Vatican City — Religious orders and the Vatican congregation that assists them must be bold in assessing whether current structures and practices help or hinder the proclamation of the Gospel, the pursuit of holiness and the service of the poor, Pope Francis said.
"We must not be afraid to leave 'old wineskins,' that is, to renew the routines and structures that, in the life of the church and in consecrated life, no longer respond to what God is asking us today in order to promote his kingdom in the world," the pope, a former Jesuit provincial superior, told members of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
The pope met congregation members Nov. 27, just three days before the opening of the Year of Consecrated Life. The same day, he also met with the Pauline Fathers, the Daughters of St. Paul, and other religious and lay groups that trace their inspiration to Blessed James Alberione's foundation of orders dedicated to evangelization through the media.
In his speech to members of the congregation for religious, the pope said the church must be bold in recognizing and changing "the structures that give us a false sense of protection and that condition the dynamism of charity," as well as "the routines that distance us from the flock we are sent to and prevent us from hearing the cry of those awaiting the good news of Jesus Christ."
Pope Francis told the congregation that "since the Second Vatican Council, the wind of the Spirit has continued to blow with strength," pushing religious orders to carry out the renewal the council called for and raising up new forms of religious life in the church.
"In that portion of the Lord's vineyard represented by those who have chosen to imitate Christ most closely" through the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, he said, "new grapes have matured and new wine has been pressed."
The congregation and the orders, he said, are called "to discern the quality and the vintage of the 'new wine' that was produced in this long period of renewal and, at the same time, to evaluate if the wineskins that contain it -- represented by the institutional forms present in consecrated life today -- are adequate to hold this 'new wine' and promote its full maturation."
Pope Francis told the congregation members he knows not all the news about religious life is good and the church should not "hide the areas of weakness," including "the resistance to change in some sectors, the diminished ability to attract new members, the not irrelevant number of those who leave -- and this really worries me."
The Vatican and the orders themselves must take care in accepting candidates and in training them, he said, but they also must be very careful to ensure that "institutional and ministerial tasks" do not take priority over the development of members' spiritual lives. Orders also face "the difficult integration of cultural and generation diversity, the problematic balance of the exercise of authority and the proper use of material goods -- poverty concerns me, too."
Apologizing for giving "publicity to my family," the pope said the Jesuit founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, described the vow of poverty as the "mother and wall" of consecrated life; it is the mother because it is the source of life and it is the wall in the sense that it protects religious from worldliness.
Prayer is the first task and aid to holiness, he said.
"Please tell your new members that to pray is not to waste time, adoring God is not a waste of time, praising God is not a waste of time." Without prayer, he said, "the wine will be vinegar."
Meeting a short time later with the Pauline family, Pope Francis continued to reflect on the importance of prayer and discernment of methods.
"The secret to evangelization ... is to communicate the Gospel in the style of the Gospel," he said. "The joy of a gift received out of pure love must be communicated with love."
The focus on sharing the Gospel, he told the Pauline family, "is in your blood, in your DNA."
"The ultimate aim of our work as Christians on this earth is to attain eternal life," he told them. "Therefore, our being a pilgrim church -- rooted in the commitment to proclaim Christ and his love for every creature -- prevents us from remaining prisoners of earthly and worldly structures."
Trusting in the Lord and convinced of the action of the Holy Spirit, he said, religious are called to be unafraid and, especially, to be witnesses of hope and joy in the world.
Turning specifically to the Paulines' ministry in books, television, film and other media, the pope asked them to "never promote conflict, never mimic those communications media that look only for the spectacle of conflict and provoke scandal."
Be certain, he said, that the Holy Spirit will inspire the creativity needed to faithfully proclaim the Gospel.
"Many are still waiting to know Jesus Christ. The creativity of charity knows no limits and will always open new paths" of evangelization, he said.