Seán D. Sammon, F.M.S., is a scholar-in-residence at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Lack of imagination and fear of innovation on the part of the church as a whole are two elements obstructing the renewal of contemporary religious life, for every baptized Catholic has a role to play in the task of reimagining this way of living. In declaring 2015 a year dedicated to consecrated life and challenging men and women religious to “wake up the world,” Pope Francis was speaking to the church’s hierarchy and its lay men and women as well.
Faced with fewer vocations and an aging membership, many believers appear to have forgotten the history of consecrated life and the Holy Spirit’s role in the work of its renewal. Religious life has passed through far more difficult days than the present. During the years just after the French Revolution, for instance, not only was its future in question; so too was the church’s.
Just before the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church resembled a pyramid, with the clergy, men and women religious and the laity occupying the structure’s top, middle and bottom tiers respectively. The council’s unequivocal statement that all Christians, clergy and laity alike, are baptized into the one mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God and its imminence put an end to that view of the church.
This shift in understanding moved religious life from being within the hierarchical church to its rightful place within the charismatic church, helping to clarify its nature and purpose. Never intended to be an ecclesiastical workforce, sisters, religious priests and brothers are meant to be the church’s living memory of what it can be, longs to be and must be. Their job is to continually remind the larger body about its true nature.
Crises Past and Present
Tempted to wring our hands about the current state of religious life, it is helpful to remember that religious congregations experience crises at each stage in their development. During their early years most groups face three: in leadership, direction and legitimacy. As they swell in numbers and spread out geographically they confront another: maintaining unity in the midst of rapid growth.
By the time territorial expansion slows down, the congregation usually has moved into a stable phase. Success marks its undertakings; members are held in high esteem. Having accumulated considerable human and financial resources, the group as a whole often begins to forget the reasons for which it came into existence; members behave as if everything depended upon their efforts alone.
At the onset of the council, many religious congregations found themselves in just such a place. Boasting more members than at any other time in their history and applicants aplenty, the vast majority of men and women religious believed that renewal meant ever increasing numbers, bigger and better institutions, and greater respect and prestige.
Instead, a period of surprising change ensued. Membership began to decrease through departures and the lack of new recruits; familiar ways of living and interacting were put aside; long-standing institutional commitments were abandoned. The groups’ service to the church became haphazard.
As congregations grew smaller in size and older in age, with fewer candidates entering and their place and purpose in the church less clear, a number of groups began to wonder if their way of life was dying. It may come as a surprise to some to hear it said that this is exactly where religious life should be today in the process of renewal. Like it or not, breakdown and disintegration appear to be the means God uses to prepare congregations and their members for deep and thorough transformation.
As they began to renew their congregations, were men and women religious naïve about the cost of change? Probably. To begin with, many believed that if change were necessary and explained clearly, everything would proceed in an orderly manner. But planned change can be as disruptive as unplanned change. It unsettles our lives and often leaves us feeling disoriented. Also, many men and women religious failed to realize that change would take place on several levels: the level of consecrated life itself, the level of individual congregations and the level of the individual within each congregation.
So, we must ask: Is there reason to be optimistic today about the future of religious life? To answer that question, we must admit that it is foolhardy to believe that all the church’s various forms of consecrated life will renew themselves in the same manner or arrive at the same outcome. The members of its monastic, mendicant and apostolic expressions trace their origins back to specific times in history that were fraught with unique challenges. They also hold fast to different understandings about community life and mission.
Religious congregations today face three possible outcomes as they labor to renew themselves: extinction, minimal survival and renewal. Some congregations have served their purpose in the church and will cease to exist. Others will continue but with a significantly reduced membership.
Still others will renew themselves. To do so, they must first be courageous in responding to the real challenges facing our world and church today; second, have a membership willing to allow itself the experience of personal and congregational conversion; and third, rediscover the spirit of their founding charism.
Signs of Renewal
In recent years, a number of lay men and women have claimed as their own the charism of one or another religious congregation. Neither pseudo-religious nor substitutes hired to cover a shortfall of vowed members in congregational ministries, they are sharers in the group’s charism and co-responsible for its ministry. As such, these lay partners have an essential role to play in redefining consecrated life for the 21st century.
Today many lay partners are bound to a particular congregation through the group’s works. Serving alongside men and women religious, they too struggle to identify those characteristic features that distinguish their efforts from those of other congregations. A parish or university founded in the Franciscan tradition should be able to distinguish itself from one established by Jesuits, Marists or Dominicans. Over time, lay partners, along with the members of the founding congregation, become a living endowment for the institutions in which they minister, ensuring that the institutional identity is clear and the founding values respected.
How can the members of a congregation judge that they have turned a corner in the process of renewal? When a significant portion of them admit that their present life and the group’s structures are neither personally satisfying nor appropriately responsive to the major needs of today’s church and world.
At the same time, there must also be willingness on the part of those involved to change their current ways of living and acting and to develop new and renewed means of service. The individualism that plagues a number of groups at the moment must be confronted. Members must also grow in interdependence and show willingness to alter personal plans for the sake of the common good.
Groups will also know that they have turned a corner when they are able to assess the congregation’s works honestly. Many of the ministries for which men and women religious continue to take responsibility no longer need their presence. They must be willing to put aside their concern with these institutions and ask themselves: To what absolute human needs would our founder respond were he or she to arrive in this country today? Where would we find him or her, what groups would he or she choose to serve, what means would he or she use to evangelize? Men and women religious were meant to be on the margins, in those places where the church is not.
Today congregations must take steps to ground themselves again in the biblical roots of religious life and to use this foundation to rebuild community life. This will require new models suitable for adults who have come together to share life around the Gospel. For genuine renewal to take place, transformation also must move beyond the personal. The networking of like-minded members is essential for any process of renewal to take root and flourish.
As they address these tasks, individual men and women religious and their congregations will develop a new sense of personal and corporate identity and purpose. For personal identity to be clear, a sister, brother or religious priest must be in love with Jesus Christ and have grown over time to resemble a living portrait of his or her founder.
Organizational identity, though similar to personal identity, has some distinct characteristics of its own. Groups with a strong organizational identity stand for something; they have a backbone. They claim a mission that is unique or, if similar to the mission of other groups, different from them in some unique way. Finally, these groups have a set of values that have stood the test of time.
Examples of congregations that are moving into a new phase of renewal are not easily labeled. Included among their number are groups that have developed a more profound understanding about their foundational spirituality and have spent time addressing important issues of community life. No longer defining the latter as a family, they have reaffirmed that life together is for the purpose of mission, centered around faith and spirituality and marked by the members’ genuine interest in one another, as well as a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Our world and church today are facing challenges far more profound than the superficial problems often reported by the media. The church, in particular, needs to remain aware of them as it helps religious congregations re-evaluate their mission and chart their future.
For example, the Catholic Church has during the last century witnessed the single greatest demographic shift in its 2,000-year history. At the outset of the 20th century, almost 70 percent of its members were found in Europe and North America; today more than two thirds of Roman Catholics live in the Southern Hemisphere. That number is projected to continue to grow during the years just ahead. The church in the Northern Hemisphere also once focused its attention on the young; today it is dealing with the fastest growing aging population in human history.
The growing influence of Islam worldwide, the rise of Pentecostalism, our failure as a church to effectively evangelize emerging generations of young Catholics, a set of social teachings that were formed for a world dominated by the Industrial Revolution and the transforming influence of information technology are other important developments that need to be considered as well.
There are groups working to respond to the human and spiritual needs of today’s world. My own Marist institute, for example, in response to Pope John Paul II’s call for a greater Christian presence on the continent of Asia, decided to mission an additional 150 brothers to that region. Our initial appeal for volunteers brought numbers far in excess of what we had hoped for.
John C. Haughey, S.J., once remarked that attempting to define charism is a bit like trying to capture the wind in a bottle. For charism is a free gift of the Spirit given for the good of the church and the use of all.
Pope Paul VI, who defined the charism of religious life as the fruit of the Holy Spirit, who is always at work within the church, identified these signs of its presence: bold initiatives, constancy in the giving of oneself, humility in bearing with adversities, fidelity to the Lord, a courageous response to the pressing needs of the day and willingness to be part of the church.
What, then, does reclaiming charism mean for the members of religious congregations and their lay partners today? Something quite simple: believing that the Spirit of God who was so active and alive in their founder longs to live and breathe in each of them today. Reclaiming charism means letting the Spirit lead, taking a chance that God’s ideas might, on occasion, be better than our own and asking those questions that are on everyone’s mind and in everyone’s heart, but on the lips of only a few. This approach translates into daring, even unexpected action, ministries that respond to today’s absolute human needs, centeredness in Jesus Christ and his Gospel.
We are falling short in the work of renewal because our designs for the future are not daring enough; fear and routine cause us to bicker over accidentals rather than embrace what is essential to this way of life; our resistance to change makes us reluctant to become involved with the Holy Spirit.
Consequently, those of us in our church with an interest in renewing religious congregations for today’s world must develop a disposition of will by which we separate ourselves from everything and everyone that might hinder our ability to hear the Word of God. As a result of grace and through ascetical practice, what God wants for us will become eventually what we want; God’s will becomes our will.
Such a spirituality does not come cheaply. It demands a habit of prayer that helps us come to know who Jesus is and how he acts and decides. So, too, contemplation of Jesus in the Gospels is the essential discipline that makes this type of decision-making possible. For contemplation of this nature schools our hearts and guides us to decisions that bring us closer to God.
Making a spirituality of decision-making our own will allow us to rise above the culture wars that have plagued our church for too many years now. It will allow us to work together to envision a religious life, in all its different forms, that is suitable for the 21st century and worth the price asked of those called to consecrated life: the gift of their life, a religious life that will, once again, truly “wake up our world.”
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Religious Life Reimagined,” in the September 14, 2015 issue