The big question that Br. Paul Bednarczyk, CSC, asked the Vocation Directors and Superiors of our U.S. monasteries was “Where will you be twenty-five years from now?” That is a question that no one can answer for sure but what may be very significant is that question had not been asked before.
Decades ago, when I lived in Washington, D.C., I was well aware of the number of large institutional buildings belonging to various religious congregations and orders in the vicinity of Catholic University. Most were built in the 1960’s at the tail-end of the post war vocation boom in the American Catholic Church. Evidently most everyone was expecting that boom to continue. But in the 1970’s most of those buildings were almost empty. Some of those communities are no longer represented in North East Washington; some rented space to other religious or lay people studying at Catholic U. Many orders and congregations have or are merging provinces and centralizing novitiates for the entire country–or even North America or globally. Perhaps we all suffered from inflated expectations.
One way of approaching where we might be in the next twenty five years is to look at where we have been in the past twenty-five years and where we are right now. Of those who entered religious life in the past twenty-five years, Br. Paul reported, fifty percent have since left religious life. Another way of saying that is that fifty percent have remained despite challenges and changing conditions. From whichever angle you want to state the statistic, professing vows in this day and age does not guarantee maintaining that vow in our society. We have become a very fluid, mobile and self-determining people. That’s not to dismiss serious reasons for people being dispensed from their vows but to say there is no social pressures to keep vows. On this score, the binding power of religious vows or commitment to those vows in the United States is no different than marriage vows.
Right now, the vast majority of religious in the United States are in their eighties or nineties and they will certainly not be with us in the next twenty-five years. A common phenomenon in all our Catholic institutes of consecrated life is the absence of religious in their twenties, thirties and forties. Another is the preponderance of Caucasians. Other ethnic groups are truly minorities. Are those age groups just looking for different sorts of organization? Are other ethnic groups alienated by a very foreign piety or social organization? In general are people suspicious of Church institutions? In a sexually permissive culture is celibacy a boundary they can’t compute? Has consumerism anesthetized them to the limits of the common life? Are most Americans too identified with what they can amass and own to limit themselves in interest to a common good? Is spirituality irrevocably split from religion in this day and age? Do they just not know about us?
There is a growing body of literature in this country about the phenomena of lay movements, mostly urban, that draw upon the disciplines of religious life, attracting young people to service work to marginalized people. These dedicated people operate out 0f a communal context of religious (specifically Catholic) observances and spiritual disciplines, sacrifing private ownership, leisure and status. They seem to rapidly outgrow their domiciles and are attracting young people. We see books entitled “The New Monasticism” or “The New Friars”. As promising and as inspiring as this phenomenon is, the information is more anecdotal than statistical and the movement is still young. Where will they be twenty-five years from now? What are the actual statistics? What percentage of the population are we talking about? Will any of these people end up seeking more traditional forms of religious life? But most important: what can we learn from then?
Perhaps something our present crisis can teach us is the necessity of working together and sharing information. In electronic communications we’ve seen a real change in businesses. In the past companies hoarded and hid their developments and advancements, hoping to knock out the competition with their unique discoveries. With the internet, businesses in fact share information because it’s the most effective way to develop and flourish. I can remember as a young religious in another institute, before I entered the monastery, how competitive the different congregations and orders were, trying to attract more members than anyone else. Each tradition presented itself as the best way to be a Catholic. When I entered the monastery in 1977, I could perceive a competitive spirit between our own monasteries. But over the decades, with pastoral meetings of superiors, novice directors, even treasurers, we Trappists discovered we were all challenged by the same issues and limitations. Perhaps we grew humble and no longer expected to have all the answers; we were ready to benefit from sharing our experiences. To this day, there is often a split between religious and diocesan clergy as if we have to fight over the same candidate! When I was vocation Director I heard candidates tell me over and over that when they asked their pastor how to find or apply to a monastery, they’d receive the response, “Why do you want to throw away your life like that?” They would have to find us on their own, usually through Google. We have lost sight that we are all members of the same Body of Christ and have differing gifts and functions in that Body. All forms of religious vocation have a common ground and we may have more to gain by sharing what works than by jealously guarding what works for me.
There’s another thing we can learn from our crisis. Monasticism used to be the only form of consecrated life in the early Church; by the high middle ages, that had already changed with the rise of canons regular and mendicants. The number of monks decreased. Canonesses and women religious of the mendicant orders adopted monastic practices so becoming a nun was the model for a woman’s religious vocation. the Daughters of Charity would be the first vowed religious women to break new ground in the 17th century. It wasn’t until the 19th and 20th centuries that the forms of religious life for women would explore new possibilities and thereafter the number of nuns also decreased. In modern times, monastic life ceased to be the prominent forum of religious life. It will probably be a minority vocation, important as it is. The pituitary gland is hardly the size of the lungs but the human body cannot do without either. We’d prepare poorly for the future if we cultivate our vocation to depend on large numbers or big institutions. Perhaps we’d prepare better for the future imagining a down-sized model. That is something we could learn from the new forms of religion-based communities.
Another important lesson is not to confuse our gifts and characteristics with how we relate to the world around us. Yes, as our Constitutions describe our life as hidden, obscure and laborious but it is not only that. What monk or nun has had a boring, predictable or unchallenging day? Have we made a cult of obscurity? We’ve certainly forgotten the facts of our actual history and how engaged early Cistercians were with the agrarian world around us. Have we canonized a too self-absorbed a sense of separation from the world only possible in a homogenous society that was nominally Christian? For too long we’ve presumed people who wanted what we have to offer would find us, that God would magically lead them to us. That attitude in fact contradicts what we learn from monastic spirituality, from exploring the mundane. The deeper meanings, the wisdom culled from the “everyday” do not pop into our laps uninvited; we have to work out it. People looking for what our society cannot offer live in a pluralistic, diversified society dominated by an advertising world promising what appears to be “infinite” choice. We are not even a contending “label” in such a world. What we have to offer will not ambush the seekers trying to figure out for themselves what that intangible something they need actually is and where to find it. We have to explain our life in terms they can understand and from the perspective they are coming from. We have to get to know them and make ourselves accessible to them. One simplistic way to put it is that we have to raise our profile in the world around us. And I’m sure we won’t have to worry about losing the simplicity, obscurity and labor of our vocation. Perhaps we also need to remind ourselves that our life I only hidden, obscure and laborious! Living out the inner life is the greatest adventure there is. Learning to negotiate the challenges of a truly communal life, being stretched by other people is not only costly but the most enriching form of human living.
to be continued