“Jesus himself drew near and walked with them” (Luke 24:15).
Seeking Community in a Fragmented World
The consecrated life is countercultural for many reasons. A life of silence and prayer in our noisy and distracted world is countercultural. The three vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience go against the grain and goals of our culture. The consecrated life is a supernatural life, a life of faith, in a world that glorifies the natural and the tangible.
But there’s another part of consecrated life that is not as readily noticed or easily recognized as being countercultural: the element of community life. Religious men and women live their lives within the context of a community. They pray together, work together, share joys, sorrows, successes, and challenges together. They are not walking alone on their journey with God. They walk within a community, and with a community. This communion of life is an echo and a sign of the deep communion that God wants to have with each of us and with all of us.
We Do Not Walk Alone
In addition to being a life of community, religious life is also a life that creates community. It does this in two ways. First, the mere witness of religious men and women living, praying, working, and journeying together is a visible reminder that we do not and should not walk alone.
The second way is through contact with other people. Religious brothers and sisters are men and women of communion, and they are called to bring this into every interaction, conversation, and relationship that they have. They do this through their missions, reaching out to the people to whom God has sent them. But they also do this in their daily interactions: in the grocery store, in the post office, or on the street. I remember one time meeting a woman on the subway. I smiled at her, and soon we were chatting about the weather, then her children, then faith and prayer. When we parted ways, she gave me a hug. We may never see each other again, but in those moments, we created a bond of communion in Jesus.
Jesus Desires Communion for Us
The only way to live community life and communion with others truly and effectively is to live in and with Jesus. He shows us, by his example and his teaching, how to be a person of communion. In fact, he is communion. His deepest desire is for communion and unity: “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you” (Jn 17:21).
The Gospel story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus presents Jesus as a man of communion who both lives community life with his disciples and invites them to create community with others. When the story begins, it is the evening of Resurrection Sunday, and two disciples are leaving Jerusalem and walking toward Emmaus. The crucifixion and death of Jesus has been too much for them. They are leaving. In some sense, we could say that they are fleeing from community. Jesus, however, “drew near and walked with them” (Lk 24:15). Jesus does not leave them to their own devices once they’ve left the community. He follows after them, enters into conversation with them, seeks to understand their concerns, problems, and difficulties. This is true community: to bear the burdens of another, and to allow others to bear my burdens. This is what Jesus does.
But Jesus does not stop there! It is not enough for him to reach out in communion to these disciples. He must empower them to reach out to others. This is what he does “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:35). The disciples suddenly recognize that Jesus has been with them all along, walking with them, sharing their journey. And what is their next move? To return to Jerusalem—to return to community. “They set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven” (Lk 24:33). They become “agents” of communion in the world.
“Agents” of Communion
Religious men and women are called to build communion in a world experiencing a crisis of communion, and this is what makes them so countercultural. Pope Francis reinforces this call in his letter for opening the year of Consecrated Life:
Be “men and women of communion! Firmly rooted in personal communion with God, whom you have chosen as the porro unum
[good portion] (cf. Lk 10:42) of your existence, be tireless builders of fraternity, above all practicing among yourselves the Gospel law of mutual love, and then with all, especially the poorest. Demonstrate that universal fraternity is not a utopia but Jesus’ very dream for the whole of humanity” (Message for the Opening of the Year of Consecrated Life).
Both communion and community are great gifts of God. Let us ask for a profound experience of communion with God that overflows into communion with everyone in our daily lives. And let us also give thanks for visible signs and witnesses of communion in our world today.
A Discerner’s Prayer
Jesus, accompany me on my “road to Emmaus.” Draw near, stay with me, open my eyes to you. And through this experience, open my heart to live in deep communion with the brothers and sisters you place in my path. Amen.
* The full (but short) Message for the Opening of the Year of Consecrated Life is available online on the Vatican website.