The next document in our series on the documents of Vatican II is the 1965 Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis). A few preliminary thoughts on this document:
(1) One blogger has noted that the document could really have benefited from having headings, and happily did the work for us. If you choose to read this document yourself during the “Year of Faith,” you might want to use these headings to help keep the “big picture” in mind.
(2) Some readers may not be disposed to reading this document, because they assume, based on the precipitous decline of religious life in the years immediately following Vatican II, that Vatican II must not have said anything worthwhile on the subject. This decline in religious vocations had several causes, but Perfectae Caritatis isn’t one of them. Some religious communities have struggled not only in keeping their numbers up, but even more importantly, in remaining faithful to their religious charism and to the Church. We see some of this playing out in the recent controversy involving some aging members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. However, the communities that have embraced the Church’s teaching in Perfectae Caritatis and Pope John Paul II’s follow-up document Vita Consecrata (“Consecrated Life”) tend to be the ones that are thriving in our time. Click here for one such example.
(3) In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) we have an overview of the various states in life in the Church. In some of these subsequent documents, specific members of the Church (e.g., laity, priests, bishops, etc.) are addressed. Perfectae Caritatis takes the broad teaching of Lumen Gentium and then focuses more specifically on consecrated life. This approach models for us the importance of viewing religious vocations from within the larger context of the Church.
I especially invite readers to consider this passage from section 12 of Perfectae Caritatis:
“The chastity ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt. 19:12) which religious profess should be counted an outstanding gift of grace. It frees the heart of man in a unique fashion (cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-35) so that it may be more inflamed with love for God and for all men. Thus it not only symbolizes in a singular way the heavenly goods but also the most suitable means by which religious dedicate themselves with undivided heart to the service of God and the works of the apostolate. In this way they recall to the minds of all the faithful that wondrous marriage decreed by God and which is to be fully revealed in the future age in which the Church takes Christ as its only spouse.”
This idea of consecrated persons having an “undivided heart” is further amplified in two passages from Vita Consecrata, the 1995 apostolic exhortation of Pope John Paul II that reflects upon Vatican II’s teaching on consecrated life. The Holy Father magnificently sets forth the beauty and depth of loving God with an undivided heart:
First, from section 1:
“In every age there have been men and women who, obedient to the Father’s call and to the prompting of the Spirit, have chosen this special way of following Christ, in order to devote themselves to him with an ‘undivided’ heart (cf. 1 Cor. 7:34). Like the Apostles, they too have left everything behind in order to be with Christ and to put themselves, as he did, at the service of God and their brothers and sisters. In this way, through the many charisms of spiritual and apostolic life bestowed on them by the Holy Spirit, they have helped to make the mystery and mission of the Church shine forth, and in doing so have contributed to the renewal of society.”
Later, from section 21:
“The chastity of celibates and virgins, as a manifestation of dedication to God with an undivided heart (cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-34), is a reflection of the infinite love which links the three Divine Persons in the mysterious depths of the life of the Trinity, the love to which the Incarnate Word bears witness even to the point of giving his life, the love ‘poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 5:5), which evokes a response of total love for God and the brethren.”
Praise God for the call to love and serve Him with an undivided heart! May many young men and women generously respond to this unique call!
For more information on this subject, I strongly recommend the Institute on Religious Life.