I've been working on a project related to Vita Consecrata in view of the upcoming year for consecrated life. It's been a while since I had read this document, and re-reading it has been very enriching. It's an incredibly beautiful document.
It also got me thinking about the discussion that went on a few months ago in relation to the article by Br Justin Hannegan on the religious life. I had offered some critical observations on it. John Paul's document has helped me see some things more clearly.
One thing I disagree with in Br Justin's article was that he seemed to present the vows in a way that made them merely a means to holiness. Presenting them as the most difficult way to live, he said they are the best means to holiness. This led him to the odd conclusion that everyone should desire to be in the religious life!
In this approach, the vows are only a means to some generic kind of holiness. But John Paul presents the vows quite differently. In no. 18 of Vita Consecrata, he has a remarkable statement that made a big light bulb go off in my head. I think it's the theological core of the document and of our whole understanding of religious life. The pope said that Jesus' "way of living in chastity, poverty and obedience appears as the most radical way of living the Gospel on this earth, a way which may be called divine, for it was embraced by him, God and man, as the expression of his relationship as the Only-Begotten Son with the Father and with the Holy Spirit."
Wow, that's theological dynamite, because it puts us squarely in front of the mystery of the Trinity. Jesus lived in chastity, poverty, and obedience precisely as the Son, in his filial relationship to the Father and to the Holy Spirit. So the vows are not just some means to a generic holiness, but to a particular configuration with Christ precisely as he is chaste, poor, and obedient. And that puts us in relation to the Trinity in a unique way. In other words, the vows are not just a means but the essence of the holiness that those in consecrated life are called to because they make us configured to Christ--not just in general, but precisely in that way.
In the next paragraph of the document, John Paul goes on to speak of Mary as the model because of her total gift of self. Love is involved in that. We live chaste, poor, and obedient because of a total gift of self inspired by love, following Mary's example.
There's a lot to think about here, and I need to deepen it. Doing so would also help to understand better why the consecrated life is a different vocation from the lay life and from the ordained ministry. John Paul says that consecrated life is essential to the Church, integral to its very nature. It is not just lay life lived at some more intense degree. It is something different. I think understanding this better would help to avoid the vexed arguments about what sort of life is "better." That's not really the point. They are different and reflect different facets of the whole mystery of Christ. All are called to holiness, as Vatican II stressed, but in their own unique way. Lay life is marked by the secular nature of that vocation, "ensuring that the Gospel message is proclaimed in the temporal sphere" (no. 32), and the ordained have their particular ministry. The unique contribution of the consecrated life is that it is a particular way of "showing forth the Church's holiness" because it "mirrors Christ's own way of life" as he was chaste, poor, and obedient (no. 32).
The vows are indispensable for doing that. So to see them merely as a means to some generic kind of holiness is very inadequate. That's the main point I wish to make.