Recently we have all heard the painful news that three nuns of St Jeanne Antide Thouret, commonly known to us as the Sisters of Charity, have retired from their sterlingly dedicated mission which they were splendidly carrying out at the Dar tal-Providenza. The same can be said of us Capuchins who, four of us, have lately retired from their much needed service at Mater Dei Hospital.
It is obvious that such departures are marked by great sadness. The persons involved have immersed themselves so much in the work they were doing out of utmost love and dedication that their assignments can easily cease to be so and be simply referred to as their life ministry. The reason is understandibly put forward by the Apostle Peter himself when he wrote regarding those shepherding Christ’s flock: Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock (1 Pet 5:2-3). Since these faithful and wise servants (Matt 24:45) have offerred their all for those who were called to serve their loss will be suffered for long.
These heartbreaking situations present various points of reflection for the future of the Church’s mission in our country, especially that mission which is being carried out, in a silent and heroic manner, by consecrated people. To begin with, one cannot ignore such instances by merely making one believe that these will be isolated moments within the history of our local church. As time will constantly keep showing difficult decisions like the ones the Sisters of Charity and we Capuchins are facing will surely challenge various religious orders and congregations. We know that similar circumstances will certainly keep cropping up in the very near future just because the number of vocations is dramatically dropping. Many are the members of institutes of consecated life that their members are getting old. Adding insult to injury, incoming vocations are fastly becoming rarer and rarer. And this with the tragic result that on the map of consecrated life some religious congregations, at least locally speaking, will simply cease to exist.
In his address to the participants in the plenary assembly of the Congregation for Institutues of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life on Saturday January 28 2017 Pope Francis offered the following reasons as to how many would not embrace consecrated life nowadays:
“The first factor that does not help maintain faithfulness is the social and cultural context in which we move. We live immersed in the so-called culture of fragmentation, of the temporary, which leads us to live in an ‘Ă la carte’ way, as slaves to fashion… [The second factor is that] among young people there are also victims of the logic of worldliness, which can be summarized as follows: the search for success at any price, for easy money and easy pleasure. This logic also seduces many young people… [The third factor is] counter-witness that render faithfulness difficult. Such situations, among others, are: routine, weariness, the burden of managing structures, internal divisions, the search for power — status seekers — a worldly way of governing institutes, a service of authority that at times becomes authoritarianism and sometimes ‘laissez-faire’”.
The suggestion the Holy Father gives to each and every consecrated person is that of being a living icon of God’s holy joy, especially to our young people! Thus, Pope Francis said: “Our task can be none other than that of standing beside them to infect them with the joy of the Gospel and of belonging to Christ. This culture must be evangelized if we want young people not to succumb”.
Amid this sad situation of decrease in the numbers of vocations one needs to mention few congregations which are, thanks to God, thriving due to the increase of vocations they are experiencing within their flanks. Thus, without betraying their charism, it would be wise for the pastors of our diocese to gently invite but resolutely challenge the superiors of these congregations to think a bit more outside of their box by starting considering not just the objectives of their institute of consecrated life but also the urgent pastoral needs of our local Church. If this does not happen one is undergoing the serious risk of neglecting the inherent mission of consecrated life of strenghtening the Church from where it came from by drifting into its own separatist projects. And that would really be counterproductive in the long-run! Let us never forget what the document issued by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Starting Afresh from Christ: A Renewed Commitment to Consecrated Life in the Third Millennium of May 19 2002 says about this: “It is in fact within the local Churches that concrete pastoral plans which respond to Christ’s challenges to reach out to people, to mould communities and to have a deep and incisive influence in bringing Gospel values to bear in society and culture can be established” (no.7).
Adding to this, one needs to seriously start thinking about greater collaboration between the clergy in consecrated life and the diocesan one. A very fruitful step in this new way of being Church in Malta through serving the poor and the needy ones within the local context has been kicked off in these past weeks at Mater Dei Hospital. After three Capuchin friars and myself have given all the best of our efforts in Malta’s national hospital and have asked to keep giving our services elsewhere, the door was opened for diocesan priests to come and help our Capuchin brothers in their hospital mission. It is really heartening to see new faces within the Mater Dei hospital chaplaincy.
Such a collaborative endeavour will certainly do much good to the chaplaincy itself since it is giving spaces to each and every chaplain to work pastorally according to the gift endowed to him by the Father, the Lord of the vineyard, through Christ in the Spirit. Thus, while everyone collaborates for a common pastoral direction it becomes so enriching to see different chaplains sharing their various gifts in accompanying the sick, their relatives and the staff. Moreover, these Spirit given gifts enrich and promote the pastoral team of the hospital more and more. While this can be applied to all other spheres of pastoral care we must keep in mind a fundamental concept which the Second Vatican Council emphasized so clearly: Unity in diversity which also means diversity in unity.
These simple life reflections lead me to an important point: even if many institutes of consecrated life are running low on human resources and many of the members are elderly we urgently need to remind constantly ourselves of something which the great Russian writer of all times, Leo Tolstoy, speaks about: “The biggest surprise in man’s life is old age”. How many consecrated people, and even diocesan priests, if they are duly encouraged and accompanied, can still offer their sterling service in important places of serving within our diocese. So, it is up to the pastors, their collaborators and us, Christ’s faithful, to help identifying ways in which these people can still be of great service to the Christian community here, in these apostolic islands.
Another final point to stress is that although the numbers of vocation are what they are they offer no excuse of closing important services within the archdiocese. Rather, it is more of finding new adequate ways that can do care both for the people of God as well as the workers in God’s vineyard. Could it be then that instead of retiring from a mission the question to be asked is how to re-invent the faithfulness to our Lord through keep serving in that mission in a new manner?
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap