Years ago, having finished college just a few months before, I tentatively stepped across the threshold into a large motherhouse complex. I stepped into a new world that has shaped me and colored my approach to life, to spirituality, to ministry, and to so many other things. I came with hopes and dreams, and with not a few misconceptions about the world that I was entering. In the early years of religious life, I learn about prayer from many early morning hours spent in chapel, from sisters who shared that experience with me, and from classes on prayer and spirituality. Several other young women entered with me and together, we navigated our first weeks and months of convent life, we built relationships and found our way in this strange new world we had all been drawn to by God and by our youthful notions of vocation. We took our places in the community’s ministries, according to our skills and interests, and from the start, we learned to integrate community, spirituality, and mission.
Several decades have passed since I first entered religious life. I have changed, religious life has changed around me and with me, the church has changed around us and with us, and the world has changed and continues to change. I have had amazing opportunities, studying and working in many places across the United States and beyond. I have worked with sisters and brothers from many religious communities, and in the course of our work together, we shared our maturing hopes and dreams for society, for justice, for the church, for our own communities, and for religious life itself.
As religious life evolves our congregations are smaller and our various networks will become more important. We will need different skills and we will be less institutional and closer to those we serve. Some years ago, I wrote Religious Life at the Crossroads to explore these currents in religious life. Orbis has just released my second book on this theme: Beyond the Crossroads: Religious Life in the 21st Century in which I continue this exploration.
I begin by drawing some lines of reflection from Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Sí on life in our common home on planet earth. I find the encyclical to be a parable of religious life. We are facing unprecedented challenges that could undermine the very future of religious life itself, as well as the future of individual communities and congregations. The challenge we face is multifaceted, with the decline in numbers being the most visible evidence. Many ask why people are joining religious life today in significantly smaller numbers. There are many reasons, the changing role of the laity, the changing understanding of religious life, the changing face of the church in society, the changing role of women in society and in the church, the changing nature of marriage and the family, and emerging needs of migrants, trafficking, and the environment.
In our rapidly changing global society, the identity of religious life is also shifting. Rapid social change strains the capacity of communities to respond, even as they tend to the urgent calls of mission and their own internal need to care for aging sisters and brothers. In this context, ongoing dialogue about the meaning of religious life can help us to pivot to a more authentic response in our lives and in our mission. In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, we are inviting co-creators who will join us to re-imagine religious life even as together we network in new ways and with new partners.
In the shifting sands of society, church and religious life, we need new images to help us to understand the changes that are occurring and how we might best position ourselves as individuals and as communities to do the great work to which we are called. We can understand it as a shift from institution to ecosystem, requiring a shift in our identity and in our way of doing community, spirituality, and mission. The overlapping circles of community will help to provide the resilience we need to nurture this evolutionary process.
My new book engages the public conversation about the evolution of religious life as we move beyond the crossroads into the heart of the twenty-first century. To order – click here.
I will also be giving an online presentation that will explore these currents religious life in the 21st century. Register here.