Stay tuned for the young and the religious
Image: Sister Susan Rose Francois, C.S.J.P. with (from left) Sisters Sarah Kohles, O.S.F., Kristin Matthes, S.N.D.de N., and Belinda Monahan, O.S.B. at the 2014 NRVC convocation.
There is a magnet on the refrigerator in my local community house that reads: “I [heart] religious LIFE and believe in its FUTURE.” Most religious houses, in my experience, have a ragtag refrigerator magnet collection featuring promotional messages from various sponsored ministries, the local parish, or even the funeral home. This particular magnet, on the other hand, promotes the future of the very life we have committed to live in community by our profession of vows to God.
How religious communities are changingThose who join a religious community today are entering during a period of dramatic change for religious life as a whole.
• They enter knowing they will be living religious life during a period when some communities are closing and many are getting smaller. The large influx of new members in the 1950s and 1960s was brief. Many students of religious life say that today’s smaller number of new members is more typical than the rapid growth of 60 years ago.
• Communities that envision a vibrant future for their particular institute are accepting new vocations and are planning (and advertising) accordingly. There are some communities that have decided to discontinue accepting new members, but many others are planning a future with smaller total numbers.
• Many communities have detached from large institutions, such as hospitals, schools, and properties. As a result, these communities are now able to more nimbly minister to contemporary needs.
• If you join a religious community now, your action says that you expect that others will join after you. Joining a community has always been a bold move, one that has been taken by other members of religious life throughout history.
—Carol Schuck Scheiber, VISION content editor
I have made the point of bringing the magnet with me to each community house that I have called home over the past eight years. It has become a ritual of sorts with multiple levels of meaning. When I add this magnet to the mix, I am proclaiming that a younger sister lives in the house. The magnet was given to me at the Giving Voice national conference in 2009. Giving Voice is a grassroots network of women religious in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. This group of peers has been a tremendous support on my journey so far. When I place the magnet on the refrigerator, in a way I am bringing my younger sister friends from other congregations with me as well.
The magnet carries an even larger symbolism, however, that is made clear by its strong and simple message. I would not be a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace, let alone living in my new house, serving on the Congregation Leadership Team, or inviting other young women to join our community as vocation director, if I did not firmly believe that God is not finished with religious women. I love religious life, I am committed to my community and our charism, and I believe that we have a future.
Change is a constantOf course, believing in the future of religious life is not the same as knowing how it will all turn out. If I am honest, the one thing I can be certain of as a vowed religious in the 21st century is the constancy of change. Anyone who is taking an honest look at the current state of religious life in North America or Europe will recognize that even more rapid change is just around the corner.
If you’ve visited a religious house, or spent time getting to know a religious congregation, no doubt you have noticed that most of the community members are quite a bit older than the average reader of VISION. The dominant age groups present in religious life today have lived through tremendous changes themselves following the Second Vatican Council. In the words of Pope Francis, they “undertook a fruitful journey of renewal which, for all its lights and shadows, has been a time of grace, marked by the presence of the Spirit.”
Those who are entering religious life today are here at an equally graced time, in no small part because they get to minister, pray, and play with these women and men of earlier generations. In the secular world, sociologists tell us that this is a unique and unprecedented time because no less than four generations—Millennials, Generation X, Boomers, and Greatest Generation—are present in the workplace. Given the demographic reality of most religious communities, this mix is even more pronounced in religious life. However, because of the unusually large numbers of entrants in the 1950s and 1960s, there are many more people over age 70 than there are under 40.
More than once over the past few years I have found myself filled with deep gratitude, and more than a little bit of awe, for the persistence of our loving God who managed to break through my own resistance to this call. If I had delayed my decision just by a few years, I would not have had the chance to get to know some of the incredible sisters who have passed away since I entered. I would be poorer today without their wisdom and the inspiration of their lives. Even now, as I step into my new roles of leadership and vocation ministry, I am privileged to have as companions a group of sister mentors who have navigated unimaginable change in their own religious lives over the past 50-plus years. This truly is a graced time!
Small is beautiful
The future of religious life, of course, is bound to look and feel different. For one thing, it will be smaller. While the large novitiate classes of the 1950s and 1960s still make up the dominant age cohort today, the women and men behind them entered in much smaller groupings. Even if a substantial number of young adults were to answer God’s call and take the plunge into this wonderful, if unusual, way of life—which I believe they will—it seems clear that the religious life of the future will be lived on a smaller scale. And yet, the call of the gospel remains large. The needs of the human family cry out for compassionate love and service, while the example of Jesus continues to light the way.
Whenever I ponder the future of religious life, I find myself remembering the early pioneer sisters in my community who stepped into their own unknown future. They did not know how it would all work out in the end, but that did not stop them from joining together in community for mission in prayer and loving action. I wonder what the next generations will say about us and our response today.
This is certainly an exciting time to be living religious life, one that calls for creative responses and collaboration as we bring the light of the gospel to today’s unmet needs and help make religious life sustainable for future generations. In the words of Pope Francis: “The creativity of charity is boundless; it is able to find countless new ways of bringing the newness of the gospel to every culture and every corner of society.”
Brave, noble souls
This moment calls for a certain kind of person, and this is where I have great hope. In 1887, the founder of my religious community, Margaret Anna Cusack, known as Mother Francis Clare, wrote these words to her newly founded congregation: “We are beginning a new order. We want brave, noble, large-minded, and courageous souls.”
When I look at the new generations considering a religious vocation today, this is who I see. First of all, you have to be brave and courageous to even think about making a life-long commitment to a future that is so uncertain. The call of the gospel is a call to be noble in your concern for God’s people, especially those who are poor and on the margins of society. Today’s culture provides many temptations for young people to be centered on their own concerns, yet if you are reading this article then I suspect you have a large-minded streak.
The brave, noble, large-minded, and courageous souls who enter religious life today will benefit from the wisdom, presence, and support of the incredible women and men religious of earlier generations who will not be here that much longer. This is a time of opportunity and promise.
Click here to read companion article, "A long-time religious looks forward."
Together with the older generations, younger religious will help shape the future of religious life. In the words of Pope Francis, we can “wake up the world!”
*Quotes from Pope Francis are taken from his November 2014 Letter for the Year of Consecrated Life.
Related article: vocationnetwork.org, Online door never closes on discerners, VISION 2015.
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