This is part two of a five-part essay by Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders on the meaning of religious life today. The series is published in the U.S-based National Catholic Reporter. In this part Schneiders, professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, sets the context for “Religious Life as Prophetic Life Form.” (See my earlier post on Tom Fox’s interview with Schneiders here and the part one of this series here.) The quotes that I highlighted and my set of questions are at the bottom of the post.
In this essay, Schneiders goes beyond the description of the itinerant ministerial religious lifestyle into the theological nature of the prophetic life form that this lifestyle embodies. Meanwhile, we need always to keep in mind that all believers, whatever their particular Christian vocations, are equally called to discipleship and to holiness.
Call, Response, and Task of Prophetic Action (Part 2 of 5)
In an article published by NCR last October I described ministerial religious life as it emerged in the [Catholic] Church in the 1600’s, was officially approved in 1900, and has finally become distinct, in the wake of Vatican II, from the semi-cloistered monastic-apostolic hybrid lifeform of the early 1900’s. I described it as a lifeform closely modeled on that of Jesus’ original itinerant band of disciples, those women and men like Peter, Mary Magdalene, and others whom Jesus called to go about with him on a full-time basis in Palestine during his earthly ministry and, after his resurrection, to the ends of the earth. Like Jesus himself they were called to leave home, family, employment, personal belongings, life projects and to devote themselves full-time to the ministry of proclaiming the Reign of God in word and deed.
In this essay I want to go beyond the description of the itinerant lifestyle of these disciples into the theological nature of the prophetic lifeform that this lifestyle embodies. In such an investigation we need always to keep in mind that all believers, whatever their particular Christian vocation, are equally called to discipleship and to holiness. However, not all disciples are called to this particular lifeform which, as we will see, consists in a particular assimilation to Jesus’ prophetic identity and mission.
John Paul II insisted at considerable length in Vita Consecrata (the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation published in 1996, Part II, 84 ff.), following the lead of the Council, that Religious Life is a prophetic lifeform in the Church. Prophecy is not all there is to Religious Life, just as it did not exhaust the mission and ministry of Jesus. But our question here is: what does it mean to say that ministerial Religious Life is essentially a prophetic lifeform? Only from this basis can we address some of the questions about the life, and particularly about the role of obedience in this life, that are being raised by the current Vatican investigations [into American Catholic women’s religious communities].
The Pre-Paschal Jesus as Prophet: Model of Religious Life
Throughout his public ministry Jesus functioned as a prophet recognizably in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, especially Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea who are evoked explicitly and implicitly in the narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. People clearly regarded Jesus as a prophet (see Mt.14:5; 21:11, 46; Lk. 7:16; 7:39; Jn. 6:14) and he did not reject or refuse this identification as he did that of king. On the contrary, Jesus spoke of himself as a prophet by comparing himself to the prophet Jonah (see Mt.12:39), identifying himself as the prophet not accepted in his own town or among his own people (see Lk.4:24), and predicting that he would suffer the fate of the prophets, namely, persecution by the religious authorities and finally execution in the Holy City (see Lk. 13:33).
In John’s Gospel there are two extraordinary scenes in which the pre-Easter Jesus’ prophetic identity is progressively discerned by his textual interlocutors and clearly revealed to the readers. In John 4 the Samaritan Woman starts by seeing Jesus as a “man” and a “Jew,” and then recognizes that he is a “patriarch” greater than Jacob, and finally exclaims, “I perceive that you are a prophet” (Jn. 4:19). In John 9 the healed man-born-blind starts by referring to his healer as “the man called Jesus,” and goes on to solemnly testify before the Jewish authorities (at the cost of excommunication) that Jesus “is a prophet” (Jn. 9:17) come from God.
After the Resurrection, when the risen Jesus, unrecognized, joins the two disciples on the way to Emmaus and asks them what they are discussing as they walk, they reply that they are talking about “Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in word and work before God and all the people” (Lk. 24:19) and whom their leaders had executed. Obviously, they were voicing the perception of Jesus’ identity common among his followers.
The itinerant band of followers who accompanied Jesus during his public life and were commissioned by him after his Resurrection to continue his mission were initiated into Jesus’ own prophetic ministry by Jesus himself. Many ministries of the Word, such as apostleship, evangelization, and teaching developed in the early Church and there was much overlapping among them. All of them had a prophetic dimension though each was specified by distinctive goals such as proclaiming the Gospel to people who had not yet heard it or catechizing converts. Religious Life, as the lifeform most closely modeled on that of Jesus’ original itinerant band, also involves participation in these various forms of ministry of the Word. But I want to suggest that one of those ministries, prophecy, is central to and defining of the Religious lifeform as it was of Jesus’ pre-Easter ministerial life.