Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life
By Alessandro De Carolis
Consecrated life in the Church is a true constellation: ancient orders, more recent institutes, female and male communities, all united by the “common thread” of the Gospel lived sine glossa, with simplicity and honesty, in the light of a specific charism. The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life has the task of keeping the threads of this variegated macrocosm straight, even in the most sensitive aspects of the internal life of individual institutes. Cardinal João Braz de Aviz has led the dicastery for eleven years. The collaboration and communion of the Archbishop Secretary José Rodríguez Carballo and the work of about forty officials, who are an expression of the various forms of consecrated life, is invaluable. The work is supported with a mission budget that in the official figures for 2021 amounted to three million euros. In this interview, Cardinal Braz de Aviz explains the work of the Congregation
Charged with promoting and regulating all forms and expressions of consecrated life, the Congregation has its finger on the pulse of the situation of consecrated life in the world. What is its state of health today in a cultural context that is increasingly secularised and incapable of understanding the value of integral and definitive choices?
From our observatory, a large and beautiful mosaic of consecrated life emerges. We cannot give an unequivocal assessment because the realities are really so diverse. While it is true that in some societies and cultures secularisation seems to diminish the significance of a life given forever to others and to the Lord, it is also true that there are cultures and societies in which the values of communion and finality still have a significant weight. This is why there are so many nuances and why the mobility of consecrated persons from one continent to another is increasing. The overall view is one that sends out hope and sharing because there are many consecrated persons in the various forms of consecrated life who live their lives with joy. All in all, consecrated life is in good health. We have said and we confirm that the pontificate of Pope Francis and the very person of a pope who comes from the religious world has given a push towards a new awareness and openness, even in the secularised contexts in which many consecrated persons live. Precisely in many of these contexts, consecrated life appears as a true prophecy.
You are responsible not only for religious orders and congregations, but also for secular institutes, societies of apostolic life, monastic communities, and consecrated virgins. What is the structure of the Congregation and how is the work of the staff organised? What are the costs and to what extent do they respond to the items in the dicastery’s ‘mission budget’?
In the Dicastery there are five offices among which the service that the Dicastery provides to the various forms of consecrated life is distributed. Obviously, given the much larger number of religious compared to other forms, two offices deal exclusively with men and women religious, specifically, one dealing with governance and the other with discipline. Another office is specific to the contemplative life of women, and yet another is concerned withthe other forms: the societies of apostolic life, secular institutes, the ordo virginum, the so-called new institutes for which we do not yet have theological and juridical clarity, and hermits. Finally, there is an office that deals with general issues that affect consecrated life, not those of individual institutes, and for this reason the office liaises with the conferences of major superiors and the bishops’ conferences. There are about 40 officials, who express the universality of consecrated life, both in terms of their place of origin and their vocation (religious, secular institute, ordo virginum). Each of the officials is assigned to an office, but there is a wide collaboration both in terms of topics, which often involve more than one office, and in terms of language, because the translations of the documents we receive or send are done by the officers themselves and clearly each office cannot have one official per language.
Mission budget? As long as it was possible to travel, the Cardinal Prefect and the Archbishop Secretary visited many countries to bring the voice of the Pope as close as possible to the consecrated men and women of the world. We are truly a dicastery going forth! Obviously, this has costs, and not only economic ones. From the Year of Consecrated Life (which began at the end of November 2014) onwards, we have organised various international conferences and symposia on issues that challenge consecrated life. We have also produced several publications translated into the main languages, and the publication of the twice-yearly Sequela Christi magazine continues. The biannual school of magisterium and law on the consecrated life, with professors from outside and within the Dicastery, continues to offer new programmes. There is the educational offering of our Studium, or Interdisciplinary School for formation in the Ecclesial Magisterium and Canon Law on Consecrated Life in the Church. For two years the school has also been offered in English to Kenyan students during the summer, while from this year we are in remote mode and have offered the possibility to one hundred students living in Africa, who follow the lessons in English.
Regarding economic management, a particular theme on which your reflection has focused in recent years has been the administration of the assets of religious institutes. Is it possible to combine charism and money? And what are the indications and operational guidelines suggested by the Congregation to the communities of consecrated persons?
Not only is it possible, but it is necessary to combine charism and money. This is one of the great challenges for consecrated life today. Each charism is embodied in a particular era and is manifested through choices, actions, works, which is why it is closely linked to life and therefore to an economic perspective. To live and to act one needs the means, including economic means! The strong emphasis that the Dicastery has offered is that of not identifying the charism with works. If it is true that the charism is translated into life and that life changes, then the works can also change: when an institute does not know how to adapt to this change, it risks concentrating only on the economic aspect, that is, on the funds to support the works. We have seen that in these cases, in order to save the works, it is possible to have many members lose their vocation and to put the charism itself at risk. The finances, as Pope Francis often says, must serve, not govern. The finances must be at the service of the mission and of the charism. It is for this reason that the economic dimension must become part of the formation heritage of every consecrated person and religious, not only of the treasurer: a good understanding of the economic phenomenon is necessary, but also a formation that provides competence. With regard to works, the dicastery has always stressed, first of all, the evangelical significance of the works, and then emphasised the charismatic, personal, and economic sustainability of the works. For this reason, more and more often the dicastery stresses the need to approach this issue aware that it is necessary to be prepared, to make use of tools and competent people, and not to make “an artisanal economy.” In 2018, our dicastery published the document Economy at the Service of the Charism and Mission where precise guidelines are given on the economy and consecrated life.
The recent document The Gift of Fidelity, the Joy of Perseverance gathered the fruits of the dicastery’s last plenary, dedicated to the problem of those who have abandoned consecrated life, which Pope Francis himself described as “a haemorrhage weakening consecrated life and the very life of the Church.” What analysis is being made of this phenomenon and what are the suggested ways of dealing with it?
The so-called issue of the abandonment of consecrated life has been in the reflection of the Dicastery for some time: the document cited is the fruit of a plenary celebrated in January 2017. Since then, we have looked at the phenomenon in its entirety and seen that there can be several reasons for it: an unrecognized lack of a vocation; a lack of formation, especially at the affective and community level; a deep disconnect between initial and ongoing formation; a community life that does not strengthen belonging but rather weakens it; a real lack of faith and a deep spirituality; a service of authority not lived in an evangelical way; the inability to accompany and the poor formation of formators or simple improvisation; a certain secularisation that runs through some institutes and communities. We do not have recipes for resolving this situation, but we have indicated paths that refer to the centrality of following God, and consequently to the need to remain centred on Him. On the other hand, we think that the phenomenon of the abandonment of consecrated life calls for a thorough revision of formation paths and a more accurate vocational discernment.
Beginning with Vultum Dei quaerere, published in 2016, the contemplative life has been affected in recent years by significant changes, especially on the normative level. What are the requirements and what do they consist of?
Contemplative life in the Church has developed and evolved a great deal in the last sixty years. From Sponsa Christi, promulgated in 1950, to today, contemplative life has undergone and enjoyed many changes and transformations. These changes in life, in the world, and in the Church, with the great event of Vatican Council II, have produced styles, forms, modalities, praxis ... that the existing norms of contemplative life did not cover, or that often had to be regulated as “exceptions.” What was essential had not changed, but what was mutable had undergone changes and modifications. This has now motivated the Church to take a normative step to regulate the changes, by means of the Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei quaerere (2016) and its Instruction Cor orans (2018), while remaining well aware that norms follow life. These documents are also a manifestation of the Church’s great appreciation for the contemplative life.
The most significant changes, to summarise a great deal, would be: First, the importance of the consecrated woman in the Church. For this reason, the Federal Mother has now been given the authority to make the canonical visitation, together with the Ordinary, to the monasteries of her Federation. In the same sense, even more important is the role of the Mother Abbess or Prioress, who is comparable to a Major Superior (like the Provincials in apostolic life), and therefore has the authority to regulate and accompany certain structures in the life of the Sisters (dispensation from enclosure, permission to exclaustrate a Sister for one year...).
Another important point is that they are not simply called cloistered nuns, since it is not the cloister that determines and identifies this form of life in the Church in its entirety, but instead they are called Contemplative Nuns or Contemplative Sisters. The identity of this form of evangelical life in the Church must be seen in its integrity and in the essential elements that define it, and not simply by a means, the cloister, for contemplation. The twelve elements indicated in the Apostolic Constitution (VDQ) represent today the object of discernment and dispositive revision for the Sisters. These are formation; prayer; the centrality of the Word of God; the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Penance; fraternal life in community; autonomy; the federation, the cloister, work, silence, the communications media, asceticism.
A further significant change is the question of affiliation to an autonomous monastery when real autonomy of life is lost, either because of a decrease in numbers, or because of an inability to be a formative community. Affiliation takes place to reform and revitalise the life of a monastery that has lost its autonomy, or to accompany its suppression. In the new legislation, autonomy is not understood as isolation, but in a context of relations with the other monasteries of one’s own Order (federation or congregation) and with the consecrated life in general, and indeed with the life of the particular Church. And to favour this true autonomy, conditions are set, such as the number of nuns in a monastery, the capacity for governance and formation, both permanent and initial; or, for example, the ability to lead a liturgical life that continues to be a sign of service in the Church and in the world, and at the same time indications are given to avoid the isolation of a monastery.
Female religious communities, which represent more than two-thirds of the world of consecrated persons, are today asking for consideration and dignity, which is a challenge for the whole Church. What responses are coming from the dicastery?
I believe that precisely the change in the law with regard to contemplatives, which I referred to earlier, is indicative of the response of the dicastery to the consideration and dignity of women. In our dicastery, for some time now, we have had women in important positions (under-secretary, head of office), and this means, for example, that in the congress, where we discuss sensitive and important matters, the voice of women is equal to that of men. The same applies on occasions when the dicastery has to entrust special tasks (assistants, commissioners) to someone who can accompany a reality in crisis. Here, too, care is taken to appoint a woman to accompany a female institute. We can only continue along this path if the women themselves are the first to be aware of their dignity and to maintain a healthy freedom without falling into the attitude of clericalism that the Pope has described so well.
The dramatic phenomenon of sexual abuse, like that of abuse of power, has also involved the world of consecrated persons. How is the perception of this reality changing in the Church and what role does religious life play in the path of purification and renewal?
What has been said about the role of women also applies to the issue of abuse (sexual, or [abuse] of power, or spiritual): Pope Francis has set out on a path from which there is no turning back. If before we had a particular attention to help and sometimes protect (but always with the intent to help the person or the Church itself) those who committed the abuse, today the path is to have attention and care both for those who suffered the abuse and for those who committed it. This has meant that the Church itself is increasingly confronting this dramatic situation not with fear but with a desire for closeness, and for this reason it is not ashamed to talk about it and to acknowledge such crimes. Of course, the road is long and it is a road that obviously challenges consecrated life, both male and female. The response of men and women religious has been to face the problems together; it has been an opportunity to create communion between the different institutions. I am referring to the fact that in many countries the conferences of major superiors, often together with the episcopal conferences, have drawn up protocols.
Another very important step was that of combining these situations with the formation courses. Many institutes have in fact considered the situation on a formative level, both in terms of prevention and accompaniment in the event of abuse, and also in terms of the training of superiors who are called upon to manage these situations with specific measures. For us consecrated persons, the issue of abuse, sexual abuse and abuse of power, is a subject to which we must pay great attention. For this reason, our dicastery has an ad hoc commission to deal with such cases.
Note to the reader: this article was updated on 1 July 2022 to reflect the new name of the Dicastery, known before as the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, changed by the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium.