Pope Francis has called for a Year of Consecrated Life beginning this Sunday, Nov. 30, and concluding Feb. 2, 2016. This event calls the whole church to celebrate and thank the myriad number of women and men who live the consecrated life as religious, consecrated virgins and hermits.

It would be hard to imagine the Catholic Church without the uplifting presence, radiant witness and dedicated contribution of consecrated persons.

In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, we benefit from the fruitful life of so many religious communities who founded and served a rich variety of schools, hospitals, orphanages and social services.

If we factored out the enormous contribution of consecrated life from the history of our cities and state, we would see a gaping hole in education, health care, and service to the poor and vulnerable.

Throughout the history of the church, religious orders produced saints, kept ancient learning alive, founded thousands of monasteries and convents, created universities and hospitals, developed better farming methods, in all things producing order and civilization in many situations where there was none.

If we only look at what consecrated persons do, however, we would be missing the central point of such a purposeful manner of living. By living the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the consecrated give radical witness to Jesus Christ who himself was poor, chaste and obedient to the Father.

Such a life points beyond the material and physical limits of this world toward the Kingdom of God and the saving truth of the Gospel. In his or her being, a consecrated person is a transcendent witness who reminds us that only God is eternal, that this life is fleeting, that our hearts need to be fixed on the good things of heaven.

In a culture that often turns the gift of our sexuality into lustful promiscuity, the consecrated vow to live celibate chastity in order to freely love God and others. In a society that often loves things and uses people, the consecrated vow themselves to poverty. In a world that equates freedom with license, the consecrated promise obedience to God and their superiors.

These vows are a conscious renunciation of the ephemeral in order to be free to embrace the eternal and holy life of Christ, lived in the mystery of the church.

An ancient way of life, going all the way back to the Scriptures, consecrated virginity gives radical witness to Jesus Christ as our true good. Women who take such a vow live in the world, working in a secular profession, belonging to a parish. Their spirituality is profoundly spousal, viewing Jesus as the Bridegroom and love of their lives. In this way, consecrated virgins live out the union between Christ and the church.

Hermits live in solitude, not as a renunciation of other people or the world, but rather to love the Lord free of all distraction, finding God in the silence of a life wholly given over to meditation and contemplation.

Many of the saints, including Benedict, Scholastica, Anthony of the Desert and Julian of Norwich, spent time apart, dwelling in caves or huts, far from the noise and distraction of the world. Hermits live out the solitude of the Lord who spent many nights in prayer alone with the Father.

Religious live the consecrated life in community as brother or sister disciples in the Lord Jesus, giving witness to the Gospel through their common life of faith, charity and prayer, acting out the specific charism of their founder.
The number and variety of religious orders, the reach of their apostolic activity, the transformative difference they make in the world is truly a wonder and gift to celebrate. One can find women and men religious in the poorest, most obscure and difficult human situations. Third World slum dwellers, prisoners on death row, orphans, the homeless, victims of AIDS, the elderly, abandoned, school children and the poor all find mercy and hope because of the love and service of Catholic religious.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, we give thanks to God for the gift of Jesus Christ, his salvation, the mystery of the church and, in a special way, the legacy and service of consecrated persons in the world, the church, our archdiocese and our lives.

All of us are better Catholics and better people because of the example and goodness of countless sisters, brothers, priests, virgins and hermits who have loved, prayed and mentored us into Christian discipleship. For all of them, we give thanks and praise as we begin this Year of Consecrated Life.