Charism: The soul of religious life Father Joseph Lopez, JCL Contributor
eligious Life can be shrouded in mystery, making the religious life seem almost like another-worldly state of being. And in some sense it is. This discussion of some important aspects of discerning the religious life will hopefully dispel some of the mists for clearer understanding and discernment. One of the most important things to know about religious communities is that each one has a distinct charism. In a general sense, a charism is a gift from God that helps build up the Church. For religious communities a charism is the soul of the community, that which gives it purpose, motivation and animates its action. A community’s charism involves its history, traditions, rule of life, apostolate and spirituality, all of the heritage, which makes it what it is. All of these elements of community heritage work together to help lead the members to holiness, to lead them to a close relationship with the Holy Trinity, and more generally, to help them be a sign of God’s presence and love in the world for the work of evangelization. The charism of a particular community is its distinctive manner provided for its members to live the evangelical counsels. Let us look at four aspects of charism, which make good starting points to getting to know a religious community: spirituality; apostolate; rule of life and community, and active versus contemplative.
Spirituality A religious community’s spirituality
is the character of its prayer as a community, liturgical and devotional. Spirituality includes traditions handed down by a founder or influential member of the community, or other practices which developed in their history. For example, members might stop every hour and take a moment to pray; they might make a daily examination of conscience according to a particular method; some communities make a monthly day of recollection. For some communities, the manner in which they celebrate the liturgy is an essential part of their spirituality. Some orders even have liturgical texts and rubrics particularly adapted to their order; some celebrate the Mass in the Extraordinary Form as part of their spirituality; some chant or sing the Divine Office. Spirituality often also includes devotional practices. For example, it may be devoted to the Immaculate Conception. They might have community prayers, which reflect this; they may choose to celebrate optional liturgies devoted to the Blessed Virgin; their apostolate could even be influenced by this devotion, for example, educating the faithful about Our Lady’s appearances at to St. Bernadette at Lourdes.
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The spirituality of a religious community pervades its whole life–it is an essential part of the charism, which gives each its distinct character.
Apostolate One of the most easily recognizable elements of a charism is the apostolate, or external work, that the community does. Quite often charism and apostolate are seen as the same, and though the apostolate is a necessary part of the charism, it is only a part. However, it does play quite an important role, and is one of the main things to consider when discerning religious life. The apostolate is the mission, what it has been “sent” to do in the world. The apostolate may be some sort of work directly with people. It could be concerned with basic physical needs like food, shelter or healing. It could be more spiritual or intellectual, like teaching or preaching, counseling, spiritual direction or public prayer and liturgy. It could also be a hidden apostolate, such as prayer or penance for the conversion of the world. In addition to the apostolate, some communities will have work that they do which is primarily for their livelihood. Religious have bills to pay, too.
The South Texas Catholic is the official publication of the Diocese of Corpus Christi.