Life on the Margins: Charismatic principles for modern religious

“Choose charisms and let go of works. ...To whom do we let them go? To the church community, to other charisms, so as not to lose these good works that have been going on. The works came after the founders, but not the charisms. Charisms came with the founder. ...Going out to the periphery. This is fundamental, even for us here at the Vatican.”

— Cardinal João Braz de Aviz


I cannot escape the impact that these words have had on me since returning from the International Union of Superiors General plenary assembly in Rome this past spring, where I heard them spoken by Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Living. The impact is two-fold. First, that a Vatican official of this stature would understand and articulate in such a direct, simple and impassioned way an essential nuance of apostolic religious life—that works are secondary to charism—is of great significance to me. And second, I wonder where my community or any community would find itself if we were to go to the periphery, the margins of our charism today.

What do the outskirts of union look like? Where is the margin of Mercy? Or the periphery of Providence? Each of these and more are charisms in the church, revealed through the particularity of a single life form—that of religious life—at a particular time in history, but fundamentally present in people across history and cultures. Charisms are gifts from God to the church and the world. It helps me to think of them as particular facets of the likeness of God that people or groups reflect in particular ways.

The word charism is not widely used outside of religious life and is easily misunderstood or misinterpreted. For religious communities, charism means the founding inspiration or impulse initiated by the Spirit and active at the community’s origins through the life and experience of the founder. Charism is what distinguishes one religious community from another. And charism—not works—focuses our mission and directs our planning, discernment and decision-making.

Fully Present

I believe that what is said here of women’s communities is equally relevant to and reflective of religious communities of men. We have been on the same Spirit-led path of renewal for nearly 50 years, and both men and women religious have come to embrace, cherish and honor our charisms as gifts given by God through us to the church and the world. Along that path we have discovered that we honor our founders and all who have gone before us, not by replicating the works or conditions of the past but by gleaning the essence of the charism that shaped that past, discerning its presence in this time and place and applying its character to today’s needs and realities.

We honor those who discerned the presence of the charism in the women who made up our early communities by acknowledging that the charisms of our institutes are fully present in the people of God. We are stewards of the charism, not owners. We know now that our charisms are not confined to vowed, religious life. They are found and flourish among single and married persons and clergy, as well.

We honor the original inspirations of our congregations by acknowledging that religious life is a marginal life in the church precisely because of its charismatic nature—a nature both given and driven by the Spirit to witness to a dimension of the mystery of God. Apostolic religious life further embodies this marginal mystery by living out its essence in the midst of those persons and places who, though far from the centers of knowledge, influence or opportunity, are no less beloved of God.

Historically and culturally, women’s apostolic religious life is a further embodiment of this charismatically inspired marginality. Self-organizing and self-governing groups of women were not emanating from the centers of ecclesial or civil power when most communities were founded. Our communities, however, grew and flourished alongside religious communities of men, among the most vulnerable and marginalized people of God, where their apostolic energies were most needed in the past and still are today.

The works that we undertook—nursing the sick and impoverished; caring for orphans; teaching children, including girls; rehabilitating prostitutes—took place at the margins of both the church and the culture, where survival was precarious. There was little other than God’s promise that the sister could both follow and find her Beloved on the margins of morality that could entice a woman to this life. We remain ec-centric still today.

Honor the Past, Shape the Future

We honor our past and shape our future when we face our economic challenges with the same realism, courage and creativity with which our founders faced the challenges of their times through the lens of the congregational missions derived from our charisms. We do this first by acknowledging that fewer numbers and resources may create an economic crisis, but they constitute a vocation crisis or a crisis of meaning only for those within religious life—and those observing from the outside—who mistakenly identify money and numbers as the essence of apostolic religious life.

Lastly we honor our past and shape our future when we acknowledge that the credibility and influence that we hold today is a direct result of the courageous, faithful and humble service that so many of our sisters rendered tirelessly among the people of God for decades and even centuries. Realistic and reliable projections indicate that the number of people living consecrated religious life will continue to decline from the historical anomaly of its post-war high in this country. That is no surprise. At the same time, a reliable survey of church history reveals that religious life has evolved and will continue to evolve over time. That same survey reveals that evolution takes place at the margins and not in the center.

I will not even venture a guess as to what women’s religious life will look like in the future. I believe, however, that whatever form it takes, it will be shaped by the creative tension of God’s grace given and received in equal measure to those in the church who flourish on a precarious periphery and to those in the church who flourish at the center.

Religious life will be evolved by those who are comfortable with chaos and whose preservation of the essential is marked by a humble appreciation and firm grasp of the unmistakable grace of charism as the Spirit’s first, cherished gift to religious life. I believe that one of the most compelling works of religious life today is to discern through the lens of our charisms the moral use of our influence, credibility and resources and to place those gifts in service to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which has always been a guide for communities living on the margins.

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