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The Future of Active Religious Life

Originally published as an article entitled ‘The Future of Active Religious Approaching the Millennium’, in Catholic Gazette (April 1998) 4-6.

The religious life appears to be attracting many vocations in the developing countries, where the Church is growing fastest, particularly in Africa and in parts of the Far East. Here, however, will concentrate on the situation closer to home, mainly in Britain, and the focus will be on the active or apostolic religious life, not the contemplative or monastic form.

A year ago, I was at a conference of religious superiors, mostly women, when I was shocked to discover from one of the superiors that the average age of her sisters was seventy-five. I mentioned this to another superior who was astonished at my astonishment; her sisters were the same average age, too! Then I looked at my own fellow religious and came to the shock realization that out of forty-five men, only six were younger than me. Those facts alone tell their own story. As well as Britain and Ireland, one could also include Europe, North America and Australia, where the picture is pretty much the same, with some local variations.

Back in the Fifties and Sixties many cities and towns had communities of religious, with sisters running schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly and orphanages, and with religious priests and brothers running parishes and secondary schools. These religious communities, whose work was appreciated not only amongst Catholics but in the wider community, were part of the Catholic scene. Today the scene has changed. Since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the late Sixties, the active religious life has undergone profound upheaval. Apart from the fact that many women and men have left religious life since then, the orders and congregations themselves in most cases have made policy decisions to withdraw from many of their institutional works, in an attempt to get back to their founding ideals. Congregations of teaching sisters, for example, found that their middle class schools were not really what was intended by their founder.

Some orders or congregations, while not abandoning their involvement in education altogether, have moved into justice and peace work and have become directly involved in social issues. This has taken them away from Catholic institutions, out of the Catholic ghetto, and into society at large. These congregations have in some cases set up small communities in housing estates, where three or four religious give witness to the Church’s ‘option for the poor’ by adopting, in so far as they can, the lifestyle of those who live in our sprawling and often deprived urban areas. This movement of religious out of their traditional institutions and into society at large has made them more visible at street-level, where they often wear lay clothes and are identifiable by a badge bearing their order’s emblem or a simple cross. Yet, on the other hand, because these religious no longer wear the habit and their institutions no longer play such a prominent part in local life, they have become less visible collectively.

Religious communities have generally become much smaller, with few young members, but with a much less formal and regulated life than in the past. Religious now relate with one another in a more familiar way and structures are less hierarchical and authoritarian. This has made them more ‘human’ and approachable, if less easily identifiable; though some would argue that the distinctiveness of religious life from lay life has been lost.

These trends in the last forty years or so have coincided with a dramatic drop in numbers entering the religious life. Even for those who enter, the drop-out rate is very high compared with times past. Many congregations, particularly of sisters, seem set either for amalgamation or extinction. Those founded for a specific type of work, for example, teaching or hospital care, now find they have lost their raison d’être. All this leads to the inescapable conclusion that the religious life is undergoing profound change. Whether or not one laments this fact is not the issue at stake. The issue is: What future has active religious life?

Firstly, let us look at the problem from a historical perspective. The active religious order, say of teaching sisters or brothers, is a relatively recent phenomenon in the life of the Church. Active orders, generally speaking, first came into prominence after the Reformation, most notably with the Jesuits, as a way of breaking free from the constraints of monastic or conventual life. This enabled them to engage more directly in mission and evangelisation, and later, education. The nineteenth century, in France and Belgium in particular, saw a proliferation of women’s foundations, all established to do some particular work, many of which came to Britain and Ireland. Even the mediaeval orders found themselves moving into similar apostolates in order to keep pace with this trend in religious life. Orders of friars, like the Augustinians for instance, moved into schools and parishes.

Before the Reformation, however, religious life was focused less on pastoral activity, more on common prayer and community life. It was seen as a way of living the Christian life more intensively, free from the distractions of the secular world, as long as there was a sufficient number of lay sisters and brothers to do the chores! Even the more active orders of friars, founded in the 13th century, kept to a fairly strict monastic routine as they engaged in pastoral ministry in the growing towns and cities of Europe. So the traditional emphasis in religious life was less on active ministry and more on the common life as an alternative Christian lifestyle. Any apostolic activity would come as a by-product of that: sacramental ministry, spiritual counsel, education, scholarship, agriculture, etc. The Cistercians, for example, renowned for their pioneering farming methods, did not establish monasteries in remote and infertile places in order to bring useless land into cultivation. Rather, they went to those places in order to live out better their calling as contemplative monks, which they understood in terms of a self-sufficient society living apart from the ‘world’.

It would seem, therefore, that as modern religious turn away from their activities requiring large institutions, the focus is returning once again to the religious life as an end in itself, recalling its historical origins. However, an interesting new development is taking place. Many lay people are discovering the need to live an alternative Christian lifestyle, too, but without relinquishing their status as laity. There appears to be a renewed interest in the early ideal of the common life as the most fitting way of living out the Gospel. As if in reaction to the privatised and individualistic spirituality that was common up to recently, these Christians see their faith fundamentally as a shared experience and a common project. A quick glance at the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St Paul, shows clearly that the first followers of Christ saw their faith very much in communitarian terms, long before religious orders were established. This fundamental fact of the Christian life, which is now being rediscovered in recent Trinitarian theology and in the communion model of the Church, coincides with this growing desire among many to live out their life of faith in community.

So, as the active and institutional religious life undergoes profound change, a renewed interest in Christian community life would appear to be emerging, mainly amongst the laity. The National Association of Christian Communities and Networks (NACCAN) in Britain has over 300 entries, most of them lay associations. Even the lay groups founded for a specific work, like the Sion Community, which exists to evangelise, and the famous L’Arche communities, which work with the severely disabled, place a great emphasis on community living. France, in particular, has seen a great flowering of such communities. Most of these communities are mixed – men and women, married and single, lay and religious. It is not without significance that some of the most highly regarded recent reflections on community life have come not from a member of a religious order, but from a layman, Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities, particularly his book, Community and Growth (1979). Many of these communities are actively involved both in the Church and in society, but regard the common life as fundamental to their project and not just as a means to further their activity.

Even amongst the religious orders experimental communities are being set up, with laity living with religious either in the same house or nearby. In these communities religious and laity share a common prayer life, have meals together, and share the work and ministry of the community as a way of giving witness to the Gospel and the special charism of the order. In some cases, orders are sponsoring communities for young people, so that they can have this kind of experience of Christian living before moving on to a career, marriage, or perhaps even the religious life itself. These possibilities for temporary commitment to community life are proving attractive to many young people who yearn for some form of belonging within the Church, but shrink from the life-time commitment of traditional religious life. These temporary forms of commitment to Christian community living are a significant development in today’s Church.

What appears to be happening, then, is a movement away from formal and institutional religious life, with its emphasis on apostolic activity and corporate identity in terms of dress and lifestyle. In its place is emerging a yearning for religious community in itself as a worthwhile ideal and new ways of living it out. However, the fact that laity are taking more initiatives here is significant and is in keeping with the growth of lay involvement generally in the life of the Church. There is historical precedent for this, as in the past it was often inspired lay people who initiated new forms of religious life. Only later would they become institutionalised by the hierarchy. It will be interesting, therefore, to see how the institutional Church responds to these new movements.

So while active religious life as we have known it in recent times seems to be in decline, due to a loss of identity and a dearth in vocations, new forms of community living, often outside the traditional religious orders, are emerging. These new communities place their emphasis not so much on what they do but on what they are, out of which activity comes. Christian living in the context of a shared life, centred on prayer and with a real, human coming together in life and work is what is attracting people. Somehow, the religious orders, by and large, do not seem to be meeting this need. However, if the orders are flexible enough to adapt themselves to these new forms of Christian community, there may well be a future for them. If not, the future looks bleak. Whatever happens, it seems clear that there will always be Christians who will feel called to some form of community life as a way of living out their faith more radically.

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