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Christ Loved the Church: Francis Throws Down the Gauntlet to Religious

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 09, 2013

Pope Francis has begun his assault against the secularization of religious life, attacking the late-20th century tendency to separate religious commitment from the Church in order to serve the spirit of the world. We have seen this tendency in the shift to purely secular service among women religious, accompanied by New Age spirituality and feminist careerism. We have seen this tendency in the penetration of Modernism into religious formation, the fostering of homosexuality in religious life and, among male religious at least, also pornography and even sexual abuse.

Sadly, these signs of the times have been read as easily in many religious communities over the past fifty years as in the culture at large. Granted, a few communities avoided infection; some newer communities were formed in opposition to this worldly spirit; and certain others, where the infection was less severe, have made considerable strides in renewing themselves. But the problem remains, and the horror stories continue to accumulate in many quarters. The results are evident in the catastrophic loss of vocations, and in the lack of a discernible Catholic character among leaders who are often drawn from religious life in such female preserves as health care and such male preserves as university education.

Although Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI all attempted to foster a spirit of true renewal in communities of consecrated life around the world, progress among the badly infected orders has been like the proverbial pulling of teeth—with excuses for delay and, if delay fails, then kicking and screaming. The latest evidence of the widespread rebellion against the Church was found in the effort of Sister Mary Lou Wirtz, President of the International Union of Superiors General, to derail the reform of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious last Tuesday. Sister Mary Lou claimed that the nature of authority and obedience had changed since Vatican II, that the LCWR wanted to focus on what “Gospel leadership” means today, and that the Vatican was clearly not interested in that topic. (See If only the Vatican were open to the Gospel….)

What Will Francis Do?

But Pope Francis cannot be fooled in this. He has experienced the rot in religious life first-hand; he was marginalized by his Jesuit Superiors as a young priest, just as true men and women of the Church in so many religious orders have been for the past two generations. This is an open scandal, and one of the key questions surrounding the election of Pope Francis has been whether he would find a way to escalate the fight. To put the question clearly: Will he shift from words to discipline?

We don’t know yet, but it has not taken him long to respond to Sister Mary Lou or to go on the offensive verbally in a tone which sounds suspiciously like he is ready to lay down the law. The Pope received the plenary assembly of the International Union of Superiors General in audience the day after its president gave her ill-conceived interview to Vatican Radio. The complete text is available under a striking title, Careerists and Climbers Doing “Great Harm” to the Church. Francis struck at the very heart of the religious malaise today, while responding pointedly to the leader of the IUSG.

The Pope began with this:

It is Christ who has called you to follow him in the consecrated life and this means to continually engage in an “exodus” from yourselves to center your existence on Christ and on his Gospel, on the will of God, divesting yourself of your plans, to be able to say with Saint Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” This “exodus” from oneself is to put oneself on a path of adoration and service. An exodus that leads us to a path of adoration of the Lord and of service to Him in our brothers and sisters. To adore and to serve: two attitudes that cannot be separated, but which must always go together.

Pointed Evangelical Counsels

Next, he insisted that each of the communities must learn to engage in this “exodus” primarily through the evangelical counsels which are the foundation of their existence. Usually the evangelical counsels are listed with obedience last. On this occasion, the Pope put obedience first:

  • Obedience as listening to the will of God in the interior motion of the Holy Spirit, authenticated by the Church, accepting that obedience passes also through human mediations. Remember that the authority-obedience relation is placed in the wider context of the mystery of the Church and constitutes a particular accomplishment of her mediating function.”
  • Poverty as an indication to the whole Church that we are not the ones who build the Kingdom of God; it is not human means that make it grow, but primarily the power, the grace of the Lord, who works through our weakness…. Poverty that teaches…to be on guard against material idols that obfuscate the authentic meaning of life…. Theoretical poverty is of no use to us.”
  • “And then chastity as a precious charism, which widens the freedom of the gift to God and to others, with the tenderness, the mercy, the closeness of Christ…. But, please, a ‘fecund’ chastity, a chastity that generates spiritual children in the Church. The consecrated woman is mother, she must be a mother and not a ‘spinster’!... Be mothers, as the figure of Mother Mary and of the Mother Church. Mary cannot be understood without her maternity; the Church cannot be understood without her maternity; and you are icons of Mary and the Church.” [emphasis added]

Next the Pope tackled the nature of service. “For God,” he points out, “authority is always synonymous with service, humility, love. It means to enter into Jesus’ logic, who bends down to wash the feet of the Apostles” (whom, please note, the bishops and the pope represent). And then he condemned the opposite:

We think of the harm inflicted on the People of God by men and women of the Church who are careerists, social climbers, who “use” the people, the Church, brothers and sisters—those they should serve—as trampolines for their own personal interests and ambitions. But these do great harm to the Church.

Religious Life Essentially Ecclesial

Finally, Francis stressed “ecclesiality” as one of the “constitutive dimensions of consecrated life, a dimension that must constantly be taken up and deepened”:

Your vocation is an essential charism for the journey of the Church, and it is not possible that a consecrated woman and a consecrated man not “feel” along with the Church. A “feeling” along with the Church which was generated in us in our Baptism; a “feeling” with the Church which finds its filial expression in fidelity to the Magisterium, in communion with the pastors and the Successor of Peter, Bishop of Rome, the visible sign of unity. For every Christian the proclamation and witnessing of the Gospel are never an isolated act. This is important…. [N]o evangelizer acts, as Paul VI reminded us very well, “on the strength of a personal inspiration, but in union with the mission of the Church and in her name”.

Pope Francis concluded by almost thundering: “It is an absurd dichotomy to think of living with Jesus without the Church, of following Jesus outside of the Church, of loving Jesus without loving the Church.” Does anyone else detect anger here, and perhaps even a hint of thoroughly justified ridicule?

In any case, this last is also a reference to Paul VI, in Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World) #16. If you were to check the reference, you would find that Paul VI made these same points in complaining about a common but misguided attitude by which people continually claim to break the profound link between Christ, the Church and evangelization. Thus do they seek to justify their own agendas by claiming to exercise “Gospel leadership” (Sister Mary Lou’s term) without reference to the hierarchical community established by Christ Himself to carry on both His Presence and His mission. That this attitude really is absurd ought to be obvious, but Paul noted that it is also clearly demonstrated by two passages in Scripture.

The first is that passage in Saint Luke’s gospel (10:16) in which Jesus Christ says to his disciples, “He who rejects you rejects me,” thereby establishing an unbreakable link between discipleship in the Church and an authentic response to the Lord. The second is that passage in the Letter to the Ephesians (5:25) where Saint Paul says, as if to drive the point home with the very nails of the cross, “Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her.”

A consecrated religious who does not join with Christ in this sacrificial love is not worthy of the name. It seems to me that this is what Pope Francis has just said, in person and every bit as bluntly, to Sister Mary Lou Wirtz and the UISG.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - May. 13, 2013 9:39 AM ET USA

    If Sister May Lou and the LCWR sisters have a conversion from their present path which takes them away from the Church and Christ, it will be because God has sent an extraordinary grace to them - they seem that hard-hearted to me. But, as Fr. Most repeatedly stated in his book on predestination and the salvific will, God only rarely does this because "the extraordinary cannot become ordinary." Time will tell.

  • Posted by: chady - May. 11, 2013 6:59 AM ET USA

    2 John v9 - 11 seems to advise us all to be aware and use discernment whoever we are.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 09, 2013 8:32 PM ET USA

    "A consecrated religious who does not join with Christ in this sacrificial love is not worthy of the name." The life of the religious is necessarily a life of sacrificial love, and this love is not possible without copious prayer and souls animated with grace. Pentecost approaches; may this great feast of the Church prove an occasion of immense grace for the Church and an opportunity for renewed fervor among religious everywhere.