As the world changes, so too does religious life. 150 years ago, there were thousands of women and men religious in the United States running schools, hospitals, orphanages, and centers for the poor. The significance of women religious in particular was so great in founding this country that Congress actually thanked them some years back.
Now, they represent but a remnant of their past glory. Even more than men’s religious groups, women’s religious groups have diminished almost out of existence. It would be very easy to say that there is no future for such groups.
At least, “no future” for the way that they operate today. That was the theme of this weekend’s talk by Sr. Carol Zinn, SSJ at the gathering of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus motherhouse. Honoring the Poor Handmaids on their 150th anniversary in the United States, she recounted their past and their great accomplishments, how they were among the tremendous labor force of the Catholic Church to build institutions and evangelize the new world. Their thousands were necessary to do the work of God. But not so much now, she said. Looking to the future, she turned their sorrow of diminishment into something for the future: “When the Church needed a labor force, we provided it. We served as teachers and nurses and founders when there was no one else to do it. But now, the world and Church have those things and does not need that from us. Rather, what it needs us to be is the leaven, the agent that inspires and lifts the already-working institutions. That is our role for the future.”
Sr. Carol went on to remind the sisters that religious institutions have often gone through cycles of growth, death, and rebirth over their histories. Every three hundred years, she said, a movement needs to either transform or die. We are at that point now. What will we do?
Her response spoke very true to my own experience of religious life. She told us that gone are the days when we could define ourselves narrowly by what we do and people would be attracted to that. Among other reasons, one of the greatest reasons for decline in religious life came at the Second Vatican Council (and no, not because Vatican II is a bad council… ugh) when it insisted on the primacy of baptism and the universal call to holiness. Now, one did not need to be a brother or sister to be holy; now, one did not need to take final vows to teach, care for the poor, help the sick, or do extraordinary work. In the case of women, it was also at this time that women across the world began to break the barriers of the workplace, able to do incredible work and be taken seriously even without the backing of a religious order. The greatest decline in religious life came not because of some theological reason or because of lack of faith, but because people began to realize that they could do almost anything a brother or sister could do… and still have a family. If a religious order is simply a workforce, why would someone go through all of the troubles and sacrifices when they could do the work anyway?
This is the shift that religious life needs to make if it wants to survive: rather than defining itself by the work that it does, it needs to focus on the life that it lives. No matter how robust its ministry may be, a religious community is first and foremost a brotherhood/sisterhood of people wanting to live the Gospel in prayer and humility. What defines religious life is the life together. It is only from that life with God and each other that any ministry makes sense; it is only from that life with God and each other than anyone will want to join us.
For me, this is what we need to (re)claim if we want to have a future. As important as ministry is—and it is critical to this life—it must always be seen as the fruit of our life rather than the substance. People join us not because of what we do but because they are seeking an intentional community to live the Gospel. They join us for intimacy and support, for inspiration and foundation.
And we need to give it to them. Too often, in my experience, our houses are not houses of prayer—they are domiciles for workers, barracks for priests. This is not enough. We need to make sharing meals with one another a priority. Common prayer a necessity. Routine faith sharing, recreation, spiritual nourishment, and times to just be together are not luxuries, they are the very things on which our life rests.
For me, that is where the future of religious life lies: in communities that are so filled with love and support of one another and the Gospel that they cannot help but go out and spread it to the whole world. If that is our focus, religious life will absolutely have a future.