In 1990, Fr. Basil Cole and Fr. Paul Conner, both Dominican priests, co-authored a book on the consecrated life entitled Christian Totality. In 1997, they issued a revised edition to take into account John Paul II’s landmark apostolic exhortation, Vita Consecrata. Owing to the generosity of Fr. Cole, whom I have had occasion to mention favorably in On the Culture on several occasions, I have become acquainted with this book, but only this year. Better late than never; it is a remarkable achievement.
I should preface this review by stating that there really ought to be a companion pamphlet for this book, perhaps twenty pages long, which could serve as an inspirational “pitch” for the consecrated life, which is typically a life vowed to poverty, chastity and obedience in the context of a religious community with a particular rule. I say this because a lay person unacquainted with the consecrated life is not likely to expend the effort of reading a full-scale study like Christian Totality. It would be too much, too soon.
But for someone seriously considering the consecrated life, or studying it, or already in it (even those of long experience and considerable authority), this book should be required reading. It is comprehensive in its treatment of the meaning, historical development and theological implications of each aspect of the consecrated life, from ancient Judaism to modern experience and Magisterial guidance. The study is both firmly rooted in the Catholic tradition and keenly sensitive to the renewal desired by the Second Vatican Council. It shows a mastery of historical sources, the contributions of the great religious communities, the contemporary crisis of religious life, recent developments in Canon Law, and the further reflections and instructions offered by modern popes, particularly Pope John Paul II.
The list of chapters will indicate the scope of this extensive study of 366 pages. You’ll note that the authors begin by immediately explaining the mission and call of all Christians, out of which the consecrated life grows as a particularly direct and fruitful path:
- Lay Life and Mission in Christ: Mystery of Transforming the World
- Consecrated Life: Mystery of Totality
- Consecrated Chastity: Mystery of Undividedness
- Consecrated Poverty: Mystery of Emptiness
- Consecrated Obedience: Mystery of Surrender
- Consecrated Community: Mystery of the One and the Many
- Consecrated Apostolate: Mystery of Christ Ministering to Christ
- Consecrated Life and Ministerial Priesthood: Mystery of Complementary Configuration to Christ
Each chapter does for its topic what the book as a whole does for the consecrated life. First it explains the topic and then demonstrates its development in Scripture and Tradition, concluding with a summary of what has been learned. Next, it offers spiritual and theological reflections on the topic, especially as related to particular key questions in the consecrated life, and it then closes by summarizing the conclusions reached. If you want to see what the Benedictines contributed to the idea of chastity or the Jesuits to obedience, you’ll have no trouble. Or you can learn about the various tensions between individual apostolic work and life in common; or the various models of authority, and what they have in common. All these are here, and much more.
Christian Totality is superbly organized, as you might expect from two authors who have taught courses on the consecrated life at the Angelicum (University of St. Thomas) in Rome. You might fear that there would be a strong Dominican bias in the work, but that is not at all the case. The only chapter which emphasizes the Dominican contribution over others is the last, in which the Constitutions are offered as one model of the integration of the priestly and religious consecrations, which are not the same and often in tension. And here the authors’ order is favored simply because its approach to this difficulty seems to have anticipated the principles set forth in John Paul II’s 1992 Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis. Thus the Dominican Constitutions possess a particular relevance.
This is one of those books that anyone can mine at need, yet every page will fascinate and inform those who are drawn strongly to, or are already deeply committed to, the consecrated life. Even as a layman I read several of the sections with particular interest—for example those that deal with obedience, which is such a vexing problem in our own day. In fact, there is much wisdom in Christian Totality, drawn from an exceedingly important slice of the Church’s inner life. Any good Catholic library should include this book. But for consecrated souls, it will prove both essential and difficult to put down: Self-understanding will blossom on every page.
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