Sr Carmel Pilcher of the Sister of St Joseph had a piece in Cath News yesterday, attempting to counter claims that her Order is dying out (or perhaps explain why it doesn't matter really).
So before I continue my series on the reasons for the collapse of religious life - and incidently what needs to be done to prevent it dying - I thought it might be useful to look at what she had to say.
An Order that hasn't actually confronted reality?
Sister starts by saying how taken aback she was when someone questioned her about the impending death of the Order. While acknowledging that the statistics - and realities - don't look good, she suggests that is just not something the Order worries about.
Well that's all a bit sad really - because awareness of institutional health or lack thereof is a necessary first step before action.
She goes on:
"While we continue to pray for vocations and ensure that some Sisters are released to focus specifically on recruitment, [good] our major focus is the need to stay relevant in today’s society. [Nothing inherently wrong with this. But how can you be 'relevant' if your numbers continue to dwindle to nothing?] We are preoccupied with questions such as: what is God asking of us Josephites in the twenty first century? How do we most effectively serve our needy sisters and brothers? The present is our concern.
Sister Carmel goes on to talk about some of the useful work she and her sisters are doing and it all sounds like potentially good work - on the introduction of the new missal, organisation for mission, and so forth.
But numbers do actually matter
But then she comes to the crux of her argument, that numbers don't actually matter.
"Sometimes our church falls into the trap of measuring success by numbers. And yet do big numbers measure success?"
Well yes actually. In a new religious order, for example, numbers are one of the tests of success that bishops and the Vatican use to assess whether or not it is a genuine charism.
Numbers aren't the only thing that matters, but they are important.
Sr Carmel then goes out to imply that World Youth Day has had no lasting effect. Really? I actually thought we were seeing something of an upsurge in youth activity in the Church in its wake, not least in priestly vocations? But of course priestly vocation numbers don't matter either, she explains what matters is whether" our newly ordained priests leave our seminaries prepared to wash feet in the servant leadership of Christ."
While I strongly agree that we need good and humble priests, actually we do just need numbers - because in the end only priests can effect the sacraments.
She then goes on to argue that baptism numbers in Australia have more or less held up, but that hasn't meant continued active participation in the life of the Church.
It's a fair point, and a great matter of concern, but all it tells us is that numbers are a necessary condition - but not a sufficient one for success!
The good that religious do...
Sr Carmel then highlights the positive benefits that religious life offers the Church:
"There is no doubt that we religious are aging and few are joining us, but we do what we can to be the presence of Christ in the world. We who truly believe in the power of prayer cannot underestimate the influence of thousands of religious throughout Australia and beyond who, after having lived a long life, accept their frailty and physical weakness to become the loving sign of Christ’s suffering.
We will never know what difference the faithful and hidden service of the continuous prayer of these religious Sisters, Brothers and Fathers makes in our world."
I agree with all of this. The hidden and less hidden service of religious is important. And that is precisely why we should care about whether or not our religious orders are dying.
But oh dear, the selfishness of personal salvation...
Unfortunately the piece then proceeds to remind us just why the religious orders like the Josephites are dying, namely a false emphasis on this world over the next:
"Many die as they live, not with their own salvation uppermost in mind, but imploring a loving God to be compassionate toward the poor and the needy."
I'll say more on this in the next part of my series on religious life, because it does go to one of the root causes of the collapse in numbers: because if religious life, indeed all Christian life, isn't about getting to heaven first and foremost, what is it for? Anyone can be a social worker or social justice activist. Anyone can pray for the poor - who will always be with us in this life! God's care for the poor and oppressed is ultimately eschatological.
The article then goes on to deny the importance of religious life as an integral part of the Church's life from its very beginnings. I would suggest a rereading of early Church documents such as Acts and Didache, which clearly document the apostolic work of the groups of virgins and widows who represent the primitive form of religious life, as the Pope has recently reaffirmed:
"We live in hope, knowing that apostolic religious life is a relatively new phenomenon in church history, and that perhaps fresh ways of witnessing Christ in the world are needed."
Fortuantely there is hope out there in the form of the newer and more conservative Orders. Still, it would be nice if a reform movement suddenly arose and renewed one of Australia's few native religious Orders. St Mary of the Cross, pray for it!