Ecumenical sharing in the charism of religious life
by Sr. Donna Geernaert, SC
Introduced into religious language by the Apostle Paul, the Greek word charisma
means free gift, favour. In everyday English usage, “gifted” people may be tempted to think of themselves as a cut above others. For Paul, however, this cannot be valid because “gifted” means receiving a gift. A charism is a gift that has its source in the charis
– grace or favour – of God and is bestowed by the Holy Spirit to build up the body of Christ. The whole long section of 1 Corinthians 12:4-14:10 is devoted to the relative merits of various charisms. Here, chapter 13, which may read like a digression between chapters 12 and 14, becomes central to the apostle’s argument. Paul describes “a still more excellent way” and sees an all-embracing Christian love that shows itself in action as the measure of all other gifts. Charism inspires and makes fruitful the love and labour of Christians who generously commit themselves to serve those in need.
Vatican II marked the beginning of an evolving understanding of religious life as a charism in the church. Prior to the Council, religious life was viewed primarily as a state of perfection focusing on the ascetic, disciplinary, and juridical aspects of commitment to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Within the framework of a theology of charism, however, vowed profession of the counsels is seen not as an end in itself but as a means of witnessing in an exemplary way to the love of God and neighbour. Further, this general charism of religious life is specified in each institute through its founder’s particular charism. Seen as a focal element in the renewal of religious life at the Second Vatican Council, recognition of the uniqueness of each founder’s charism may also offer the possibility for an ecumenical gift exchange. North American Sisters of Charity founder Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
, for example, had initially been a member of the American Episcopal Church, and today her feast day is marked in the Anglican as well as Catholic Church in Canada.
As a gift of the Holy Spirit, a charism may be claimed but cannot be owned by any one group. Several contemporary religious communities might readily affirm a common charism drawn from a founder in the undivided church. In the mid-nineteenth century, several of the Church of England’s newly re-established religious communities sought inspiration and guidance from the rules of Benedictine and Franciscan institutes suppressed under Henry VIII. Perhaps even more striking is the evidence of abbeys, such as Amelungsborn and Loccum in Germany, that retained their Benedictine charism while embracing the Lutheran faith at the time of the Reformation. More recently established Lutheran monasteries in the Benedictine tradition are also found in other parts of Germany and in Sweden. Anglican and Lutheran Benedictine communities maintain official friendly relations with the Benedictine Confederacy, although they are not formally linked with it or any of its congregations.
In addition to shared charisms from the undivided church, other religious institutes, such as the Anglican Company of Mission Priests, have identified a common charism in a founder from the post-Reformation era. Established in the early days of World War II to care for evacuees in places where the usual level of housing and pay was not available, the Company of Mission Priests adopted a celibate and communal lifestyle. When the Church of England’s decision in 1992 to ordain women to the priesthood resulted in the withdrawal of over half its members, those remaining in the community engaged in a careful re-examination of the Company’s life and purpose. This led them to recognize their affinity with the original body of Mission Priests founded by St. Vincent de Paul in 1625. Since 1995, the Company has developed an affiliation with the worldwide Vincentian Family, which includes the Congregation of the Mission, the Daughters and Sisters of Charity, and the Anglican Sisters of Charity, as well as the Saint Vincent de Paul Society and other lay groups.
Where some religious institutes may be called to ecumenism through their sharing in a common founding charism, other more recent communities have been founded in response to a specific ecumenical charism. In addition to the Grandchamp community described in last month’s blog
, the ecumenical Taizé community founded by Brother Roger Schultz in 1940 is probably the most well known of these. Composed of more than one hundred brothers in Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic traditions from about thirty countries around the world, the community at Taizé
has become a major Christian pilgrimage site, attracting over 100,000 young adults annually for prayer, Bible study, and communal work. Taizé prayer, with its focus on meditation and its distinctive form of music, continues to be popular on university campuses.
Following the Taizé community’s establishment, other ecumenical communities, such as those at Bose in Italy and St. Wigbert in Germany, were founded in the mid-1960s. Two Catholic women’s monasteries in the United States, Holy Wisdom in Wisconsin and Dwelling Place in Kentucky, have discerned a call to give up their canonical status to become ecumenical communities. As non-canonical monasteries, they can admit women of every Christian confession as full members while each continues to maintain her own confessional identity. In 2005, the Federation of St. Gertrude established a special category to affiliate non-canonical monasteries into the Federation. This helps the monasteries and allows the Federation to keep an open door on ecumenism. Ecumenical religious communities clearly offer an inspiring witness to the search for Christian unity. Yet, commitment to life in such a community may also present significant challenges to members seeking to maintain confessional identity. As with interchurch families, liturgical discipline can be particularly challenging.
The Ecumenical Directory
published by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) in 1993 sees Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life as having “significant opportunities for fostering ecumenical thought and action” (#50). Noting that the constitutions and charisms of some of these institutes antedate the divisions among Christians, it goes on “to encourage contacts and exchanges between Catholic monasteries and religious communities and those of other Churches and religious Communities” (#85).
The PCPCU’s recently published The Bishop and Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Vademecum
is even more specific. In article #23, it states:
Consecrated life, which is rooted in the common tradition of the undivided Church, undoubtedly has a particular vocation in promoting unity. Established monastic and religious communities as well as new communities and ecclesial movements can be privileged places of ecumenical hospitality, of prayer for unity and for the “exchange of gifts” among Christians. Some recently founded communities have the promotion of Christian unity as their particular charism, and some of these include members from different Christian traditions. In his Apostolic Exhortation Vita consecrata, Saint John Paul II wrote, “There is an urgent need for consecrated persons to give more space in their lives to ecumenical prayer and genuine evangelical witness.” Indeed, he continued, “no Institute of Consecrated Life should feel itself dispensed from working for this cause” (§§100-101).
Some institutes of consecrated life have taken on the fostering of ecumenical thought and action as a significant element of their mission. The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, for example, see ecumenical and interreligious dialogue as central to their life and ministry. They publish the materials for the annual week of prayer for Christian unity and a journal, Ecumenical Trends
, and sponsor an annual Paul Wattson lecture series as well as the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute
. Their Centro Pro Unione
in Rome offers invaluable service in up-to-date documentation on all of the current ecumenical dialogue statements. While this kind of commitment may not be consistent with the charism of every institute, as the 60th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council approaches, it may be time for all of them to take seriously Saint John Paul II’s assertion that no institute of consecrated life should feel itself dispensed from working for the ecumenical cause.
Sr. Dr. Donna Geernaert, SC, served for 18 years in promoting ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. She has been a staff member, consultant, and member of numerous multilateral and bilateral theological dialogues in Canada as well as internationally.