ROME — Women’s and men’s religious orders in many ways are the backbone of the Catholic Church, and in events Monday and Tuesday celebrating their contributions, Pope Francis called on nuns, priests, and other religious to be “men and women of encounter.”
The pope’s message, however, wasn’t all sweetness and light, as he also urged them to avoid the “terrorist bomb” of gossip and back-biting in their community lives.
The pope addressed the same crowd of men and women religious twice in 48 hours, first on Monday during an audience in Paul VI Hall marking the close of the Year of Consecrated Life, and then again Tuesday during a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to celebrate their jubilee day as part of the Holy Year of Mercy.
A vocation isn’t designed at a desk, he told the gathering, but rather the result of a life-changing encounter with Jesus. And those that go through it must help others have the same transforming experience.
As he often does when addressing religious in an informal setting, Francis set aside his prepared remarks Monday, saying he wanted to talk “about that which comes from the heart,” because reading the speech he had in his hands would be “a little boring.”
He said three qualities should be present in each consecrated person: prophecy, proximity, and hope.
Prophecy: Religious are men and women consecrated to the service of the Lord, the pope said, marked by “a strong poverty, with a chaste love that leads them to become spiritual mothers and fathers for the whole Church,” and obedience.
But obedience is not military discipline, he said, and it shouldn’t stop someone from questioning a superior in order to better understand the reasoning behind rules and provisions.
“[However], after dialogue, I obey,” said Francis, who, as a Jesuit, is a member of a religious order himself. “This is prophecy, against the seed of anarchy, which is sown by the devil.”
He then invented a bit of dialogue to illustrate the point.
“What are you doing?” one person asks.
“I do what I like,” the other responds.
Such anarchy of the will, Francis said, comes from the devil, not from God.
For this reason, the pope said, prophecy is telling people that there is a path that fills one with joy: Jesus. To close his meditation on this concept, he said that prophecy “is a gift, a charisma,” and invited the religious to ask the Holy Spirit for it.
Proximity: Francis said those in religious life should reach out to Christians and non-Christians to understand their sufferings and problems. It was here that the pope warned against those who gossip and the damage they can cause.
“He [or she] is a terrorist in their own community, because they drop a word against this person or that person as if it was a bomb, and then they leave,” Francis said. “[Those who gossip] destroy, like a bomb!”
The pontiff said the best way to solve problems is to address someone directly. When that’s not practical, they should enlist the help of someone else or bring up the issues during a congregation meeting.
This confidence to say what needs to be said, the pope added, is a sign of proximity among the members of a religious community.
Hope: The pope admitted that sometimes it’s hard even for him to maintain hope in the face of declining numbers of vocations. That decline translates into orders and monasteries with few religious, at times with priests and nuns getting older without anyone coming along to carry on their work.
On this issue, he warned the religious against holding on to their money, again calling money “the devil’s dung,” to make sure they’re not short of material goods when they grow old.
“Like this there’s no hope! The only hope is in the Lord!” he said. “Money will never give it to you.”