WCR FILE PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Local Sisters of Providence work at the Anawim Place food bank alongside lay people, part of the new approach of many religious orders.
Finding and forming the next generation of religious in Canada was a popular topic at this year's National Association of Vocation and Formation Directors Conference.
About 100 people attended the biannual conference in Calgary March 11 to 14. This year's theme was Called to Discipleship: Witnesses to Hope. The conference focuses on both vocation and formation.
Sister Mary Rowell said with fewer people entering religious life, the peer group for new vocations is small.
"So how do we support formation in very new circumstances, with a new generation that probably think quite different than an older generation?" asked Rowell, a Sister of St. Joseph of Peterborough.
The vocation and formation culture in the United States faces similar challenges.
Brother Paul Bednarczyk, director of the American National Religious Vocation Conference, attended the conference representing 15 Canadian religious who work in his country.
"Of course, we always ask the question about vocations and why there are not more. I think we're at a transition point where we can ask the difficult questions of ourselves that we were not prepared to ask 10 years ago," said Bednarczyk.
In 2009, the National Religious Vocation Conference did a major study on recent vocations to religious life, highlighting three challenging areas for religious life today – community life, Catholic identity and prayer.
"Those who are attracting candidates today would be following a more traditional style of religious life that would have that common schedule, the identified same mission that would wear a religious habit, daily Eucharist, devotional practices, but that's today. Our study is not a predictor of 20 years from now," said Bednarczyk.
Today, not all religious communities put a priority on spending time together because religious work in various ministries with conflicting schedules. In the past, however, the entire order might have worked in the same school or hospital sharing a common timetable.
"Community becomes much more intentional in finding time together," said Bednarczyk.
"You don't need to be a religious to do ministry in the Church today. . . . But what (youth) are coming for is a community that shares their faith, their values and who can support them as they continue to work in ministry," he said.
Youth are also looking for orders with a clear Catholic identity and strong public presence. With fewer religious wearing a habit these days, orders have to be more creative to gain visibility.
"People will default back to the habit because it's so visible. For religious communities to say 'Let's wear a habit and we'll get vocations,' I think that's too simplistic because the vocation question is a multi-faceted complex question," said Bednarczyk.
Those entering religious life will also value structured prayer that includes, daily Eucharist, the recitation of the Divine Office, community prayer time and faith sharing. Ultimately, they are looking for balance.
"They don't want to be workaholics. As much as they want to do ministry, they also want quality time with the people they live with and quality time for prayer," said Bednarczyk.
During the conference, Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan led a workshop about prayer and how piety is key to the next generation of candidates.
"A number of candidates are presenting themselves for religious communities who are a little bit more pious then they had been in the past and (the participants) wanted to understand this a little bit better," said Pettipas, a Redemptorist.
The spectrum of religious candidates is much narrower than it was in the past because fewer young people are plugged into the Church today.
"What I find hopeful is that there are young people who are devout, who are thinking about religious life," he said.
"It's really almost the super Catholics who are giving any thought to religious life," said Pettipas. "They are the ones who have a much more religious sense of life, a pious devotional prayer life, much more so than would have been true of the broad spectrum of Catholics."
Connecting with a diversity of Catholics has been a goal of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto. For several years they've operated Faith Connections, an outreach ministry for 18 to 39 year olds.
Faith Connections coordinator Vanessa Nicholas-Schmidt led a workshop on how to engage youth. She spoke about three successful programs in Toronto. The key is for any religious order to take an existing program and adapt it to fit their needs.
Lenten Listening – the busy person's retreat – matches youth with a spiritual director in their area for six weeks.
Eat, Pray, Share is a program Faith Connections created for young foodies. Young adults take turns cooking gourmet meals using local and organic ingredients. There is a different theme each week related to food and the Bible. During supper they discuss a Scripture and non-Scripture reading.
Hike and Prayer is a program where young adults gather in the Toronto area to hike together. Each hike is based on a particular theme, which the group discusses along the route.
"I think the Sisters of St. Joseph saw vocation as a wider question. How can we walk with young adults during their transition period in their life and how can we support them in whatever vocation their called to?" said Nicholas-Schmidt.
However, "if someone is called to a vocation in religious life we need to be where they are and meeting them," she said.