"We religious are in a moment of crisis -- and who is not in crisis, given the challenges the world poses to us? -- but we must not be afraid of anything," said Father José María Arnáiz, president of the congress, at a press conference Friday in Rome.
The Marianist religious, secretary-general of the Union of Superiors General (USG), spoke at the headquarters of Vatican Radio. The congress opens today in Rome and continues through Saturday.
The congress will bring together for the first time men and women religious -- 850 have already confirmed their attendance -- under the motto "Passion for Christ, Passion for Humanity."
It is the first world-congress organized jointly by the USG, representing 200,000 men religious, and the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), representing 800,000 women religious, organizers said.
Of the 850 who intend to participate, 399 come from Europe, 248 from the Americas, 91 from Africa, 95 from Asia, and 17 from Oceania.
Also attending will be 113 delegates of conferences of religious, 17 editors of magazines on consecrated life, and 60 young men religious, as well as 114 men and women religious theologians.
The congress will be held at the Erfige Hotel. The purpose will be to analyze the challenges posed to masculine and feminine consecrated life at the start of the third millennium, organizers said.
Among the challenges are "situations that call urgently for important changes," said Sister Teresian Rasera, co-president of the congress together with Father Arnáiz. She is also president of the UISG.
The congress will address topics such as "the ambiguity of the globalized world, economic systems such as unjust neo-liberalism, a culture of death and war," Sister Rasera said.
"We are called to shape the future with mutual support among congregations," said Sister María Victoria González de Castejón, secretary of the UISG.
A similar congress was held in 1950, although it did not have the same scope. In 1997, the two branches of religious -- masculine and feminine -- organized a joint congress for young members.
The 2004 congress is the first shared experience, the reason why "observers or delegates of other types of religious life of other religions have not been invited. We ourselves must first have a shared experience," said Sister González de Castejón.
The congress may be followed on the Web page of Vidimus Dominum.