By Sister Elissa Rinere, CP, JCD, Office of Worship

On November 29, 2014, the entire world-wide Church began the observance of the Year of Consecrated Life. The term “consecrated life” refers to the path chosen by men and women who dedicate themselves to Christ and the Gospel by means of vows, usually vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. There are different forms of consecrated life in the Church. The most familiar is a religious institute of men or women, but there are also different kinds of apostolic societies or secular institutes, all of which are to be celebrated through this year.

In announcing the Year of Consecrated Life, Pope Francis said that, of course, everyone is called to follow the Lord, but those who chose consecrated life follow the Lord in a special way, in a prophetic way. He said: “It is this witness I expect of you. Religious should be men and women able to wake up the world!”

The theme for the year of celebration is “Wake up the world!”

There are literally thousands of religious orders in the Church today. Some are ancient, like the Benedictines who trace their roots back to Saint Benedict in the fourth century. Others such as the Jesuits, of which Pope Francis himself is a member, were founded almost five centuries ago. Many religious congregations of women were founded in the nineteenth century, in response to social and educational needs associated with the Industrial Revolution. Other groups might be more recently established, in the last one hundred, fifty or even ten years. Usually, each group claims a founder or foundress who was inspired to gather companions to address a particular need in the Church. Each group follows a particular spirituality, and each claims a particular charism, or gift of the Holy Spirit, which guides the mission and ministry of all the members.

To begin the Year of Consecrated Life, Pope Francis issued an apostolic letter on November 21, 2014. The letter is addressed to all members of institutes of consecrated life, and it names three goals for the year. First, that every institute will look back to its founding charism with gratitude. He wrote: “To tell our story is to praise God and thank him for all his gifts.”

Second, Pope Francis calls on all those in consecrated life to “live the present with passion,” to be guided by the message of the Gospel, and to seek new ways of bringing the Gospel to all people. “The creativity of charity,” Pope Francis wrote, “is boundless.”

The third goal is that those in consecrated life will embrace the future with hope; a hope not based on statistics, but based on God’s promises. This is a particularly poignant message for so many religious institutes in Europe and the United States where there is much concern over the lack of new membership.

The final section of Pope Francis’ letter is addressed to all laity. First he speaks to those laity who have associated themselves with different religious orders as partners in prayer or in ministry. He urges these people to “live this Year of Consecrated Life as a grace which will make you more aware of the gift you yourselves have received.”

Then, Pope Francis speaks to the entire Church. He asks the “whole Christian people” to be increasingly aware of consecrated life as a gift to the whole Church. Where would the Church be, he asked, without religious orders and all they have contributed to the Church? Finally, Pope Francis extends an invitation to the whole Church to become better acquainted with those men and women who are members of institutes of consecrated life: “...to rejoice with them, share their difficulties and to assist them, to whatever degree possible, in their ministries and works,” since their ministries belong to the whole Church.

As the Year of Consecrated Life gets underway, watch for notices of special events aimed at bringing various religious orders together with each other and with the larger community of the Church. The first of these events is scheduled for Sunday, February 8, 2015, when all religious houses - convents, monasteries, abbeys - are asked to open their homes to the public and share with visitors their way of life, charism and ministries.

As one author put it, this year is intended to be a coming together for the sake of the Church’s presence in our world today. May its goals be accomplished.