It is exciting to be part of an adventure, to be part of something new and the experience of opening fresh pathways. I did not know, when I joined the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity 39 years ago, that I would be involved in such an adventure. I was attracted by the simplicity of the Verbum Dei missionaries I met, by their lifestyle so close to people, and the Gospel-like atmosphere I could breathe in their home.
Since then, I have been in mission in different countries and taught philosophy for 25 years in our theological institute, until September 2012, when I was elected president of Verbum Dei.
And that is how I got involved in the Third Encounter of New Forms of Consecrated Life, held in Rome earlier this year. The ongoing theme of these gatherings is, precisely, “opening new pathways.”
New pathways: Since the beginnings of the church, the Holy Spirit has inspired different ways of following Jesus in what we call today “consecrated life,” in order to respond to the challenges that every age of history presents.
Around the time of the Second Vatican Council and in the spirit of the image of the church as the People of God, a variety of communities started to emerge and grow. They are groups of consecrated men and women, priests and lay, married and single, all aware of their common dignity received in Baptism and sharing one spirituality and mission. The particular characteristic of these communities is that we want to live within one single structure, under one common government, trying to be a sign of the love of the Trinity in the midst of a divided and broken world.
In this context, Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity was founded, in 1963, by a priest from the diocese of Mallorca, Spain: Jaime Bonet. He is convinced of the common mission of all baptized people to listen to the word of God and to preach it; and he is also convinced that women must have a more relevant role in the church. In the case or our community, which is composed of three branches (consecrated women, consecrated men and priests and married couples consecrated according to their state of life), the president of the whole can be a member of the female branch.
We are indeed opening pathways. The encounter in Rome was a beautiful opportunity to share the riches of the different institutes; to share the achievements and the steps still to be made; and to share our joys and our restlessness. It was also an opportunity to discover that we have similar problems and challenges and to share among ourselves how we are seeking to face them.
One of these challenges is that of communion among the branches of Verbum Dei. The challenge is to grow in the awareness that we are not a confederation of three communities but one single institute with three branches; we go from unity to plurality. At the same time, each branch has its particular way of living and expressing the same charism.
Living as a confederation with greater autonomy for each branch might seem easier, but it would not express the same message of unity, of the intimate connection among the members of Christ's Body. This unity takes a lot of patience, openness, humility, dialogue and the firm belief in the fruit of complementarity of men and women, of priest and lay, of celibate and married. We are still looking for the best structures of communion and government that may help us to live and express our identity more. Our structure is complex, and the harmony between unity and plurality is not without tension, but I am convinced that this tension is healthy and make us move forward.
Opening new ways is not easy. We need to lift our eyes above the everyday; we need to learn from the secular tradition of the church and to look to the future. We face the challenge, in the present, of learning from the tradition of the forms of consecrated life throughout history without remaining fixed in forms of “canons” in which we do not feel completely at ease.
In the encounter in Rome we had the opportunity to listen to two keynote presentations: the first by Claretian Fr. Carlos García Andrade, who talked about “Structures of Communion;” and the second by Idente Missionary Dr. Maruja Serrano, who talked about “Structures of Government” in the new forms of consecrated life. After each talk breakout groups shared their reactions. Groups were a mixture of members from the 32 communities present.
For me, belonging to a community with 52 years of existence — one of the six institutes that have already received pontifical approval — it was a particularly rich experience to share both with members of communities that have a similar lifespan and with people from newly formed communities. It is marvelous to witness how, in most cases, the founders did not have everything planned from the beginning, but started with one particular group — young men, young girls or married couples — seeking to live out the Gospel with more authenticity — and gradually understood that the call was for any Christian who desired to share that “adventure.”
It was exciting to discover that despite the many differences among us — in our particular missions, organizational structures and/or lifestyles, and despite having been born in different moments and points of the Earth and without knowing of each other’s existence — we all share the desire to live our vocation as People of God, a family with similar duties and rights.
Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, was present for the final session, in which the secretaries of the different groups shared their conclusions and insights. Rodríguez Carballo, who presided at the closing Mass, encouraged us to be faithful to our charisms and to find the structures that may help them last.
There is still a long way to go. We need to deepen in our identity as “ecclesial families,” in the theology of consecration (in what sense can we talk of “consecrated” married couples?), in the identity of the church as communion, and the role of women and of the laity in general within it as “prophets, priests and kings.”
Some founders of our communities are still alive; some are gone. Verbum Dei is in transition: Our founder lives but he is ill, and is not fully present anymore. We, the generation that has known him closely, who have listened to his preaching, who have followed spiritual exercises guided by him, feel the responsibility of passing his heritage on to new generations with maximum fidelity, as a treasure that is not ours but that we have received. At the same time, having met our founder personally, we have the challenge to distinguish the personality of the founder from the essence of the charism he received from the Holy Spirit.
Jaime Bonet has been a man always open to the word of God and very attentive to the signs of the times. This is the heritage I would like to receive, how I would like to serve now: in “creative fidelity” to the spirit of our founder, attentive to the signs of the times and with the only aim that as many people as possible may discover in Jesus the treasure of their lives and extend the Kingdom of God.
[Sr. Lucía Aurora Herrerías Guerra is president of Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity.]