Pope Francis received a group of young people in consecrated life on Thursday morning. The special audience was the highlight of the International Congress for Young People in Consecrated Life taking place in Rome this week, in the context of the ongoing Year of Consecrated Life, which will close on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (Feb. 2nd), 2016.
Putting his prepared remarks aside, the Holy Father answered a series of three questions from the participants. The questions covered areas ranging from the Holy Father’s own first calling to religious life, to the mission of consecrated young people in the Church today, to the advice the Holy Father might have for young people who have completed their formation and lived some time in religion and are anxious not to lose the impetus of their original vocation - the “fire in the belly” as it were.
Pope Francis listened to each of the three questions - posed by a priest from Aleppo, Syria, named Pierre, a religious sister named Sara, and another sister named Mary Hyacinth, from India - and then answered generally, beginning however with a reflection on the dangers of “comfort” in religious life. The key, he explained, is, “To have a heart always open to that, which the Lord tells us, and to bring that, which the Lord tells us, to dialogue with our superior, with one’s spiritual maestro or maestro, with the Church, with the bishop,” together with a properly ordered and healthy understanding of the nature and purpose of rules, structures and discipline in religious life.
The Holy Father went on to renew his repeated warning against the danger of gossip in religious life. “Never!” he said, “Never: gossip is the plague of community life,” once again comparing the gossiping person in religious life to a terrorist who throws a bomb into the midst of the community.
Speaking of the role of young people in consecrated life - especially and particularly women in religious life - Pope Francis said, “You have this desire to be on the front line: why? Because you are mothers - you have this maternal quality of the Church herself, which unites you.” Then, the Holy Father offered a reflection based on his own experience in Buenos Aires. “I recall a hospital in Buenos Aires that was left without sisters, because the sisters were few, elderly - and their Congregation was nearly at its end.” The Holy Father went on to say, “Because religious institutes are all temporary: the Lord chooses them for a time, then He lets go and makes another one.” Still, the charism lives on, and is needed as much today as ever, if not more. “Always be on the front line,” said Pope Francis. “The Church is the Bride of Christ, and religious sisters are brides of Christ - they draw their whole strength from there: before the sanctuary, before the Lord, in prayer with their Bridegroom, in order to carry His message,” to the world.
In a particularly candid moment, Pope Francis returned to the first question, about his memory of his first conscious experience of a vocation to religious life. “Memory,” he said. “You asked me to share my memory - how it was - that first call on September 21st, 1953 - but I don’t know how it was: I know that, by chance, I walked into church, I saw a confessional, and I came out different.”