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Signum Fraternitatis

Consecrated Life as a Sign of Communion in the Church

I. Permanent Values

In the image of the Trinity

41. Christ gathered around Himself a new family trained to live for the Father and for His mission. The life of fraternal community and complete sharing with Christ lived out by the Twelve has always been the model for the Church when she sought renewed fervor and evangelical vigor. The consecrated life has kept alive in the Church the obligation of fraternal communion as a form of witness to the Trinity. The consecrated life thus shows that sharing in the Trinitarian communion can change human relationships and create a new kind of solidarity.

Fraternal life in love

42. The fraternal life is an eloquent sign of ecclesiastical communion. It is practiced in different ways and degrees by the various forms of consecrated life. Among Christ’s disciples, there can be no true unity without unconditional mutual love. Consecrated persons experience an interior call to share everything in common. In community life, fraternal communion is a God-enlightened space in which to experience the Risen Lord. This comes about through mutual love, nourished by the Word and the Sacraments.

The task of authority

43. The role of superiors is of great importance for the spiritual life and mission. Those in authority cannot renounce their obligation as those first responsible for the community. Against an atmosphere of individualism, the final word belongs to authority and must be respected.

The role of the elderly

44. It is important that communities care for their elderly and sick, not only out of Christian charity, but also because the witness of these individuals greatly serves the Church and their institutes. Their mission continues to be meritorious, and they have a great deal to give in wisdom and experience.

In the image of the apostolic community

Franciscan Friars of Renewal working with poor 45. Fraternal life is fundamental to the spiritual renewal of consecrated persons and to the accomplishment of their mission in the world. Consecrated men and women must be committed to strengthening their fraternal life, following the example of the first Christians by being filled with generous mutual love, with joy and with the Holy Spirit. Such communities are urgently needed for the new evangelization.

“Sentire cum Ecclesia”

46. A great task for consecrated persons is the call to a sense of ecclesial communion, to practice a spirituality of communion that enables the Church to grow. There are many examples of saints, founders and foundresses who show a lively sense of the Church by their full participation in its life and by their ready obedience to the bishops and the pope. It is immensely important to the whole People of God that all consecrated persons testify to their allegiance of heart and mind to the Magisterium.

Fraternity in the universal Church

47. Consecrated persons are called to be a leaven of communion at the service of the Church. All of the charisms given to their institutes by the Holy Spirit are meant for the good of the whole Church. Charity strengthens unity and supports one another in works of apostolic zeal. This is the scope of the bond of communion that institutes have with the pope in his ministry of unity and missionary universality. There is a character of universality and communion that is proper to the consecrated life.

The consecrated life and the particular Church

48. Cooperation between consecrated persons and bishops is fundamentally important for the organic development of diocesan pastoral life. Each institute is the expression and fruit of spiritual gifts received by founders and foundresses, and institutes should grow in accordance with their founding spirit and sound traditions. For this reason, each institute has a rightful autonomy, which is to be preserved and safeguarded by local ordinaries.   

Cooperation between consecrated persons and bishops is fundamentally important

Fruitful and ordered ecclesiastical communion

49. However, this autonomy should not be abused and should not be invoked to justify choices that go contrary to the spiritual health of the local church. Consecrated persons should cooperate generously with the local bishop, with due respect for their own charism, in the areas of evangelization, catechesis and parish life. Cordial, open dialogue and a spirit of charity should prevail.

A constant dialogue animated by charity

50. Constant dialogue between superiors and bishops is essential for mutual understanding and effective cooperation, especially in pastoral matters. Mixed commissions of bishops and major superiors at the national level for joint study of problems are a great help. Diocesan priests should study the theology and spirituality of the consecrated life.

Fraternity in a divided and unjust world

Pope John Paul II meets with youth in mountains 51. Communities of consecrated life must spread the spirituality of communion—first within their internal life, then in the local church and beyond, through dialogue in charity. This communal spirit is a sign that dialogue is always possible, and that this can bring differences into harmony. With today’s global problems, international institutes are especially called to bear witness to the sense of communion between peoples, races and cultures.

Communion among different institutes

52. Mindful of the spiritual unity that the founders and foundresses often showed with each other, consecrated persons are called to produce an exemplary fraternity among the various institutes. Saint Bernard speaks of how the various religious orders need one another; he refers to the Church as a single plurality and a plural unity.

Coordinating bodies

53. Conferences of major superiors and of secular institutes can make a significant contribution to communion. Through these bodies, institutes can seek to reinforce their communion, with respect for their unique charisms. They can help one another in discerning God’s plan. They are urged to maintain frequent contact with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated life and Societies of Apostolic Life, as a sign of communion with the Holy See.

Communion and cooperation with the laity

...invite the laity to share more intensely in the spirituality and mission of these institutes.

54. There is a growing awareness in the Church that unity of effort and exchange of gifts among its members is vital to effective participation in the Church’s mission. Many institutes have concluded that they can invite the laity to share more intensely in the spirituality and mission of these institutes. This marks a new chapter, rich in hope, for relations between consecrated persons and the laity.

For a renewed spiritual and apostolic dynamism

55. This new cooperation should be encouraged because it gives rise to a broader, more fruitful spirituality with mutual benefit for the consecrated persons and the laity. Lay participation often brings unexpected and rich insights into a charism. For their part, consecrated persons should be expert guides in the spiritual life.

Associates and lay members

56. An example of lay people’s sharing in the richness of the consecrated life is the development of associate memberships in various forms. Such service is held in high esteem. Caution is urged, however, so that the identity of the institute and its internal life are not harmed. Lay volunteers must have proper formation and intentions. Their work must promote the ends of the institute and be carried out under its responsibility and authority. Consecrated persons, under proper circumstances, may take part in lay initiatives or may become members of one of the ecclesial movements that have spread in our time. While in general these involvements provide positive benefits, they must be undertaken with caution so as not to endanger the charism or discipline of the institute.

The dignity and role of consecrated women

57. Consecrated women are called in a very special way to be signs of God’s tender love toward the human race, and to be special witness to the mystery of the Church—Virgin, Bride and Mother. Consecrated women rightly aspire to have their dignity, identity, ability, mission and responsibility clearly recognized. The future of the new evangelization is unthinkable without a renewed contribution from consecrated women.   
Consecrated women are called in a very special way to be signs of God’s tender love toward the human race

New possibilities of presence and action

58. There is an urgent need to provide room for women to participate in different fields and at all levels, including decision-making processes. A solid formation and systemic education of consecrated women will encourage within the Church the reciprocity that is needed. The Church depends on consecrated women for new efforts in fostering Christian doctrine and morals, family and social life, and in everything that affects the dignity of women and respect for human life.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • Why do you think that an explicit allegiance to the Church’s Magisterium, especially by consecrated persons, is so critical today
  • If unity among the Church’s members is so important, how can those in religious life cooperate more closely with the laity and help to guide lay apostolates?
  • How does the consecrated life affirm the equal dignity of women? How can it continue to be a positive force to ensure that women are offered the opportunity to participate in all levels of the Church’s mission?


II. Continuity in the Work of the Spirit: Faithfulness in the Change of Course

Cloistered nuns

Carmelite nuns of Morristown, NJ 59. The cloistered life of women is greatly esteemed and deserves special attention. It is a sign of the exclusive union of the Church as Bride with her Lord, whom she loves above all things. The cloister is a response to the paramount need to be with the Lord, to empty oneself totally and live in radical poverty. Its members’ offering is sacrifice and expiation, but also thanksgiving. The cloister is a way of living Christ’s Passover, a joyful proclamation and prophetic anticipation of the possibility for everyone to live solely for God in Christ Jesus.

Religious brothers

60. The traditional doctrine of the Church is that religious life is neither lay nor clerical. The kind of consecrated life of religious brothers is greatly esteemed. They provide valuable services, some of which can be ecclesial ministries. Institutes that do not exercise Holy Orders are called “lay institutes,” but this term does not well express their vocational character. Therefore, the Synod proposed the term, “religious institutes of brothers.” Religious brothers are a reminder to religious priests of the fundamental dimension of brotherhood in Christ. Religious brothers can receive Holy Orders, if approved by the general chapter, but this is not explicitly encouraged, because institutes of brothers should remain faithful to their vocation and mission. “Clerical” institutes, by contrast, are designed to permit the reception of Holy Orders by brother members.

Mixed institutes

61. Some religious institutes were originally envisaged as a brotherhood in which priests and non-priests were considered equals among themselves, but in time this has changed. These “mixed” institutes should evaluate whether it is appropriate and possible to return to their original inspiration.

New forms of the evangelical life

The Spirit continues to assist the Church, by renewing existing institutes, and by bringing forth completely new forms of religious life.

62. The Spirit continues to assist the Church, by renewing existing institutes, and by bringing forth completely new forms of religious life. A sign of this intervention is the development of so-called “new foundations” which display new characteristics. They are sometimes mixed groups of men and women, clerics and laypersons, or married and celibates, pursuing different forms of commitment to the evangelical life.

While we should rejoice at these gifts of the Spirit, there is a need for discernment of these charisms. Communities of consecrated life must be founded on the essential theological and canonical elements proper to the consecrated life. Worthy of praise are the forms of commitment whereby married couples, in a unique way, take up the evangelical counsels. However, they cannot be included in the specific category of the consecrated life. New associations of evangelical life are not alternatives to already existing institutions, which continue to hold the preeminent place assigned to them by tradition.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • What can be done so that the monastic and cloistered life of women, as well as the special vocation to the brotherhood, are not overlooked or forgotten?
  • How do the new forms of evangelical life manifest the presence of the Holy Spirit in our times? What specific charisms are being emphasized at the present moment?
  • What can married couples and even families learn from the evangelical counsels? How can they share in a unique way in the charism or mission of a particular religious community?


III. Looking to the Future

Difficulties and future prospects

63. The work and very existence of many institutes are threatened by social changes and decreased vocations. Some institutes face the difficult task of reassessing their apostolates. Such difficulties must in no way lead to a loss of confidence in the vitality of the consecrated life, for the ecclesial mission of the consecrated life will perdure. Ultimately, difficulties must be faced with the serenity of one who knows that what is required of each individual is not success, but commitment to faithfulness.

Fresh efforts in the promotion of vocations

There is hope that men and women will still generously welcome the Lord’s call.

64. There is a need that men and women still generously welcome the Lord’s call. The problem of vocations involves the whole Church, for vocations are flourishing in the young churches and persecuted churches, though they are floundering elsewhere. Prayer and action, with appropriate catechesis, are needed to encourage vocations. The pastoral work of vocation promotion aims at presenting the attraction of the person of Jesus and the beauty of the total gift of self for the sake of the Gospel. Spiritual direction is helpful. Vocation promotion must be a joint and coordinated endeavor of the whole Church in every diocese.

Commitment to initial formation

65. Proper formation is vital. Conformity to the Lord Jesus in His total self-giving must be the principal objective of formation. Formation should involve the whole person and be ongoing throughout life. It must provide a human, cultural, spiritual and pastoral preparation, with special attention to harmonious integration.

The work of those responsible for formation

66. God’s human instruments who are in charge of formation must be very familiar with the path of seeking God and be sensitive to the action of grace, so as to be proper guides. The training of suitable directors of formation is very important, and the establishment of appropriate structures for such training is desirable.

Formation in community and for the apostolate

67. Since formation must have a communal dimension, the community is the chief place of formation, providing initiation into the hardships and joys of communal life. Consecrated persons must gradually develop a critical judgment, based on the Gospel, regarding the positive and negative values of their own culture, while being trained in the difficult art of interior harmony.

The need for a complete and updated “ratio”

68. The Synod Fathers earnestly ask all communities to draw up a ratio institutionis, a concrete formation program inspired by their charism. The ratio responds to a pressing need today, to pass on the institute’s distinctive spirit, while showing its members how to live that spirit. The renewal of the consecrated life depends primarily on formation. Its hallmarks must be spiritual and pedagogical wisdom, which will lead candidates to put on the mind of Christ the Lord.

Continuing formation

69. As the path to full communion with Christ never ends, initial formation should therefore be closely tied to continuing formation. A precise and systematic plan of continuing formation should be part of the ratio institutionis.

In a constant search for faithfulness

70. The first years of involvement in an apostolate are a critical stage, a passage from supervised activity to full individual responsibility. The next stage can present the risk of routine and the temptation to disappointment. The mature stage can bring the danger of misguided individualism. Advanced age poses problems associated with withdrawal from activity, and often is a time of suffering. Each stage has unique characteristics that must be addressed by continuing formation and renewal. Finally, the time of death must be prepared for as the supreme act of love and self-offering. Aside from these stages, fidelity can become more difficult due to external or personal factors. During such trials, the person needs support, greater trust and deeper love, on the personal and community levels, so the trial serves as a providential means of formation by the Father’s hands.

Dimensions of continuing formation

71. The subject of formation is the individual; the object, the whole person. Life in the Spirit is clearly of primary importance in formation. The dimensions of the consecrated life are human and fraternal, apostolic, cultural and professional—all united in the dimension of the charism proper to each institute. Each member should study the spirit, history and mission of the institute, in order to advance the personal and communal assimilation of its charism.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • In light of the current vocational shortage in the United States and other parts of the world, why should the goal of fidelity, not success, constantly be remembered? What can be done to attract new vocations on all levels of the Church?
  • The commitment to formation is never-ending. Why do communities need to provide a comprehensive plan for formation that includes not only initial formation but continuing formation as well?
  • In what ways has excessive individualism affected some religious communities, especially in regard to apostolates? What can be done to safeguard against this extreme and find a healthy balance?
Introduction Chapter I Chapter II Chapter III Conclusion