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Why should religious get up in the morning?

A member of my religious congregation recently told me she has stopped reading her community mail. This woman has been known internationally for her vision and leadership in religious life since Vatican II. As we talked about religious life, she declared with passion: "I am so weary of questionnaires, surveys and statistical reports about the future of religious life. I want to know why you get up in the morning! I want to know what you believe, what is important to you and why you love to do what you do!

During the last few weeks, my friend's words have stayed with me while I've read several books that examine the future of Roman Catholic religious life: Out of Chaos: Refounding Religious Congregations, by Gerald A Arbuckle (Paulist Press, 1988); Living the Vision: Religious Vows in an Age of Change, by Barbara Mand (Crossroad, 1990); Reweaving Religious Life: Beyond the Liberal Model, by Mary Jo Leddy (Twenty-third Publications, 1991); Religious Life, A Prophetic Vision: Hope and Promise for Tomorrow, by Diarmuid O'Murchu (Ave Maria Press, 1991); and Creating A Future for Religious Life: A Sociological Perspective, by Patricia Wittherg (Paulist Press, 1991).

Each book discusses the critical identity, existence and meaning questions that face all religious communities today, and each writer offers a unique analysis of the future of religious life from a different perspective: Arbuckle from cultural anthropology, Fiand from philosophical theology, Leddy from cultural history and sociology, O'Murchu from social psychology, and Wittberg from sociological group theory.

I found many insights that resonated with my early experiences as a member of a large international women's congregation, which I entered from high school in 1963. In addition, the authors spoke clearly about my experience of the critical transformations that have occurred in religious life in the last three decades since Vatican II. What failed to satisfy me in most of the books I read, however, were the writers' reflections on the future reality of religious life.

No one writer seemed to resonate fully with important new experiences in my life. In the fall of 1983, I began teaching in England in a senior girls'day and boarding school founded by our congregation during World War II.

Before England, all my ministry experience was as an elementary and highschool teacher in Roman Catholic schools in Ontario, Canada. All my students had been baptized in the Roman Catholic tradition, and all students had some shared faith experience of this tradition from their homes, school and/or parish life. This was true, too, of the teachers with whom I worked.

My experience in England was dramatically different. Only a few colleagues were Roman Catholic, and I had entire classes of students who had never been baptized into any Christian tradition. Students originated from around the globe. There were representatives of most of the world's great religious traditions; however, the great majority had no community or shared faith experiences outside of this particular school context.

As the teacher of a designated Roman Catholic curriculum, I soon learned that I did not have a common religious language and heritage with those around me. Ministry experiences since my return to Canada in 1986 continue to awaken in me an appreciation of cultural and religious diversity. The world around me is not the white, Western, Roman Catholic or Christian context I experienced for many years.

At the same time, I have gained new respect for the uniqueness and universality of religious experience, which seems to have a broader horizon than the perspective of any one culture or religious tradition.

As I read each of the books considered in this article, I looked to find a basic worldview that situated the present and future of religious life in the context of the multicultural and multifaith reality of our globe. I read to find how the traditional Christian understanding of call and vocation relates to the current global quest for spiritual vision and values.

I read to find how my cross-cultural ministry experience related to many of the contemporary theological questions about the nature of revelation, the uniqueness of Jesus, and religious pluralism, syncretism and relativism.

Wittberg, Leddy and Arbuckle seem to address all issues from a North American, Roman Catholic perspective and context. Only Fiand and O'Murchu situate their reflections on the future of religious life within a critique of the limitations of an isolated Western/Christian worldview.

O'Murchu boldly declares that the tendency to study Christianity in exclusive context is the fruit of a restrictive consciousness. My cross-cultural ministry experience taught me that my Roman Catholic tradition and heritage are important to me. It also convinced me that I must find new ways to live and to share this faith tradition with others. The future of religious life seems deeply connected to how it will understand itself in a world that seeks a radical revising of the restrictions of an isolated Western/Christian worldview.

Any phoenix that rises from the current demise of the progress and prosperity of 19th- and early 20th-century religious congregational life will have to situate itself outside the dual paradigm of spiritual perfection and privilege that fostered not only the expansion of religious life, but also contributed to the white/Western/Christian/Colonial domination and exploitation of the entire globe.

If Roman Catholic congregational religious life is to have a viable future, it seems necessary to envision that possibility by examining honestly the present pluralism, ambiguity, failings and limitations not only of religious life, but of Christianity itself.

As I read Arbuckle, Fiand, Leddy, O'Murchu and Wittberg, I looked for an understanding of the future of religious life that reflected my growing awareness that life itself is relational, mutually interdependent and dynamically interconnected.

I read to find a sense of the genesis of the Christian story within the primary source of revelation - the universe story, I read to find an understanding of religious life that is grounded in a biocentric vision of the human and the natural world as a single, sacred community. I read to find how the Christian mysteries of call, vocation, ministry, community and vowed life are understood in a worldview that embraces the cosmic integrity and the time-developmental processes of the universe.

Of the five authors I read, only Arbuckle and Wittherg did not directly acknowledge in some way that the present chaos and decline of religious communities is deeply connected to a global transition of human consciousness from a mechanistic paradigm of Newtonian science and Cartesian philosophy to a new bolistic paradigm of interbeing and interdependence.

Only O'Murchu, however, explores in depth the implications of recent discoveries in science and religion on the future of religious life. Those who write about the future of religious life, I believe, must be attentive to the challenges that the recent discoveries in science and religion present not only to the future of traditional Roman Catholic religious life, but also to the continued existence of the world's great religious traditions.

Demographic and life-style changes in religious life must be examined as part of the larger dynamic of change wrought on the entire global community by the current ecological imperative to transform every facet of human relating, working, living, valuing, learning and exchanging.

Similarly, concerns about individualism, plurality and common vision in religious life cannot be resolved from within restrictive androcentric and anthropocentric visions of reality. From the perspective of the universe story, the future of religious life is intimately related to the ecological viability of human life itself. Mission statements, vitality curves and life-cycle studies of religious life take on new meaning in the larger realities of the evolution of the entire universe.

In his-book, The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club Books, 1989), Thomas Berry identifies three essential processes of the universe: differentiation, which is the primary expression of the universe as variety and multiple modes of expression; subjectivity, which gives the interior identity and formation, the inner spontaneity, the indwelling self of every being its immediacy with ultimate mystery; and communion, wherein each element or dimension of creation is integrally related to one another in terms of mutual presence, and wherein each being finds its fulfillment in beings outside itself.

These three principles suggest that a tremendous resource for revising and refounding religious life may be the universe itself as the most basic expression of community.

Perhaps the concerns many religious have about diverse understandings and pluralistic expressions of ministry, community life, spirituality, vows, membership, government, prayer and leadership can find new inspiration and vision from a deeper understanding of the subjectivity, differentiation and communion inherent in all reality.

Aside from the work of O'Murchu, all the literature I have encountered on the future of religious life seems to dwell on renewal, refounding and restructuring from within a traditional modem worldview. The life experiences, concerns and spirituality of many members of religious congregations no longer fit into the sustained existence of this worldview.

Those who write about the future of religious life need to examine paradigmatic and experiential differences far more radical than differences grounded in age, ministry or personal piety.

Postmodern consciousness asks that religious life re-envision itself within a new social and cultural paradigm that is challenging traditional understandings of anthropology, economics, politics, ethics, education, religion and spirituality.

The strongest influence in my reading of Arbuckle, Fiand, Leddy, O'Murchu and Wittberg is my experience of being In 1965, I vowed publicly to live my life for Christ in the service of the church. In 1993, this same promise is grounded in an entirely new feminist consciousness and spirituality.

The church I knew in 1963 is not the same church I know in 1993. The public image of the Roman Catholic Church in 1963 was positive, one that spoke to the whole world of aggiornamento. A high-school teacher with whom I work described this same church as "sexist, rigid, male-dominated, paternalistic and irrelevant."

Feminist consciousness has brought new relevance and meaning to my life. For me, feminist consciousness is a liberative worldview that seeks a radical, global transformation of the dualistic, androcentric, anthropocentric and patriarchal structures, attitudes, values and injustices of our entire social, political, cultural and religious heritage.

My own feminist consciousness is rooted in an understanding of the gospel egalitarian discipleship of Jesus, and it seeks the liberation, respect, well-being and nurture of all persons and all of creation.

Feminist consciousness as entered into and transformed every fiber of my life. It has touched most radically my experience of myself as a woman, my experience of God, how I pray, what directs my ministry, with whom I work and dream, and how I envision the future of religious life.

When I read Arbuckle and others, I looked for a critical, liberative critique of any patriarchal categories of thought that condition our living of religious life now and in the future. I looked for a rejection of any patriarchal attitudes that justify androcentric, anthropocentric, dualistic and hierarchical patterns of relationship that are the root causes of sexism and all other forms of hierarchical exploitation.

I searched for basic expressions of a critical feminist consciousness: inclusive language; sources that included the perspectives and research of women and men; and sensitivity to women's struggles with the inherent sexism in the scripture, theology, liturgy, ministry and leadership in the church.

Arbuckle appears to need most growth in sensitivity to the experience and concerns of women. His entire book seems lacking in any feminist consciousness, in its uncritical use of sexist language, scripture, cultural anthropology and on congregational entrepreneurs as prophetic refounders fail to reflect key discoveries about patriarchy, power and leadership.

Barbara Fiand's book begins and ends with a deep concern for the future of religious life to re-envision and find itself free of a dualistic, hierarchical and patriarchal view of the sacred. Although Fiand writes passionately about the future of religious life within a holistic paradigm, radical feminists may find that Fiand does not speak as readily to their concerns when she discusses the vows, authority, the church and the Eucharist.

Mary Jo Leddy invites us to see the destructive hold liberal political and economic theory has not only on North America but on religious life. While many of Leddy's concerns for a radical living of religious life are the same as critical feminists', Leddy's book lacks an explicit and extensive exposition of the relationship of patriarchy to her liberal and radical models of religious life, especially in her discussions of individualism, ministry, community, church, scripture and prayer.

Patricia Wittberg writes inclusively for both women and men. Her sources draw on the expertise of both women and men. One wonders, however, whether patriarchy has an uncritical hold on her sociological methodology, research and reporting such that her entire work needs considerable feminist revising. Her study offers an effective analysis of the past, but it speaks with less inspiration about the future of religious life.

Although O'Murchu is not explicitly attentive to a feminist consciousness, his cosmic, multifaith, transcultural vision of the future holds room for what is important to feminists. Much of his vision is inherently feminist despite his one paragraph reference to feminism, reporting of women's history and experience in religious life.

Anyone who evinces concern for the future of religious life, I believe, can not re-envision that future within a dualistic, hierarchical and patriarchal view of reality. The future of religious life, therefore, will be deeply dependent upon the resolution of its tensions with any ecclesiastical structures which foster sexism and hierarchical dualism.

Those who write about the future of religious life must be attentive to the deep concerns that women and men have about their postmodern experiences of the sacred and what it means to be human The future of religious life is dependent upon its foundation in the egalitarian gospel vision and life of Jesus Christ, and upon its freedom from medieval monarchical patterns of relationship that permeate its understanding of the vows, community life, leadership, membership, prayer and spirituality.

While no one author I read fully inspired me with her or his vision of the future of religious life, I saw common threads in Leddy's search for a radical model Fiand's hopes for a holistic paradigm, Wittherg's exposition of intentional community, Arbuckle's convictions about refoundation personalities, and in O'Murchu's belief in liminal, prophetic values and experience.

Each author acknowledges there are tensions and unresolved questions that face those who seek a viable future for religious communal life. Whatever the shape of its future, I believe religious life will be rooted in tbe deepest dimensions of the mysteries of call, response and communion that have been archetypically known in every religious tradition throughout history.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, religious life will continue to exist as a profound expression of shared faith in the gospel life and works of Jesus Christ.

Roman Catholic religious life has, in its essence, been a communal faith expression of shared meaning. The challenge of our times is to heal any divisions and dichotomies that destroy shared faith and prevent the discovery of new and creative expressions of religious life.

Sister Mary Heather MacKinnon is a member of the Canadian Province of the Congregation of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
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Title Annotation:Religious Orders
Author:MacKinnon, Mary Heather
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 19, 1993
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