Creating a hopeful future for religious life

Creating a hopeful future for religious life

By John Klein F.M.S.

Several years ago former New York Mayor Ed Koch bemoaned that “…there are so few people who are fierce about anything.”1 Today we are challenged to be on fire, fierce, for the Mission of Christ, for that is our call as religious. No longer can we afford a choice between maintenance and mission. Mission is the only option, for in mission we discover the key to renewal and new life. It is the mission that must frame and inform all our decisions —even those concerning issues that might only be considered maintenance. Everything is really mission; for we are called not to maintain ourselves and to guarantee our survival but rather, to serve the Mission of Christ, a mission to proclaim the unconditional and compassionate love of God. This mission will direct our energy outward rather than inward and give us new life.

While few would probably disagree with this, I realize the pressures of day-to-day realities for religious. How can I be an energetic, passionate, visionary leader in my community in the midst of the “nitty gritty” and, at times, discouraging practical demands of my job? While urging and waiting for my congregation to “get on board” am I at risk of losing my own “fire” and enthusiasm? What is giving my life meaning today? What attracts me personally to religious life today? And as Joan Chittister asked in her book, Fire in These Ashes, “What do I want to be caught dead doing?”

In a talk to the Christian members of the British parliament about the modern role of monasteries, the late Cardinal Basil Hume cited an experience of the present abbot of Ampleforth Monastery. The abbot met a group outside the abbey church at Ampleforth who asked, “Is this an abbey?”

“When I told them it is,” the abbot recounted, “one of them said in a skeptical and disappointed voice, ‘Then where are the ruins?’”

Perhaps this is the critical question for each of us in religious life. Where are the ruins of religious life, and where are the signs of new life and hope? And also: once I have discovered those signs, what should I do? I believe that we can discover the answers to these questions in our commitment to mission.

Is religious life disturbing enough?

Catherine de Hueck Doherty once wrote, “I would not have liked to live without ever having disturbed anyone.” For us the question is not, “Should religious life exist?” The question today is “Is religious life disturbing enough in our time to meet the great need that the world has for it?”2 Today we are called to be loyal disturbers of the status quo, giving a voice to those who have no voice. We are called to serve the people on the margins, for that is where Jesus was born and where he always went. In reality, we first have to be willing to be disturbed by the consuming love of God that will impel us out to mission for those most in need. In a sense, we must become downwardly mobile, for Jesus’ mission fundamentally was to the outcasts of society. It is with society’s outcasts that religious life will discover its new life.

Jesus clearly knew the source of new life when he announced his mission in the synagogue in Nazareth: “The spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favor from the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). During that Sabbath service Jesus proclaimed a new kinship, a new relationship between peoples based on our common humanity and the love and justice of God. Jesus truly posed a dramatic challenge to the powerful status quo.

As a result, writes Elizabeth Johnson, “A new relationship of trust in God takes root in the hearts of those who follow him, and a new vision of a redeemed world shaped according to the mutual services of friendship rather than relations of domination-subordination flower among the women and men who respond and join his circle.”3 As religious we commit ourselves to be an integral part of this circle of Jesus’ friends, to be his disciples in mission, to be “kin” to him who has first offered us membership in his family. At the most profound level, we find the mission of religious life in Jesus’ proclamation. Unless we strive to make his mission the heart of our life, religious life really makes no sense. We will never disturb anyone because we resist being disturbed ourselves.

Inviting members into a covenant

While fostering our congregations’ mission presents a formidable challenge to us as religious, I believe our best hope for the future lies in inviting our membership to enter a special covenant relationship designed to honestly critique our current reality. The author Max DePree describes such a covenant relationship as one inducing freedom and not paralysis. It is a relationship that rests on a shared commitment to ideas, issues, values and goals. This covenant relationship is open to influence, tolerates risk and forgives errors.4 Ultimately it is a covenant relationship that will give life and texture to Vita Consecrata’s assertion that “dialogue is the new name of charity, especially charity within the church” (no. 74).

Today there is a critical need to assess what has happened to us and to religious life during the past 30 years. Shortly after the Vatican Council Karl Rahner wrote that the church was experiencing a change comparable only to the one encountered by the early church community when it opened itself to receive the Gentile people.5 Our experience as American religious clearly confirms Rahner’s assessment. Consequently, we need to examine how well the changes in our life have fostered the mission. How have decisions we have made configured us both personally and corporately to the Gospel? How clear has our role in the church and society become? What makes us distinctive as religious? As we initiate our conversation with each other and our members, I would suggest that we re-visit the landmark research and analysis done by David Nygren, CM, and Miriam Ukeritis, CSJ in their 1992 study, “The Future of Religious Orders in the United States.” The things they emphasized are equally true today and we ignore them at our own peril. Several areas merit particular attention.

Essentials for revitalization

In their study Nygren and Ukeritis highlighted role clarity as essential to the revitalization of religious orders in the United States. “Personal understandings of religious life and the commitment required to live the life are very broad. This results in part from the lack of role clarity and from the vast cultural influence on religious life. Most religious would see some return to normative behavior as necessary, but they are reluctant to do so if that means returning to the sect-like distinction of religious life of the past.”6

Clearly many religious over the past 30 years have lost an understanding of their role and function in the church. As a result, they have developed highly privatized definitions of what prayer, community, and even the vows themselves mean. They have also lost rituals and symbols that offer messages on how to live and connect with one another. Until the question of role clarity receives close attention, there remains little hope for genuine renewal and growth.

A second area of concern, related to that of role clarity, is the definition of membership. What does it mean to be a member of the group, and what realistic demands can the group place upon the individual? What does obedience mean, and what should community life, the common life, look like today? How does each person relate to the group or province? How can we resist the temptation to “take care of ourselves” in the most negative sense of that expression?

An example of this tension between the individual and the group occurred in the 1970s when my province developed a new policy statement called, “The principle of attraction.” If you were “attracted” to a given apostolate or community you were free to go there and, after making the decision, you politely informed the provincial. To say the least, this approach posed significant difficulties for a province with a large number of corporate ministries.

I also have often heard men in my province comment, “I would be willing to do something (in terms of community, apostolate, prayer), but I am not going to do it unless everybody does.” Pedro Arrupe, SJ in an address to the Inter- American Assembly of Religious in Montreal spoke to this reality. “Everybody admits the necessity of taking some effective steps, and this cannot be done without great sacrifices. But who is ready to make them? Let them begin, then we shall see! And so nobody does anything.”7 This attitude clearly will lead us to death, with the possibility for renewal and new life irrevocably lost.

We cannot do it alone. We need each other. That is why we come together in community. While each of us can expect to live a happy and fulfilled life, no one is called to achieve this in rugged isolation. Fundamentally, the movement from independence to interdependence means a movement to something better; however, it will not be an easy transition. Confronting a culture that has supported privatism and individualism, we religious will have to re-examine the “nonnegotiables.” 8

A third area meriting attention is the extent to which religious life has been assimilated into the mainstream culture and is invisible to those most in need. While we often claim the “prophetic” nature of religious life, have we actually lost our prophetic edge without realizing it? Has our comfortable, middle-class lifestyle sapped our energy and passion for the Gospel? Cardinal Suenens warned of this possibility in his book, A New Pentecost, when he commented that “It is time we changed our vocabulary and stopped calling ‘prudence’ what is fear, and ‘wisdom’ what is timidity when faced with implementing the Gospel.”9 This is particularly true at a time that demands a redefinition of our relationship to and in the church, a time characterized by a clash of divergent ecclesiologies.

It is also important to examine how we do ministry. For example, what is the place of corporate commitments, and what should they look like today? While returning to the structures of the past is neither desirable nor possible, the growth of individual ministries and the articulation of our particular charisms offer ground for fruitful consideration.

Nygren and Ukeritis also highlighted the gap between religious congregations’ professed option for the poor and the reality that few religious actually see themselves ministering to those living on the margins. What does this say to us? Does social justice really find a place at the heart of our mission?

Making the option for the poor a priority is an indispensable ingredient to fostering new life. The United States Bishops in their pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All,” left no ambiguity with regard to this. They exhorted us to ask of “…every decision, what it does to the poor, for the poor, and what it enables the poor to do for themselves. Stated simply, it is a matter of looking at the world from the point of view, not of the haves, but the have-nots.”10

Peter Henriot, SJ echoed this when he remarked that “We push ourselves not to take for granted the way things are, but to ask instead, ‘How does it affect the poor?’ This means almost requiring of public and private decisions a ‘poor impact statement’ similar to the environmental impact statements required of major governmental projects.”11 Should we consider developing such statements as congregations? Should not solidarity with the poor and disenfranchised be a distinguishing characteristic of religious life today, even perhaps the new religious habit?

Finally, we need to dispel the presumed conflict between contemplation and action, between consecration and mission. We are consecrated, baptized, for mission and our contemplation and action inform each other, as well. Vita Consecrata clarified this in the following statement: “Institutes involved in one or other form of the apostolate must therefore foster a solid spirituality of action, seeing God in all things and all things in God…Thus, the active life ought to lead to contemplation; and sometimes, from what we see interiorly, contemplation should more effectively call us back to action.... Today as yesterday the close union between contemplation and action will allow the most difficult missions to be undertaken” (Vita Consecrata, no. 74).

Heading toward a hopeful future

I’ve addressed a wide range of concerns: role clarity, membership, individualism, common life, ministry commitments, lifestyle, priorities, contemplation and action. In the struggle to address each of these areas, we religious will begin to discover the signs and sources of new life for our congregations. In this covenanted process we personally can discover our fire and passion for the Gospel. This will enable us not only to read the signs of the times but also to actually write them as well. What we decide today will determine the religious life of the future, and our actions will be the signs that others will read. We have the unique opportunity to discover new answers to the new problems we face without surrendering to the illusion of a quick fix return to the past which would only betray the Spirit’s gift to us since the Vatican Council. “Consecrated life will not be limited to reading the signs of the times but will also contribute to elaborating and putting into effect new initiatives of evangelization for presentday situations” (Vita Consecrata, no. 73).

As communities continue their efforts to move forward, they need to listen to the voices of forward-looking, challenging members and “free” them to dream a new future. We religious need to discover “pockets of hope” in our congregations. Carving out a viable future will require significant time and energy with those in our groups who are truly willing and able to help us move into the future. Congregations need not wait for the whole group to “get on board.” Each group needs only a critical mass to effect change. We further need to listen to the voices of the young, whose issues may not be ours and whose desires for a religious life might be in some conflict with the life we have created.

The Canadian Jesuit, Andre Myer, in his address to the Inter-American meeting of Religious in Santo Domingo in 1994 observed that God did not create “religious institutions, and He is not the one who will cause them to die. It is up to religious life itself to see that it evolves and remains relevant.”12 In other words, the future and the present are up to us. Today, more than ever, we are called to be sowers of hope, women and men who really believe that the Lord is still faithful. This is essential because of the responsibility we bear to the future, not only as individuals, but also as a group. None of us lives for herself alone; none of us dies for himself alone, as St. Paul has pointed out.

If we are to learn from history, then we must also take up the task of shaping the today to create the religious life of the future. Jacques Maritain was convinced of this, and in the bleak days of war torn France in 1943 he wrote: “It is an historic duty, a duty to our sisters and brothers and to future generations, to keep hope firm, and not to waver at the sight of the clouds which form and fade on the horizon.”13

This is our task and our challenge and our responsibility: to keep hope alive. We have to really believe that our lives have meaning and are worth the sacrifice, since we have been disturbed by the love of God and have been sent out on mission.

I believe religious life is intended for growth and new life. We are called to be religious at a complex moment in history. It might have been less stressful to be a brother, sister or priest at a time when our roles were crystal clear, our life more valued by both the church and the people, vocations more numerous, schools and hospitals opening with great rapidity, and our possibilities seemingly endless. But we are called to be religious and leaders at this time, a time of crisis and transition.

Centuries before the birth of Christ, Yahweh spoke to the prophet Ezekiel at another time like ours. When Ezekiel complained, “Our bones are dry, our hope has gone; we are as good as dead,” Yahweh responded. He told Ezekial, “Say to them, ‘The Lord Yahweh says this: I am now going to open your graves, I mean to raise you from your graves, my people, and lead you back to the soil of Israel. And I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live, and I shall resettle you on your own soil; and you will know that I, Yahweh, have said and done this—it is the Lord Yahweh who speaks’” (Ezechiel 37:11-14). The Lord Yahweh is giving us this same message today. He is putting his spirit within us and reviving us. These partially dry bones are filled with the promise of new life.

1. Fred Kammer, SJ, Doing Faithjustice: An Introduction to Catholic Social Thought, New York: Paulist Press, 1991, p. 58.

2. Joan Chittister, Fire in These Ashes, Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1995.

3. Elizabeth Johnson, “And Their Eyes Were Opened,” Address at the LCWRCMSM Assembly, August 1995.

4. Max DePree, Leadership is an Art, New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1989, p. 51.

5. Karl Rahner, “Toward a Fundamental Theological Interpretation of Vatican II,” Theological Studies 40, p. 716-17.

6. David Nygren and Miriam Ukeritis, “Executive Summary: The Future of Religious Orders in the United States Study,” p. 266.

7. Arrupe, Pedro, SJ, “The Unarguable Witness of Austerity,” address to the Inter-American Congress of Religious. Montreal, Canada, p. 3.

8. Nygren and Ukeritis, p. 268.

9. Charles Howard, “Sowers of Hope,” Circular of the Marist Brothers of the Schools, Vol. XXIX, March 12, 1990, p. 263.

10. Kammer, p. 150.

11. Kammer, p. 202.

12. Andre Myer, address to the Inter- American Assembly of Religious, Santo Domingo, 1994, p. 26.

13. Howard, p. 254.

John Klein, FMS belongs to the Marist Brothers. He has worked in high school administration, served as provincial of the Esopus Province of his congregation and served as president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. Currently, he is president of Marist High School in Bayonne, N.J.


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