A Free Hand Theological Reflection
What follows is a rough sketch of an idea that I mentioned on Relevant Radio this morning. I have courted controversy here before by suggesting that the single state is not properly speaking a vocation in the same way that being a consecrated religious, a priest, or a married person is. Further, in case someone thinks to ask, I have given some thought to what the vocation to the permanent diaconate, but those notes are still largely inchoate somewhere in my brain stem. At any rate, like so many things in the life of faith, these three vocations -- priesthood, religious life, and marriage -- exist as three modes of the same reality and as such point and refer back and forth to each other. Lastly, I would assert that the health of one vocation in a parish or diocese (depending on how you want to examine it) reflects and measures the health of the other two. But why would this be?
First, let's ask the essential question. What do all three ecclesial vocations point to? The three point to the self-giving love of the Trinity. Each in a way proper to them reflect and derive from the base point that God exists as a communion of persons. There is a danger of misunderstanding here though. Although they are intrinsically related, they are not the same as each other. The vital epicenter resides with the Trinity; how they relate to each person of the Trinity permits the proper distinction to appear. We can clearly see this as it relates to an icon for each.
For marriage, the primary icon is Christ's self-giving love to redeem the Church and the reciprocal gift of love which the Church, empowered by grace, returns to the Son. The secondary icon is the interpentrating and life-giving love of the Holy Trinity. For priesthood, the primary icon is Christ the Bridegroom, who goes out into the world to deliver the Bridal Church to her wedding feast. The secondary icon is Christ the High Priest who consecrates all of reality to the Father through His priestly ministry. For the consecrated religious, the three vows, basic to all consecration, reflect the inner life of the Trinity itself. This is the line of reasoning found within John Paul the Great's Apostolic Exhortation, Vita Consecrata. The secondary icon is the receptive bride, the Church. Only from the purification which arises from consecration is the consecrated religious able to embody the chaste, virginal bride. Now, did you catch the really interesting observation? I would contend that both male and female consecrated religious embody this bridal dimension. For the men, it is the chaste bride who seeks to be pure and for the women, it is the fruitful virgin they present. I don't want you to misunderstand; both identities are present, but it is in the nature of the sexuality of men and women that this distinction is played up.
The three vocations are interrelated to each other. The priest and the consecrated religious learn the lessons of self-giving from the parents' marital consent. But the married couple finds the courage and strength to sacrifice fully because the priest and the religious show them what the fuller gift might look like. So, try it yourself. Write them down in any order: priest => religious => married person; religious => priest => married person; etc. And then reflect upon each of the connections.