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?
While some women reported having considered this way of life as early as age 14, the majority of the men identified the college years as their time for discernment. Finally, some prior personal contact with a member or members of the congregation they eventually entered continues to be important.
b. What motivates them?
What drew this new generation to consecrated life? First and foremost, a sense of call and a desire for spiritual growth. Wanting to be of service and live as part of a community were also mentioned. What made them choose one congregation over another? The obvious sense of joy, zeal for mission, and humanity they found among its members were all cited as important reasons for joining a particular group.
The context of the Nygren/Ukeritis study
The work of Nygren/Ukeritis as well as the findings of the present CARA study would lead us to conclude that the genuine renewal of religious life has far more to do with being in love with Jesus Christ than it has to do with anything else. Throughout the history of religious life three tasks have been associated with effective renewal: one, a reappropriation of the founding charism, two, a reading of the signs of the times, and three, the experience of personal conversion on the part of a significant number of the members.
During times of reform, reappropriating the charism becomes the primary focus, while an accurate reading of the signs of the times takes precedence at those moments of paradigmatic shift. But a revolution of the heart on the part of the membership is always necessary. The present period of renewal appears to be one in which the dominant image of religious life is shifting.
The results of the NRVC-CARA study appear to indicate that young people are more attracted to those groups with a strong sense of identity: those for whom spirituality, life in community, a sense of belonging to the wider Church, and a spirit of joy are evident. These qualities may also exist in those groups with fewer or no vocations, but they may be more difficult to identify. Young people are joining groups they believe visibly stand for something; they judge them to be worth the gift of their lives.
A word about identity
During the years following Vatican II, the writings of Paul VI contributed significantly to our knowledge about charisms and helped clarify their meaning for our day and age. The Pope said the following, “The charism of religious life, far from being an impulse born of ‘flesh and blood,’ or derived from a mentality which conforms itself to the modern world, is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, who is always at work within the Church.”
He went on to identify several characteristic signs of a charism’s presence: fidelity to the Lord, attention to the signs of the times, bold initiatives, constancy in the giving of oneself, humility in bearing with adversities, and a willingness to be part of the Church.
If we are seriously interested in the renewal of our congregations and institutes today, we will need to put aside excuses such as age, temperament, fear of the future, and a thousand other reasons and get on with the task at hand.
But first of all we must answer this question: Do you and I really believe that the Spirit of God, who was so alive and active in your founding person and mine, longs to live and breathe in you and me today? The results of the NRVC-CARA study indicate that this is just the type of challenge for which young people considering our way of life are looking.
Since the days of Vatican II, religious life in the US has been moving through a time of significant transition. With what outcome? Confusion among many about the nature and purpose of this way of life.
The results of the NRVC-CARA study provide us with an opportunity to address some of this confusion and in the process revisit the plans and programs that we have in place for encouraging vocations to congregations of sisters, brothers, and priests. The report tells us that we are called to create a “culture of vocation promotion” within our groups.
To do so, we must first ensure that at least one full-time vocation promoter is named for each Province or District in the congregation. However, we must also write a new job description for this person. He or she is not to be made solely responsible for tracking down and inviting suitable applicants to join the group but rather his or her chief work is to help all who make up the Province or District take on personal responsibility for that task.
Second, the report indicates that prior knowledge of a group or some contact with its members is another important factor in the decision making process of young people considering religious life. It goes on to explain how helpful Come and See programs and the like have been.
Third, the Catholic Church to a large extent appears to have lagged behind several other religious communions when it comes to the use of modern media. And yet, the target audience of a great deal of the activities of modern media is young people. As a group we need to educate ourselves about the resources that are available in this area and take advantage of them. We are significantly less visible in our culture and society than we were fifty years ago. The use of media can give us greater visibility and, if employed effectively, help us to educate a wide audience about our mission and way of life.
Fourth, the results of the NRVC-CARA study indicate that among those who have entered formation programs recently the idea of a religious vocation was present as early as their high school and college years. And yet in many of our congregations the opportunity for a live-in experience of formation of any significant length is not offered until university studies are complete. We may to consider offering such experiences to younger people.
Fifth, visibility. The results of the NRVC-CARA study are clear: many young people coming to religious life today welcome some visible sign that distinguishes them as a man or woman religious. By way of contrast, a number of us from older generations of religious have, to a large extent, become invisible in the places in which we serve and the communities in which we live. If we want people to be aware of our way of life and mission many of us must do a better job than we have done up until the present in being visible as women and men religious.
Our proper place is among those who watch. We are called to live on the perimeter, and to be — by our way of life and ministry — our Church’s living memory, reminding it constantly about the nature of its identity. We are meant to be the Church’s conscience: ever reminding it of what it can be, of what it longs to be, of what it must be. That is our prophetic role.
As we come to the end of the first decade of the 21st century, we know we have a proud history of faith and service in this country. One hundred years from now, someone else will write the story of this time in history. What will they say about us? That we showed the same courage as those who came before; that we were creative in finding solutions to the challenges that faced us, that we were willing to look at points of view at odds with our own and to made bold even unexpected decisions in the process of renewal, that we loved this way of life? The answers to those questions are really up to us.
This talk was originally given at the National Religious Vocation Conference in October 2010.