“Lord, it is good to be here!”

“Lord, it is good to be here!”

The author presented this reflection during the opening ritual of Convocation 2000 of the National Religious Vocation Conference. Her remarks respond to Mark 9:2-8, the transfiguration account.

It is good to be here. What Scripture passage could be more appropriate in setting the stage for our Convocation? It is good for us to be here. But I trust that a deep desire that we each carry with us is that our being here will be good for many others—our communities, young people, future members, and the broader church.

This reading (Mark 9:2-8) recounts the experience of Peter, James, and John, three specially selected followers who were privileged to experience the transfigured Jesus, who were scared to death (or to life) in the process, and whose initial comment, “it is good to be here,” is a bit of an understatement to say the least.

My first thought is that to name something as “good” is about as profound as describing something as being “nice.” The Gospel writer must have had somewhat the same sense when he notes, “Peter hardly knew what to say!” There’s no “hardly” about it; he clearly didn’t know what to say to the amazing revelation of God that they had just experienced. But they were smart enough to know that they didn’t want it to end, as indicated in another less-than-great suggestion “to build three tents.”

Like the apostles, we have experienced the Beloved One. And hopefully we each have a sense of being a beloved one, who can in turn minister to and with others who are engaged in the on-going process of discovering in a multitude of ways that they are beloved ones as well. Reveling in that truth is what gives us the confidence and the courage to proclaim, “It is good to be here.”

What is the “here” of which we speak? Doesn’t it suggest that it is about something more than just geography? To talk about “here” is perhaps to talk about a place to be, or a way to be. It is external, but also internal, where I am, but also how I am, where we are and how we are together. This is all part of the “here.”

Imagine a blank piece of paper with an arrow on it saying, “You are here.” How would you explain where or what “here” is?

Evolving common threads in religious communities

We are gathered as bridge builders to look for ways and places to connect with young adults. As people living in the present but looking to the future, what is our reality that we call “here?” This ministry continues to afford me many opportunities for working with religious communities of women and men. In light of these experiences, I wrote an article a couple years ago entitled, “Common threads: are we weaving or unraveling?” In the first part of the article I attempted to name some of the common threads (the “here”) within religious life that impact both present and future members. If I were writing that article today, I would have to add some threads, and perhaps consider that some of the threads I named have a different hue than they did a couple years ago. My purpose in naming some of these threads that create the “here” of vocation ministry in the context of religious life, is to help construct a common foundation for our task of bridge building.

As you well know, there are many factors in our church, society, and world that influence and impact the vocation scene. The following is an attempt to highlight some of the common threads or elements evident in religious communities today that are shaping, and will continue to impact, future religious life and future membership possibilities. It is by no means an exhaustive list.

Common life

There is a renewed effort to choose common life, quality community life, for the sake of present members as well as for future ones. These efforts come in many forms, which include exploring viable options for adult living space, re-shaping common prayer, re-examining corporate ministry commitments, re-defining what constitutes membership in a given community, etc. It is a much deeper question than whether or not living alone or under one roof is the “right” approach to community living.

Don Bisson, a Marist brother said in a recent talk to major superiors of men, “Never has there been a deeper desire for vibrant community life, and an equally deep resistance to creating it. We would like someone to do it for us.” Many more community members are being asked and are responding to the invitation to “tell their stories,” to their own members and beyond, in an attempt to reveal the essence of each of our lives, and our life together. It appears that many religious communities of men or women are trying to move beyond the “hardly scratched the surface” stage in finding ways to talk about a personal relationship with Jesus, a celibate choice, concerns surrounding sexuality and homosexuality, and relationship to local and institutional church. You know well those tough topics. Theological reflection seems to be a helpful process in providing a context for approaching these areas of concern.

Involvement of community members in vocation efforts

Without a doubt, many communities have made an all-out effort to encourage their members to be involved in vocation awareness and invitation efforts. In a number of communities it is the collaborative efforts of leadership, vocation, formation, development, communication, finance, etc. that have moved this enterprise forward. In many communities the senior members are some of the best promoters and inviters.

Communities are recognizing that to wait until everyone is “on board” to choose the future, may mean that it will be too late to have a future. So in some communities, the invitation to be involved is extended to everyone, but the nay-sayers will not be the ones to determine future direction, or to prevent movement.

Little contact with young people

There is a growing awareness that in many communities members have lost contact with young people. Many priests, brothers, and sisters of religious communities are involved in ministries that do in fact respond to urgent needs, but do not facilitate contact with young people.

The sentiments of a number of researchers (including Sister Mary Johnson) as they analyzed their findings give us reason to pause. The challenge before Catholic adults in general and religious communities in particular today is to make a “preferential option for the young.” This is not just about future members, this is about future church. And even if religious women and men may be in some situations where we are in contact with youth and young adults, we cannot assume that young people have a clear sense of who religious are or what their lives are about, especially if their only experience of religious is in a ministry setting.

Concerns about potential candidates

For some community members there is a real skepticism about the likes and looks of those expressing an interest in religious life today. First young people have been labeled as “so conservative,” especially their religious practices, their sense of being Catholic, etc. Then there are young people who are very clear that religious life lived in community is the only way that seems to make sense. A frequent response by religious goes something like this, “Young people are just looking for security. They talk about community without knowing what they are talking about, and after all we cannot be about building community for its own sake. We are about mission!”

We also are faced with the reality of potential candidates who are non-white, from various economic and family backgrounds, those who are gay and lesbian, those who hardly know what it is to be Catholic. And you know the comments being made by some members of communities, “Well, they are so different, would they ever fit in?”

And for a variety of reasons, there are the younger people who are taking an interest in religious life, not just second and third career people, though there are older potential candidates as well. Although it is too soon to tell what the outcome of this interest by younger people will be, communities are finding that there is a need to re-focus some energies and resources to work with younger people, those labeled as “generation Y” or the “Net generation,” the juniors and seniors in high school, freshman and sophomores in college. The experiences (both negative and positive) that communities have had in the last years with accepting older candidates, and the growing interest of younger people have moved communities to re-examine the age requirements. How old is too old? How young is too young? I’m not suggesting that communities are moving to invite someone to enter at age 14, but there is a question of how will that younger heart’s desire to discover more about religious life be nourished and sustained now?

Many communities seem to be coming to a new level of corporate self-awareness in terms of future membership. They are more willing to acknowledge that new members and potential new members take time and energy. In some situations, members of communities are recognizing and admitting that they would describe themselves as settled and satisfied, with a deep passion for ministry, but with little desire to be shaken, awakened, or bothered by new members.

In other cases, creative and courageous choices are being made by communities for the sake of the future. Many local communities of women and men have taken “hospitality” to a whole new level in “opening their hearts and homes.” And have found new energy in ways and places they never expected because of the young people who are now part of their lives.

Permanent commitment

There continues to be discussion about whether or not permanent commitment is possible. A recent study suggests that by 2020, 70 will be considered mid-life. This reality, along with others, has fueled the on-going discussion about posing temporary commitment as an option. Some communities have taken formal steps in offering this possibility. Associates are continuing to play a critical part in embodying the charism of many congregations, and their numbers continue to grow.

The voice of younger, newer members

Younger, newer members are finding their voices within their own congregations and in union with members of other communities in gatherings such as “Fertile Fields” for those under 50.

In some communities, younger members are initiating opportunities for more deliberate ways of living out a community’s charism, in inviting college-age persons to share community life and mission with them in a variety of live-in arrangements.

Image of and information about religious life

Tremendous efforts are being made to reach the public with information about religious life and particular congregations. If the number of reporters who contact our office is any indication of the interest out there, the opportunities for sharing “our stories” are definitely on the rise. The increase of Web sites for religious communities points to the fact that how young adults initially contact a community is no longer by phone or mail. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that personal contact is key.

What religious life has to offer

For a number of years now, candidates have been saying to vocation ministers that they are looking for a way of life, not just a way to work. And we can perhaps quote in our sleep by now what it is that young people and certainly potential candidates to religious life are looking for. They are longing for a deeper relationship with God, an opportunity to make a difference with their lives through service, and they are seeking a way to belong through community life.

Almost two years ago when I first contacted Tom Beaudoin about speaking at this event, I shared with him the broad strokes of what was happening on the vocation scene and how we were attempting to respond. Then I asked him this question, “Tom, from all that you know of Generation X and from what you understand about religious life today, are our efforts to attract Generation X in vain?” I went on to point out that if such was the case, I wanted to know it now, and not have it announced here at the Convocation. His comment to me was, “Oh, I think there are Generation X people who are and would desire to respond in this way, but it will be a matter of how open you (meaning religious communities) are to change.”

I am convinced that we have something to offer the next generation, both for the sake of those who would join and for the benefit of the future church. I continue to be convinced that the young people we would like to attract do exist. And they are quite clear about what will draw and what will sustain them, even when they may not have a clear notion of just what the reality is about which they are speaking.

Why religious life needs young people

But perhaps we as religious women and men need to articulate more clearly just why we desire that young women and men join our communities. Are we really convinced that we need them? And for what, or for whom?

Some religious may say (somewhat tongue in cheek) that our desire grows out of the frustration of being 50 or 60 years old and still being perceived by the rest of the community as the young sisters or brothers. On our better days religious can speak out of a heartfelt desire for new members for the sake of mission, not survival.

Perhaps a growing sense of urgency moves us to cut to the chase in answering just why we need young people among us. I think we need younger people whether they enter our communities or not, because in the encounter we will be changed. We need what young people can give just by the nature of being young—a different world view, a different kind of energy, a different way of relating, a different experience of God. We need them to jar us out of what can be a very sedentary, solitary, and even selfish way of thinking and being.

Young people—a gift to church and society

I have been amazed lately at the explosion of information about Generations X and Y, and it is coming from a wide range of sources. Gen X as you know has often been described as the cynical, bitter, disenfranchised, negative group. This may be evidenced in a variety of ways, but experience—my own and that of others—attests to another side as well.

I was recently invited to a symposium of 70 people who are all engaged in some way in ministry with young adults. (“Meeting the Challenges of Ministry with Young Adults in a New Millennium,” July 17-20, 2000, Omaha, Neb., sponsored by Ministry with Young Adults—A National Catholic Initiative, a project of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association and the National Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association.) One document we read in preparation explored the beliefs and practices of ministry with young adults. It started out by saying that young adults are a gift to the church, but that the gifts they bring, because of the people they are, may seem like challenges to ministry leadership. Their gifts will challenge us to “do church better.” The document goes on to name some of the gifts that young adults bring to the church, including the following:

  • They are spiritual seekers.
  • They are willing to give themselves in service.
  • They do seek commitments that are lasting and stable.
  • They are adept at developing multicultural relationships.
  • They challenge the church to be practical and real.
  • They are comfortable with change and willing to take risks.
  • They learn best through experience and visual image.

I’m in the process of reading a book entitled, Growing up Digital, the Rise of the Net Generation, by Don Tapscott. It focuses mainly on Generation Y, or the Net Generation as he calls them, those who are 2-20 years old. Unlike Generation X, these young people are seen in a more positive light, and the oldest among them seem to already demonstrate an idealism and social consciousness much like that of their boomer parents. The author says it this way, “The evidence is mounting that the world will be a better place because they are in it.”

The section of the preparatory document that I quoted earlier ended with a simple statement and a question. “Young adults are a gift to the church. Do you choose to receive the gift?” The same question could be asked of religious? Young people are a gift that we truly need. Do we choose to receive the gift, whether they stay with us for a lifetime or only a little while?

The challenge before religious women and men

We cannot determine the response of the next generation to the invitation to religious life. But we, along with many others, are responsible to extend the invitation and then to do all that we can to be supportive and nurturing of the response.

For those of you who came to Convocation in 1996 when the 200 young adults were with us, do you remember them boldly saying to us in reference to religious life, “We can’t choose what we don’t know.” Two years later, when we gathered with parents, do you recall hearing them say, “We can’t encourage what we don’t understand.”

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge our need as religious to connect in a significant way with young people, or to breathe new life into our old ways of relating with them. Perhaps it is our turn to admit, “We can’t choose what we don’t know.” It is time to recommit or commit for the first time to learning about, learning from, and learning with young people.

It is not about canonizing everything that young people do or say, for that is neither helpful, nor just. Nor is it about digging in our heels and expecting them to be like us, because we like us, our way of doing things, our way of being. And after all, who knows better than we do how to live religious life? Young people are a gift to the church and to religious life. Do we choose to receive this gift? As religious women and men, are we willing to make a preferential option for the young?

I will close with a little story. I have a cousin in Kansas City who is the father of four daughters. He is a lawyer, but his parents jokingly say that being a lawyer allows him to do what he’s really interested in, coaching his daughters’ sports teams. He was asked this year for Father’s Day to give a reflection at Mass, and he told of this incident. He and his family are avid football fans, so it’s a Sunday ritual to watch the Chiefs. As I learned once while visiting there, at least for the play-offs, appropriate dress is expected (team colors that is). On one particular Sunday, one of his daughters came in to watch the game with the rest, asking this question, “Dad, who are we for?” In his reflection, he used this question as a springboard to point out that she wasn’t asking who she should be for, but who are we for together? He continued by saying that this is the role of parents, but also of mentoring adults, to be able to share by word and example who it is that we are for.

We gather here as people who have and do experience the person of Jesus Christ, and we are continually changed in that relationship. At some point most of us gathered here chose to respond to God and God’s people in the context of religious life because our deepest heart’s desires, to love, to serve, resonated with those of others in a particular community. We asked the question, “Who are you for?” And we received an answer that did then, and hopefully still does, make sense.

This time in religious life, in church, and in our world is not necessarily an easy time, but we are here, and “It is good to be here.” We are faced with an opportunity to share with another generation in a passionate and compassionate way who it is that we are for. There are no guaranteed outcomes or successes, for it is God’s plan, not ours; but we pray that our desire and our effort to truly be about the mission of Jesus will inspire another, and another generation to proclaim with their lives, “It is good to be here.”

Catherine Bertrand, SSND, belongs to the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Mankato Province. She has been executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference since 1992. Prior to that she served as associate vocations director for the Archdiocese of Minneapolis/ St. Paul. 


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