Archbishop José Rodriguez Carballo OFM,
Secretary of the Congregation for Institutions of Consecrated Life and Societies of the Apostolic Life

The consecrated life, get up and walk!


In this Year of the Consecrated Life we are glad to receive these reflections of Archbishop Carballo. He gave this conference in the framework of the national assembly of young religious of France in May 2015. It opens up the perspective for a future for the consecrated life beyond institutional changes. Archbishop Carballo is himself a Franciscan, formerly for some years Master General of his Order.


MgrCarballoMany people are asking the question, What is the state of health of the consecrated life today? And numerous are the answers to this question! It all depends who is asking and who is answering. Much depends also on the conception of the consecrated life held, and the prejudices of the speaker. As far as I am concerned, I do not claim to give an answer which is 100% objective and convincing. Still less do I claim to give an original answer. This would be the sin of presumption. My only intention, and perhaps my claim, is to give an answer which, among others, could sketch this form of Christian life in the midst of a society progressively secularised and in a Church which does not always recognise it for what it truly is, but rather for the team it represents.


Three strong and suggestive images

Many of those who attempt to give an analysis of religious life at the present time make use of certain images. These have a positive but also a negative value.

A first image used to speak of the present condition of consecrated life is a decline. Because of a lack of vocations, many of the works hitherto conducted by consecrated men and women are finally being closed, and many presences are disappearing. This often suggests that the consecrated life is in an unhealthy condition. Some have no hesitation in making gloomy predictions that the days of the feminine active consecrated life are numbered, especially as it has developed and as we have known it during the last three centuries, centred on concrete ministries, such as education and health, which have made it the diaconal arm of the Church. According to such people many of the institutes were born as a precise response to the needs of a moment, and today have been taken over by social care. In this case these institutes have done their job and have no more reason to exist. Such is the view of those who hold that the consecrated life is living through its decline, presenting it as something approaching its end.

Such overtones of the word ‘decline’ are surely correct. Thus when we speak of the ‘declining day’ or a ‘decline of life’ we think of the day which is coming to an end or a life which is approaching its conclusion. The image can also surely suggest hope to us. Cockcrow announces the decline of night and the rising of the day. Decline speaks to us of something which is dying, but also of the approach of something new: decline always leaves room for twilight. Is this not visible also in consecrated life today? Certainly! In consecrated life many things have changed from the past, but it is still great, a way of life which is evolving into ‘new forms’, different from those of historic charisms. We need only to look with the eyes of faith to see that ‘the fields are white for the harvest’ (cf. John 4.35).

Other people, underlining the gravity of the situation in which the consecrated life finds itself today, use two other images: chaos and the dark night. Chaos is a very strong image, but also suggestive because of its biblical resonances. In the Bible this image has negative connotations, but also introduces us to a highly positive perspective. Thus chaos certainly speaks to us of confusion, but also of the marvellous work of creation. It is the state in which the universe was before everything which constitutes its richness and beauty appeared, before the order of creation appeared, the work of the Creator who gives each thing its place (cf. Psalm 148.5).  

chaosThe image of chaos speaks to us of fear, of disorientation, but also of the triumph of the mercy of the LORD, and of the birth of the people of God. Fear and disorientation before the ‘great and terrible’ land of the desert (cf. Deuteronomy 1.19), before the entry into the promised land where milk and honey flow. The desert is a place of
testing, but also of the birth of the people of God, a place of unfaithfulness and ‘murmuring’ of the people (cf. Exodus 14.11) and so of  a call to conversion (cf. Deuteronomy 8.2, 15-16), but also to the triumph of the divine mercy (cf. Numbers 20.13). A place chosen by the LORD to educate and guide his people. Fear and disorientation
are the sentiments which fill the hearts of the disciples of Jesus after his death (cf. Luke 24.11), but which are surpassed by the joy of the meeting with the Risen Christ (cf. Luke 24.41). The image of chaos therefore points to critical situations, but speaks to us also of opportunities and the prelude to a new start.

The theme of the dark night is very widespread in Christian spiritual writing, especially in the mystical tradition. Biblical antecedents can be found in the memory of Moses who goes up to the ‘dark cloud where God was’ (Exodus 20.21). For mystics, especially for John of the Cross who popularised the expression to indicate the human path to God[1], the dark night alludes to moments of profound crisis, moments of testing, of cleansing and purification of the senses, during which one can follow the path only in faith. The experience of the mystics therefore opens up for us a positive sense of the dark night. For them the night connotes light and love, by which it prepares the soul for union with God in love by way of contemplation. We can therefore say that the crisis lived during the dark night is a crisis of growth.

As we have said, the images of decline of the day of chaos and of the dark night do not carry a single meaning, positive or negative. Their meaning rather depends on the context in which they are used. They refer to situations marked by a crisis of passage from death to life in different milieux, in delicate and difficult situations in which one can draw life only by persevering in faith. Situations which are not easy, which can change into a kairos only by passing through sacrifice and death. A sacrifice which implies journeying in the night of uncertainty, steadfastly searching for the full sense of our life as consecrated – and we do not know for how long – only that it will not be short. A death which brings with it the fact of dying to a number of securities built up by the consecrated life right through its history, to enable us to cling, with an adult faith and a deep purification of false images of God, to the God of history, who – even if he seems to be asleep – is journeying with us in a tempest-tossed boat (cf. Mark 4.35).


A difficult, delicate and uneasy time

To expect a new creation in a moment in which chaos seems to reign, to scan the horizon of the dark night and remain ‘watchmen of the morning’ when the day is fast sinking down, is not easy or straightforward, as the answers given in such a situation show. The invitation which Pope Benedict XVI addressed to us in his last statement on the consecrated life, a few days before his retirement from the See of Peter, is significant: ‘Do not ally yourselves with the prophets of doom who proclaim the end or the non-sense of the consecrated life in the Church of our day.’[2]  Are we to understand that there is a superfluity of prophets of doom among the consecrated religious themselves?

Certainly, in this situation so familiar to the consecrated life, the crossing of the desert of chaos, the dark night and the decline of the day, is not easy. We need to ‘know the time in which we are living’ (cf. Romans 13.11), be on guard day and night, alert and, with the eyes of the heart, scanning the horizon like a sentinel to avoid a surprise attack (cf. Isaiah 21.6), be ‘alert and vigilant’[3], with our lamps lit (Luke 12.35) to avoid falling victim to slumber, in a lethargy which leads inexorably to death. We need to guard an adult faith and unshakable hope, nourished by the bread of the Word and the Eucharist, to avoid failing on the road which we have entered and of which we cannot see the end.

The story of the people of Israel shows us that the road across the desert is rough. In the situations in which we live, marked by emptiness, the silence of God and spiritual dryness, it is not easy to see that God is journeying with us (cf. Job 23.8-9) and acting, even in the ‘crisis’ and in moments of darkness. In such situations we need to be well-equipped, clothed with Jesus Christ and wearing the armour of light, as St Paul exhorts (cf. Romans 13.11-14).


A moment of light

Not everything in the consecrated life is going well, as some feel they need to point out, but not everything is going badly, as the prophets of doom claim. In a moment of crisis like ours it is necessary to welcome a first challenge which confronts the consecrated life of today, and which some consider to be a preparatory challenge,
opening the way to other challenges, namely that of being sincere[4], of facing the truth of the consecrated life and taking on the real responsibility of an adult.

What do I mean by living the truth with serenity and responsibility? To accept serenely and responsibly the challenge of living the truth implies going beyond any aesthetic chatter on the consecrated life and the simple formulation of its ideal[5], to penetrate into a rigorous analysis of the present situation through which the consecrated life is passing, accepting with sane realism the fact that we, consecrated religious, are living in a critical situation, a moment of crisis which (as the very etymology of the word suggests) requires that we be lucid and take courageous decisions, not always popular ones.[6]

poterieLiving the truth serenely and accepting its challenges can sometimes mean a crisis of the image which we have created of the consecrated life. The image of clay in the hands of the potter (cf. Jeremiah 18.1-6) seems to me very suggestive. The consecrated life is called, at any time but especially today, to allow its members to be modelled in the loving hands of God the potter. This may mean smashing the lovely vase which we have inherited and which we have contemplated, loved, and remoulded, in order to enter upon a new phase in this wonderful adventure in which the Lord wishes us to play our part: the re-foundation of the consecrated life. This is a painful but necessary beginning of conversion, the breaking of self, of the ideal of ourselves which we have formed. Without this crisis, truth is impossible and there will be no renaissance of consecrated life. There must be a deep honesty and fidelity to reality, without which it is impossible to say ‘Yes’ to the God who is calling us.


A moment of discernment

What has just been said requires discernment. The work ‘discernment’ comes from the Latin discernere, which corresponds to the Greek diakrisis. Both of these can be translated ‘examine’, ‘separate’, ‘distinguish one thing from another’. In a last analysis, for us it is a matter of distinguishing the voice of God from other voices, what comes from God from what is contrary to God. In the words of St Francis of Assisi, discernment consists in taking the road of faith which leads the believer to ‘have the Spirit of the Lord, and let it act in us’[7] in such a way that we can ‘act as we know that you, Lord, wish, and to want always what pleases you’.[8] For Ignatius of Loyola discernment is the search for what pleases the Father.[9] It is a matter not of a choice between good and evil but of a choice between the good and the better, between one good and another, as St Benedict requires in his Rule.
We are not ourselves the ultimate source of discernment; this source is the Spirit, which purifies, enlightens and embraces. It is the Spirit who gives love and knowledge in such a way that the Christian is transformed into a spiritual person who can judge all things (Romans 5.1-5), thanks to the mysterious divine wisdom hidden from the wise of this world and revealed to the humble (cf. Matthew 11.25). Discernment is therefore not so much a matter of analysis as of interior transformation, development of the spiritual life, which gives to the believer ‘the eyes of the Spirit’ to follow the will of the Lord. Discernment must be made in the light of the Gospel, of one’s own charism and of the signs of the times.

The consecrated life is varied and in this plurality resides its richness. This plurality flows from the different charisms which arise in answer to the clear needs of the Christian life and from a ‘profound desire of the soul to be conformed to Christ, to witness to some aspect of his mystery’.[10] In discerning, we must pay attention to the signs of the times, those events of life which mark a particular era of history and through which a Christian is interrogated by God and called to give a Gospel response. The signs of the times are shafts of light in the dark night of our lives and of our people, beacons of hope in that they allow us to hear the voice of the Lord, to discover his presence in the events of history.


A moment for cultivating one’s roots

hiverSome people use the image of winter in speaking of a new opportunity for the consecrated life. This is an ambiguous image. Clearly, winter is a time of death, in which many trees lose their leaves, there is a lack of flowers and fruit. Nature appears to be sterile, asleep, and the moment of death seems to have arrived. However, under this apparent death and sterility which seems so definitive is hidden a great re-vitalisation. Winter is the time when vegetation works at depth and the roots are very active, guaranteeing continuity of life by their humble and silent work. The same is true of the consecrated life. Vocations are diminishing, desertions abound, the age-pyramid is on its head because there are more elderly persons than young people. Fidelity is being put to the test as well as hope and patience, just as the people of Israel were put to the test in its long pilgrimage across the desert.

In these circumstances consecrated life, hand in hand with the Church, is called to work for what is essential, for what really gives it a profound meaning, beyond numbers and efficiency. Winter is the time of hidden radicality, and even if it is painful, it is a passage to new life, to a new way of guaranteeing the taste of the Gospel which must never be lacking to the consecrated life. This demands a solid, unshakable faith, a militant hope, a constant patience in every trial (cf. James 5.7-8). Such is the visibility and fruitfulness of the redeeming work of Christ. Visibility and fruitfulness can never be lacking to the consecrated life, and will guarantee it a future full of hope.



[1] John of the Cross wrote the poem Noche oscura and wrote two commentaries on it: Subida al Monte Carmelo and Noche oscura. Neither commentary was ever finished. In each of them he pointed out the signs which show the passage from meditation to contemplation: Subida 2.13 and Noche 1.9.
[2] Homily on the World Day of Consecrated Life, 2nd February, 2013.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Felicisimo Martinez, Situacion actual desafios de vida religiosa, Vitoria 2004 ; Frontera 44, p. 13.
[5] The Holy Father, in the apostolic letter which he sent to us, consecrated religious, says, ’So I expect, not that you hang on to ‘Utopias’ but that you know how to create ‘other places’ where the gospel logic of generosity, fraternity, welcome to difference, mutual love prevail’, Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter to consecrated Religious (Rome, 21st November, 2014, II.2).
[6] The crisis through which the consecrated life is passing is not a moral but rather an existential one, a crisis of meaning and mission. In any case, we must remember that a crisis is not in itself negative or positive. Everything depends on the decisions taken, or shirked.
[7] Francis, Second Rule, 10.8.
[8] Francis, Letter to the whole Order, 50.
[9] Cf. Carlos Palmes, Discernir es buscar en todo lo que mas agrada al Padre. Ignacio de Loyola, Vitoria 2009, Frontera 65.
[10] Mutuae relationes, 1978, 51.