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Women religious faithfully serve Christ

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on the Church
General Audience, Wednesday 15 March 1995 - in Italian & Spanish  

"1. Female consecrated life has a very important place in the Church. It is enough to think of the deep influence of the contemplative life and prayer of women religious. We think of their work in education and health care, of their collaboration in many places in parish life, of the important services that they provide at diocesan or interdiocesan levels and of the specialized tasks which they are increasingly assuming even in the Holy See.

Let us also remember that in some countries the proclamation of the Gospel, catechetical activities and even the conferring of Baptism are largely entrusted to women religious, who have direct contact with the people in schools and families. Neither should we forget the other women who, in various forms of individual consecration and ecclesial communion, give of themselves to Christ in service to his kingdom in the Church. This happens today in the order of virgins, which one enters through special consecration to God in the hands of the diocesan bishop (cf. CIC, can. 604).

2. Blessed be this multiform host of "handmaids of the Lord." Down the centuries they extend and renew the very beautiful experience of the women who followed Jesus and served him and his disciples (cf. Lk 8:1-3).

No less than the apostles, they experienced the overwhelming power of the divine Master's word and love, and began to help and serve him to the best of their ability on his missionary journeys. Jesus' pleasure is apparent in the Gospel. He could not fail to appreciate these expressions of generosity and kindness typical of feminine psychology, but inspired by a faith in his person beyond mere human explanation. Mary Magdalene was a significant example of this. A faithful disciple and minister of Christ in his life, she was also later a witness to and, one could almost say, the first messenger of his resurrection (cf. Jn 20:17-18).

3. It cannot be ruled out that her gesture of sincere and faithful adherence is a sublime reflection of the sense of total dedication that leads a woman to betrothal. Even more so, at the level of supernatural love, it leads to virginal consecration to Christ, as I pointed out in Mulieris Dignitatem (cf. n. 20).

In this following of Christ expressed as service, we can also discover the other feminine quality of self-giving, which the Virgin Mary so vividly expressed in her final words to the angel: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word" (Lk 1:38). It is an expression of faith and love, which is made concrete in obedience to the divine call, at the service of God and of our brothers and sisters. Thus it was with Mary; thus it was with the women who followed Jesus; thus it was with all those who, in their footsteps, were to follow him down the centuries.

Today spousal mysticism appears less pronounced in young aspirants to the religious life. This outlook is not fostered by the common mentality, by school or by reading. Besides, there are well-known saintly figures who found and followed other paths in their relationship of consecration to God. This includes service to the coming of his kingdom, the gift of themselves to him in order to serve him in their poor brothers and sisters, and a keen sense of his sovereignty ("My Lord and my God!"--cf. Jn 20:28). It also includes identification with the Eucharistic sacrifice, being a daughter of the Church, the vocation to works of mercy, the desire to be the least or the last in the Christian community, to be the heart of the Church or to offer in their own souls a little temple to the Blessed Trinity. These are some of the leitmotifs of a life--like that of St. Paul and especially that of Mary--grasped by Christ Jesus (cf. Phil 3:12).

In addition, it could be useful to underscore for all women religious the value of participating in the condition of the "servant of the Lord" (cf. Is 41:9; 42:1; 49:3; Phil 2:7, etc.), proper to Christ the priest and victim. The service that Jesus came to fulfill by giving his life "as a ransom for many" (Mt 20:28) becomes an example to be imitated and a redeeming participation, to be lived in fraternal service (cf. Mt 20:25-27). This does not exclude--on the contrary, it includes--special fulfillment of the Church's spousal dimension in union with Christ and in the constant application to the world of the fruits of the redemption wrought by the priesthood of the cross.

4. According to the Council, the mystery of the Church's spousal union with Christ is represented in every consecrated life (cf. LG 44), especially through the profession of the evangelical counsel of chastity (cf. PC 12). It is understandable that this representation is especially realized in the consecrated woman. To her the title sponsa Christi is frequently attributed, even in the liturgical texts. Tertullian applied the image of nuptials with God to men and women without distinction when he wrote: "How many men and women in the ranks of the Church have appealed to continence and preferred to be wedded to God..." [1] . But it cannot be denied that the feminine soul has a particular capacity to live in a mystical spousal relationship with Christ and thus to reproduce in herself the face and heart of his bride, the Church. This is why, in the rite for the profession of women religious and consecrated virgins in the world, the singing or recitation of the antiphon "Veni sponsa Christi..." fills their hearts with intense emotion, enveloping those concerned and the whole assembly in an aura of mysticism.

5. In the logic of the union with Christ as priest and spouse, the sense of spiritual motherhood is also developed in women. Virginity, or evangelical chastity, implies renouncement of physical motherhood, but so as to be expressed, according to God's plan, in a superior kind of motherhood on which the light of the Virgin Mary's motherhood shines. Every consecrated virgin is destined to receive from the Lord a gift which in a certain way reproduces the features of universality and spiritual fruitfulness of Mary's motherhood.

This is shown in the work accomplished by many women religious in educating young people in faith. It is well known that many female congregations were founded and have established numerous schools precisely to impart this education. Especially when it is a question of little ones, womanly qualities are valuable and indispensable for this. This is also the case with many works of charity and assistance to the poor, the sick, the handicapped, the abandoned, especially children and little girls, once described as waifs. These are all cases where dedication and compassion, the treasures of the feminine heart, are involved. It is finally found in the various forms of cooperation in the services provided by parishes and Catholic institutions, where a woman's capacities for collaboration in the pastoral ministry are being ever more clearly revealed.

6. However, among all the values in female religious life, prayer should always be recognized as having priority. This is the main form of achieving and expressing intimacy with the divine bridegroom. All women religious are called to be women of prayer, women of piety, women of interior life, of a life of prayer. If it is true that the witness to this vocation is more obvious in institutes of contemplative life, certainly it also appears in institutes of the active apostolate that carefully safeguard the times of prayer and contemplation which correspond to the needs and demands of consecrated persons and to the advice given in the Gospel. Jesus recommended prayer to all his disciples. He wished to shed light on the value of a life of prayer and contemplation with the example of a woman, Mary of Bethany, whom he praised for choosing "the better part" (Lk 10:42): listening to the divine word, assimilating it, making it a secret of life. Was not this a light for the whole future contribution of women to the Church's life of prayer?

In assiduous prayer, moreover, lies the secret of perseverance in that commitment of fidelity to Christ which must serve as an example for everyone in the Church.

This unblemished witness to persevering love can be a great help to other women in critical situations which in this regard also afflict our society. We hope and pray that many women religious, possessing the heart of a bride of Christ and showing it in their lives, may also help reveal to all people the Church's fidelity in her union with Christ her spouse and enable them to understand it better: fidelity in truth, in charity, and in yearning for universal salvation.

[1]   De exhort. cast., 13; PL 2:930A; Corp. Christ, 2, 1035, 35-39"

After the Catechesis, Papa Giovanni Paolo II greeted the pilgrims in various languages

Ai fedeli di lingua francese

Chers frères et sœurs,

Je salue cordialement les personnes de langue française présentes à cette audience, en particulier les élèves des lycées venus en pèlerinage à Rome. Au cours de ce Carême, prions le Seigneur pour que de nombreux jeunes acceptent d’entendre l’appel de Dieu à se consacrer à son service dans la vie religieuse! À tous, j’accorde de grand cœur ma Bénédiction Apostolique.

Ai pellegrini di lingua inglese

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I am pleased to greet the choirs taking part in the International Choral Festival «Orlando di Lasso» and I thank you for your praise of God in song. Upon all the English–speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience I cordially invoke the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ai fedeli di lingua tedesca

Liebe Schwestern und Brüder!

Mit dem innigen Wunsch für Euch, liebe deutschsprachige Pilger und Besucher, in dieser Fastenzeit zu suchen und zu tun, was uns zum Heile dient, grüe ich Euch alle sehr herzlich. Euch, Euren Angehörigen und Freunden in der Heimat sowie allen, die uns in diesem Augenblick verbunden sind, erteile ich von Herzen meinen Apostolischen Segen.

Ai pellegrini di lingua spagnola

Amadísimos hermanos y hermanas,

Saludo ahora con afecto a los peregrinos y visitantes de lengua española. En particular, al grupo de la Caja Rural de Benicasim (Castellón) y a las peregrinaciones procedentes de Lima y de La Rioja (Argentina).

A todas las personas, familias y grupos provenientes de los diversos Países de América Latina y de España imparto de corazón la Bendición Apostólica.

Ai fedeli portoghesi

Queridos Irmãos e Irmãs,

Amados peregrinos de língua portuguesa, dou–vos as boas–vindas a todos, nomeadamente ao grupo de pessoas ligadas ao Instituto Português de Oncologia, a quem desejo os melhores êxitos na vossa luta contra o cancro e peço a Deus o dom de vos tornar incansáveis Cireneus junto das vítimas do mesmo, para que a esperança não morra nunca em seus corações nem ao seu redor.

Sobre todos os presentes e respectivas famílias, de bom grado estendo a Bênção Apostólica.

Ai pellegrini polacchi

Pozdrawiam pielgrzymów z Polski: Księdza Kardynała Metropolitę Krakowskiego, Księdza Arcybiskupa Metropolitę Białostockiego wraz z pielgrzymami archidiecezji w Białymstoku, pielgrzymkę z parafii Odkupiciela Człowieka z Bielska–Białej, z parafii św. Wawrzyńca z Wilkszyna (archidiecezja wrocławska), z parafii polonijnej we Frankfurcie, Zespół Pieśni i Tańca “Wisan” ze Skopania k. Tarnobrzega, pracowników Urzędu Miejskiego w Słomnikach k. Krakowa, grupę uczniów i wychowawców ze Szkoły Podstawowej nr 182 z Warszawy, grupę młodzieży i nauczycieli ze Szkoły Podstawowej nr 3 z Chodzieży k. Poznania, grupę Zespołu Szkół Ekonomicznych w Brzegu, grupę Polaków z Neapolu, prócz tego grupę turystyczną “Voyager” z Petersburga i ze Śląska oraz wszystkich innych uczestników audiencji, pielgrzymów indywidualnych, pochodzących z kraju i z zagranicy, z emigracji.

Ai fedeli giapponesi

Rendiamo grazie a Dio!

Cari pellegrini del Giappone, benvenuti a Roma. Diletti fedeli della parrocchia di Tamatsukuri, la vostra Diocesi di Osaka ha avuto danni grossi dal terremoto recente. Prego il Signore che vi conceda grazie in abbondanza per il progetto di rinascere “Shinsei”.

Rendiamo grazie a Dio!

Ai pellegrini di lingua italiana

Rivolgo un cordiale benvenuto ai pellegrini di lingua italiana, in particolare al folto gruppo dell’Arcidiocesi di Salerno-Campagna-Acerno, guidato dall’Arcivescovo, Monsignor Gerardo Pierro. Sono lieto di accogliervi, carissimi, e benedico volentieri il plastico del nuovo Seminario metropolitano e della Casa di riposo per sacerdoti anziani, di prossima realizzazione.

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Saluto poi i fedeli della parrocchia di Sant’Andrea Apostolo in Mossa (Gorizia), accompagnati dall’Arcivescovo, Monsignor Antonio Vitale Bommarco, e dal Parroco. Mi rallegro con voi, cari Fratelli e Sorelle, per la ricostruzione del Santuario mariano, ed invoco sulla Comunità la costante protezione di Maria Santissima.

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Accolgo con piacere le donne dirigenti e dipendenti dell’Enel, che hanno voluto rendermi visita, ed auspico che sappiano sempre meglio rispondere alla loro vocazione cristiana offrendo un valido contributo alla crescita armonica della società.

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Un saluto va anche agli Allievi della Scuola Sottufficiali della Marina Militare di Taranto, che esorto a svolgere il servizio con animo leale e generoso.

Ai giovani, agli ammalati e alle coppie di sposi novelli

Invito, infine, i giovani, i malati e gli sposi novelli, a proseguire con impegno nell’itinerario quaresimale.

Voi, giovani, accogliete con docilità la volontà di Dio, pronti a compiere gesti di cristiana solidarietà ovunque la Provvidenza vi chiama ad operare. Voi, ammalati, sostenete con la preghiera e l’offerta delle sofferenze quanti nella Chiesa si dedicano ad aiutare i fratelli. Voi, sposi novelli, crescete nell’amore e diffondetelo non solo all’interno della vostra nuova famiglia, ma anche nella comunità cristiana e nell’intera società.

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