At a meeting with religious superiors held last November, Pope Francis urged a reform of the document regulating the relationship between bishops and religious congregations, according to Fr. Antonio Spadaro, director of La Civiltà Cattolica.

The Bishop of Rome met with a group of some 120 religious superiors in Rome on Nov. 29, 2013, during the general assembly of the Union of Superiors General. He held a three-hour question and answer session with them, touching on the prophetic vocation of religious life, the formation of religious, and the interactions between bishops and those in consecrated life, among other things.

CNA reported briefly on the meeting Dec. 2, but an extensive account of Pope Francis' words there was not made available until Fr. Spadaro published a 14-page account of the encounter in the Jan. 3 issue of the Italian Jesuit periodical La Civiltà Cattolica.

According to Fr. Spadaro, Pope Francis said during the meeting that "Mutuae relationes," a 1978 document including directives for the mutual relations between bishops and religious in the Church, "was useful at the time but is now outdated."

"The charisms of the various Institutes need to be respected and fostered because they are needed in dioceses. I know by experience the problems that can arise between a bishop and religious communities," the Pope explained.

He reflected as both a bishop and religious superior, noting that when religious leave a diocese, the bishop "often finds himself suddenly left with a hot potato in his hand," but that on the other hand bishops should "not view religious simply as useful instruments," but come to know and appreciate their unique charisms.

"For this reason the Pope confided to the Congregation for Religious the task of resuming reflection on the document Mutuae relationes and to work on a revision," Fr. Spadaro wrote.

In addition, Pope Francis discussed the vocation of religious who are not priests, and " complained that an adequate awareness of this specific vocation has not yet been developed," said Fr. Spadaro, who added that "he referred to a document related to this which has never appeared, and which might be looked at again," and that he signalled to the leaders of the Congregation for Religious to consider that "it might be finished and so as to facilitate a more satisfactory reflection."

Pope Francis reflected extensively on the vocation of religious, saying they show that "it is possible to live differently in the world," and that their life has an "eschatological outlook" and that they follow Christ "in a prophetic way," calling prophecy of the Kingdom "a non-negotiable" in their life.

"It is this witness that I expect of you," the Pope told the assembled superiors. "Religious should be men and women who are able to wake the world up."

"You should be real witnesses of a world of doing and acting differently. But in life if it is difficult for everything to be clear, precise, outlined neatly. Life is complicated; it consists of grace and sin … a religious who recognizes himself as weak and a sinner does not negate the witness that he is called to give, rather he reinforces it, and this is good for everyone. What I expect of you therefore is to give witness. I want this special witness from religious."

Pope Francis also touched on inculturation of charisms, according to Fr. Spadaro, saying, "the charism is one but, as Saint Ignatius used to say, it needs to be lived according to the places, times and persons."

He explained that inculturation of charisms is "fundamental," but that "this never means relativizing it," though charism should not be "rigid or uniform."

Also during the three-hour encounter, the Roman Pontiff discussed the formation of religious, emphasizing that it is always ordered towards the people of God, adding that "the ghost to fight against is the image of religious life understood as an escape or hiding place in face of an 'external,' difficult and complex world."

He called formation "a work of art, not a police action. We must form their hearts. Otherwise we are creating little monsters. And then these little monsters mold the People of God. This really gives me goose bumps."

According to Fr. Spadaro, Pope Francis concluded the meeting by announcing that 2015 will be dedicated to consecrated life, and saying: "Thank you for what you do, for your spirit of faith and your pursuit of service."