Monday, October 11, 2010

What exactly is a "charism"?

A posting over at Regnum Christi Live discusses the topic of the "charism" of the Legionaries of Christ. How close is the "charism" tied to the personal life of the founder?

Last evening the CBS program “60 Minutes” aired a segment on Nelson Mandela’s forthcoming biography “Conversations with Myself.” Mandela lived his life for the fight of the plight of his people. He was a man of much wisdom; his memoir appears to be the most in-depth look into the real man and his thoughts while locked away all of those years. Apparently Mandela's book makes no effort to conceal the not insignificant personal failings of the former South African President. But this failings do not detract from his achievements.

I’m not at all suggesting any similarity or comparison with the founder of the Legionaries. However, relative to “charism” it seems to me that the discussion can get bogged down in semantics and canonical “definitions.” I guess the topic doesn't have to be so complicated - especially when it is discussed by those who see no other alternative other than to shut the Legion down. I don't think an organization's "charism" is entirely tied to the personality of the founder.

A “charism” is simply a term to describe the spiritual orientation and any special characteristics of the mission or values shown by a religious congregation as a result of the way they live their vows and the way they focus their activity.

Of course, a charism can be considered a gift from God to the Church for the world. It can be given to an individual or group to inspire the founding of a new religious family within the Church. This gift is enriched by all who are called to live it. It represents the particular way in which its members are called to follow Christ. Because all Christians seek to follow Christ, different charisms will have many elements in common, but the way in which these elements are emphasised gives each religious group its unique feel. So, yes, charisms - like brands? - are different one from another, but not so different that they do not share many elements common to other charisms.

I like to think of a charism of a congregation as what would remain if all written records were destroyed. The charism could be re-created through the testimony of its living members In that sense, it is simply the permanent heritage of a community, which includes the rule, mission, history, and traditions of a religious institute.

Viewed in this broader context, I think it entirely possible that whatever “charism” the Legionaries of Christ have is not necessarily centered, exclusively, on the life and teachings of the flawed founder. It’s more about the way the members define the way they live their vows and the way in which they undertake their work. This is a process, not necessarily finished. I don’t see any reason why whatever reform results from the Vatican intervention should not be part of the ultimate “charism.”

Until the Church decides there is no valid “charism” the Legionaries continue to be an “officially approved” religious congregation. This is something the members need to hold on to. Even though Papal approval doesn't mean an organization or an individual is necessarily without sin. As I’ve said before, I think it would help their relations with those following the debacle, if the Legionaries themselves gave some public sense they abhor the damage done by the founder to his sexual victims and to the Church and express more forcefully their recognition of their need for “reform,” resulting in a reformed understanding of what exactly the Lord calls them to within the Church. The Vatican hasn't helped that understanding by taking more than 13 years to intervene in such an egregious scandal. However, while the Vatican instigated reform process continues, I think it is fair to say the Legionaries' “charism” continues to evolve. After all, in Church time, it is still a very new congregation.

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