Fr. Elias L. Ayuban, Jr., CMF
The theme of mutual relations between bishops and consecrated persons is of particular importance today as we follow a synodal path. Gone are the days when vocation to consecrated life was seen as a private avenue for the sanctification of the individual members. The Church puts much stress on the insertion of consecrated life into the life and mission of the local church. The Second Vatican Council, in the Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops Christus Dominus (CD), affirms that members of institutes of consecrated life must work for the good of the local churches.
“All religious… and members of other institutes professing the evangelical counsels, have the duty, in accordance with the particular vocation of each, to work zealously and diligently for the building up and the growth of the whole mystical Body of Christ and for the good of the particular churches” (CD 33).
Echoing the same theme, St. Pope John Paul II, during the first year of his pontificate, highlighted the role of consecrated persons in the local church: “Whenever you are in the world, you are, with your vocation, ‘for the universal Church,’ through your mission ‘in a given local church’. Therefore, your vocation for the universal Church is realized in the structures of the local church…. Unity with the universal Church through the local church: that is your way” (Address to the Superiors General of Men Religious Orders, Nov. 24, 1978).
However, the relationship between bishops and consecrated persons is not always smooth. There are some misunderstandings, especially in the aspect of collaborative ministry. There are occasions where selfishness, competition and isolation manifest themselves and where human weaknesses are made evident. Many of such conflicts arise when bishops do not fully recognize the charisms of institutes of consecrated life and when consecrated persons wrongly invoke their autonomy to legitimize their non-cooperative stance.
These situations create disagreements, tensions and disharmony that oftentimes do not remain within the ecclesiastical fora, but are talked about in public and occasionally end up in civil courts, causing scandal among the faithful and members of other faiths. This lack of communion between the pastors and consecrated persons highlights the need to grow in these mutual relations.
Along this line, let me then outline some recommendations, most of which can be found in the 1978 document from the erstwhile Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes and the Sacred Congregation for Bishops entitled: Directives for the Mutual Relations Between Bishops and Religious in the Church, or Mutuae Relationes (MR), on how to promote mutual relations. The said document is now in the process of revision.
First, mutual recognition, convergence, complementarity and co-responsibility in the apostolic mission begin at the local level: in the parish, vicariate and diocese, respectively. These are places of grace and communion where different charisms and ministries live. In these areas, the ordained ministry and the consecrated life become a fraternity, a living testimony and a concrete service of charity. Hence, the small gestures of hospitality, common prayer, celebration of feasts and exchange of opinions help minimize misunderstandings and foster harmony.
Second, the associations of consecrated persons at the level of the local church are very useful. Therefore, they should be promoted both by the bishop and the consecrated persons. These associations can become venues for the promotion and renewal of consecrated life and settings for the discussion of mixed concerns between bishops and religious superiors (cf. MR 59).
Third, the CBCP Ecumenical Commission on Mutual Relations (ECMR) can continue promoting mutual relations by organizing conferences on common themes. The annual meaningful encounter between bishops and major superiors is a step in this direction. ECMR can also provide mediation to resolve some controversies between a given local church and an institute. These generative encounters can be replicated at the diocesan level between the diocesan clergy and consecrated persons.
Fourth, the appointment of an episcopal vicar or delegate for consecrated persons who can help coordinate the various apostolic activities of consecrated life in the diocese is highly recommended. The indications of MR 30 will be helpful in this regard.
Fifth, on the one hand, consecrated persons should be brought to a fuller awareness and concern for the local church starting from the novitiate. On the other hand, a course on the theology of consecrated life needs to be taught in diocesan seminaries (MR 36). Bishops should also see to it that the diocesan clergy understand well the current problems of consecrated life and the urgent missionary needs. Certain chosen priests can be prepared to be able to help the consecrated women and brothers in their spiritual progress, although generally, it is preferable that this task be entrusted to prudently chosen religious priests.
Lastly, the drafting of a memorandum of agreement (can. 681, §2) can help promote mutual relations as it establishes and defines collaborative agreements between the local church and the institute. The MOA is also a recognition of the authenticity of the charism of the congregation to which the work in the diocese is entrusted.
Mindful of the challenges that exist in the field of mutual relations, we would not want to think that there are always and only problems. Indeed, there are also many places where pastors and consecrated people have a great understanding and fruitful collaboration. There are many bishops who know the consecrated life well and appreciate it as a reality belonging to the life and holiness of the Church. There are many pastors who accompany the consecrated life with a kind, fatherly and solicitous love, without renouncing their authority received from the sacred orders in the same way that there are many consecrated people who are well-inserted in the particular church in close collaboration with the pastors, without renouncing the universal dimension that characterizes the consecrated life. Although, as we say, “A tree that falls makes more noise than a forest that grows in harmony.”