I was at a meeting of religious a couple of months ago at which the question of vocations in (northern) Europe was being discussed. One participant, a sixty-year old religious priest, asked the question: “Can anyone tell me: is there anywhere that religious life is actually working?” This is a question which someone living in Ireland or Scotland (the parts of Europe covered by the Passionist Province to which I belong, and where most orders and congregations seem to be in decline) might be forgiven for asking. In this part of the world, women’s communities seem to have less vocations than men’s, and communities of brothers seem to struggle more than communities of priests; while the priesthood draws some vocations, the religious life as such (i.e. when seen not simply as a form of priesthood) seems not to be attracting young people.
Part of the problem here is that in Ireland and Scotland we have virtually no experience of the new religious congregations and people who live only within that confined context are unaware of the large number of religious communities (-by this I mean vowed forms of consecrated life, not movements or associations) which have been founded in the last thirty or so years. We see ourselves as living in a desert, because we have never turned around and discovered the green shoots right behind us. It seems that every time I visit France or Italy, I learn about another new religious congregation that is flourishing there. On a recent visit to Rome, for example, I met some members of the Franciscan Fraternity of Bethany. They are a flourishing group of young religious, women and men, who began in 1978 and took their present form in 1983. From the photograph below, it would appear that they are good singers too!
A community I have known for longer is the Community of Saint John, founded in 1975 by five or six university students under the guidance of a Dominican priest, Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe. They are now a Congregation of diocesan right, approved by the Church, with over five hundred members, about two hundred of whom are priests; they also have contemplative sisters and sisters of apostolic life who share the same charism and spirituality. When I met Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe some years ago, he said to me: “We have the same spirituality”; the spiritual focus of this community is to be like John the beloved disciple, standing with Mary at the foot of the Cross. They are engaged in preaching, catechesis (including adult education in theology), retreat houses, chaplaincies, some parish work and overseas missions. They celebrate Mass and the Divine Office in common, have meditation togethre morning and evening (including Eucharistic adoration), and they even rise for the night office of readings (matins) at 1.30 a.m. on Sundays and feasts. In spite of (or in fact because of) a very challenging lifestyle, this community is growing not only in Africa, Asia and Latin America, but particularly in tired old Europe.
Already in France, some of the old orders and congregations are experiencing renewal and life, perhaps through contact with or some sort of breathing the same air as these new communities. This new life is not universal and is confined to certain abbeys and not to others or to certain provinces and not others. A grace is being offered but not all are able to see it and grasp it. It is, of course, frightening for the older orders, especially those who have worked hard to adjust to death and dying. All the dreams of the nineteen-sixties hold little attraction for young people of the twenty-first century. When older religious do look at these new groups, they are genuinely frightened by what they see and think this is an attempt to turn the clock back, rather than a chance to repair a clock which has long since stopped ticking.
The Discalced Carmelites in France are an interesting example of one of the older orders which has come back from the point of death and is now expanding. The key to all this is the rediscovery of community and spirituality, which is at the heart of any genuine religious vocation. A simple life lived together in an atmosphere of prayer is energising for those who have been called to the religious life; for those whose vocation lies elsewhere, it will be exhausting. For me, the biggest obstacle to religious vocations today is not the secularisation of society, or the breakdown of family life, or lack of faith formation in Catholic schools, or materialism, though all these have a part to play. I believe that the biggest problem for a young person thinking about a religious vocation is: “Where can I go? Where can I find a way of life that will really challenge me and at the same time deepen my relationship with Christ? Where will I find a community that will accept my hunger for a fuller understanding of the teaching of the Church, rather than point out to me all that it thinks is wrong with what the Church is saying?” We who are already religious (of many years standing) are often too slow to admit that we are part of the problem.
In the history of the religious life, the old orders have always learned from the new: in the late Middle Ages, the friars reminded the monks about simplicity of life; after the reformation, the Jesuits and other clerical institutes helped the observant reforms of the friars; in the nineteenth century, the older orders were enriched by the missionary, educational and caring zeal of the new congregations. Is it too much to expect that the new communities being founded today will be more significant “signs of the times” for the renewal and adaptation of religious life than the front page of yesterday’s newspaper?