Let’s build a future for religious brothers

Let’s build a future for religious brothers

By c

Although this article is aimed at brothers, it holds much wisdom for religious communities in general. Read on and see how it might speak to your particular congregation.

Religious congregations of brothers can no longer ignore the question of new membership. The future implications of the so called “vocation crisis” are staring us in the face. We can debate more effective governmental structures; we can plan for future mission-oriented ministries, and we can write more documents about our solidarity with the poor, but without new members joining our communities, in 50 years, what will it all mean? The membership crunch seems to be hitting home more now than ever.

In many dioceses and religious congregations, the vocation question has moved to the forefront. On the national level, three years ago at their annual meeting, the U.S. bishops passed a comprehensive strategy for vocations to priesthood and religious life. In June of 1998 the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Vocations sponsored a national symposium on religious vocations for priesthood and religious life which had an overwhelming attendance. In addition, both the men’s and women’s religious leadership conferences are presently exploring ways that leadership corporately can be more active in promoting priesthood and religious life. It is no secret that religious vocations are getting increased attention now more than ever.

For the past 30 years our congregations have quietly, and sometimes unconsciously, become accustomed to seeing more brothers leave our ranks than enter our formation programs. We prayed for vocations and many communities even maintained their commitment to a full-time vocation director, but the reality is that few men have joined our prenovitiate programs. Although over the years there was a general concern about the lack of new members, because there still were several brothers in the “work force,” we could afford to be comfortable regarding our numbers. We could still maintain a presence in our community institutions.

Those days are now gone. Our congregations are aging. We have more retired members, and every year fewer members are in full-time ministry. Our younger members continue to be a small proportion of the congregation. Now we can no longer afford to let time pass by without confronting the question of new membership.

Much has already been written about the social forces that discourage a positive climate for the promotion of religious vocations. Most of these social factors are simply beyond our control. Family structures and systems are no longer what they once were. We are witnessing a changing definition of family, everything from single parent homes, to blended families to children of gays and lesbians. In addition, physical, sexual, drug and alcohol abuse have greatly impacted the trust and stability issues inherent within a healthy family system. Individualism and materialism have consumed our American culture. Authority is looked upon cynically and institutions are considered suspect. Combine all that with a suspicion of commitment in young people’s lives, and religious vocations become an uphill battle.

The changing face of the American Catholic and the tension between Catholic teaching and our American values also impact our number of religious vocations. The rising multiculturalism of United States Catholics challenges us. Many Hispanic peoples continue to abandon the Catholic faith of their ancestors for more fundamental and evangelical denominations. In our highly sexed society, polls claim that Catholics believe that the church’s teaching on sexuality related to contraception, homosexuality and pre- marital sex is outdated. Although young adults in general do not see the difference between clerical and religious celibacy, they will say that celibacy primarily is the reason why they would not be a priest or a religious. Likewise, given our democratic values, American Catholics must reconcile themselves with a church that does not function democratically.

I believe it is important to mention these factors at the onset of this article because, as I mentioned previously, although they are beyond our control, they detract from our vocation promotion efforts in the church. Although my framework is that of the Congregation of Holy Cross, having shared some of these ideas with brothers in other religious congregations, I do not believe we are alone in our struggle. After five years of being vocation director, I offer here my thoughts from numerous vocation talks, meetings and discussions with countless groups of adolescents and young adults. I’ve also directed several men and women on both personal and group discernment retreats, and I’ve spent time with other vocation directors both regionally and nationally. As many of us wonder about the future of the brother’s vocation in the church, I offer these thoughts for reflection.

A question of visibility

As religious brothers we are invisible. To put it more bluntly, in general, people do not have any clear idea about who or what we are. I say this not cavalierly nor despairingly—I simply find it to be the truth. Part of this is the reality that we are fewer in number. Within the United States, according to the 1998 official Catholic Directory, the number of religious brothers dropped in 1997-98 by 178 resulting in a national total of 6,115 religious brothers. Of course, a large portion of this number is retired or infirm, and therefore, is not engaged in part or full-time ministry. This affects our invisibility even more.

For those congregations predominantly in teaching apostolates, we cannot assume that the freshman classes who entered our high schools in September know what a religious brother is. Even though some of our students will come to us from Catholic grade schools, many have not met a religious brother or sister, much less even know what religious life is about. If they do have a minimal understanding of our life, most likely their perceptions have been influenced by what they see in the media, which is often distorted, stereotyped, and scandal ridden.

Likewise, their parents, whose generation had greater exposure to religious in classrooms and parishes, still have either a romanticized notion of who we once were, or even worse, continue to perpetuate for their children the undying stories of harsh,corporal punishment and uncompromising discipline of the brothers and sisters they knew. Compounding the confusion, people are bewildered by the polarization of the various religious life-styles they see. How does the laity balance the extremes of Mother Angelica with those religious men and women who publicly dissent from church teaching? Where do they see community when the religious they know live in private apartments or are in scattered communities of twos or threes? Although justifications abound in defense of all of these realities, the average people in the pew just don’t understand. I think it is safe to say that they are confused just as much as we are at times.

The question of visibility is much more complex than the reality of fewer members. It is also related to a greater issue in the church. Without a doubt, our church has become increasingly more clerical in the last 20 years. With an escalating shortage of priests, lay religious life is not always promoted in the church as enthusiastically or emphatically as it could be. All of us have sat through liturgies listening to public prayers for vocations to the priesthood and privately wondering why we were not also praying for more vocations to the religious life. I do not believe that these omissions are intentional. The times I have respectfully asked presiders to include religious life in their future prayers of petition, I was usually met with sincere apologies and a response such as, “To tell you the truth, I didn’t even think of it.” To be forgotten is a disarming but telling statement in itself.

Another reality is that many bishops and priests are gun shy of religious men and women. Since many of their dealings with us have been confrontational and negative, in order to avoid future hostile situations, they choose either to ignore or to avoid us. Likewise, we have suffered from our own antagonisms with clergy and hierarchy, and we, too, choose either to ignore or to avoid them. My point is not to say that we are right or they are wrong. The point is that such stereotypes and false generalizations on the part of both parties only lead to further, unhealthy breakdowns in communication and understanding of the uniqueness of our respective vocations in the church. If we assume an “us-them” mentality, we deepen the divisiveness that already tears so painfully away at our contemporary church, and it is the church, the People of God, that ultimately suffers from such internal strife.

To blame our invisibility solely on the church would be both unjust and inaccurate. I would conjecture that the majority of neighbors in the neighborhoods where brothers live are unaware that a religious community of men lives on their block. Instead of participating in the life of our local parish community, some of us have chosen instead to participate anonymously in a nearby parish that may provide a better liturgy or choir. When many teaching congregations have made concerted, successful efforts at connecting the mission of their schools with the mission and charism of their community, some brothers choose not to participate in school activities, often to the dismay and wonder of lay colleagues, parents and alumni. Although we may accept the reasons for these examples, we must realize that such choices promote further invisibility and anonymity, something which we as brothers can no longer afford. With our public presence lacking, the implication for future vocations is, to quote the old cliche, “out of sight, out of mind.”

Not being part of the clerical hierarchy has given us a unique freedom that is comfortable. As I heard one brother say about the hierarchy, “It’s good that they forget about us—this way they leave us alone!” We come to a religious community not to distance ourselves from the existing tensions or authority in the institutional church, nor to find a supportive haven for our anger against church authority, nor for that matter to promote our own church agenda. As consecrated religious, we are men of the church and in the church. Our vocation by its very nature is rooted in a desire to deepen our baptismal commitment and our relationship with the People of God. The faithful see us and look to us for who and what we are—men who have totally consecrated themselves through their vows to God and to service within the church. Laity expect us to be uniquely integral to the church, and when they do not see it, they are surprised and confused. If we are going to welcome men into our communities, we must all realistically deal with our feelings and beliefs about the church of today—not the church of yesterday or of the future— but the church of today in all of its glory and weakness.

Generational differences

The majority of today’s brothers lived through the social, political and ecclesial turbulence of the 60s. We experienced the devastation of political assassinations, the power of the people in working for justice and the profound national betrayal and shame which resulted from Watergate. We mourned the senseless violence and countless casualties of the Vietnam War as well as the racial wars that were erupting in our city streets. We also underwent our own personal and spiritual transformations which were affected by the drastic changes of the Second Vatican Council. Suddenly our equilibrium was shaken as we experienced a shift in values from uniformity to diversity, from authoritarianism to collegiality, from commonality to individuality.

All of us dealt with these dramatic events and changes in different ways. There were those who simply left religious life. In retrospect, it was a good decision for some once they discovered that they may have become brothers for the wrong reasons. On the other hand, there were those who left and we still wonder why. These are the departures for which we still grieve. And then there are those of us who have chosen to stay. What are our reasons for remaining? After living through these radical shifts in church, society and culture, has our dependence upon God and one another deepened, or have we learned instead to place more trust in ourselves and in our material security? Have our vows increased our joy and appreciation for life, or have they regretfully only made our life burdensome? Do we face the uncertainty of the future with excitement and hope, or with cynicism and despair? If we are to be witnesses to the world of an attractive lifestyle option, we must honestly answer these questions and re-examine our own commitment to religious life.

Unlike many of us who were brought up with the order and constancy of a triumphal church, our young people today have experienced conflicting messages of a church in transition, and they are seeking answers rooted in truth. In the midst of New Age spirituality and watered down Christianity are those who want to know what it means to be Catholic, so they resort to tangible, traditionally Catholic symbols. I find it fascinating that exposition and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is making a comeback on college campuses. In the midst of the noise and rush of their academic lives, students appreciate the hour of silence in the presence of mystery. Similarly, young adults are rediscovering the virtue of Mary, and have found the rosary to be an easy form of prayer and one that is identifiably Catholic. Some of us may be quick to categorize these young people as conservative or “wacky,” but these are the students who volunteer weekly at local soup kitchens and participate in “alternative spring breaks” with Habitat for Humanity. They are also class officers, student athletes, and members of the Dean’s List. As I have discovered, our younger people defy the neat and tight boxes in which we tend to categorize them.

From my experiences of meeting with most men who are exploring a vocation, I have found that they are drawn to religious life not because of ministry, education or social justice convictions. Our church has evolved such that if these were their primary desires, they could easily be fulfilled as lay persons within a Catholic institution. Men are coming to us first and foremost for the religious life itself. To live in the secular world as a committed Christian espousing Catholic values is difficult for them. They admit their need for the support of a community of like minded individuals who could strengthen their love for God and their Catholic convictions.

They are not just looking for a group of “nice people” who happen to do good work. They are looking for men who know God and can lead them to God and who can give them a sense of hope in a world that has become increasingly pessimistic and destructive. They want to pray together, to share their faith, and to bring the message of the Good News to those to whom they aspire to minister. They acknowledge the Eucharist as the unifying factor of our faith and they have devotion to it. Since they often come from an un-churched, non-traditional background, they are seeking structure and definition.

From our community perspective, that is quite an order to fill! Some of you who are reading this now are probably wincing and saying, “I thought we got away from that years ago!” To put it simply, we find ourselves in the middle of a generation gap. Thirty years ago there were some brothers who retained their habits, sat in their pews, and looked with distaste upon those who wore colored shirts and jeans and prayed on throw pillows. They thought for sure religious life was quickly going down the tubes. The younger brothers, however, challenged the older brothers to renew their zeal for religious life by embracing a different lifestyle, one that was based more on shared expressions of faith and on more interpersonal, communal living. Likewise, the elders taught younger members to appreciate the tradition of our life and enriched younger members by their fidelity to their vows in the face of change.

Since some congregations have lost a younger generation, some of us have forgotten what it is like to be challenged by the young. The lively community dynamic that occurs with the mixture of generations, from the elderly, to the middle-aged, to the young does not happen in many of our local communities. As a result, many of us have grown comfortable with one another and in our life together. The mutual challenges and exchanges that we all remember from our earlier years and that naturally occurs between the young and old does not happen anymore for the majority of us.

At 41-years-old I am still considered one of the “young brothers” in my community. I realize that much of my religious life has been lived with men older than myself. Although I am thankful for the benefit of their example and wisdom, as I enter my own mid-life, I realize that I have been deprived of living with the contagious energy and enthusiasm of much younger religious. I know that I need to be challenged to think in new ways and to experience life differently at times.

Many of us are either middle aged or senior citizens. Although I realize it becomes increasingly more difficult as we age, if we are to have a new generation following us, we must be open to the challenges of renewing our same basic values—prayer, community and lifestyle. While those who are considering religious life are looking for deeper community experiences, ironically, some who have lived this life for 30 to 40 years are saying they are tired of the routine and demands in community! How do we bridge this gap?

To live with the ideals, hopes and dreams of the young is inconvenient and even uncomfortable at times, but I know of no other way. Although youthful idealism may need some tempering, we must admit, at least it is refreshing. We have now become the “older brothers” of yesterday, and like those of 30 years ago, we are invited once again to new ways of thinking and being as we look to the next generation in religious life.

I do not believe that age has to be a deterring factor. When I hosted discernment retreats for prospective candidates at our retirement facility, I would invite three of our elderly brothers to tell their vocation stories. A combined witness of almost 200 years of faithful, religious life is better than any vocation brochure I could ever design! Their authentic fulfillment in Holy Cross and their continued joy and vitality in this life were proof to these interested men that our life can be lived and lived well. Our young people look to their elders for inspiration. They hunger for the wisdom that comes from living a prayerful and reflective life with God. If, however, they see stagnation, apathy and cynicism, they are left disillusioned and wanting. For many of us, our lives as religious have been deeply enriching and grace-filled, but yet, some of us are reluctant to share these experiences with each other. We underestimate at times the power of our stories.

In many religious congregations it has always been the tradition to respond to “the signs of the times” and to the contemporary needs of the church. I maintain that we need to continue this spirit of openness not only to our mission and ministries, but to our religious lives as well.

The answer is in the present

I do not claim to have the answers for the future. To be truthful, my worry is neither the future nor the past. The present is my concern. We can only theorize about the future like we can only reminisce about the past. Such intellectual exercises remove us from the responsibility of making necessary choices about our lives and our community in the present.

In general, given the societal challenges discussed previously, recent shifts in our culture seem to coalesce with our lives as religious brothers. For example, our society displays a renewed interest in spirituality. Celebrities from Oprah to Madonna have made daily meditation chic again! With the proliferation of self-help and support groups for every issue imaginable, people are longing for connection and belonging. They desire “to share their story” and to be validated by a group. Service is in style, too. Corporations support community service, and some school systems have included service components in their curricula. As a result, the rate of volunteerism is at an all time high. And the notion of simplicity is gaining ground. Ironically, many authors are making lots of money in their best-selling books on how to simplify one’s lifestyle. It seems that religious brotherhood should logically fit into this picture. Our life is a wonderful secret that needs to be shared more than ever before.

As religious brothers, I believe we bring a special gift to the church. Our faith teaches of a God whose love is unconditional and whose mercy is unlimited. Our vows attest that, if faithfully and genuinely lived, fulfillment can be found in the transcendent as opposed to the transitory. Where division and broken relationships characterize many families and marriages, our commitment to community life, despite its inherent struggles, mysteriously witnesses to welcome, order, acceptance and equality. I have read many books and articles detailing the future of religious life in temporary vowed commitments, lay associate membership, satellite communities, blended communities...etc. All of that makes for interesting reading and good discussion, but I return to the question—what about now? How do we live now the vows we professed, however many years ago, with the similar passion, zeal and love of our early years?

I do not believe that the answer to the challenges of our present situation is as simple as the reconstruction of past, external structures. Our lives are much more complex today than they were 30 years ago. No one can deny the valuable purpose our traditional structures served, considering the church and spirituality of the time, but it is naive to think that the restoration of former ways will meet the needs our contemporary dilemma in the same way they did then. We can romanticize about the past, but we all know that it is impossible to turn the clock back.

I also am not convinced, at least in my congregation, that we are presently compelled to recreate new models and forms of vowed religious life. We do not need to recreate the wheel as much as we need to insure the wheel we have already is running on the right track. Besides, since Vatican II, several new, experimental lay and religious communities have already formed and implemented exciting models of lifestyle and commitment. How they will fare in the future, time will only tell. Instead, as brothers we need to reclaim who and what we are. We are men of the church vowed to a life of poverty, celibacy and obedience. We commit ourselves to a life of prayer and mission with each other in community. Given our society and culture, these basic, core values make us countercultural today. Our vows are meant to be joyfully lived with hope. This life was meant to be lived in relationship with God and with one another. These challenging times invite us to probe and to enter more deeply into the essence of our vows and the mysterious grace that comes with this life.

I believe in the gift of religious life, and particularly, in the gift of religious brotherhood. I want a future for us because I believe the church would be lacking without us. Knowing the profound way my own vocation to Holy Cross has enriched me, I desire to share this gift with a new generation of religious. I am sure the majority of members in our communities desires the same, but to do this requires conversion and a courageous openness to the Spirit that speaks to us today, and not yesterday and not tomorrow.

Paul Bednarczyk, CSC is belongs to the Congregation of the Holy Cross, Eastern Province of Brothers. He has been involved in vocation ministry since 1993.


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