This past Advent, Pope Francis inaugurated the Year of Consecrated Life, which will conclude on February 2, 2016, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Affirming that the vocation to consecrated life is a gift to the Church, the pope has asked that this Year be an occasion for us to grow in our knowledge and appreciation of this way of life. It is a wonderful opportunity for our diocese to praise and thank God for the tremendous contribution consecrated women and men have made to our local Church.
The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord has traditionally been a special day of prayer for those in consecrated life. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph took the Child Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord as required by the law (Luke 2:22-40). Over the centuries, women and men have desired to be consecrated to the Lord through their public profession of the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. By living the evangelical counsels, they seek to draw closer to Jesus and dedicate their lives completely to the cause of his Gospel. The Feast of the Presentation is an invitation to each consecrated person to renew his or her commitment and to celebrate the ways that God has been present in his or her life to build up the Kingdom.
In this Pastoral Letter, I would like to offer a few personal reflections on consecrated life based on the experiences that I have had in my own religious congregation, the Basilian Fathers.
I went to St. Charles College, a high school in Sudbury founded by the Basilians in the 1950s at a time when there was almost no opportunity for Catholic education after elementary school. The Basilians who taught me left a deep impression on me. They were excellent teachers. They believed in educating the whole person and were present to us, their students, both inside and outside the classroom. They got to know us and wanted each of us to achieve our full potential.
During my high school years, some Basilian priests reached out to me. They challenged me to be more involved in the school and to develop my gifts and talents. I was shy and needed this push. These personal encounters and the confidence these priests placed in me helped me to grow and flourish in those years. A couple of Basilians encouraged me to consider a vocation to the priesthood. These conversations planted a seed and were instrumental in helping me discern that God was calling me to become a Basilian.
While the personal influence of particular Basilians was important to me, so too was the common witness they gave. They lived a simple life in community, prayed together and supported one another. They worked hard, sacrificed themselves and were extremely generous. Having started the school from nothing and in very humble circumstances, they were completely dedicated to making it the best high school in the city. Its graduates did well, as did its athletic teams. The wider community saw what the Basilians were accomplishing and greatly admired them.
When I finished university, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I was attracted at the same time to this community of priests. The Basilians invited me to spend a year as an associate, teaching religion and math at their high school in Sault Ste Marie. The experience that year of living with the Basilian community, praying and working with them convinced me that this was what God was calling me to do with my life.
I then entered the Basilian Novitiate. It is a year devoted to introducing the aspirant to consecrated life: to the vows (chastity, poverty and obedience), to life in community and to prayer, both personal and communal. At the end of the year, I was really excited to be professing my vows and giving my life to God as a member of the Basilian congregation. The most important lesson I learned in the novitiate was how to pray. My Novice Master, especially by his example, taught me that if I was to live this life faithfully, then an hour of personal prayer would have to be part of my daily life. Over the years, I have come to realize that it is essential.
Every institute of consecrated life has a charism, a particular gift entrusted to it from the beginning by the Holy Spirit for the sake of the whole Church. The Basilian Fathers describe their charism as education and evangelization. For almost two centuries, they have lived out their charism in schools, universities, parishes and a variety of other apostolic works. The challenge for every institute is to discover how to live their charism in changing circumstances.
It has been a blessing for me to be a member of the Basilian community and teach in a variety of our high schools and universities. The circumstances have changed substantially since the 1950s, when the Basilians started schools, like St. Charles College. There are fewer of us and more lay men and women teaching with us. Collaborating with good, faithful lay people has greatly benefitted our educational apostolate, but the challenge is to educate and form them in our particular charism so that the founding spirit can continue in these schools and universities. Recently, Basilians have opened a school in Columbia and have sponsored one in inner city Detroit to reach out to the poor and provide these young people with a well rounded education including a solid formation in the Catholic faith which they would otherwise not have gotten.
My experience in the Basilian Fathers is not very different from the experience of the many consecrated women and men who have served in our diocese. Since its founding in 1856, they have come here to open schools, universities and parishes. They have provided social services where they were needed and have established monasteries and houses of prayer. They have been a prophetic voice in our communities, advocating for the poor, the homeless, the victims of human trafficking and care of the environment. They have made incredible sacrifices and dedicated their lives to serve our Church with generosity, creativity and energy.
In this Year of Consecrate Life, we acknowledge the remarkable contribution they have made to the mission of our diocese. We thank God and pray for them and for vocations to this way of life.
There was a time when Catholic preaching on religious vocations seemed to place these above the vocation of marriage, making this second best. That is not at all the intention of this pastoral letter. At the same time, the Church struggles when our secular society is a barrier that prevents
Catholics from seeing what a gift a religious vocation is. May the Holy Spirit open the hearts of young Catholics to consider such a life given to God and to our brothers and sisters.
Most Rev. Ronald Fabbro, C.S.B.
Bishop of London