A couple of weeks back a report on religious life on Australia was released under the title, 'See I am doing a new thing...', which showed that the number of religious has decreased by around half since 1976.
It is an important topic, so I plan to devote a little series to the rationale for and state of religious life in the lead up to Christmas. And of course there are some good things starting to happen out there, so we should celebrate them.
The theme of the press releases and supporting coverage of the Report on the state of religious life was to point to the glass half full view, and celebrate the fact that any religious have persevered at all.
The accompanying media release, for example, quoted Sister Anne Derwin RSJ, President of Catholic Religious Australia who said:
“We can rejoice that there are nearly eight and half thousand Religious women and men still faithfully living their commitment to Christ and generously living the Gospel in our country today.”
It is a fair point.
The last fifty years has seen a systematic attempt to undermine the idea that religious life is valuable to the Church, indeed even to portray the example it provides as positively dangerous to the laity.
It has seen a systematic subversion of the key elements of religious life that are necessary for the life to be lived well, including through a process of desacralization symbolized by the abandonment of habits, liturgical reductionism that has broken down the walls of the liturgical convent even as the emptying of the physical convent destroyed any real possibility of real community life, the abandonment of traditional apostolates and work in the name of "holy leisure" and advancement of the role of the laity, and much more.
So that religious life has survived at all is indeed an accomplishment.
A response to what is...
And given that the average of the surviving religious is in the mid 70s, it is surely unsurprising that they are having to do new things.
There is a story today about Trappists in Iowa closing down the farming business they have run for 160 years, basically because the monks are too old and too few to run it any more. In Australia those decisions were mostly made some years back.
Instead, Australian religious have increasingly focused on advocacy rather than active service apostolates. In their mission work, their value add is providing a sense of 'presence' rather than being involved in active catechesis.
Such changes are a reasonable response to the dearth of vocations and ageing of the remaining religious if one thinks that these trends are inevitable and irresistible. And if the causes adopted are worthy ones, and not simply the promotion of dissent to Church teachings (the number of women religious who felt compelled to identify their support recently for a Melbourne priest advocating for priestesses on cath news for example was, to put it mildly, disappointing), some positive fruit can come out of them.
The problem however, is the suggestion that what is, should be.
But what should be: the courage to change
The question is, is this shift in activity somehow a new direction suggested by the spirit, a 'new springtime' rather than the late autumn of a failed paradigm?
There was one quote in the press releases that I've been particularly thinking about, and that is from Fr Noel Connolly, one of the co-authors of the recent report, claiming that "There are no cowards in this game any more..."
A pretty insulting - and I would suggest grossly unfair - statement to the courageous religious of old such as St Mary of the Cross and her sisters who have done so much for our country.
But more fundamentally, is it really true that there are no cowards left?
God challenges all of us to be converted every day, both in small ways and large, and very few of us, I would suggest, are yet saints enough to truly be said to fulfill that challenge in full: most of us are cowards in this sense.
True courage means adhering to the Church's teaching out of obedience and respect for truth even when all around us ridicule us for it. True courage means being open to discarding our prejudices and opinions - such as that abandoning the traditions of the religious orders would prove beneficial - when they have been proved unfounded.
On the one hand, religious who have persevered both in their vows and equally importantly in the faith of the Church do deserve to be recognized and respected for this.
But the answer to the question of whether there are any cowards left depends on whether or not you truly think there is a future for traditional religious life in the Church. Because if it isn't just meant to fade away as the current ageing generation dies off, if religious are actually failing to take up the big challenge, to seek to truly renew religious life, can they be said to be truly open to what God is saying as they claim?
Rupture vs continuity
It is of course a matter for legitimate debate.
All the evidence, I would argue, however, suggests that the new directions for religious life of the past fifty years have been a false direction.
For this reason, the Pope and the Congregation for Religious have been advocating that religious look afresh at the renewal process, this tie with an eye to a hermeneutic of continuity rather than rupture (thanks to Fr Blake for finding the great, very short video below).
Such change is hard. It would take true courage to face up to hard realities.
In the main, the real hope for religious life seems to be coming from the newer, more conservative religious orders.
Yet history shows that change from within is possible, and there are some scattered signs that it is happening around the world now.
So I thought it might be apposite to start our consideration of this question with the full context of the quote chosen for the report.
In choosing the title, I image the authors were thinking of the previous line of Isaiah:
"Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old."
Yet was the traditional form of religious life truly life in Egypt before the Exodus as the allusion suggests?
Far from it. What comes after the quote is perhaps worth contemplating:
"Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.
Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob but you have been weary of me, O Israel! You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings, or honored me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with offerings, or wearied you with frankincense. You have not bought me sweet cane with money, or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices.
But you have burdened me with your sins, you have wearied me with your iniquities....Therefore I profaned the princes of the sanctuary, I delivered Jacob to utter destruction and Israel to reviling."
To read the next part in this series, go here.