Archive for the ‘Religious Life’ Category

Watch out, Ireland!

This is Father Gabriel Barros. On 19 October he arrived in Ireland with a (transitional) deacon, Harold Bumann, to take up residence in Kilmyshall, County Wexford, Ireland. Why is that so important? – Because Father Gabriel and his confrere are members of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, and Kilmyshall, a village of less than one hundred inhabitants, is their new centre of operations.

The Institute of the Incarnate Word is a new congregation founded twenty-three years ago in Argentina, whose aim is the Evangelisation of Culture. Now present in twenty-seven countries, the Institute has about four hundred members and about twice that number of seminarians, as well as a (men’s) contemplative branch and a community of sisters; like most of the new communities, the Institute also has a flourishing lay movement.

In his ordination year, Father Gabriel (and his confrere, Father Pablo Scaloni) spent two months with us at Saint Mungo’s learning English. Apart from addressing Sister Maureen as Sister Morning, they did very well and made great progress. So it is that an Argentinian with a Scottish accent is now about to evangelise Ireland.

The Franciscans of the Renewal arrived in Limerick a couple of months ago and, on the first of October, the contemplative sisters of the Congregation of Saint John opened a community in Derry, with Bishop Hegarty expressing the hope that they would be followed by additional sisters and also by the Brothers of Saint John. (H/t to Conor for this news before it happened.) The Church in Ireland doesn’t realise it yet, but these new communities will challenge people, clergy and especially religious by showing them a different way of being disciples of Christ (-the most noticeable part of the difference being enthusiasm). If there is anything that is killing the religious life at the moment, it is our certainties: many of us have made up our mind about how things are going to be in the future. (For someone else’s thoughts on this, have a look here.) Fortunately, the new communities haven’t read the script, so prepare yourself for a surprise!

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A comment posted by Stephen at my Champagnat Mass post made me think. Here is what he said:
Fr, I have been visiting your blog for a couple of weeks now and I was particulary interested in your comments on the state of the religious life in Northern Europe. I am not a religious but am intrigued as to the possibility of life led in such a way. I think a genuine Christian life led by Truth is a very attractive thing to others, in “professional” as well as lay life. Perhaps the looking at the original charisms of the individual orders as Vatican II instructed is just starting to materialise. As for the new orders… almost all hold a great amount to adoration (not something I’ve been brought up with but perhaps am beginning to understand) – I feel this perhaps is important. Some even go so far as to expressly refuse looking after parishes and actively encourage the lay brother vocation (Francsican Friars of the Renewal), perhaps so as not to be dogged by the image of the religious life as ‘simply as a form of priesthood. How are your Passionist community responding to this all this?
I asked him for a few days to relect before replying, simply because it was a difficult question (-the last bit).

If Stephen says “Perhaps the looking at the original charism of the individual orders as Vatican II instructed is just starting to materialise” in the wrong places, he might get lynched or at best cause apoplexy, because many religious in the pre-Vatican II orders and congregations think that they have spent the last forty years doing that. However, I have to agree with him that we are now at a point where a more serious looking at the charism is beginning to get off the ground. Vatican II asked religious to pay attention to the charism of the founder and to the signs of the times (“The adaptation and renewal of the religious life includes both the constant return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time.” Perfectae Caritatis 2.) In retrospect, there were two problems with this. The first was that the requirement of adaptation was often read in such a way that core evangelical values, such as asceticism or poverty interpreted in anything except its most spiritual sense, were deemed to be no longer relevant. At the same time, the notion of Charism itself was also problematic. For many religious, this word (which, interestingly enough is not found in Perfectae Caritatis) was something entirely new. Charism workshops were very common after the Council as congregations tried to discover their charism. My own slightly heretical view is that a number of congregations possibly did not really have a specific charism beyond that of discipleship and so had to manufacture something. What is certainly true is that the demands of adaptation and the demands of a return to the sources often seemed to be in conflict and that in many cases adaptation proved easier (and consequently stronger) than rediscovery. – To be continued!

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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?

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Saint Gervais

I have been in Paris for the last few days, at our community of Saint Joseph's, avenue Hoche, where I previously spent seven happy years. I came here for a meeting on Passionist Spirituality and Charism, which concluded today. This evening, I took advantage of my visit to go to Vespers and Mass at the Church of Saint Gervais, behind the Hotel de Ville. Saint Gervais is the home of the Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem, founded here in the 1970s by Father Pierre-Marie Delfieux. His inspiration in founding the community was to bring the monastic life of the desert into the new desert which is the modern city. In the Rule of Life he wrote for the community, he says: In the desert of the urban world your monastery should be an oasis of peace, prayer and joy. It is still amazing to see a large number of people coming here each evening, after their day's work, to spend between one and two hours praying with the community before returning home.

Vespers began at 6.00, after a half hour of silent meditation before the altar. As usual the liturgy was sung beautifully in French, with much of the music being by Andre Gouzes o.p. The pause at the end of each psalm verse was an invitation to prayer and to an awareness of the One in whose presence the prayer was being offered. The Mass, which followed the Office immediately, was celebrated with dignity and simplicity. Times for reflection during the Liturgy of the Word, a thoughtful homily, moments of silence around communion time, and the possibility of remaining on for a period of thanksgiving after the Mass made this a way of celebrating Mass which seemed naturally to favour contemplation.

This community of monks and nuns has grown significantly over the last thirty or so years. Like most of the new religious orders, they provide ways for people who are not called to professed life but who feel drawn to the community to belong in a meaningful way. One way of doing this is through the Gospel Fraternities of Jerusalem which allow laypeople the chance to be formed in the spirituality of the community. The Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem now has eleven houses, including a new foundation in Montreal.

For more background information on the community in English, see this article from Zenit's archive (scroll down to the section on the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem).

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