The Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life recently released a new document focused on the role and vocation of religious brothers in the life of the Church. The document, entitled ‘Identity and Mission of the Religious Brother in the Church’, was presented at a press conference by the head of the Congregation, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, and its secretary, Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo.
Lay religious men, or brothers as they’re commonly called, make up about a fifth of all male religious in the Catholic Church today. They are men who are not ordained to the priesthood but are normally consecrated to a life of service within the different orders, societies or congregations.
In his presentation Archbishop Carballo noted that the origin of this figure in the Church dates back to the centuries following Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan recognizing Christianity as an official religion. From this point on, he said, people began using the faith for their own interests, losing the fervor of the first Christian communities who often lived in fear of their lives.
From that time on, men seeking to maintain an authentic witness to Christ’s teachings consecrated themselves to a life of solitude, or later, to a life of community service.
Cardinal Braz de Aviz explained that the document addresses the identity of the religious brother in three ways:
It is no secret that the ethnic composition of the United States is changing. Although English is the dominant language in the United States, the flow of immigrants from Latin America has now made the U.S. the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Since the Asian Immigration Act of 1965 opened up immigration possibilities for people from that region, the Asian population in the U.S. has grown as well. The 1990 census showed some seven million Asians and Pacific Islanders in the country. That number will likely more than triple by the middle of the next century.
These changes are reflected in the Catholic Church as well. Hispanic people now constitute about a third of America's 60 million Catholics. The percentage of persons of Asian descent who are Catholic is generally small (except for Filipinos). Yet they are making their presence felt in the church. A look at the 1999 Catholic Directory indicates that there are some 200 priests who bear the Vietnamese surnames of Nguyen, Pham, and Tran. A recent survey of seminarians has indicated that 25 percent were born outside the United States.
While there are no clear statistics yet for the numbers of these immigrants and descendants of immigrants in religious congregations today, we know that the numbers are growing. Vocation directors are on the front lines when it comes to shaping the ethnic and racial nature of religious orders in the future. A vocation director may be the first contact that Hispanic or Asian prospective candidates may have. What should vocation directors know about ethnic and cultural issues? How should they interact with such prospective candidates? How might they help their congregations prepare to welcome such candidates? (Because they represent the large and fast growing ethnic groups in the U.S. church, this article addresses Hispanics and Asians. However, many of the principles slated here might also be applied to working with other minority groups.)
The life cycle of religious congregations has always been a cyclical process of birth, maturity, dedication and then either death or renewal. For many congregations, when their membership dwindles, there is a possibility of merging or uniting with another more numerous community. Such is the recent case with several French religious congregations of women.
In 1992 there was a national meeting of French Religious Orders of Women in which discussions were held about instructing small Congregations to help and support each other in solidarity and unity. At that time our fast-growing community, the Sisters of Our Lady of La Salette, began discussions with the Soeurs de Jesus Rédempteur et Marie Mediatrice and two other Congregations to establish a support structure for religious life. Our community was certainly more numerous but we were open to possibilities concerning those with very few members.
Having been a Vocation Director for the first three years of my priesthood, and, after over forty years of ministry, I certainly welcomed the conclusion of the recent CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) study completed in September of 2012. It was commissioned by the USCCB and was entitled, “Consideration of Priesthood and Religious Life Among Never-Married U.S. Catholics.”
Its conclusion stated: “Although many speak of priest shortages and steep declines in the number of men and women religious, the survey reveals that there is no shortage of individuals who seriously consider these vocations among never-married Catholics in the United States. Three percent of men say they have “very seriously” considered becoming a priest or religious brother and two percent of women indicate they have “very seriously” considered becoming a religious sister. This is equivalent to 350,000 never-married men and more than 250,000 never-married women.
“Shepherding more of these individuals on the path to seeking a vocation would likely require a combination of greater outreach from the Church, encouragement from others, assistance in obtaining educational prerequisites, and dealing with other issues such as student loan debt and citizenship status.”
As an active and interested priest, I know the dictum that “Every Christian is a Vocation Director” and that every person within the church should be open to a call to religious life (or priesthood) as some of their possible ways to serve God. Yet this is easier said than done.
Ghana's first Catholic Cardinal,
Peter Appiah Turkson
I thought I might discuss a few more myths about vocations to religious life that I have run across in my experience as Vocation Director for the La Salette Missionaries. A professional study has listed several myths that are very interesting.
Myth #1: There are fewer religious communities.
Fact: The rise and diminishment of religious institutes has always been part of the continuum of religious life. Once a need is met, unless a community adapts its founding charism to addressing the changing needs in the Church, it is not uncommon for the community to end.
Many congregations today that share a same charism are either consolidating or merging into new religious institutes. One little known fact is that since the end of Vatican II in 1965, approximately 175 newer religious communities have been founded in the United States alone. Some were only short-lived, but others are canonically recognized as religious institutes by the Church today.
In my work among vocation candidates to our own La Salette Missionaries, I have spoken with many people about their vocation. I have found that many have impressions about vocations to religious life that are sometimes far from the truth.
Fortunately, a few years ago there was a wide-ranging study on Religious Vocations in the United States – sponsored by the National Religious Vocations Conference (NRVC) and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). The results of their study have dissolved some ongoing myths about vocations to religious life. Some may actually surprise you.
Myth #1: No one is entering religious life anymore.
Fact: More than 70 percent of all religious communities (both men’s and women’s) report having new members in formation. Nearly 20 percent have five or more people in some stage of formation. These numbers do not reflect the large number of entrants in the 1950s and ’60s, although many people have used this period as a point for comparison.
|This talk was originally given at the National Religious Vocation Conference in October 2010 and is a reponse to a talk given by Bro. Sean Sammon, FMS, entitled “Forward in Hope,” available on this website.|
My thanks to Brother Sean Sammon, FMS, for drawing us into a deeper reflection on the challenges and opportunities inherent in religious life in the United States today (published in Jan. 25, 2011 issue of this online magazine). By way of response, I would like to address two questions: What have we learned from the journey of the last fifty years? And what is the problem we’re trying to solve? Stating the problem accurately sets us in the direction of the solution.
What have we learned from the journey of apostolic religious life in the United States over the last fifty years? First of all, not every circumstance which brought religious life to its present state was within our control. The dramatic decrease in the size of the average Catholic family is one example: parents with two children are not as eager and proud of having one of their offspring embrace a celibate way of life, as were parents who had six or eight children.
There can be little doubt that a number of women and men religious for at least the last 50 years, both here in the US and throughout our world, have struggled with the effects of a paradigmatic shift in understanding about the meaning and purpose of their way of life. Vatican II was a siesmic event; when the dust settled we all found ourselves standing in a different place.
I plan to approach the topic of religious life and the results of the NRVC-CARA study (National Religious Vocation Conference-Center for Applied Research) from three perspectives. First of all, to look at some of the findings of the project within the context of the ten year investigation of religious life and its future carried out by David Nygren and Miriam Ukeritis. Next, to say a word about identity in light of the study’s findings. Finally, I will make some recommendations for action. I begin with a few summary remarks about the results of the vocation study.
a. Who is coming to religious life today?
The results of the NRVC-CARA project tell us that those coming to religious formation today appear to be better educated than candidates were in the past. Candidates are coming also from a much more varied ethnic background than in the past. We must ask ourselves: as these trends continue what changes will need to be made in custom and practice to accommodate increased multiculturalism?
Like chaplains in the U.S. military around the world, a group of Catholic chaplains meeting at the Vatican spent a full day studying how to provide pastoral and spiritual care to people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, head of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, brought 40 U.S. Catholic chaplains, who are on active military duty, to the Vatican Jan. 19-21 to discuss what's going on in the archdiocese, learn more about responding to post-traumatic stress disorder and discuss preparations for using the new Mass translations.
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Our Community: The Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette are deeply rooted in the Apparition of Our Lady of La Salette which occurred near the hamlet of La Salette in southeastern France on Sept. 19, 1846. The Missionaries were founded in 1852 by Bp. Philbert de Bruillard, Bishop of Grenoble, France, and presently serve in some 25 countries.
Our Province: The Province of Mary, Mother of the Americas, was founded in 2000AD and is one of several provinces in the congregation. The members of this Province serve mainly in the countries of Canada, the United States and the Region of Argentina/Bolivia.
Our Mission: Our La Salette ministry of reconciliation responds to the broad vision given by Mary at La Salette as well as in response to the needs of the Church. As reconcilers, we together with the laity take seriously Mary’s mandate: “You will make (Mary’s) message known to all (her) people.”