Religious profession was once equated with ‘a life of perfection’. There was a sense that this ‘perfection’ could be achieved by ‘doing it right’. ‘Keep the rule and the rule will keep you’. Behind this mentality was a suggestion that religious life could help a person ‘become perfect’. In much the same way, Catholics attending Sunday Mass, observing the nine first Fridays’ and attending to other common religious practices were deemed to be ‘on the right road’. Although many religious and laity lived heroic faith filled lives, this path to perfection doesn’t seem to have worked for too many people!
Some religious saw their choice as guaranteeing a ‘reward’. All they had to do was ‘do things right’. Some saw it as inheriting the ‘hundredfold’ (Mk 10:30). This attitude meant that sometimes it did not require any risk taking or any initiative. Perhaps such people were like the man who buried his talent in the ground (Luke 19:20).
Those who made the choice of a ‘dedicated’ life, came to be viewed as ‘superior’ to other Christians. In much the same way, certain Catholics looked down their noses at others who were seemingly ‘lost’. Such Catholics failed to appreciate the message of the story of the Pharisee and publican (Luke 18:9-14).
For religious, there were significant sacrifices made at the time of profession:
a) giving up material ownership (Poverty)
b) forgoing sexual intimacy and the opportunity to create ones’ own family (Celibacy)
c) Allowing legitimate authority to make decisions concerning one’s life (Obedience)
Having set out at a young age so bravely to ‘follow Christ’, many religious, as they aged became stale, cynical or rigid. For them it had become not ‘who’ they were following, but ‘what’ they were following. Keeping external practices seduced them into believing this was responding to the gospel call. This was a mistake many Christians made too, and they resented the changes called for by Vatican 2.
The new thinking and theology of the 2nd Vatican Council did not necessarily change everything, but it reminded us all that our first vocation is Baptism. Whatever we understand of the evangelical counsels (poverty, celibacy and obedience) their purpose is to assist religious in living their baptismal vocation of faithfulness and mission. The founder’s charism often expressed in a particular vow also assisted this mission. This was the case with Paul of the Cross who wanted Passionists to ‘promote the living memory of the Passion of Jesus in the hearts of people’.
In the years since Vatican 2, religious life declined numerically. Seeing themselves now as a minority or even a remnant, some have wanted to highlight that religious are to live a prophetic life, but this too, is the call of every Christian (to be priest, prophet and king).
Other thinking (e.g. scientific) invites us into a deeper appreciation of what religious profession is, especially for a Passionist. We must appreciate that we are called to be Christian disciples. This is not just an individual calling. It is a call into community.
However we live, Christian values and attitudes must be clearly evident. When I was studying Scripture in Melbourne in 1968, Passionist scholar Bob Crotty explained that the English translation of 1 Corinthians 13:4 ‘God is patient and kind’, would be more accurately expressed ‘love is patient and always takes the initiative’. Bob explained that ‘always taking the initiative’ was loving as Jesus loved. It meant not waiting for another to apologise, or thinking “I’ve already put myself out for this or that person”. I have never forgotten that lesson, and it often comes to mind and calls me to be active and not passive in my response to others.
Of course, whatever religious activities one observes, the primary call is to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. Religious, like all Christians must strive to model their lives on Jesus. They will not be perfect! But then, we are not asked to be! We are asked to be disciples – learners. This is obviously true too for Passionist Companions.
We will always depend on God. This is an important distinction between how we might have once lived our spiritual life and how we are called to live it now. We are not called to be perfect! Doing that, seduces us into thinking that it is all our good work or our effort. Then God is left out. Our greatest lessons are learned through failure. This is how we come to God.
The great belief we live and preach, especially as Passionists, is that God loves us as we are, not because of anything we do or achieve. God doesn’t love us more, because we are perfect. God loves us! We are called to learn to love others like that, without conditions. We don’t have to live a system of rewards
Our first school, is our community. For professed Passionists, community is like any family. This is the same with Passionist Companions. We disappoint each other, display our weaknesses, become impatient, act in strange ways. We fail. This happens between marriage partners and within families.
Can we love one another as God loves us or will we withhold our love? Will we profess our Christian life by making a public commitment, but act differently; holding grudges, speaking ill of each other, withholding our assistance? Our commitment comes to life in relationships. We profess our life in community.
Most of us grew up in the world dominated by the thinking of Issac Newton which led to a mechanical approach to life. One theologian suggested that in Newton’s world, God had created a machine and that God is like a night watchman watching how this machine works. In this world view, we thought we could control, fix or replace the machine parts, and in so doing we emphasised the parts (individual), over the whole (community). In religious life or Christian life in general, this sometimes meant that we learned the rules in order to minimize personal loss (avoid hell) and maximize personal gain (achieve heaven).
Today, quantum physics and chaos theory are providing a new theology that emphasizes God’s ever present action, the inter-connectedness of all things and the belief that everything that occurs, random as it seems, destructive as it seems, is in fact working for ultimate life. This of course, echoes Paul’s words, who himself suffered a great deal, but who suggests that when someone knows and loves God they can understand how “all things work together for good”. (Romans 8:28)
The universe has existed for 13.5 billion years and life on earth for 4.5 billion years. Our human time in all this history is incredibly brief. Within the development of the human story as well as in every other aspect of the life of our universe, life and death has been the ongoing pattern.
The paradigm that Jesus lived, is that God overcomes death and gives it meaning. Death is not the end. Suffering and pain are not without meaning. There is always something awaiting. ‘Letting go’ is life’s lesson to be learned. Even as we reflect on ageing issues, we are invited to this faith stance…’can I, will I, put my life in God’s hands’?
Most often, as in chaos theory, we cannot see the pattern, but there is always a return to order from chaos. Photographs of snowflake crystals dazzle with their incredible beautiful and intricate patterns. Patterns emerge, it seems, from every situation, even though we do not always see or recognize them.
Our earth was created by a dying star. Had that star not died, we would never have known this life. Death is all around us, and therefore, so is new life. Every second, the sun loses four billion kilograms of mass. The sun is dying and in so doing, its sustains life on earth. Without that dying gift (of the sun) we would not have life. This pattern of death and life is all around us. We see in the seasons. We can see it in nature documentaries that are full of the death and life pattern.
Less than two weeks after the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, three of us were travelling through Fairhaven on the way to Anglesea for a Year 12 school retreat. As we drove past the burned out bush, we turned off the radio and wound down the windows. There was an eerie smell and sound of death. Everything had been torched. But as we drove by and looked closely, we noticed the myriad small bits of green growth that were shooting from the dead trees.
This immense force of deadly fire, could not conquer the greater force of new life. We have see this again with the Black Saturday fires. That Ash Wednesday experience was a sacred moment. As with the new green shoots of life, so it is with us. God calls us to life. Our vocation is to believe this, live this, share this and announce this truth.
In professing Passionist religious life, or committing ourselves to Passionist life and ministry, our conviction is that we are called, not first to preach, but first to live the good news of Jesus. The trails, challenges and struggles we face will be brought to good by the God who loves us.