March 26, 2012
SARA FRANCIS
SPECIAL TO THE WCR

CALGARY – Canadian religious orders have reason to hope in a bright future.

This was the overarching message that Brother Sean Sammon tried to instil during his series of keynote addresses at the National Association of Vocation and Formation Directors Conference.

"Historically, religious life goes through periods where we begin to disintegrate and fall apart and that's necessary because of emerging needs, changes in society and the Church," said Sammon. That experience is not the end of religious life, but rather the first moment of change.

While many expected religious life to flourish after Vatican II, the opposite happened, said Sammon. "That was a good thing in the sense that we'd become so successful we'd lost an understanding of what religious life was all about."

The American Marist brother was paired with Sister Elizabeth Davis, who facilitated group discussions after Sammon's talks.

"Staying as we are doesn't work, the world is changing, the Church is changing, we're changing ourselves," said Davis.

"Religious life totally changed after Vatican II. While that has its own challenges, it also gives us confidence that we can do it again because many of us have lived through it already."

TEST OF TIME

Yet, not all orders will stand the test of time. Some will close, others will continue with reduced numbers and still others go through a process of transformation, said Sammon. The vast majority of congregations founded before 1800 no longer exist because they had served their purpose.

"The worst thing to do would be to try to pump life into something that's served its purpose. It's better to give thanks for that and say there will be newly emerging groups," he said.

In the past, religious often ministered as teachers or nurses, but those roles are now mostly filled by lay people. Today's religious are engaged in new ministries such as reconciliation, care for the earth, the rights of children, human trafficking.

"If (religious) are holding onto the old structure and think we're going to re-establish that, we're going to lose hope because those days are gone," he said.

"We have to get over the notion of the past as a golden age and now we're in decline. We're facing different challenges today and in every age religious life has its challenges."