We are at a crossroads in religious life. We hear the stories of aging and withdrawal. I hear them as stories of accomplishment and completion. Well done! Good and faithful servants!
At the same time, we we continue to welcome a handful of women and men into our communities. I’ve had the opportunity to ask these newcomers and inquirers why they come, why they come now, at such a time. The response varies, but there is a resounding theme. I believe I am called. I believe I am called at this time. I know religious life is changing. I know my province/congregation/monastery is changing. And I want to be part of that change, part of that transition to the next phase of religious life.
The grand generations of religious who came in great numbers and accomplished great things had a place in the Church and society at the time. But the Church has changed and continues to change. Society has changed and continues to change. At one time, spirituality and mission were the exclusive territory of priests and religious. One of the most profound insights of the Second Vatican Council was remembering the universal call to holiness and to mission. Mission and spirituality are the task of privilege and responsibility of all the baptized.
Religious life exists in the Church, and as the Church deepens its self-understanding, so all those who live in and for the Church must deepen their self-understanding. Some believe that religious life has no place in this new Church, since mission and spirituality are the task of privilege and responsibility of all the baptized. They reason that mission and spirituality, formerly the exclusive territory of religious life is now given over to the laity, leaving no purpose for religious life to exist at all.
I would offer another perspective. For historical reasons, religious life had expanded its self-understanding to engulf mission and spirituality in a way that no longer fits. In an era of immense spiritual and social needs, religious had stepped up to meet the need and did so with remarkable courage and dedication. This occurred at a time in history of social and political upheaval which did not permit many lay persons, particularly lay women, they possibility of dedicating themselves to mission and spirituality. Religious communities expanded to fill these needs.
As society developed, more and more lay persons have the possibility to dedicate their lives to pastoral ministry, health-care, education, and social service. At the same time the Council provided the theological grounding for this shift. All this obviated the need for hordes of religious sisters and brothers to serve in these ministries.
So in this new Church, is there a place for religious life? I believe there is. …