Image by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash
The first two parts of our conversation about consecration have led us through much of Salvation History: from the Exodus story to Samson, David, and Isaiah, and from Daniel to Christ himself, then to Saint Paul and Saint Peter. Now it is time to return to where we began, the Church in the modern era. In reality this is where I was heading all along, trying to carefully prepare the foundations for a conversation about consecration in the Church today, and truly unabashedly, a conversation about myself.
These last few blog posts find their origin in a personal experience that I have almost daily when I encounter the need to explain to people what I am, who I am. I am a consecrated lay person, part of a new community in the Church that is all of forty-nine years old. While consecration as a vocation has a long history and precedence in the Catholic Church (as the previous articles have shown), I nearly always receive a slightly puzzled look out from people when I present myself as “consecrated lay.” After many conversations over the years I have come to the conclusion that it is a lack of familiarity with consecration itself more than a lack of familiarity with the specific vocation of a consecrated lay that leads to this confusion. In this third and final installment I hope to clear the fog surrounding this vocation in the Church of the consecrated lay life.
In a certain sense, consecration is a characteristic of every single Christian baptized into Jesus Christ (as I noted in the previous post). The Catechism tells us that all the faithful receive “the sacramental character that consecrates them for Christian religious worship” (CCC 1273). In other words, we might say that Baptism consecrates us to be the human beings we were meant to be, because to be human is to be a religious being (see CCC 28), created to know and love God (CCC 1). All Christians then live out their consecration through Baptism, and hence through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ.
The deep truth about Baptism
While this may simply sound like Catholic common sense, familiarity can lead us to forget how profound this reality is. Take a moment to thank God for your own Baptism, whether as an infant or as an adult convert. Remember that this is the reality that saved you: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? […] For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” (Romans 6:3, 5–6).
The power and necessity of Christian Baptism is absolutely important for the next thing I am going to say, which without proper reflection seems underwhelming: the consecrated vocation is simply a living out of the Baptismal vocation of the Christian in an extraordinary way (remember, “simple” is good in the Spiritual Life!). Catechism paragraph 1618 reflects on the beauty of the consecrated vocation by saying that “Christ is the center of all Christian life. The bond with him takes precedence over all other bonds, familial or social.”
In a nutshell, that is the essence of the consecrated life of religious priests, brothers, sisters, monks, cloistered nuns, consecrated virgins, and every Christian. If you read the Catechism, you will not find religious vows or consecrations listed as a sacrament (religious consecration is distinct from Holy Orders, which is, of course, one of the seven sacraments), but instead under the category of sacramentals (see CCC 1672), as sacred signs which dispose men and women to receive the effects of the Sacraments (see CCC 1667, 1672).
Called to celibacy
The difference between types of consecrated life is another word often used and frequently misunderstood, vocation. Christ “calls” (vocare) each Christian to himself through Baptism to a specific life, a Plan that he conceived for us from all eternity (see Jeremiah 1:5). For some it is marriage, for others the priesthood, for some Christians it is the dedicated single life (see Matthew 19:10–12). This was the case for St. Paul, who received the personal calling to remain unmarried (see 1 Corinthians 7:7). This choice to remain unmarried for the sake of the kingdom of God is called celibacy. The key is the personal call, it is something that Christ asks of some that follow him.
But why would the Lord ask this of some of his followers? There are many things we might say about the beauty and value of celibacy, but for now I want to highlight just one: “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12). The call to celibacy is not primarily for a person’s own salvation, but to be a sign of the kingdom to come (CCC 1620). Celibates forgo the natural vocation of marriage to be a sign and reminder to the rest of the world that in heaven human marriage will be no more (see Matthew 22:30), because our union with Christ and through Christ with God will be full.
Consecrated men and woman are a living witness to the reality that the grace of Christ in Baptism is enough to save us, is enough to be a vocation in-and-of-itself. Many of us forget how important our Baptism really is. It is something left in the past and frequently overlooked. But the Church wants to remind you of your Baptism every time you walk into a church building: waiting for you there is a receptacle of holy water that cries out to you “remember your Baptism!”
So the next time you walk into a church and reach for the holy water, take yourself off autopilot and consider your own Baptism. Say a prayer of thanksgiving for your Baptism, or for the salvation of souls, or for the vocations of consecrated men and women living out their lives as extraordinary signs of Eternal Life. Pray that one day through Baptism Christ’s desire may be fulfilled “they may all be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11), the Son in the Father, for all eternity.