Measuring Up

Book cover
Can Religious Life Be Prophetic?by Michael H. Crosby, O.F.M.Cap.

Crossroad. 189p $17.95 (paperback)


The question that forms the title of Michael Crosby’s work reveals the perspective from which he approaches the situation of contemporary religious life. It is also a measure of hisand the book’shonesty and realism. He eschews a repetition of the contemporary rhetoric about religious life and subjects it, instead, to a relentless if loving critique, asking whether contemporary religious communities live up to their own chosen description as prophetic.

In the introduction, Crosby narrates the evolution by which religious communities in the later 20th century moved from understanding themselves as choosing a way of perfection and a higher way of life to believing that religious life is defined by its charism of prophecy inextricably intertwined with a contemplative stance toward God’s world. In this context, he also narrates the personal intellectual journey by which he arrived at his question: Given their integration into the institutional church, can religious communities, as communities, live a prophetic mission that flows from contemplation? His first chapter is an overview of prophecy in Scripture and tradition that culminates in an important reflection on some internal obstacles that keep contemporary religious communities from living out their prophetic mission. Both of these sections blend narrative and analysis in a way that is at once thoughtful and imaginative.

The heart of the book is three chapters of religious and historical reflection on major biblical prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Here, too, there is a satisfying blend of historical biblical criticism, psychosocial analysis, questions that contemporary religious communities raise and the situations in which they find themselves. Crosby has been long engaged with his brothers and sisters in renewing and rethinking their lives, and his wealth of experience and specific examples give life to the biblical text and to his own. He might have noted the transformative power of experience in speaking so eloquently of his own. Perhaps what keeps the religious communities from fully expressing their prophetic character is that they, like all institutional bodies, are too enmeshed in behavior patterns that served an earlier understanding.

In the final chapter, Crosby challenges contemporary religious communities to enact their prophetic vocation in a more vigorous way through non-assent and non-submission, and he outlines eight principles by which they might guide and judge their prophetic behavior. The most important element in this chapter, however, is Crosby’s reading of the behavior of St. Francis, and even more of St. Clare, in regard to the Roman authorities who sought to regulate their religious foundations. He well understands how St. Clare believed she was obeying, even as she refused to submit because her obedience to the Holy Spirit required repeated insistence on the validity of her life choice. He demonstrates the complexity of returning to the spirit of the founder and the necessity of reading foundational documents with a heightened historical sensitivity.

Crosby delivers a strong, even stern, rebuke to all those who would avoid the suffering of conflict through uncritical submission. It will undoubtedly raise hackles in many circles. Indeed, it should make many within the church uncomfortable. For those who consider that loyalty to institutional authority is an unconditional requirement of the faith, Crosby’s suggestions and analyses will sound both dangerous and, perhaps, scandalous. But those whose criticisms have sounded a clarion call should not applaud too quickly, for Crosby reminds the reader repeatedly that true prophetic behavior flows only from a mystical contemplation that focuses its attention on the absolute holiness of God. And he further insists on genuine love and respect for all those who exercise institutional authority in the church; prophets can speak the truth only if they do so in love.

This raises the question of who should read this book. There are many reasons why it should be of interest beyond those who are themselves members of religious communities. Church history clearly reveals how religious communities have consistently functioned as mirrors of the larger church community and, in their best periods, have energized the renewal of the larger church by sharing their evangelical values and commitments with it. Also, as Crosby himself reminds us, the Second Vatican Council asserted emphatically that the whole people of God shares in the prophetic character of Jesus Christ, in whom its members are baptized. A better understanding of how contemporary religious life struggles to fulfill its prophetic character can stimulate serious and worthwhile reflection by committed Catholics on their own prophetic call.

Crosby proposes a way of understanding the baptismal vocation as a call to deep contemplation and prophetic action. He suggests that genuine renewal must begin with biblical reflection that is nuanced and respectful of the full reality of the church, that does not remain static but leads to community action that is consistent with what is discovered in contemplative prayer. A new way of understanding ourselves, a method of prayer that leads to actionsurely this book offers a model of renewal.

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