Religious life history and new membership

Religious life history and new membership

Through the lens of the paschal mystery.

By Joel Rippinger O.S.B.

THE CORPORATE WORLD DOES not have a monopoly on number-crunching and marketing. Communities of consecrated life are no less inclined to measure their success and influence by the numbers of members and the extent of their impact. Select any news story on consecrated life in the Catholic Church today, and the inevitable comparison will be made between the high-water mark of membership in the past and the current level, supplemented by statistics on the median age and diminished resources of a particular congregation or institute. The result of such analysis is the creation of a skewed historical and spiritual model. It equates the most effective witness of religious in North America with the decades of the 1950s and 1960s when there was a huge influx of membership, marked at the same time by a pinnacle of respectability and accomplishment in the apostolic work and witness of religious communities. At the least, the filter of history and the lived experience of those who have bridged several generations can serve as a corrective to such a skewed model.

History recounts how consecrated life over the centuries has manifested a life cycle that is not unlike trajectories of other social institutions. Communities of men and women have emerged in response to particular needs of the society that surrounds them. Whether apostolic or contemplative, the shelf-life of these communities has been marked by the rise and fall of such historical forces as the black death in 14th-century Europe, the Protestant Reformation, the secularizing thrust of the Enlightenment, and the globalization and emergence of the Third World at the beginning of the third millennium.

However there is a distinctive dimension to consecrated life that can help anyone who is attempting to analyze its historical course. That dimension is the theological filter of what Catholics call the paschal mystery. The underlying model of the paschal mystery is well-known to Catholic spirituality: the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus create a paradigm for every Christian. The course of progress on our pilgrimage to Christ’s kingdom runs parallel with our capacity to identify with the process of transformation inherent in the paschal mystery. In unambiguous terms, the history of consecrated life shows the unvarying connection between charism and Christ’s cross.

Martin Buber is quoted as having said that success is not a name of God. That may be an appropriate starting point for anyone who wants to measure the ability of consecrated life over the ages to witness to the paschal mystery. Whether it be the evangelical counsels or the signs of contradiction that take on different forms from one age to the next, the pattern of consecrated life’s witness must in some clear way configure itself to the model of Christ’s own kenotic, self-emptying love. At the heart of such a pattern rests the core Christian paradox of hope and new life emerging only from death, more precisely the dying to the illusory attractions of success and accomplishment offered by the dominant culture.

Signs of communities with paschal character

So what are the markers of communities that are stamped with this paschal character? Beyond any question, they must exhibit the humility of the Christ found in the famous Philippians hymn that begins, “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped….” (Philippians 2:6-11). This self-emptying act of solidarity with humankind has found an echo in every truly authentic transmitter of the charism of consecrated life: the life-long ego diminishment found in the ascetical regimen of the monastic fathers and mothers of the desert, Francis’ embrace of the leper and his throwing himself naked into the arms of the naked Christ, the radical self-emptying of Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe as they witnessed to the passion of Christ in the midst of scarred inhumanity and the banality of evil.

In our own time, such humility has had its individual exemplars, but I think it noteworthy that perhaps the single most formative event for effecting a collective self-emptying of religious in the United States has been the sexual abuse crisis. In a way that no spiritual formation programs could generate, the insistent media coverage of this crisis and the communal self-examination it has induced in communities of consecrated life has brought about a wholesale redefinition of the status and the acceptance of vowed religious in the wider context of contemporary culture. Though there was no denying the manner in which this crisis unveiled the dysfunctional culture of chanceries and clericalism in the diocesan priesthood, there was ample light to show that such dysfunctional qualities were present in communities of consecrated life. Press conferences with public apologies by religious superiors over community members implicated in sexual abuse had no precedent. Nor was there an historical counterpart to the formal expression of regret and apology given by a religious order in response to the film The Magdalene Sisters. Neither example lessened the impact of loss of image and morale for religious life. The cumulative effect of this has been a redefined self-consciousness of personal sinfulness and vulnerability. The romanticized notion of religious as living life on a higher spiritual plane, removed from the demands and accountability of others, has been laid to rest in rather definitive fashion. In its place is a more transparently humble presence, devoid of the need to promote a sanitized witness of spiritual perfection, one that accepts its vulnerable and fragile humanity next to the self-emptying Christ.

Another dimension of this paschal character is a conscious sense of true detachment from so much of the conformity exerted by the culture surrounding us. In a recent address to general superiors of institutes of consecrated life, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of how easily some communities today become caught in the snare of mediocrity, gentrification and a consumer mentality. Though he did not specifically mention historical examples, the Holy Father was no doubt mindful of the recurrent cycle in church history of religious orders whose spiritual vitality atrophied because they became increasingly identified with the lifestyle and worldview of the people around them. Just as the act of dying to self requires a decided act of the will to let go, so too the religious men and women of every age have been characterized by a sincere and clear renouncement of behaviors of the world and detachment from the message of a materialistic culture. Inculturation of the Gospel does not imply wholesale assimilation of the siren songs of the culture itself. Given the manner in which today’s global village is saturated with the voices of that culture through modern media and technology, the challenge to resist such a lure is greater than ever. One cannot argue with the increase in numbers and morale in so many new religious institutes that embody radical renunciation and simplicity of life. A bourgeois or gentrified mode of living might still characterize some communities, but it is unlikely that such a witness will attract new members who are looking for a credible Gospel witness. Accommodation to prevailing cultural norms not only makes consecrated life less accountable to its mission, it robs it of its intended role as an independent voice that can hold others more accountable to the Gospel.

Yet another aspect of the paschal mystery that is central to the follower of Christ in any age is that of suffering. Suffering has formed an historical crucible for both individual religious and entire congregations. At times this suffering has been concentrated in the experience of injustice, closely allied to the role of Jesus in his own passion. One thinks of the countless members of religious orders who were martyrs in the 20th century in Mexico and Spain, in Eastern Europe and Central America, as well as the poignant faith statement made by the Trappist monks of Tibhirine in the face of Algerian terrorists. Nor can one dismiss the suffering experienced by those who suffered the misunderstanding and mistreatment of their own community members: John of the Cross under house arrest and vilified by his peers for years, Hildegard of Bingen, Mary Ward and numberless other women facing the suspicion and scrutiny of those who could not entertain a new way of witness. And of course there are the incredibly diverse historical narratives of founders facing privation and scorn, even as their faith attracted like-minded followers. Whatever the particular mode of suffering, when it was willingly embraced out of love for Christ and with trust in his promise, the fruits of such spiritual heroism were evident to all. Today suffering has an even greater potential witness power as it runs counter to the realms of media and advertising with their continual bombardment of messages that pain and suffering are to be avoided at all costs. The path of the paschal mystery is a trail always marked by suffering as part of the itinerary.

Physical diminishment part of our suffering

One other aspect of suffering that is more pronounced today than ever is physical diminishment. In the chronicles of consecrated life over two millennia one can find eruptions of spiritual energy and growth, juxtaposed with failure and collapse. The suppression of the Jesuits in the 18th century and the elimination of religious houses throughout Europe at the time of the Napoleonic Wars stand in sharp contrast to the resurgence of numbers and renewal of life that followed a century later. Nor should one lose sight of the fact that one of the obvious reasons for the ongoing influence of religious orders throughout history has been their linkage to the main currents of economic life in which they found themselves. For centuries, most of the major social service and educational institutions of society were identified with vowed men and women. One could indeed argue that a recurrent problem for many religious institutes throughout their history has been uncontrolled growth and over-expansion. Whether it was cataloged under brick and mortar complexes of buildings or the rank and file recruitment of new personnel, there was a presumption that ongoing growth was an inherent component of the life cycle of religious communities. Though that may still be the operative mode of a number of Asian and African communities, the reality today of North American and first world consecrated life is altogether different.

One of the most evident realities is that of a large aged and infirm population. The existence of infirmaries and an expanding segment of retired members living apart from the central community mark a novel challenge for the charism of consecrated life. On one level this is a penetrating instance of the paschal mystery at work. What appears to be nothing more than a medical stage of eldercare for some becomes, through the eyes of faith, the training ground for the last sequence of dying to new life. Moreover, many superiors of religious communities and many of the lay faithful are realizing the largely untapped reservoir of spiritual wisdom and experience that these community elders encompass. But the very real practical questions posed by the need to provide health care and allow meaningful participation of the aged in community activities are not easily solved. For those who have truly invested in the promise of the paschal mystery, however, there remains a conviction that we are most likely to be transformed, not when we find ourselves in a position of strength or power, but at our most fragile and weak.

The counterpart of this conviction on an institutional level is an understanding that the spiritual force of the charism of consecrated life is most likely to be felt when it acts from a base divested of authority and power. As many entities of consecrated life have divested themselves of buildings and properties and have gone through the trying process of conversion from large institutional apostolates, they have realized the freedom of acting from a base of powerlessness. For those who seek a prophetic stance for consecrated life, the physical diminishment of many communities will allow them to identify more readily with the marginalized and vulnerable sectors of the faithful. True to the words of the Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah, the more religious are aware of their own inner poverty, the more they come to rely upon the God who called them.

Trust in the gift of consecrated life

Like all other charisms in the church, consecrated life is a gift. In Vita Consecrata Pope John Paul II underlined the importance of how it is a special gift of the Holy Spirit, one that joins its members in an intimate way with the sacrifice of Christ. The implication of this in terms of the paschal mystery should be evident. We are reminded in the liturgy of Pentecost Sunday that the Holy Spirit is sent to us in order to share more deeply the life of Jesus and so bring the paschal mystery to its completion. Rather than remain an elevated theological reference removed from the daily routine of vowed commitment, this sense of the gift of consecrated life is meant to be internalized in the life of every religious and implemented in the mission of every institute of consecrated life.

Two components of this process that have stamped the history of consecrated life are trust and hope. The trust of Jesus in the promise of the Father is enlarged and integrated in the trust of every person professing the evangelical counsels. “Uphold me as you have promised, and do not disappoint me in my hope” says one profession formula. It captures the essential attitude that has insured the staying power of consecrated life in the church. Moreover, far from moving its adherents to a point of honing survival skills or planning avenues for downsizing, it invites them to renew their hope in the promise. Like Jesus who endured the cross for the sake of the joy that lay before him (Hebrews 12:2), vowed men and women of every generation of Christians have served as beacons of hope as they undergo the transforming experience of the paschal mystery.

In short, just as the paschal mystery is at the heart of the Christian life, the profession of the evangelical counsels embraces that mystery at the heart of the church where Christ is still present. To do that today in an authentic fashion, consecrated men and women need to learn the lessons of history. If there is a category of spiritual success, it is not necessarily measured in numbers or material assets. Rather the indices of the paschal mystery played out suggest a more compelling prospect. A posture of humility is essential to such a prospect, as is a willingness to accept the graced potential of physical diminishment and suffering. The timeless tension of being in the world but not of the world will require today an emphatically contrasting witness to the popular culture, one that draws its example and its strength from the pattern of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. There is no better pattern to attract people of the present day, particularly when it is connected to communities that live as a sign of joyful hope in the midst of a world with heavy sadness.

Joel Rippinger OSB is a monk of Marmion Abbey in Aurora, IL, where he has been vocation director and formation director in past years. He is now a faculty-staff chaplain and a teacher at Marmion Academy. In addition he does spiritual direction and retreat work.


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