In addition to being the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, today is also the World Day for Consecrated Life, a day dedicated to pondering the optional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The fact that the Church dedicates a Sunday to these three “evangelical counsels” suggests that they have some significance for the whole Church—not just for priests and monks and nuns. 1) Why does the Church celebrate this “alternative lifestyle”? 2) What is its significance for the whole Church? Happily, today’s scripture readings provide us with rich material for reflection.
1) So why does the Church promote the lifestyle of poverty, chastity, and obedience? The most basic answer is one of fact. It was the lifestyle that Jesus himself adopted while he walked the earth: he was a poor man who kept a common purse with his disciples; he remained unmarried; and he was obedient to the Father’s will, even to the point of death.
What is more, it seems likely that Jesus gradually revealed these vows as the lifestyle most suitable for his full-time disciples. Though today’s Gospel refers to Peters’ mother-in-law, and thus to the fact that he was married, we see also evidence that even the married disciples did not continue to live what we would call a “normal marriage.” Toward the end of the Gospel of Mark, for example, we find Peter saying to Jesus, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You.” Jesus acknowledges the kinds of things they have left: “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much …” (Mk 10:28-30). Here we see one of the many scriptural bases of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Is there a reason for the vows? A method to Jesus’ madness? Here we wander into the realm of speculation. Still, St. Paul does tell us today how he understood the advantages of the evangelical counsels. He explains his motives for refusing financial support from the Church at Corinth, saying, “Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible” (9:19). In this way, he implies two advantages to his voluntary poverty:
- First, greater interior freedom (“I am free in regard to all”). In other words, the one who does not use the world’s goods does not have to play by the world’s rules. He is free.
- Second, the vows lend credibility to his witness (“to win over as many as possible”). By choosing poverty and a life of hard work, in other words, Paul shows that he gains nothing from what he preaches except a spiritual reward. He stakes his life on Christ’s promise of a “hundredfold” return.
2) This witness value of poverty begins to explain why Consecrated Life matters to the whole Church. The whole Church draws courage in every age from those who risk everything for Christ and who receive in return His joys and his consolations. This is also, of course, why sexual and financial scandals involving priests and religious are so damaging. “If God was not truly enough for them,” we find ourselves asking, “will He be enough for me?” The truth, of course, is that He is enough–always has been enough–for them and for me. We need only surrender to His power.
Since the benefits of Consecrated Life belong to the whole Church, it also follows that the task of vocation promotion belongs to the whole Church. Every consecrated vocation begins in a family. And children are highly sensitive to their parents’ value systems. A personal example: I grew up in a small charismatic community in Georgia, formed almost entirely of lay people. The personal and social costs for joining this community were steep. The members committed to donating 15% of their income to maintenance of the community’s charitable and educational works (before taxes), to gathering for prayer on at least a weekly basis, to giving and receiving fraternal correction regarding their Christian commitments. In short, they lived the spirit of poverty, chastity, and obedience inwardly. From this community there sprang up, not coincidentally, many who felt called to live the vows outwardly. From my high school graduating class of about 25 persons, for example, there are two priests and a Carmelite nun. It belongs to God alone to plant the seed of vocation, of course, but we can till the soil.
In sum, praying for vocations to consecrated life remains extremely important. But it is perhaps even more important that we ponder the challenge to our own priorities posed by the lifestyle of Jesus and His apostles, that we internalize the values to which they witness. Although not all are called to imitate Christ outwardly, we are all called to imitate him inwardly, to “consider [our] days those of hirelings” (Job 7:1) who labor for the wages of eternal life. And it is this spiritual yearning of the whole Church that serves as the seedbed of consecrated vocations.