on the Dedicated Life
Re-imagining the Vision
Christopher Myers SSM
The Decree on the Up-to-date Renewal of Religious Life,
promulgated at the Second Vatican Council held in Rome from 1962 to
1965, was a seminal document which considered the place of religious
life in today's world.
Taking its lead from another important document, The Pastoral
Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, it encouraged
religious to clarify the charism and apostolate of their respective
communities by rehearsing or re-imagining the vision of their founder.
I have heard of a number of communities which, having undertaken this
process of introspection, concluded that they were not fulfilling their
original purpose and decided to accept no new members, resigning
themselves to their fate.
Not so in my experience of the Society of the Sacred Mission. At a
time of unprecedented uncertainty we have engaged in a process of
equally unprecedented change. We have modified our fundamental
structures, adopted new constitutions in England, Australia and Southern
Africa, and are exploring new forms of membership.
The comments of some of our members, therefore, that "This is
not the community I once joined," are entirely appropriate and
indeed welcome, for they endorse the fact that the Society is continuing
its evolution - with the authority, I believe, of the founder himself.
For Herbert Kelly spoke of the Society not in static, mechanical
terms, but in organic, evolutionary language. He called the it "an
idea" and "an atmosphere". Nothing was set in concrete,
nothing was taken as an end in itself. Even the religious life conceived
in a narrow, party frame of reference, was eschewed.
In 1919, leading up to the Great Chapter of 1920, Kelly wrote:
Some have always desired the stricter life; some have learnt to
desire it. And to these, going back to simpler things seems mere
slacking - apostasy from an ideal. But there are others to whom the
whole vision has been a vision of devotion to the Church, and who have
never felt any craving for a "life" of any kind - for itself.
To me, the "Religious Life" for itself is a fortress,
strong and self-contained. As a soldier, I abhor fortresses. The real
work is done by a free-moving field army, intent on victory rather than
on the defence and safety of its own position.
Two years later, brooding on current events, he commented:
If I started again, I would do the same thing, but without cassocks,
without offices, and try for a ten-year profession to start with, as a
Kelly thus affirmed his fundamental conviction that "the
purposes of the past are not bound by the systems of the past." In
1931 he wrote that "If I had known of it, I would have followed the
The Abbot of a small Anglican Benedictine community in England
recently remarked to one of our members that during the past decade or
so, while the number of professed members of his community had steadily
decreased, there was a large and a growing group of people who wished to
associate themselves with the community and its life.
We have experienced a similar phenomenon in the Society of the Sacred
Mission. What is clear from such friends in Australia is that they
desire a real and robust relationship with the community. They do not
wish to be bound by the systems of the past, nor to be second-class
hybrid members of a parallel community, but as one with the whole they
wish to make their own particular contribution to the Sacred Mission in
a way that is mutually enriching. This is not a matter of either/or for
the community, but of both/and. It is not an exclusive narrow view of
religious life, but a broad catholic one.
If it was anything, Kelly's vision of the Society was broad. It
sought to realise fully the potential of each individual, in whatever
context, in order to maximise enthusiasm and devotion in the doing of
In 1908, as he looked back to the early days of 1894 (when the
Society began), Kelly wrote,
From the beginning we always prepared every man for ordination who
could be prepared. Moreover, we always from the beginning meant to work
at home as well as abroad ...We were not seeking merely increased numbers
of ordination candidates, still less only lay workers. We wanted to call
out a whole mass of enthusiasm and devotion of all kinds, wherever it
might be found, for all purposes.
While it is clear that many of the systems which once undergirded the
Religious Life are grinding to a halt, inappropriate and ineffective in
today's world, yet there remains waiting a "mass of enthusiasm and
devotion" to be called out in fulfilment of the sacred mission.
If today we can find the energy and courage to discover anew and
afresh the vision of our founder from those very early days in the life
of the Society, then we might also by God's grace discern that we have
travelled a full circle and rediscovered the purpose of the past.