Today we celebrate the XXIV World Day of Religious Life. This celebration was instituted by Saint John Paul II in the year 1997. We call to mind a few excerpts from his message on the first World Day of Religious Life, when he explains this celebration and the reason for having this celebration:
On the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple
The World Day for Consecrated Life will be celebrated on the feast which commemorates the presentation which Mary and Joseph made of Jesus in the temple “to present him to the Lord” (Lk 2:22).
This Gospel scene reveals the mystery of Jesus, the One consecrated by the Father, come into the world to carry out his will faithfully (cf. Heb 10:5-7). Simeon points to Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:32) and by a prophetic word foretells the supreme offering of Jesus to the Father and his final victory (Lk 2:32-35).
In this way the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is an eloquent icon of the total offering of one’s life for all those who are called to show forth in the Church and in the world, by means of the evangelical counsels “the characteristic features of Jesus — the chaste, poor and obedient one” (VC 1).
Mary is associated with the presentation of Christ.
The Virgin Mother who carries Jesus to the temple so that he can be offered to the Father expresses very well the figure of the Church who continues to offer her sons and daughters to the heavenly Father, associating them with the one oblation of Christ, cause and model of all consecration in the Church.
The reasons for the World Day for Consecrated Life
The purpose of such a day is threefold: in the first place, it answers the intimate need to praise the Lord more solemnly and to thank him for the great gift of consecrated life, which enriches and gladdens the Christian community by the multiplicity of its charisms and by the edifying fruits of so many lives totally given to the cause of the Kingdom. We should never forget that consecrated life, before being a commitment of men and women, is a gift which comes from on high, an initiative of the Father “who draws his creatures to himself with a special love and for a special mission” (VC 17). This look of special love profoundly touches the heart of the one called, who is urged by the Holy Spirit to place himself or herself in the footsteps of Christ, in a particular way of following him, by means of assuming the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience. A stupendous gift!
“What would become of the world if there were no religious?” St. Teresa rightly asked herself (Autobiography, ch. 32, n. 11). This is a question which brings us to give unceasing thanks to the Lord, who by this singular gift of the Spirit continues to enliven and sustain the Church in its demanding journey through this world.
In the second place, this day is intended to promote a knowledge of and esteem for the consecrated life by the entire People of God.
As the Council underlined (LG 44) and as I have had occasion to emphasize in the above-mentioned Apostolic Exhortation, consecrated life “‘constitutes a closer imitation and an abiding re-enactment in the Church’ of the way of life which Jesus, the supreme Consecrated One and missionary of the Father for the sake of his Kingdom, embraced and proposed to his disciples” (VC 22). It is thus a special and living memory of his being Son, who makes of his Father his only love — his virginity; who finds in him his exclusive richness — his poverty; and who has, in the will of his Father, the “food” by which he is nourished (cf. Jn 4:34) — his obedience.
This form of life, embraced by Christ and made present particularly by consecrated persons, is of great importance for the Church, called in every member to live the same upward striving toward God who is All, following Christ in the light and power of the Holy Spirit.
The life of special consecration, in its many forms, is thus at the service of the baptismal consecration of all the faithful. In contemplating the gift of consecrated life, the Church contemplates her own intimate vocation of belonging only to her Lord, desirous of being in his eyes “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27).
The fittingness of dedicating a special World Day is evident, then, for it assures that the doctrine about consecrated life will be more widely and deeply meditated and assimilated by all members of the People of God.
The third reason regards consecrated persons directly. They are invited to celebrate together solemnly the marvels which the Lord has accomplished in them, to discover by a more illumined faith the rays of divine beauty spread by the Spirit in their way of life, and to acquire a more vivid consciousness of their irreplaceable mission in the Church and in the world.
Immersed in a world which is often agitated and distracted, taken up sometimes by the press of responsibilities, consecrated persons also will be helped by the celebration of this annual World Day to return to the sources of their vocation, to take stock of their own lives, to confirm the commitment of their own consecration. In this way, they will be able to give witness with joy to the men and women of our time, in diverse situations, that the Lord is the Love who is able to fill the heart of the human person.
Truly there is great urgency that the consecrated life show itself ever more “full of joy and of the Holy Spirit,” that it forge ahead dynamically in the paths of mission, that it be backed up by the strength of lived witness, because “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi 41).