we’re here to lead others to heaven.”
Religious have the privilege of being called to a stable life in which they are bound to practice the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience (some also take a fourth vow) and live a life in common that supports their efforts to do so.
“You’re more free than ever,” Sister Nickel said, “because you know you’re doing the Lord’s will.”
In keeping with God’s plan, over the centuries “a wonderful variety of religious communities has grown up,” she said quoting “Perfectae Caritatis.”
“That’s what we see in this room,” Sister Nickel said, acknowledging the Little Sisters of the Poor, Carmelite sisters, Capuchin Franciscans and Servite friar in attendance, “a wonderful variety … each blooming with it’s own beauty.”
What religious ultimately desire, she said, is to share the fulfillment expressed by Christ as he hung on the cross on Good Friday.
“We long for that moment when we will see the Lord … and be able to say, ‘It is finished.’ And Our Lord can say to us, ‘Well done good and faithful servant.
“That’s what’s at the heart of perfect charity.”
Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life
By Sister Esther Mary Nickel, R.S.M.
7 p.m. April 30, Mullen Home, 3629 W. 29th Ave., Denver