World Communities, a Paradox

“Weltgemeinschaften – ein Paradox.” Säkularinstitute im Dienst am Menschen, edited by Informationszentrum Berufe der Kirche, 1972, pp. 2⁠⁠-⁠⁠5

The movement which led the Church to approve the new “world communities” (instituta saecularia) with the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater of 1947 came from below. After early attempts, successful (Ursulines) or otherwise (Mary Ward), to live beyond canonical limits as radical followers of Christ in the world, it was, significantly enough, the troubles of the French Revolution, with its suppression of the monasteries, which occasioned the link between life in the midst of the world and the evangelical counsels. At the beginning of this century the experiments multiplied spontaneously, despite the fact that their paradoxical combination of what had until then seemed incompatible continued to arouse suspicion and rejection until the above-mentioned official approbation was issued.

This approbation, however, can at best sanction the paradox: it cannot eliminate it. Even within the Church—⁠among conservatives as well as among liberals⁠—the kind of life lived by the world communities will meet with misgivings, often with contempt, just as outside of the Church it will almost always encounter complete incomprehension. How can a man who is going to exercise genuine, fully responsible control over the affairs of the world—⁠professional, financial, political, and so forth⁠—live at the same time “in obedience”? How can anyone who is going to share in earnest all the difficulties and burdens of existence among his fellow men want to remain celibate for Christ’s sake and thereby refuse one of the most significant areas of human life? Is not the combination of existence in the midst of the world and at the same time in the evangelical counsels a contradiction in terms, which dooms the attempt at this impossible amalgamation to the loss of the clear witness and the impact of both forms of life? This is a weighty objection.

But we can also examine things for once from the other side. Is not every Christian called to be “in the world, but not of the world”, to use the things of the world “as if he did not use them”? Do not the words, “whoever has ears to hear, let him hear” also follow already from this general Christian paradox? Is it not a facile solution that some (the “ordinary” lay people) specialize in the “use” of things, whereas others, that is, members of religious orders, congregations, celibate priests, by reason of their state represent the second half of the sentence, “as if they did not use them”? The paradox which every Christian takes on his way from baptism must be exemplified clearly and unambiguously in the life of all: the “world communities” consciously take their place today at the precise point where these two exigencies meet, where the seam must be sewn together—⁠once and for all and every day anew⁠—regardless of whether they thereby incur dislike in the Church and in the world for being disturbers of the peace.

Let us add here that the world communities serenely and resolutely recognized their task in the urgency of this way of living the Christian paradox long before the nervous post-Conciliar trend out of contemplative and active orders and out of the forms of the traditional priesthood towards the “world” set in. They do not need to seek out the world: they are already in it. But even in their secularity they do not betray the particular election to the evangelical counsels, which from the very beginning has constituted their entire raison d’être. This latter is “the following of Jesus Christ in the midst of this world”, where following is understood in the same radical sense in which the apostles were called to drop everything and to base their entire existence on the person of Jesus and his instructions. The universal Christian paradox attains its maximum visibility and its most rigorously precise expression in the world communities.

Seen from outside the ideal of the world communities remains abstract (that is, unlivable in the concrete, a compromise). The criticism of them is an easy job, at every step of the way. Their response to this criticism is halting and labored; when it pretends to eloquence, it becomes unbelievable. Let us be honest: the existence of the world communities is and remains difficult. It is above all an ever renewed demand which uncompromisingly says “it must work!”; it is not a securely acquired possession. It is constantly necessary to work out a balance between two simultaneously existing claims: independent responsible action and open readiness to be disposed of further. Administration of goods without inward attachment to them, genuine love of neighbor to the point of laying down one’s life without entrance into the exclusive relationship established by marriage. But was not the life of Jesus the first example of all of this? Is not Paul’s existence a complete grammar in which this language can be learned? Does not even elementary Christian reflection tell us that when a man consecrates himself entirely to the absolute, personal and universal love of God he is thereby also engaged most profoundly in the service of God’s engagement for the world—which goes as far as death on the cross? Anyone who, on the contrary, believes that he will find an easier, perhaps more “contemporary”, way in the world communities (than in the Carmel, for example), or that they will allow him to “kill two birds with one stone”, is utterly mistaken and should not even make the attempt. The constant interior dedication which is required here if the salt of the earth is not to become insipid takes at least as much magnanimity, as much renunciation—⁠which does not calculate and count⁠—as much total interior readiness and willingness to be disposed of as it does to live in any active or contemplative order.

The world communities are a form of life which has been approved and encouraged in the Church. Form means: they are not associations left to the discretion of the members (pia unio), but fit into a framework existing within the Church, albeit loosely and almost invisibly. Theologically speaking this means that the dedication of individuals to God and to his work in the world enters into an ecclesiastically approved structure of community, which is empowered to receive this dedication and to give it the character of a definitive consecration of one’s entire existence. Only thus is such dedication removed from the sphere of my personal discretion. Today’s very popular notion that it is impossible to bind oneself honestly for one’s whole life, that the door must always (in marriage, priesthood and religious life) be left open to back out, contradicts most profoundly the definitive character of God’s action for us and of our response to him. World communities may legitimately fix a long probationary period before they admit a candidate to this definitive bond: their exposed form of existence requires them to do so. But the aim intended from the very beginning and maintained throughout is complete dedication of life.

The world communities are young. In many cases they are still experimenting and in the process are discovering that there is much in them which is in need of revision or of better safeguards. A difficult problem for all remains that of a solid religious formation, which must go along with professional training, as well as that of community life, which, even when quite a few members live singly or in very small groups, must nonetheless function well enough to prevent atrophy of the consciousness of the community and impairment of the indispensable support which it provides. On the tightrope walk between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world not only individuals but also whole institutes can suffer fits of dizziness and risk plunging into the abyss either of a one-sided spirituality or of an exaggerated worldliness. They maintain the vitality of their existence only by daily “watching and praying”, by constantly discerning the spirits. Anyone who is looking for a protective niche must apply elsewhere.

But perhaps this permanent intrinsic exposure to risk is the best recommendation. Many, as has already been said, force their way to the point where the world communities find themselves without being called to do so: a transformation of existing orders and congregations into world communities is in general not advisable. “Let each one remain in his vocation” (I⁠ ⁠Cor. 7:24). On the other hand, we do not know how long there will still be orders and congregations among us, or whether they will not, as in many countries of the East, be restricted to small, “harmless” fields of action. What then? In the East only (secret) world communities remain on active duty as working ecclesial groups in the worldly domain. Perhaps the decisive hour for this form of life is yet to strike in the Church, and until then it should employ the time well in order to ready itself by making various trials of its possibilities.

The great predominance of female world communities over their male counterparts is abnormal. Means must be found to make this way appear more accessible and more attractive to men active in worldly professions. There are also approved world communities of priests which perform significant work in today’s Church. Theologians have found fault with the very fact that they bear the name “world community”, but perhaps it can be justified on the grounds that these priests, taking quite seriously their following of Christ, strive to be as close as possible to men and through them to the things of the world, which are to be ordered according to the mind of Christ. There is no doubt, however, that all lay communities are dependent on priests who understand their particular ideal; and many communities appropriately contain a male, female and priestly branch, which collaborate according to the circumstances.

The paradox remains: wholly for God and wholly for the world—in an ecclesial community. It can be lived because the whole God engaged himself in Christ for the whole world, and because the place where he does this again and again is in the Church of Christ, the “sacrament of the world”.