Bishop Hugh of Aberdeen has observed that, since Vatican II, one area of the Church's life that has not shown a great flourishing is that of the religious life. The Year for Consecrated Life certainly provides an opportunity for those who live other vocations in the Church to gain some experience of consecrated life, perhaps by spending some time with religious communities or sharing in the apostolic activity of such communities. One impact of the decline in religious life has been that a typical parish now has little or no visibility of religious in the day to day life of the parish - and so young Catholics grow up without any direct experience of consecrated life. So, not only might the lay faithful spend some time in an experience of religious life, but also religious might make a particular effort during this year to be more visible to the Church at large.
But is the kind of "temporary commitment" suggested in The Tablet blog post really the way forward?
Louis Bouyer observes in the Preface to his book The Meaning of the Monastic Life (with my italics added):
The purpose of this book is primarily to point out to monks that their vocation in the Church is not, and never has been, a special vocation. The vocation of the monk is, but is no more than, the vocation of the baptized man. But it is the vocation of the baptized man carried, I would say, to the farthest limits of its irresistible demands. All men who have put on Christ have heard the call to seek God. The monk is one for whom this call has become so urgent that there can be no question of postponing his response to it: he must accept forthwith.And Pope Francis said something similar in an interview, cited in the letter from the Congregation for Institute of Consecrated Life linked above (again with my italics added):
“It is a question of leaving everything to follow the Lord. No, I do not want to say ‘radical’. Evangelical radicalness is not only for religious: it is demanded of all. But religious follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way. It is this witness that I expect of you. Religious should be men and women able to wake the world up.”Can this evangelical radicalness admit of a temporary response, a temporary commitment to consecrated life?
In two complementary essays in his book Elucidations, first published as long ago as 1971, Hans Urs von Balthasar argues that the evangelical counsels so characteristic of consecrated life are the form in the Church of a decisive act of discipleship, a decisive choice to follow Jesus Christ:
But nothing has been said about the attitude of the man who gives himself....[The counsels] mean discipleship, not only material, but above all, spiritual discipleship. They mean precisely and centrally our total offering of ourselves to be disposed of by the Lord, just as he puts himself totally at the disposition of the Father's will.And in an essay entitled "Temporary Christians", von Balthasar challenges explicitly ideas of temporary commitment in marriage, in the priesthood and in religious profession:
For here the very basic act of the Christian life is put in question, namely that God in Jesus Christ can dispose of a man's life once and for all and that this man is enabled to ratify that act of God's disposing.Recognising that the Church might by way of dispensations free those who might otherwise break under the demands of a task they have taken on; and recognising that "temporary vows" or first profession exist as a step towards a final and complete consecration; von Balthasar nevertheless argues that, if the permanence of the commitment in the Christian life of discipleship ceases to be the expected norm in favour of the "limiting cases", then it is all up for the essence of such discipleship.
The fear of lifelong decision gnaws today at the marrow of the life of society, most dangerously in the Church. Perhaps young people speak about commitment so much today because they are frightened of the "once for all" character of decision. They seek refuge in provisional commitments which for their limited period are meaningful (a spell of work in overseas development), which hold open the possibility of changing over to something else later. They imagine that they are being serious about it but in truth, a truth which is hidden to them, they are only flirting like half-virgins who have all kinds of experience but not the decisive one: namely, that of finally giving oneself...
.... ultimately what stands behind these three programmes, "temporary marriage", "temporary priests", "temporary vows", is the unsaid "temporary Christians"....[It is interesting to see in this essay how vividly von Balthasar compares the commitment of man and wife in marriage to what is to be expected of commitment to consecrated life.]
There will always be those who start out on the way of religious life, with every intention of persevering, but who do not stay the full course and leave before permanent consecration. Some might even try several times, and in different institutes. This kind of temporary participation in consecrated life there will always be.
But it is quite different than the acceptance in principle of "temporary commitment", of commitment that knowingly and deliberately from the beginning is going to be temporary. The kind of temporary commitment that undermines the authentic decision for Christian discipleship, not just for the religious, but for the lay faithful too.
Whatever initiatives are undertaken during the Year for Consecrated Life to make such life better known and lived in the Church, they should avoid any encouragement of a sense of temporary commitment as the norm.