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Pope Francis challenges religious communities

© FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP
VATICAN-POPE-AUDIENCE Pope Francis greets nuns as he arrives for a meeting with religious for the conclusion of the Year of Consecrated Life at Paul VI audience hall on February 1, 2016 at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE
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Those consecrated to God are a key part of the Holy Father's vision for a renewed Church.

Many religious congregations and institutes of consecrated life hold periodic meetings in Rome for representatives of their community, especially for their general chapter (the top-level organ of governance of religious communities).

Throughout the past year, as is customary, the pope has often granted them audiences. These have been opportunities for Francis to address challenging discourses to them on the mission of evangelization, as part of his desire to promote the ongoing sanctification of the Church.

If the Argentine pope is sometimes firm with religious congregations, it is because he has high hopes for them. Indeed, he believes that the conversion of the Church must first pass through religious communities. During his brief visit to Egypt in April, the Pontiff invited his listeners to follow the path of “the countless monks and nuns who, by their lives and example, opened the gates of heaven to so many of our brothers and sisters.”

The pontiff’s first challenge relates to the religious vocation in itself. Last November 25, he said he was worried by “the decline of religious life in the West” and the decline of vocations. Yet the pope also shows concern with “too many” vocations. “When they tell me that there is a Congregation that draws so many vocations, I must confess that I worry,” he said on the same day, because “I wonder what is happening.”

“The ‘trafficking’ of novices”

For the pope, the matter is clear: It’s better to have few vocations, but of high quality. On May 2, he warned against “the hypocrisy of mediocrity, of those who want to enter the seminary because they feel unable to fend for themselves in the real world.” A hypocrisy that is “a plague,” he further emphasized.

And a little later, in Genoa, Italy, on May 25, he strongly condemned “the ‘trafficking’ of novices” — those congregations which, faced with the drop in applicants, go to Third World countries to recruit young people who do not really have a religious vocation.

In the past months, the Successor of Peter was also very insistent on the renewal of the mission, particularly in the West. Thus, speaking to the Consolata Missionaries last June, he said that mercy, God’s gratuitous love, should be considered a priority, in order to then feel missionary “commitment and effort as a response.”

The radicalism of the founders of each Order

A few days earlier, he invited the Little Missionary Sisters of Charity to grow in docility to the Spirit and to have a “spirituality based on Christ, on the Word of God, on the liturgy.”

“Mission in the Church is born from the encounter with Christ,” insisted the pope; Jesus is the “center of the mission.” Speaking to the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master in May, he emphasized that it is also vitally important to “banish from the community  all divisions, envy, and gossip”—which “destroy” congregations—and to say things with “frankness and charity.”

For Francis, these requirements are justified because they already exist within the charisms of religious congregations.

On November 25, he said religious must “come out of [their] comfort zones, and forsake all that is worldly,” finding “new roads … in the founding charism and initial prophecy” of their founders, “being radical in prophecy,” which means living the Gospel “without tranquilizers.”

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