In popular jargon, the word charisma is used to describe a person with dazzling gifts of charm or grace. Charismatic individuals form part of every walk of life—stage, screen, sports, and faith-traditions. 

Charism and the Married Vocation

In the vocation of marriage, a woman wishes to marry a man not for what he earns but for the person he is. She doesn’t fall in love with a career but with a man whose strong identity and values harmonize with hers.  He attracts her through his attitude toward life and the way he lives his life.  What he does may very well emerge from his identity, but this is secondary.  The same may be said of a man about a woman.  As the two live out their married vocation, professional options may change, but their personal identities remain fundamentally the same. 

Charism in Consecrated Life    

2015 has been designated as the Year of Consecrated Life which is essentially rooted in the founder’s spirit and special purpose.  Since the 1960s, Vatican documents have exhorted consecrated men and women to revitalize the spirit of their respective founders. 

With a religious charism, God singles out individuals with an experience of intense love, unearned, unexpected, indelible, and unforgettable.  With eyes of faith, they see Jesus Christ from a particular aspect of his life, his poor life or preaching, his sufferings, solitary prayer with his Father, itinerant ministry. The particular charism given to an individual is shaped by the historical times, a person’s own history, culture, temperament, gifts and limitations.  Though one person receives the charism, the gift belongs to the entire Church, as St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12.  A charism is given not for the glory or satisfaction of the recipient but as a responsibility to benefit others.  Every institute is founded with a particular spirit to address a particular need in the Church. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, graced individuals who received special charisms are: Moses, Ruth, Esther, Judith, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Mary of Nazareth, and St. Paul.

“I Thirst”

In 1946, while traveling on a train from Calcutta to the Loretto convent in Darjeeling, Sister Teresa, the future Mother Teresa of Calcutta, heard the words from the crucified Lord, “I thirst.” She was to quench his thirst in serving the most destitute, the scum of society.  Following this charism, she and her Missionary Sisters of Charity serve the most destitute, the most unwanted and dying of humankind throughout the world.  Their charism, “I thirst,” answers the question, ‘who we are—what our root vision is.’ Their mission emanates from their charism; action follows being.

Schools of Spirituality of Large Religious Orders

The Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits have well-defined charisms, each with a unique identity out of which a special mission has emerged.  A word about each.

The Benedictine Charism:  Ora et Labora (Work and Pray, Balance and Moderation)

The monastic charism of the Benedictine Order bears witness to Jesus’s mandate to pray always. For those men and women who follow the Rule of St. Benedict, their primary mission is to live out this mandate.  In addition to the traditional three vows, monastics take the vow of stability, that is, the vow to live all their lives in one particular monastery instead of moving about from one place to another.  They chant in common the Liturgy of the Hours and listen to the lectio divina, the continuous reading of Sacred Scripture and patristic literature.  Round the clock they pray: in the very early hours of the morning, during the day at appointed hours, and finally before retiring. Carthusians chant the three-hour Night Office beginning around Midnight.

The apostolic work of monastics is performed on or near the premises of the monastery or abbey.  These include: education, writing and publishing books, farming, raising cattle, growing herb gardens, making wines, liqueurs, and jams, baking breads, making vestments and other handmade crafts, training dogs, offering hospitality to guests.  These works are secondary to the primary mission, that of the choral praying the Liturgy of the Hours.  

Monastic Institutes

Most monastic orders, which are more or less cloistered, follow the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict.  Some of these groups maintain indirect contact with the world, but the Carthusian Order of men and women is the most separated of all.  Apart from a rugged silence, prayer and rigorous fasting, they write and publish spiritual books, but anonymously.  The Carthusians at La Grande Chartreuse in France make the famous liqueur, Chartreuse.     

The Dominican Charism (12th Century) 

St Dominic’s charism is largely indebted to the Rule of St. Augustine which espouses God as perfect beauty, truth, and goodness.  Like the Benedictines, the Dominicans engage in the choral celebration of the Hours, prayer, and contemplation.  Their studies are oriented to preaching about the Word Incarnate and, by extension, about the Mother of God.  Defending the Church is their main approach in preaching.  They are quite successful in applying the principles of St. Thomas Aquinas to contemporary situations.

In the twelfth century, thanks to the Dominicans, 150 Our Fathers were given to an illiterate laity to pray as a substitute for the 150 psalms that were prayed by the monks and nuns.  Later, the prayer became 150 Hail Marys, the rosary as we know it. Dominican women are of two groups:  cloistered and non-cloistered.

The Franciscan Charism:  “Francis, Go and Repair My Church” 

In the thirteenth century, a rudderless dandy heard the words of Jesus, “Francis, go and repair my church.”  At first, Francis of Assisi, later known as “Il Poverello,” took the words literally and began to repair some churches.  Then, he saw that the great need in the Church was to repair it spiritually.  Today, Franciscans work to rebuild and repair the Church through parish work, preaching and the vast world-wide evangelization program of the Eternal Word television network.  It was founded by Mother Angelica, a Poor Clare cloistered nun.  The Poor Clares are among the many sister-institutes of the Franciscan family. 

Franciscans enjoy a close bond with the laity.  They are known and revered for their love of creation and the environment, for their devotion to the humanity of Jesus both in his birth and sufferings, and in the Eucharist. These qualities endear them far beyond the Catholic faith-tradition. Their approach is sweet, consoling, and even rhapsodic, a fact borne out by the Christmas crèche which has been immortalized through them.

The Ignatian Charism: “For the Greater Glory of God” (The More)

The Spiritual Exercises, the heart of the Ignatian charism, are a gift to the entire Church. Through St. Ignatius of Loyola and his early Companions, the Exercises brought to the sixteenth-century Church a new, fresh, and vital approach to the gospel message. 

In their rich and versatile way, the Exercises encompass all of salvation history and every approach to prayer.  Ignatian spirituality integrates contemplative prayer with service. Prayer is apostolic prayer, prayer done for the sake of the mission, and the mission sends the Ignatian person back to prayer.  One is done for the sake of the other.  The prayer for finding God in all things, the daily examen, is essential, the sine qua non, of the Ignatian charism.  It is a restful prayer when a person examines and evaluates the hours of one’s day in the light of faith.  If, during the day, one has failed to pray or failed to respond to the mission, the examen will reveal the reason why.  ‘Never skip the daily examen,’ admonished Ignatius to busy Jesuit scholastics.

In the Ignatian mindset, nothing is profane because the human is wedded to the divine–from work to play. In the Ignatian charism, one is at home everywhere and at home nowhere—the definition of a pilgrim.  The Jesuit priest and poet, Daniel Berrigan, entitles an early work, A World for a Wedding Ring.  The Jesuit priest and scientist, Teilhard de Chardin, sums it up:  “By virtue of creation, and still more, of the Incarnation, nothing is profane for those who know how to see” (The Divine Milieu, 65-66). Accordingly, the daily examen keeps one poised in the world—spiritually balanced to live a discerning secularity lest the individual be swallowed up by the –ism of the day. 

The Ignatian charism is based on the motto, “for the greater glory of God,” (ad maiorem Dei gloriam, the More, Magis).  If one admits the comparative degree, then there is always something more and better to do.  Magis translates into restlessness for the sake of the mission, the first and primary concern. The mission can be a person or groups of persons, place, event or situation. The Ignatian person stops and drops everything to respond to the mission.

Aggiornamento of Male Religious Orders

To a large extent, the charisms of these male religious institutes have remained robust. In the early 1970s however, the Jesuits re-examined the manner in which the Spiritual Exercises were presented.  For years, they had been preached to large groups, a practice which St. Ignatius would not have recognized.  A wide-scale program was undertaken to update them.  Instead of being preached, they were given to laity and religious on a one-to-one basis—tailor made, as St. Ignatius intended.   To sum up: The charisms of male religious orders are clearly distinguished, one from the other.  No one would confuse the Jesuit scent of sanctity from that of the Benedictine, Dominican, or Franciscan. Their differences have spawned an industry of jokes for the ages to enjoy—even in heaven. 

Aggiornamento in Women’s Institutes

Vatican II mandated that religious communities of women update their stance in the modern world.  Most religious institutes responded, some moving at a slower pace than others or on a superficial level.  When we speak of schools of spirituality, many women’s religious institutes don’t fall into neat categories as do the men’s orders unless they are the sister-institutes of the male orders. 

All consecrated institutes embrace the Gospel and the evangelical counsels. Women’s groups must place their unique imprint on them.  Ignatian women’s communities have a special emphasis on the gospel message, influenced by their founders.  Basically, they have four characteristics of the Society of Jesus:  (1) reliance on Ignatian texts in the formation of their own original constitutions, (2) influence by individual Jesuits, (3) modeling certain internal structures on those of the Society of Jesus, and (4) drawing inspiration drawn from the Ignatian apostolates (Mary Milligan, RSHM, “What Is an ‘Ignatian Congregation?’” Way Supplement 70). No one has done more to advance the Ignatian charism than has Sr. Mary Milligan (d 2011), an outstanding American religious woman and scholar devoted to her institute and to its charism.

According to one study, there are about fifteen Ignatian institutes of women. The Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Congregation of Jesus (IBVM, CJ), both founded by Mary Ward in the seventeenth century, actively promote the Ignatian charism in their schools. The opening sentence of the mission statement of the Faithful Companions begins:  “Ignatian spirituality is at the root of the FCJ way of life.” The Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (RSCJ) profess that the charism of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat and the Ignatian Exercises are at the core of their spirituality.  The Religious of the Cenacle give retreats and are committed to offer the Spiritual Exercises as part of their mission.

Other institutes, Ignatian or not, define their charisms by what they do.  And many do the same thing.  Still other institutes have altogether abandoned their heritage, adopting an ideology that is not a charism.  Promoting justice and caring for the environment are important ministries but emerge from a charism. Mention of the Catholic Church is often missing.  Marketing experts tell us that tampering with an identity—a brand, a restaurant, a cola, or any other consumer product can be a risky business. Those religious groups that have reinvented or discarded their identity are in peril. Those with a revitalized identity and mission appear to be in a strong position to survive. 

Dying and Rising

Over the centuries, it was a bitter experience for the Church to witness the demise of religious institutes, but the essence of consecrated life has never died.  After each crisis, it recovered and showed signs of internal strength and a remarkable ability to adapt to the needs of every age. Not all institutions die because of persecution.     

Today in many institutes, decline has set in. Numbers are plummeting. No large corporation or small business would permit losses without a realistic analysis of facts, without a corporate examination of conscience.  Religious are in denial and refuse to face the losses.  Instead of discussing them with honesty, both intellectual and emotional, they defend, even glorify, a way of life that is fast ebbing away.   Smaller institutes have already succumbed. A few have merged with larger ones.  Religious communities are facing extinction because of internal reasons: deconstruction of their charism and divisiveness over it, laxity, and fashionable ideologies.

Increase of Vocations

In the past thirty years, vocations to some groups have increased. The Benedictine community at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma, the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, and the Sisters of Life are growing by leaps and bounds with their large number of applicants.  The cloistered Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT has a waiting list of aspirants.  Every nun has brought with her a professional background and a practical skill. At the Abbey, Gregorian chant flourishes as do other arts. Theirs is a vibrant presence in Bethlehem. Mother Margaret Georgina Patton, O.S.B., the granddaughter of Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., and the former Hollywood actress, Dolores Hart, now Mother Dolores Hart, O.S.B., are two of many nuns who live in this cloistered and gifted community. 

Young women and men interested in religious life are avoiding institutes in decline.  Instead, they are seeking groups with fiery vision to build the future, “all ablaze with God springing up everywhere” (Teilhard de Chardin, Letters to Léontine Zanta, 41). 

...To be continued.