Rome — The cardinal who leads the Vatican's congregation for religious life told members of religious orders globally that they must live their vocations "inserted" into the world, not closing themselves off to new things but open to changes of modern life.
Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, speaking to a first-of-its-kind congress of many of the world's religious formation directors, also warned the religious against trying to abandon the changes in the church brought about by the Second Vatican Council.
"We feel today new geographical and cultural contexts that manifest in intense ways," Braz de Aviz said Wednesday to some 1,200 formation directors at the Rome conference.
"The contexts have changed," he said. "We are disoriented. In our identity, we are a bit insecure. We need a new deepening, a new pausing, a new listening."
Continuing, the cardinal told the formation directors: "Do not distance yourself from the great lines of the Second Vatican Council."
"In fact, those that are distancing themselves from the council to make another path are killing themselves -- sooner or later, they will die," Braz de Aviz said. "They will not have sense. They will be outside the church. We need to build, using the Gospel and the council as a departure point."
The Brazilian, who is the prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, spoke at the opening of the conference, which is being held Wednesday through Saturday at a Rome-area hotel.
The Second Vatican Council was a 1962-65 global meeting of Catholic bishops that led to many reforms in the church, such as using vernacular language during the liturgy, but has sometimes also been a flashpoint of discussion about whether and how the church can change.
Braz de Aviz told the formation directors that they must know that the needs of people considering religious life in today's age "are not the same" as when the founders of their orders first received their charism, or fundamental characteristic, of the orders.
"These contexts have changed," the cardinal said. "And the council reminds us that consecrated life must be Christian discipleship ... must be discipleship of the founders that we remember, but also must be open to the culture of the present moment."
"When we look only to the past and are not perceiving this moment that we are passing through, we run the risk of not being understood," he continued. "Also, [we risk] having [kept] inside ourselves a unique treasure like the consecrated life."
Developing his thoughts later on the role of discernment in community life, Braz de Aviz told the formation directors: "We must not be closed to new things."
"God is not static," the cardinal said. "God is always new movement -- of light, of heat, of demonstration. He speaks in every time to men and women with the true language of that time."
The Rome conference is one of several events the Vatican congregations will hold to mark the Year of Consecrated Life, called by Pope Francis and being held through the beginning of 2016.
The conference, which has the theme "Living in Christ according to the way of life of the Gospel," will see almost a dozen presentations on various aspects of religious formation, or preparing and working with people who feel called to enter religious orders or institutes.
Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, the Vatican congregation's secretary, said in brief remarks Wednesday that the conference was the first of its kind, calling together religious formation directors from many parts of the world.
Rodríguez said just under 1,200 people were attending, with a fairly even split between the five languages being used at the event -- English, Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese.
Braz de Aviz spoke for nearly 40 minutes, giving a wide overview in his remarks of the themes of the consecrated life year, a letter to religious order members from Francis, and on the struggles particularly facing orders and their formation directors.
A primary question faced by orders: "What are the fundamentals of our identity?"
"There is a trademark of this that is very significant," he told the directors. "Namely, this consecrated life is in the church; it is not only within its own charism. In the world, not only outside the world -- even for the monastic life."
"This is the first point that is important for us, this context in which the identity is made," the cardinal continued. "A consecrated life, a life in God but inserted in the ecclesial family, in the church -- inserted in the world."
"Not in conflict with the world, but inserted in continuity," he said.
During his remarks, Rodríguez also referred to the Second Vatican Council, saying that the theme of the event was taken from one of the council's documents: Perfectae Caritatis, the 1965 decree on the renewal of religious life.
"With this explicit reference to the Second Vatican Council, we point to our profound conviction that the council is the point of reference, non-negotiable, in the formation to the consecrated life," Rodríguez said.
The archbishop also thanked the religious formation directors at length for their ministry, which he called "sacred, non-substitutable, and precious."
Rodríguez said their work was sacred because they are forming people to be like Christ. "In your ministry, remember always that you have in hand a precious vase," he told the directors.
The archbishop said the directors' work is precious. "You are bridge-builders between the liberty of that God that calls and the liberty of men and women who respond."
"You were chosen as collaborators of God in the great work to help our young people learn the way of Christ, to assimilate the thoughts and feelings of Christ," Rodríguez told the directors. "You have in your hands the present that gives the future of your institutes and therefore of your charisms."
The archbishop also told them that they must have three passions: to listen, to give hospitality, and be communities of communion.
"A formation director is a person that more than speaking must listen," Rodríguez said. "May you be men and women of listening, dedicating most of your time to listening, knowing that to learn to listen you must have a real awareness of yourself."
"Remember that the protagonist in formation is not you, but God that calls and the young person that responds," he said.
Another speaker Wednesday reflected on the theological background of religious life, focusing on St. Paul's writing that Christians should "have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus."
Reflecting particularly on the image of the Trinity, theologian Michelina Tenace said the Trinity shows how vocation is fulfilled in giving of self.
"What makes us different is our way of becoming gifts to each other, and in this gift, we can grow in different ways thanks to love," said Tenace, a professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
"Formation needs to encourage people to give of themselves," she said.
One participant of the international conference said Wednesday he already finds it helpful.
"I think it is a great help for those who are involved in formation, because each person has his own difficulties and his own experiences but now has the possibility of sharing to discover that others are going through the same difficulties," said Capuchin Fr. Theo Jansen.
Jansen, a Dutch native who has lived in Rome for decades for his order, also said he appreciated the speakers' focus on diversity in the church.
"The principle of unity in diversity is very important," he said. "Because until now in the Catholic faith, many times, unity meant uniformity."
"Now we are discovering that is ... not wrong but very limited," Jansen said.