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Religious life is still alive, but far from the Promised Land: ten questions get to heart of what future might hold.

Ten questions get to heart of what future might hold

Someone once wrote, with disarming simplicity, "Those furthest from the seats of power are closest to the heart of things." The theory is about to be tested.

Next October a special synod of the church, made up almost entirely of bishops, occupiers of the seats of power, not women or men religious themselves, will pronounce on the purpose and nature of contemporary religious life. The synod is apparently meant to be some kind of capstone to the years of experiment and change spawned by Vatican II and its call to renewal. Time to neaten things up. No more nonsense.

The question is: What will neatness do and how will we know nonsense when we see it? The problem is whether this generation of church men, who are so close to the headwaters of renewal, will be writing from reality or from spiritual nostalgia and philosophical fantasy, a kind of throwback to Plato's theory of forms that assumes the world is made up of eternal patterns and archetypes into which all things must fit.

After all, it's been done before. The Lateran Council in 1215 decreed there could be no more new religious orders. The Council of Lyons in 1274 decreed there could be no new religious rules accepted other than the monastic ones already approved at the time. And the Council of Trent in 1645, aswirl in the centrifuge of reformation and the storm of independence it created, decreed that all religious were to be cloistered and cut off from the world.

So Rome kept its categories and the Spirit went right on with the formation of more than 600 new, active congregations, none cloistered and all living under new rules.

It's been more than 25 long, hard years since Vatican II. During that time, I have conducted conferences on the subject of change in religious life in which I took the 40 years Israel spent wandering in the desert as a measure of the amount of time it would take to negotiate the present unmapped period of religious life, the moment of refoundation.

That stated in 1965. Fewer than 10 years are left on that schedule. May concern now is how far has religious life come in this process, how far has it yet to go and, in the end, can it make it to the Promised Land?

If we are really open to the issue, should it make it? All the synods in the world can't save what isn't there.

Ten areas affecting the future of religious life plague me without end. Each is independently important, but all are interlinked. To deal with one without attending to the others, therefore, is to jeopardize the enterprise while aspiring to attend to it. That may be the biggest problem of all.

We have held our breath, dug in our heels, doctored and temporized with change in the hope that by sheer endurance, if nothing else, we could weather the period. The quandary is that the agendas of the 1960s are long past.

We did well what was required of us then. We have freed religious to be individuals, to be adults. We have changed schedules and living environments to make the leap from an agricultural and parochial period to an industrialized and urban world. We have made cosmetic changes in clothing and governance structures. We have recognized the wisdom of the Spirit in us and among us.

But it is not enough. There are new questions to be dealt with now. These questions have come out of the questions before them, true, but they will undoubtedly hold the key to the future. I grapple with them every day.

The new questions, I believe, deal with the very existence of religious life, its relationship to the church, its present character, its purpose, its spirituality and its energy.

The first level of questions concerning the renewal of religious life, the ones that consumed us for almost 30 years of the journey, were internal. As for the people in Exodus before us, the leaving of Egypt for us was full of excitement and physical adjustment and internal reorganization, as well as the continual awareness of loss.

We have dealt with those. The questions of this second stage of renewal have to do with external issues. These deal with who we are in relation to everyone else. These questions cut to the bone. These have to do with the very worth, value, role, place and future of religious life. These questions are yet to be braved.

What follows are at best partial answers, but they are the answers I have come to now because I see them being lived out everywhere. If anything, their indetermination may indicate the prematurity of anyone's casting definitions too quickly into stone.

Is religious life viable?

For 35 years, the viability question has haunted the renewal of religious life like a specter in the night. What was never a good enough reason to institute change in the first place became, in the long run, the reason for making caution the order of the day. We changed to survive, then we stopped changing to survive.

Communities went so far and no farther. They took off old habits but they could not put down old ministries and old states of mind. In too many instances, colleges and hospitals and academies and parish school were not closed. They died on the vine while the members got older every day and less able to turn their energies to new things.

A new generation, looking for commitment to new concerns, saw good people doing old work rather than risk-centered people doing the new work that needed to be done. As a result, it is now not a question of whether this old form will die. The old form has been dead for decades. The only question now is what do we want to be caught dead doing: the dwindling works of the past century or the fledgling works of the next?

It is now no longer a matter of imagination. The needs are clear: homelessness, ecological experimentation, malnutrition and hunger, peace, AIDS, globalism, new world order, feminism, alternative education programs, hospitality and the need for spirituality programs to address the dearth of spirit even in the churches.

It is no longer a matter of whether we can manage our retirement programs and develop new forms of presence at the same time. It is a matter of whether we have made retirement our way of life. Surely if we cannot find ourselves as communities deeply involved in at least one of the major concerns of the time, then viability is no longer even a question.

The popular insight is chilling but true: If we cannot hear the freedom songs of the oppressed, the question is not will we live through this, the question is merely how long have we been dead.

Viability has been computed in terms of numbers far too long, despite the fact that most congregations were started by three of four young women who gave everything they had to work against the odds for something that was impossible to attain. Precisely this emphasis on respect for smallness must prevail again now. We have been consumed by concern for median ages, number of candidates and size of our infirmaries far too long.

By virtue of shrinking numbers alone, we cannot possibly do everything. But religious life will be viable, worthwhile, authentic only if it does something to bring the reign of God where God's will is most missing right now.

History is certain: Religious life is viable only as long as it finds its life in the living dead around it and breathes new life back into those who are dead. When religious life becomes a monument unto itself, it is not viable even if it goes on existing.

Is religious life worth it?

This question is subtle. Underneath it lurks the only slightly disguised conclusion that because there is no essential difference between the lay state and the religious state, religious life is an unnecessary waste of freedom and family. The argument is seductive. After all, no one accepts the idea of a hierarchy of vocation anymore.

No one believes the religious life is holier than married life or merits a "higher" place in heaven. So why do it? After all, lay people, single or married, are called to the same gospel, the same Christian responsibilities as religious. Why take on a life full of strange companions, strange places, strange expectations and apparently limiting possibilities? Maybe we should just fold up, go quietly, disappear with dignity. Why be a religious at all?

The question may be more understandable if we ask it first the other way: "Why not be a religious?" There is no such thing as perfect freedom for anyone. And family, as we see it modeled around us, is certainly no guarantee of the good life. To assume, furthermore, that everyone is called to live the gospel the same way is to fly in the face of the model of the disciples themselves.

The fact is that for some people, religious life is the way that best calls them to their best and most Spirit-filled selves. It's as simple as that.

Religious life is only another way to live the gospel - not the higher way or the better way - but it is a way that is tried and true, steeped in the scriptures and flung against the callous or uncaring agendas of the world like a comet in the sky. Religious life is a chorus of seekers standing in the middle of an affluence that breeds poverty and a power that breeds helplessness, shouting together in unison, "Not enough."

Religious life is a gathering of the single-minded confronting the rich who are blinded by riches and the inhumanely poor who are in despair because of their poverty, and shouting "More." Religious congregations are a sign of whole bodies of people who have put down the ways of the world around them and are going another direction, away from power, away from domination, away from obscene consumption, away from money-grabbing and people-using and power-chasing, to the people who count and the things that last and the achievements that satisfy the soul.

Religious life is a cross-current in time. Its function is the raise up groups authentic enough to encourage people who are trying to live the gospel life on their own, to provide a harbor for them in the storms of life, to be in such a way that the quality of being can never be either forgotten or suppressed.

As long as the human soul reaches out for the truth of the intangible, and as long as religious stay rooted in the spiritual side of life, religious life will be worth it. It will be only one of several equally noble life choices, perhaps, but a good one. To define religious life, then, by a set of prescriptions or by its distance from the real world, by its deprivations or an exalted inhumanity is to do both religious life and the church great disservice, to degrade religious life and to infantilize it beyond repair.

Religious life enables an individual to join with others so committed to the life of the spirit that they have banded together for strength and support and spiritual guidance on the way to the reign of God.

What is the effect of the

institutional church on

the development of religious


It is important to remember that tension historically accompanied the first efforts in religious congregations' development. Indeed, when religious are doing what they are supposed to do in church and society - opening new areas of ministry, raising new questions, developing new roles - tension is almost inevitable.

The institution's representatives didn't want women on the streets, even to feed the hungry. They didn't want women to nurse, even when men were dying on battlefields. They didn't want women to teach boys, even preteen boys. And they didn't want women in male theology classes as recently as 30 years ago and in seminaries yet today. But nuns did it all, whatever the resistance from the church.

Stretching the institution is clearly a function of religious life. The documents call it "the prophetic dimension." Most ministries now proudly displayed in the Official Catholic Directory as diocesan programs - soup kitchens, peace and justice centers, hospitality houses, battered women's centers, AIDS hospices, spirituality centers - were begun not by the dioceses but by nuns during the past 25 years in what is supposed to be the period of our demise. These ministries were being founded while the nuns were being corrected for not being in schools and not wearing medieval uniforms.

The tension will surely go on if religious go on doing what must be done. How long it will be before nuns tire of the constant disapproval from the institution in which they serve is anybody's guess. What is not speculation is that the rupture, if not repaired, could soon create a fissure too broad to vault. In too many cases already, nuns prefer to work with groups outside diocesan auspices in order to have the creative and ministerial freedom that working in new situations demands.

The effects of that strain on the church are inestimable. The single-minded dedication of people whose life is ministry is hard to replace. On the other hand, the effect on religious life of the official church's general rejection unless religious are willing to be controlled, quiescent and invisible is less apparent but just as real.

If the energies of religious are taken up having to explain their existence to the church because religious life has taken on fresh form one more time in history, their energies for other things will be reduced. With that loss of energy will go the spiritual life, the courage to risk and the vocations of the next generation who see only the struggle, only the distrust.

It is time for an old institution to open itself to new understanding. Nuns are not the enemy. They are the ones who early on belled the cat about the church's role in a changing world. The authenticity of the religious life in our time will depend, as it has in the past, on their going on doing it. In an age long past business-as-usual, religious are meant to be the wake-up call of the church.

What is relation of religious

life to the women's


The conjuncture of these two elements is a great deal more complex than may at first be seen. It is also more related to the future of religious life than may at first be seen. The relationship of women religious to the women's movement affects far more than their position on women in society.

Once the essential invisibility and degradation of women's throughout the world begins to be realized, this realization begins to describe the ministries, the theology and the spiritually of anyone, woman or man, whose consciousness is touched.

Feminism is not a political ideology based on female chauvinism. Feminism is another whole way of looking at life. It is a completely different world view. It honors feminine values. Therefore, it rejects domination; it suspects a male god; it refuses victimization; it resists the rape of the earth and the rape of the mind and the body. Even in marriage. Even in the name of the obedience. Even for the sake of "tradition." Feminism is on a collision course with a sexist church.

In the first place, women religious are rejecting a male church that preaches the fatherhood of the God who is pure Spirit in order to justify the exclusion of women everywhere.

In the second place, it will not be long before women will reject religious life because they do not see women religious using their considerable influence, education and corporate power to resist the degradation of women everywhere, in both church and state.

Finally, it is already clear that if women religious are seen cooperating with the rejection of women in the name of church, in the same fashion as the women who perform the clitoridectomies that will make their daughters acceptable to the male system in which they exist, religious life will die of its own disease.

Of all the issues facing religious life, this is surely the most veiled and the most dangerous because it brings us most in conflict with the flow of history.

What is the relationship

of religious life of ministry?

The ministry question for religious is a serious one. It will determine the measure of the gospel life we live as well as the world for which we choose to exist. The problem is that the answer is simple. If we are earnest about this life, we must exist for the people for whom Jesus existed: the lepers, the outcasts, the women, the sinners, the living dead.

Translate: the homeless, the street walkers, the poor, the invisible, the toothless and unwashed and loud and uncouth and desperate. There are few nuances to the model: We may walk with the rich and powerful only if we talk for the poor and dispossessed as Jesus did in the rich man's house.

It is not an easy thing to do. It is so much nicer, so much more genteel to work for those who can pay, eat with those with manners and associate with those with education. But to do that is to have a job, not a ministry. To do that is to dedicate oneself to people who can get it for themselves, instead of to people far from home who need from us the loaves and fishes that we ourselves do not have.

If religious communities are going to deserve to exist in the next century as they did in the last, they are going to have to pledge themselves in clear and corporate ways to the needs of the poor of many colors who will never find their way to our fine academies and historic colleges however much we develop programs to attract them. It is time for us to ask ourselves if we are fit for a multicultural world.

Most of all, then, religious must ask themselves what they stand for as communities and who knows it. When we stood for education and health services and the care of indigent children, everyone knew it. Religious congregations stood as bulwarks against ignorance, illiteracy, disease, abandonment and secularism. We turned all our resources in those directions.

Now, we have the best educated group of women in the world, each of whom is regarded with professional respect, and the most invisible congregations. Unless and until we turn our corporate energy to the specific issues and social questions of this age, educating the world to their importance, advocating for change and modeling fresh responses ourselves, the question of why we go on together will continue to be a valid one.

The point in this day and age is not to create congregations of dehumanized and interchangeable parts, all of whom work in the same buildings, engaged in the same profession. The point now is to release everywhere in society, at every level, through every individual member, wherever those members are, whatever separate things they do, the white heat of the congregation's charism in one great corporate mind and one easily seen communal heart.

I can work against homelessness in the second grade, in the parish, in the chaplaincies or in retreat centers. The important thing is that I know what my congregation is about and that I commit myself to it somewhere. Religious need to know right now what the congregation stands for; then they must figure out how they can be a vibrant part of that by doing what they do.

It is no longer a case of converting old buildings into new kinds of work. It is a case now of knowing what part of the reign of God we are in the process of creating, with or without the buildings, so that, after we have walked this way for a hundred years, people will see our footprints from decade to decade.

What is the relationship

of individualism to religious


There is a great deal of difference between personal development and individualism. A religious community that does not promote, encourage and require the utmost in personal development should go off into the sunset without looking back. Sodom and Gomorrah could not be more obscene than a system that takes a person's life and misuses it under the guise of religion. Perpetual childhood practiced in the name of obedience and sanctification is nothing less than exploitation.

At the same time, self-centeredness posing as self-development is neurosis in search of therapy. What the world needs, what religious life needs, is adult religious who are always about something greater than themselves. What we are together, in the end, gives meaning to the person and provides the measure of the group.

The isolation and individualism that have developed in the past 25 years have weakened the personality of the group. More than that, they have in many cases confused the identity of individual members, diminished the meaning of the life of the group and blurred the nature of the whole enterprise.

The answer does not lie in herding people back together. The answer lies in defining the meaning of our lives together - for one another, for the people of God and for the charisms we hold in trust for the church. Whenever people take it upon themselves to live for something other than themselves, it costs.

The sign that a group has sunk into individualism in contradiction to healthy independence is when being in the same congregation fails to cost the time and presence and care and effort and public risk that it should. Then we are signs of nothing that cannot already be found in the local housing project. Then the future of the congregation is clearly in peril.

What is the relationship

between leadership and


Religious life is far too precious a commodity to be wasted on the trivialization of obedience. But waste it we did for a good long time. Women, the children of the church, were treated like spiritual minors all the way to the grave. Obedience, the interior call to growth that everyone knows and everyone resists at some times in life, became defined as unquestioning responses to the marching orders of the day. It was a pathetic loss of direction through the spiritual wild.

The reaction to that kind of human diminishment has led unfortunately to a relatively general mistrust or misunderstanding of authority. Leadership has been treated in a cavalier way as a kind of rotating maintenance position. The terms of community leaders have been shortened to the level of committee chairpersons for the purpose of "identifying leadership" to such a point that leaders' mandates are often over before they ever get a chance to lead.

What's more, leadership - the call to change and growth - has been routinely rejected in favor of maintenance models. The life has become too comfortable for some to risk the challenges real leadership brings.

The notion is that leadership is in the group when, as a matter of fact, the Spirit is in the group. Leadership, like cooking and music, is an individual gift. The point is that we may well have gone from the misuse of power in the name of authority to the misuse of leaders in the name of leadership.

Vision, articulation and continuity have received short shrift from this recent attitude. But without leadership to steer a lurching column through the mine fields of change, the group loses its future for the sake of its accommodations. Unless the two concepts - leadership and authority - are distinguished, and soon, there will be no chance of fording this chasm in time.

Administrators are for times of peace. We have need for prophets now.

What is the relationship

of spiritually to the revitalization

of religious life?

It is surely true that old spiritualities of negative asceticisms and rigid schedules and total withdrawal and child-like docility to organizational pettiness cannot possibly form the kind of spiritual adults needed to forge new ways of being where the needs are - in the barrios, on the streets, in women's shelters, in the courts, on the civic boards, in congressional hearings, with the lonely, on militarized borders, with the refugees, with the urban poor. But great spirituality is needed nevertheless.

Deep and regular prayer is needed. Searing and challenging reflection is needed. The support of a spiritual community is needed as perhaps never before. To confuse work with prayer, good intentions with the spiritual life, profession with commitment, will only hasten the collapse of a good structure brought down by the weight of unsuccess.

Who knows how much of anything oppressive or evil will be changed by all the hours of work. That is unimportant. What is important is only that, impelled by the gospel, imbued by the scriptures, alive with the fire of justice, we go on.

The Palm Sunday scriptures are elusive but apparent: Jesus rode through the crowd on a colt, viewing his harvest as would any farmer during the season of Succoth, the Jewish harvest festival, and he saw that the harvest was a poor one. All the work had apparently come to naught. This crowd was not shouting the beatitudes; they were shouting for a king, a political savior. They had, it seemed, missed the point entirely.

And, Luke tells us, after that Jesus wept over Jerusalem and drove the money changers from the temple, and then got up in the synagogue and began to preach all over again. It takes grounding in the Spirit to fail but not to quit. Otherwise, the long, hard road will be too far for the going and we will have confused achievement with commitment.

What is the relationship

of celibacy to contemporary

religious life?

The preoccupation with sex that characterizes this culture and this century brings the question of celibacy to the foreground. Long considered an event rather than a process, celibacy has been reduced to a state of deprivation rather than to another kind of growth. It is time to unmask the issue and to come to grips with both the positive and the negative dimensions of living a highly affective life with only limited manifestations of intimacy.

Celibacy is an energy and a focus; it can also be a barrier and a block to personal growth. It can develop into wonderful demonstrations of reckless love for the unlovable and totally unselfish love for the loved. It can also erupt in the worst of selfish possessiveness. Most of all, a theology of celibacy must be positive and persuasive if religious life is to retain the kind of self-giving in this century that has made it a firebrand in every century past.

Is religious life over?

Will religious life last? Of course religious life will last. It has existed and survived in every great culture of every period in every major spiritual tradition the world has ever known. Shamans and gurus and hermits and monastics and mendicants and preachers and evangelical witnesses have risen in every society as solemn reminders of the Beyond in the midst of the Now.

The only question for this time is, will religious life go on in us or will others have to come to revive it? Two things are sure: First, groups who do not deal with the questions of the day cannot possibly leaven the time. Second, where passion is lacking, life is dead.

When religious life is routine, the life is dead. When religious life is bent on being socially safe and legally proper, the life is dead. When religious life is more an ember than a fire, the life is dead. When religious communities marginalize their own weary prophets, the life is dead.

Then, religious may pray and they may fast and they may withdraw from the fray, but they will not sound a single note in a cacophonous world in search of harmony.

Let the upcoming synod beware of easy answers and facile forms. The real truth about religious life right now is that ours may not be the time or resolution. Ours may be simply the strong, faith-filled, exuberant era of questions that is given for living into a new generation of answers. Ours may be the waiting time.
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Title Annotation:Religious Orders
Author:Chittister, Joan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Feb 18, 1994
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