As a vocation director, I often speak about topics involving what a vocation is, how to discern a religious vocation, the vocational journey, hearing “the call” and religious charism. It would seem these would be very clear concepts and territories for me. To be honest, however, the landscapes of call, charism and mission can be somewhat indistinct and elusive in form.
Pope Francis dedicated this past year as the Year of Consecrated Life, to look to the past with gratitude, to live the present with passion and to embrace the future with hope. As we as a church have celebrated the gift that consecrated life is, we have also re-recognized the beauty of the vocation to the religious life, and have hopefully been able to support young people as they discern the vocation to which they have been called.
How, exactly, does a call happen? How does one hear it? When I speak with elementary students, they often want to know if the call is something you can actually hear. I usually say yes, but not in the way they may be expecting. A vocational call is not a phone call, nor is it an all-call over a speaker system, but it is that still, small voice that can be heard in the quiet of our hearts. We must learn how to listen with our hearts, listen to what our own lives and personalities are teaching us, listen to what the people who love us tell us about ourselves.
Does my heart desire more for my life and my living? Does my life include a strong commitment to prayer, to service to God’s people, to becoming a more faith-filled person? Do I feel drawn toward God in a direct, total way, desiring to commit my whole self and my whole life to the Gospel and God’s people? Do the people who know me the best tell me that religious life might be a pretty good fit for me? These very well may be aspects of “the call,” drawing us into the heart of God through public profession of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, in imitation of Christ himself.
So, the young people go on to ask, if I think God might be calling me to the religious life, then what? We might be tempted to think that the hard part of discerning a religious vocation is over, but that would be akin to saying that once we discern we are called to marriage, finding the right spouse happens easily and quickly. Religious congregations are distinguished by their founding charisms, the particular gift of the Holy Spirit entrusted to the original founders, to be lived out uniquely through a particular way of life.
A congregation’s charism is not its work but is likely expressed through the ministry of its members; it is not its spirituality, yet it is expressed through the prayer life of the community; it is not its consecration, yet it finds expression through the living out of the vows professed by its members. The charism of a congregation is the animating force, the motivating raison d’etre, the very lifeblood of a religious community. It is the gift entrusted to the founder and then taken up by the members to express the love of Christ in a particular way through prayer, ministry and vowed living.
For my community, the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the best articulation of our charism is through our motto, “The love of Christ impels us!” Impels us to do what? To reach out in tender love to the most broken members of the Body of Christ. Impels us for what reason? To share with every person we encounter “a ray of that divine love” that can reach into the deepest, darkest corners of our world and of our hearts. Impels us how? With zeal, with joy and with a limitless desire to “make God known, loved and served.”
The impulse to serve is not unique to my religious congregation – in fact, it is the natural consequence of a life of consecration, for as imitators of Christ, we are sent to “go out to all the world and tell the Good News.” For this reason, each religious congregation has a mission to do this either in a particular way or through a particular ministry.
The Jesuits minister mostly through Catholic education; the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, through medical ministry; the Benedictines, through prayer and work. Each religious congregation serves God’s people in order to fulfill the mission implicit in their charism. Mission is thus the clearest means through which a community’s charism and consecration can be expressed.
The church includes a variety of different religious communities, each with its own distinct charism and mission, each consisting of men and women called to be public witnesses of our baptismal vows. As the Year of Consecrated Life draws to a close, may it serve as the beginning of a full and life-giving renewal of all vocations, and let us pray that those who are called to the religious life might respond promptly, courageously and faithfully.
Sister Virginia Herbers is the vocation director for the United States Province of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.