As we’ve been know to say in the past forty years, do you want to hear the bad news or the good news first? Actually, I’m not sure whether that’s the appropriate question in this case since we can’t forecast where things are going. We can only refer to what we know from the past when it comes to religious vocations and the monastic life. We all should know at this point that vocations to consecrated life is a changing situation from anything we knew; that the Church is coping with new challenges at a time when her credibility–and the credibility of all institutions, I might add–is eroding; that our society is changing; our entire world–and not just human networks–is changing. Perhaps the real question is the one posed by Br. Paul Bednarczyk posed to our USA Superiors and Vocation Directors: Where will you be in the next twenty-five years?
I was struck by that question because it had a familiar ring to it. Our Fr. Immediate, Abbot Damian Carr of St. Joseph’s Abbey, Spencer, had asked our community, about nine years ago, “Where will you be in five years?” And he asked us to begin strategic planning to prepare for our future as a small community. Br. Paul’s question places the work we’ve been actively engaging in a bigger context. It’s not just our monastery nor our Order. Consecrated life is at a turning point.
From an historical perspective, I don’t think monasteries have asked ourselves that question before. Like a large, slow moving creature, too canny, too gifted, too experienced, too stable to be upset by ephemeral changes, perhaps we never thought that we might not have a different future than we knew. After all, we weathered the Bubonic plague and the Hundred Years War in the fourteenth century, commendatory abbots from the fifteenth century on, the Reformation, the seizure and closing of monasteries, the Thirty Years War and other wars of religion, even the French Revolution. However, it was touch and go and many communities disappeared for ever. And even into the nineteenth century, even with the secularization of new republics, religion–specifically Catholic Christianity–was still part of public, communal life. Today religious affiliation is a private option often “tailored” to the believer’s convenience. That prop for consecrated life barely exists today; there’s no compelling cultural support for religious vocations just as there’s little social pressure to maintain (or even make) a commitment.
In other words, the context of consecrated and monastic life, the society and culture we live in, has changed but we haven’t reflected on the fact that consecrated and monastic life, are necessarily changed by that. The large, slow moving, balanced creature risks becoming a dinosaur in a world of mammals. If we never asked ourselves where we will be in twenty-five years, we need to now. It’s a compelling way to recognize where we are right now and how we got here. Our situation is not unlike a peninsula jutting into the sea; as temperatures rise and the polar caps melt and the ocean level rises, the peninsula becomes an isthmus, which may become an island, which may be under water during every hurricane. If we identify what’s happening, people can move inland before their the sea reclaims their homes, their community, their way of life. Of course, moving means that their way of life will no longer be the familiar status quo. But the essentials can be transplanted; the window dressing, the bells-and-whistles will have to be left behind.
The challenge rises from our reluctance to move beyond our “comfort zone” (“But we’ve always done it this way!”), to anticipate what will work or is needed by the future not yet here and, perhaps most of all, our discouragement, fear and lack of hope.
Br. Paul cited the (actual) example of a young candidate visiting an aging religious community on a “Come and See” weekend. He was warmly welcomed by the members of that community, deeply appreciative to entertain a candidate interested in their life and work. They realized that they had to reach out to him and meet him at his level of development. However one–just one!–of the religious greeted him with, “Welcome to the Titanic!” That may have been a well-meaning example of self-deprecatory humor but it sent a clear message: we have no future. Needless to say, they never heard from that candidate again.
The image of the Titanic is apt. In it’s day, the amenities of the Titanic looked back to a social-order that was already eroding. It was beautiful, it seemed modern but it was not functional and not what it seemed to be. It was not unsinkable and it was inadequate. How many lives could have been spared had there been lifeboats for all the passengers and staff or had there been life-boat drills–as ungenteel as that may have been? Before the ship sank, most anyone, from the builders to the passengers would have said, “But we’ve always done it this way”. Of course that wasn’t true at all. Intercontinental steam-ships were relatively new. The specifics of social stratification had grown tighter since the industrial revolution. And so forth. It hadn’t always been like that.
So where might we be in the next twenty-five years? We have we been in the last twenty-five years?
to be continued