Pope Francis has called for a special yearlong focus on consecrated life, asking the church's religious sisters, brothers and priests to "wake up the world" with their testimony of faith, holiness and hope, a Vatican official said.
"Consecrated men and women are aware that besides recounting the great stories they have written in the past, they are called to write a no-less-beautiful and great story in the future," said Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
At a news conference Jan. 31, the cardinal spoke about plans for the 2015 Year for Consecrated Life, which Pope Francis announced in November.
The congregation hopes Pope Francis will celebrate the year's opening Mass Nov. 21, when the church marks a day of prayer for cloistered religious. The events would conclude one year later on the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council decree "Perfectae Caritatis" on the renewal of religious life.
"We are convinced that the council represented the breath of the Holy Spirit not only for the entire church, but in a particular way for consecrated life," Cardinal Aviz said.
"We are also convinced that in these 50 years, consecrated life has followed a fruitful path of renewal -- certainly not without difficulties and struggles," the cardinal said. "In this year, we want to recognize and confess our weaknesses, but we also want to show the world with strength and joy the holiness and vitality that are present in consecrated life."
Responding to questions about the huge numbers of religious who have left consecrated life since the council, Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, congregation secretary, said: "In consecrated life, there are lights and shadows, and recognizing this is an exercise of lucidity and courage. There are lights and shadows, just as in every area of the life of society and of the church."
The archbishop said he had no problem talking about, and even publishing in the Vatican newspaper, the number of priests, brothers and nuns who leave religious life each year.
"It's part of the crisis that society is living through," he said. "We consecrated people, thanks be to God, are part of the societies of this world."
In October, the archbishop wrote that between 2008 and 2012, the congregation for religious issued 11,805 dispensations, releasing men and women from their religious vows. Other religious received dispensations from the congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, for Bishops and for Clergy, bringing to about 3,000 the average number of perpetually professed religious who left each year.
The figures, he said, work out to be about 2.5 dispensations annually for every 1,000 consecrated men and women with perpetual vows. The Vatican's Statistical Yearbook reported that at the end of 2011, there were more than 903,300 religious priests, brothers and sisters in the world; however, that figure includes those with temporary vows.
Commemorating the Second Vatican Council during the Year for Consecrated Life will not mean ignoring "the shadows," but it also will not mean wallowing in them, the archbishop said.
"We believe the council was a breath of the Holy Spirit and the point of departure for a profound renewal of consecrated life, which retains its evangelical significance," he said.
"It's sad when a consecrated person leaves, just as its sad that many families break up, but this is part of the reality of grace and sin that exist in the church and every human reality," he added.
Cardinal Aviz said a key challenge of being Christian and being a religious is looking toward the future with hope.
"We want to see these crises not as an antechamber of death, but as a 'kairos,' a favorable occasion for growth" and the Year for Consecrated Life should be a further push for doing so, he said.