Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
June 25, 2007
Society misses religious order's witness
One of the great crises of the Church in the West is the fading away of the religious orders that have been a central part of Church life since the time of St. Benedict.
Much of the attention around the "vocation crisis" has been over the declining number of priests, especially diocesan clergy, because of the need to have priests to celebrate Sunday Eucharist and maintain parish life. This is certainly an important concern.
Many dioceses in North America are now experiencing at least a modest increase in seminarians and ordinations. But the decline in religious life continues unabated, even if a few orders are drawing more candidates.
Religious women and men brought the Gospel to Eastern Canada and then to the West and were the first to provide education, health care and social services. With the vast expansion of government services and the growth of lay involvement in these sectors, the practical need for religious is no longer so apparent. It is not obvious why someone would join a religious order if they could do the same work, draw a salary and have the reputed homely comforts of a spouse and children.
The crisis of religious orders though lays so much not in the loss of their service as it does in the loss of their witness. The constant appearance before us of lives committed to poverty, chastity and obedience was an ongoing reminder that money, sexual gratification and personal autonomy are shallow, futile pursuits.
Here are people who live for something greater - they witness to the communion of love whose shadow can be seen in this world but which will be found fully in eternity. The vowed religious live at that point where time and the timeless intersect.
In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict says, "The Church has constant need of the great ascetics. She needs the communities that follow them, living out poverty and simplicity so as to display the truth of the Beatitudes." Religious life contrasts "the culture of affluence with the culture of inner freedom" (p. 77).
Some would argue that if priests wore black and sisters their habits, their witness to the world would increase. While there may be truth in this contention, it is too simplistic. Consecrated life since the time of St. Benedict has had a clear pattern of development toward greater involvement with the secular world.
Early monasticism was a life apart - the creation of new communities built around prayer seven times a day. In the Middle Ages arose the great preaching orders that were less monastic and more apostolic. Following the Reformation, Ignatius Loyola developed a form of religious life that encouraged holiness without choral praying of the Liturgy of the Hours and wearing a special habit. The apostolate was central, the religious community less so.
The next revolution in consecrated life came in the 20th century with the growth of secular institutes, "new movements" among the laity and lay spirituality aimed at permeating the world with the power of the Gospel.
While new forms of consecrated life arose over the centuries, the old forms did not fade away. The new flourished alongside the old and the radicalness of the Gospel was apparent in all of them. But now the new forms have not fully taken root in the Western world while the old forms are in serious trouble.
This crisis cannot be disconnected from the crisis in society that has seen the deconstruction of societal structures and traditional moral norms. But the revitalization of religious life cannot await a return to good sense in society. Rather, a growth of the witness to God's kingdom inherent in the vowed life is a crucial part of the renewal of society.
The best way to move society in a healthier direction is the development of communities of people who reveal that healthier direction by their own lives.
- Glen Argan
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