On Nov. 27, 2011, the First Sunday of Advent, we will implement the English translation of the third edition of the Roman Missal. The Missal will also include the revised translations of the Proper Prayers from the Commons, the Votive Masses and the Ritual Masses. This reflection will review a sample of the Proper Prayers for the Rite of Profession with the intention of unfolding aspects of the theology of religious life preserved in the prayers. Particular emphasis is placed on chapter 6 of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church from the Second Vatican Council. 

The initial reform of the Roman Missal provides a consistent acknowledgement of the fruits of the Eucharist within each Prayer after Communion. For the Rite of Religious Profession an example is “Having received with reverence the divine mysteries, we humbly beseech you, O Lord, to inflame with the fire of the Holy Spirit these servants, bound to you now by an act of sacred offering, and to admit them for ever to the company of your Son Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.” 

Religious Profession by vow is a self-offering to God, who is loved above all things. The Church, given its authority by God, accepts the vows of the newly professed and beseeches and that they be inflamed with the aid and grace of the Holy Spirit, as is evident in this public prayer. Also significant is that the Church accompanies their self-offering by the Eucharistic Sacrifice. 

The Eucharist is the locus where this offering by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience is made one with the sacrifice of Christ. The Eucharist is the source of religious consecration, since one follows Jesus, the perfect example of humble surrender and complete obedience. Thus, the Church asks God the Father that the newly professed be admitted forever into the company of Jesus. It is a specific form of witness to an eternal “spirituality of communion.” 

Religious life is a unique vocation within the various forms of consecrated life. One finds in the document “Essential Elements in the Church’s teaching on Religious Life” that this is a vocation rooted in the gift of baptism, yet it is not given to all of the baptized; it is freely given and unmerited; and that those who accept this invitation enjoy a special gift of grace in the Church, and thereby contribute to the saving mission of the Church in a particular way. It is marked by the essential elements of 1) consecration by public vows, 2) communion in community, 3) evangelical mission, 4) prayer, 5) ascetism, 6) public witness, 7) relation to the Church, and 8) formation. 

St. Thomas Aquinas referred to the religious life as a state of perfection; more accurately, status perfectionis (Summa Theolo., II-II q.184, a.5). “Status” implies one on the way, a “mode of operation,” striving toward, yet not complete in itself. The simple translation into the English as “state” could be interpreted as having already arrived at “perfection.” However, this is not the case, as St. Thomas Aquinas noted that perfection does not consist in the mere accomplishment of a perfect work, but in binding oneself by vow to accomplish such a work. Thus, one may assert that those who are called by vocation to the perfection of charity, love of God and love of neighbor have vowed to strive toward spiritual perfection, manifested for some through apostolic works. 

In the discussions that contributed to the formulation of Lumen Gentium, this particular reference was left somewhat unresolved. Religious life, as great a gift as it is to the Church, could not be seen by some as the “state of perfection” in light of the universal call to holiness of all of the baptized. Therefore, the debate was in some way inconclusive, as may be observed when researching the Acta Synodalia

The Abbot of the Bavarian Abbey of Beuron asserted that even if the term “status perfectionis” was a matter of debate, it had to be recognized that this state of life is a unique gift to the Church. He cited as evidence the liturgical tradition in the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome during the celebration of the Easter Vigil and the Mass at Midnight celebrating the Nativity of the Lord. During the preparatory rites, the Basilica is darkened, waiting for the acclamation “Lumen Christi.” 

Yet, in the midst of the darkness, the niches that hold the statues of founders and foundresses of religious families remain lit. For him, this implied that there is a special vocation, a special consecration to God, which takes the form of the Public Profession of the vows of Religion. Lumen Gentium would describe this as “the state which is constituted by the profession of the evangelical counsels, though it is not the hierarchical structure of the Church, nevertheless, undeniably belongs to its life and holiness” (LG, No. 44). 

This state of life is particularly marked by the Public Profession of Vows during the Eucharistic celebration. The profession is public and received by the Church within the Liturgy because professing individuals freely unite themselves to Christ and his Church. This public witness strengthens and stabilizes the bond which is offered by the individual in response to an invitation from God. The Prayers for the Rite of Religious Profession provide a living memory of this. An examination of the following Collects assists the faithful in understanding the theology of Religious Life. 

Current Translation (Collect A)

Perpetual Profession: 

God our Father, you have caused the grace of baptism to bear such fruit in your servants, that they now strive to follow your Son more closely. Let them rightly aim at truly evangelical perfection and increase the holiness and apostolic zeal of your Church. 

New translation: 

O God, who willed that the grace of Baptism should flourish in these your servants, so that they might strive to follow more closely in the footsteps of your Son, grant, we pray, that, constantly seeking evangelical perfection, they may add to the holiness of your Church and increase her apostolic zeal. 

Although the nuances are similar for both translations, one may more readily recognize the theological assertions regarding the state of religious life as presented in Lumen Gentium: “the religious state of life is not an intermediate state between the clerical and lay states. But, rather, the faithful of Christ are called by God from both these states of life so that they might enjoy this particular gift in the life of the Church.” One who is called is invited to freely respond. The grace of baptism enables one to freely accept this invitation. This is noted in the prayer.

In addition we find in LG that “Christ proposed to His disciples this form of life, which He, as the Son of God, accepted in entering this world to do the will of the Father. This same state of life is accurately exemplified and perpetually made present in the Church.” The prayer alludes to this life of following Christ more closely as a flourishing of grace in a particular way. The Profession of the vows of Religion is not a sacrament, but a sacramental that is publically professed within the celebration of the Sacrament of Eucharist, the Sacrament of Sacraments. In this way, we might note from the prayer that the sacrifices offered to live in this “status perfectionis” contribute to the holiness and zeal of the Church.

Current Translation (Collect B): 

Lord, holy Father, Confirm the resolve of your servants (N and N). Grant that the grace of baptism, which they wish to strengthen with new bonds, may work its full effect in them, so that they may offer you their praise and spread Christ’s kingdom with apostolic zeal. 

New translation: 

O Lord, holy Father, graciously confirm the resolve of your servants (N and N), and grant that the grace of Baptism which they desire to be strengthened by new bonds, may produce in them its full effect, so that they may render due worship to your majesty and spread with apostolic zeal the Kingdom of Christ. 

The second option for the Rite of Perpetual Profession alludes to two additional references from Lumen Gentium: “This consecration will be the more perfect, in as much as the indissoluble bond of the union of Christ and His bride, the Church, is represented by firm and more stable bonds.” It confers a responsibility and obligation of the religious professing vows to be particularly vigilant and disposed to receive the necessary grace in order to strive toward the perfection of one’s consecration and to deepen one’s faith. One acknowledges that a life given completely to God requires uniting one’s will with the Father’s in order to truly follow Christ.

In addition, there is a reference to worship. The virtue of religion includes continually binding and rebinding oneself to God, which is most evident in worship. Again in LG we find: “Indeed through Baptism a person dies to sin and is consecrated to God. However, in order that he may be capable of deriving more abundant fruit from this baptismal grace, he intends, by the profession of the evangelical counsels in the Church, to free himself from those obstacles, which might draw him away from the fervor of charity and the perfection of divine worship (No. 44).

Thus, this translation of the prayer more accurately reflects the state of life which is a gift of grace by vocation, and which opens a path toward perfection in worship. Perfection in worship aims toward living a life configured to Christ, striving in the perfection of charity and rooted in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5). There is also an allusion to Lumen Gentium in the last words of the prayer: “From this arises their duty of working to implant and strengthen the Kingdom of Christ in souls and to extend that Kingdom to every time.”

Religious Life is a life of service in charity. Apostolic service demands a life of contemplative prayer that nourishes a generous gift of self. External structures in religious congregations assist with times of common prayer and fraternal community, although true holiness for the Church comes from conversion of hearts.

These prayers of the new English translation present only a sampling of the theological underpinnings that reflect the lex orandi lex credendi of this state of life held by the Church. It is a life that is an unmerited gift of love from God, yet it can only be fulfilled when it is freely accepted. Religious life is indeed “counter-culture” for the world, but the Church is not afraid to live in a culture that has been redeemed by Christ. TP

SISTER ESTHER MARY NICKEL, R.S.M., Ph.D., S.L.D., is a Religious Sister of Mary of Alma, Mich. She is a professor of sacred liturgy at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.