ROME – During a Mass for men and women who are either consecrated or in religious orders, Pope Francis urged those who have made vows to always find new joy in Jesus despite the challenges they face in dwindling numbers, the lure of worldliness, cultural resistance and conflicts.
In his Feb. 2 Mass for the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which also marked the celebration of the 26th Day for Consecrated Life, the pope reflected on the actions of Simeon and Anna in the Gospel passage describing Jesus’ presentation in the temple.
Simeon, he said, is first “moved by the Spirit; then he sees salvation in the Child Jesus and finally he takes him into his arms.”
Speaking directly to attendees, he asked, “Who mostly moves us? Is it the Holy Spirit, or the spirit of this world? This a question that everyone, consecrated persons in particular, needs to ask.”
At times, there is a temptation in consecrated life to see the vocation “only in terms of results, goals and success: we look for influence, for visibility, for numbers,” he said. However, God “asks for none of this,” but rather asks religious “to cultivate daily fidelity and to be attentive to the little things entrusted to our care,” the pope said.
Just as Simeon and Anna were moved by the expectation and hope of the spirit, Francis urged men and women religious to reflect on what motivates their own days, asking, “What is the love that makes us keep going? Is it the Holy Spirit, or the passion of the moment? How do we ‘move’ in the Church and in society?”
Even when good works are performed, at times “the canker of narcissism, or the need to stand out, can be concealed,” he said, noting that in other cases, one’s daily tasks inside the community “can appear moved more by mechanical repetition – acting out of habit, just to keep busy – than by enthusiastic openness to the Holy Spirit.”
He urged consecrated men and women to make an evaluation of their motives and actions, “so that the renewal of consecrated life may come about, first and foremost, from there.”
Referring to Simeon’s ability to see salvation in the child Jesus, Pope Francis said true faith is able to open eyes, change perspectives, and transform one’s gaze.
This gaze, he said, “is not naïve, fleeing reality and refusing to see problems,” but is one that can “‘look within’ and ‘see beyond’ … A gaze that does not stop at appearances, but [which] can enter into the very cracks of our weaknesses and failures, in order to discern God’s presence even there.”
Just as Simeon in his old age saw the Lord, “What about us? What do our eyes see? What is our vision of consecrated life?” the pope asked.
While much of the secular world sees consecrated life as useless, a waste or “a relic of the past,” the Christian community, and men and women religious in particular, he said, must have a different vision.
“What do we see? Are our eyes turned only inward, yearning for something that no longer exists, or are we capable of a farsighted gaze of faith, one that looks both within and beyond?” he asked, saying he is edified whenever he sees older consecrated men and women “whose eyes are bright” and who “continue to smile and, in this way, to give hope to the young.”
God, Francis said, never fails to give signs and never ceases to invite the Church “to cultivate a renewed vision of consecrated life.”
“We cannot pretend not to see them and then go on as usual, doing the same old things, drifting back through inertia to the forms of the past, paralyzed by fear of change,” he said.
Rather, he urged consecrated and religious to be open to the Holy Spirit, who “is inviting us amid our crises, decreasing numbers and diminishing forces, to renew our lives and our communities.”
Pointing to Simeon and Anna, the pope noted that although they were both advanced in age, “they did not spend their days mourning a past that never comes back, but instead embraced the future opening up before them.”
“Let us not waste today by looking back at yesterday; instead, let us place ourselves before the Lord in adoration and ask for eyes to see goodness and to discern the ways of God,” he said.
Just as Simeon took Jesus into his arms and praised God, Pope Francis told attendees God is placing Jesus into their hands too, “because embracing Jesus is the essential thing, the very heart of faith.”
“Sometimes we risk losing our bearings, getting caught up in a thousand different things, obsessing about minor issues or plunging into new projects, yet the heart of everything is Christ, embracing him as the Lord of our lives,” he said.
If consecrated men and women “lack words that bless God and other people, if they lack joy, if their enthusiasm fails, if their fraternal life is only a chore, it is not the fault of someone or something else. It is because our arms no longer embrace Jesus,” he said.
When this happens, he said, it is easy to fall into attitudes such as bitterness and complaining, rigidity and inflexibility, as well as “the illusion of our own superiority.” Rigidity, he said, “is a perversion…under every rigidity there are serious problems.”
“If, on the other hand, we embrace Christ with open arms, we will also embrace others with trust and humility,” he said, and “conflicts will not escalate, disagreements will not divide, and the temptation to domineer and to offend the dignity of others will be overcome.”
Pope Francis closed his homily urging attendees and men and women consecrated and religious throughout the world to renew their consecration with joy.
“Let us ask ourselves what moves our hearts and actions, what renewed vision we are being called to cultivate, and above all else, let us take Jesus into our arms,” he said.
“Even if at times we experience fatigue and weariness, let us do as Simeon and Anna did,” he said. “They awaited with patience the fidelity of the Lord and did not allow themselves to be robbed of the joy of the encounter with him. Let us put the Lord back in the center and press forward with joy.”
As Francis often does when addressing fellow religious, he also went off-script at certain points to drop in more tongue-in-cheek observations. At one point Tuesday, he referred to the tendency among some people to look at physically attractive religious and their vows of celibacy as a “waste.”
“They say, ‘look at that guy, he’s so good,’ or ‘look at that girl, she’s so good.’ If they were ugly then, maybe, but they’re good, it’s a waste…” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen