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Religious life: death or re-birth?
Within the next decade, many religious orders will face extinction. These include many communities, which have done outstanding work, and even now have large numbers of ageing and dedicated religious - who feel deeply disheartened. One elderly religious told me that she felt her community was lost in the forest of absurdity, denial, and silly ideas.
It is obvious to any reasonably observant person that the large-scale renewal efforts attempted by most religious communities were a fatal mistake. It will take a lot more humility than brains to admit this; you don't have to be a genius to see what is going on, but you may have to be humble to admit it.
I shall be bold enough to make a list of the causes. If you do not like my list, make a list of your own. But do make a list.
First, there are the general causes that have undermined religion in the Western world: a loss of religious conviction related to worldliness, consumerism, and the desire for personal ease are just the first at the top of the long list of destructive influences.
Second, in the large Christian churches there has been an erosion of commitment caused by scepticism, relativism, and even materialism - that is, the not very subtle denial of the supernatural and transcendent.
The third cause of decline in religious life has been the uncritical acceptance of 20th century psychological theory.
When change came, it was born in an atmosphere of frustration, and was a large-scale reaction to neurotic repression. The spectacle that resulted is embarrassing to recall. I suspect that all of us who went through these times made big mistakes; I certainly did.
In the orders of men there is greater hope for reform, because most of those who were really opposed to genuine religious life have now quit.
The situation is more complex in the orders of women. Feminism and New Age nonsense absorb a lot of energy. Many women religious, however, retain a certain family loyalty to the identity and memory of their institutions, long after the spirituality and apostolate have actually disappeared. I would like to believe that there are enough women committed and strong enough to restore observance, bring back religious garb of some unworldly and recognisable kind, and begin a common evangelisation together with a common life.
Finally there is the possibility of beginning a new institute.
Many religious think of this possibility, but they do not have the resources - spiritually or materially. In particular, they may not find the support of a diocesan bishop, which is an essential key to success. Or they may not have people with the leadership ability that is necessary to start a new community. But it is at least an option worth considering.
New religious institutes of all kinds are flourishing in central Europe, and they are beginning in the English-speaking world. They have been founded by one or more religious, usually with the goal of preserving the charism of their own original institutes.
This is what we eight Franciscan Friars of the Renewal sought to do. We tried to remain canonically attached to our original community, but were unable to do so. However, we have committed ourselves to maintaining the vision of the original founders.
Part of the answer lies in a genuinely sacrificial apostolate - in giving until it hurts, not just giving until it feels good. That most thriving of all new communities, the Missionaries of Charity, have done so well because they are dedicated to the poor. This requires sacrifice.
There are other eminently worthy apostolates, such as the desperate need for authentic Catholic education. But one has to be careful; you can get very comfortable in the school world - especially on weekends or during the summers.
The way to escape from the pre-moribund lethargy, the comatose situation, which seems to grip so many religious communities today is for every committed member to go on a silent retreat, and prayerfully examine the degree of honesty that they have in their commitment to the ideals of the founder or founders. Once they have confronted this, they must ask the Holy Spirit to lead them in taking the next step toward community reform.
Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity on a silent retreat, while she still belonged to another community. We are not Mother Teresa, but we must do the same thing. In our one-to-one encounter with God, in silence and honesty, we must ask to be led toward the understanding of what we can do to bring a community back to life.
If we are not able to do this, then we must ask the equally difficult question: How can we lead an honest Christian life in the midst of something that has become, unfortunately, a lie?
Fr Benedict J. Groeschel CFR, who works in the New York Archdiocese, is a psychologist and author of many books. This is an edited version of what originally appeared in 'Catholic World Report'. Subscriptions to this journal are available through Ignatius Press, Brisbane, tel (07) 3376 0105.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 13 No 8 (September 2000), p. 20
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