Religious Life at the Brink

This year the Conference of Major Superiors of Men Religious and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious celebrate their 50th anniversaries. These vibrant organizations include most of the leadership of religious communities in the United States and have served well their members and the church at large. The anniversary is certainly worth celebrating. As the members of both organizations would testify, however, these are hard times for those in religious life, particularly in the Western world. Numbers have diminished. Membership has aged. New candidates are few. Without question, in religious communities today there is abundant holiness. Generous ministry is taking place, and some new forms of religious life are emerging. Still, the viability of many religious communities is in serious question, a concern not just for religious themselves, but for the whole church, which has always depended on the vitality of religious life.

The metaphors and perspectives of the Scriptures offer wisdom about what faces us. Two biblical motifs in particular may be helpful.


Taking the Long View

One thing that becomes clear from a thoughtful reading of the Bible, as well as a study of church history, is that it is the world, not the church, that usually sets the theological and pastoral agenda. What has been happening to religious life in our times is not explainable by a lack of zeal or integrity or some failure of strategy. Religious communities, like the church at large, are being churned by wider cultural and historical forces, the outcome of which is not yet clear. Economic abundance, smaller families, an emphasis on personal fulfillment, a range of opportunities for service, focus on the individual and individual self-direction, the shifting plates of world politics—these and many other forces are at work.

The same sort of process was true for the peoples of Scripture. The paradigmatic events of biblical history were not the result of a planning process undertaken by Moses or David. Secular events, like the economic and political conditions in Egypt, the limitations of Israel’s tribal political structures and the naked aggression of world powers—from the Assyrians and Babylonians through the Greeks and Romans—shaped and transformed Israel. This led to some of its most fundamental religious intuitions and symbols, including the Exodus, possession of the land, the monarchy, a sacred city and central temple and the exile. Even though Israel was conscious of its own unique status before God, it still shared language, culture, architecture, food and land with a diverse collection of cultural and ethnic groups in the ancient Middle East.

We could say the same about the Christian movement itself. Was it only the conscious strategic planning of the Jerusalem Council or the disciples’ reflection on the words and ministry of Jesus that forged the structures and mission of the early church and prompted it to break out fully into the Mediterranean world? No. The horizons and structures of the early church were also shaped by such social forces as the pervasive, influential Hellenistic culture present in Palestinian Judaism since the time of Alexander the Great, the religious quest of Gentiles who came unexpectedly to ask of the Jewish Christians a share in their life and the consequences for both Jewish Christianity and Judaism of Rome’s brutal suppression of the Jewish revolt.

A similar case could be made at every turn in subsequent church history, including the recent momentous impact of the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath.

I am not suggesting that the mission, theology and self-identity of Christianity are mere accidents of history. Nor would I deny to the church, past or present, its role as a catalyst for world events. Rather, I affirm an ancient truth written on every page of the biblical saga: that the Spirit is at work in the world as well as in the church, and that ultimately the church and all of its forms of life, including religious life, are to be at the service of the world and responsive to it. This is part of what it means to believe in the Incarnation. God is present in the world and in its history—not in some abstract idealized history that we might like to see, but in the real world, with all its beauty and all its tragic flaws.

Powerful cultural and historical forces—some life-giving, some toxic—are working profound transformations on religious life today. The world, however, does not usually communicate its agenda in polite, irenic terms. Nor is the world’s language consistent or easily comprehensible. The extraordinary technological capacity that can serve up the world’s events on a satellite dish also makes it possible for ethnic tensions and ancient rivalries to enact untold horrors through modern weaponry. The world’s capacity to vaccinate, heal and prevent deprivation and illness throws into bold relief the staggering dimensions of world poverty, chronic hunger and ravaging disease.

Pondering the long view of biblical history can make us more aware that the God of the Scriptures, the God of Jesus and the Spirit of the living God within the church is a surprising God, often manifested in unanticipated ways, one who works in times of discontinuity and rupture as much as in times of continuity and serenity. Homage to the God of the Scriptures can make us more modest, more attentive to the complexity of human experience, more tolerant of diversity, more mobile and open to transformation and more at peace as we come to realize that we are part of a long and unfinished journey.

Not Barren in God

Achieving serenity, however, is not enough. Religious communities are also called to responsible action.

One of the truly profound pastoral motifs of the Bible is that of barrenness. In traditional cultures, the inability to produce a child because of infertility or aging was an acute source of shame and suffering. Several of the great characters of biblical history lament their barrenness and turn to God for consolation: Abraham and Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth, to name a few.

But the Bible also saw barrenness as a metaphor for broader experiences of frustration and lack of generativity on the part of Israel itself. The author of Isaiah 40-55 depicts the political and social travails of Israel as a form of “barrenness” that God alone can transform: 

Sing, O barren one who did not bear;
burst into song and shout,
you who have not been in labor.
For the children of the desolate woman will be more
than the children of her that is married, says the Lord….
For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name….
For the Lord has called you
like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit,
like the wife of a man’s youth when she is cast off,
says your God.
For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with great compassion I will gather you,
in overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,
says the Lord, your Redeemer.

Isa 54:1-8

If diminishing numbers, rapid aging and an uncertain future make many religious communities feel “barren,” a focus on the reality and fecundity of God’s presence in the world and the Christian mission to witness God’s love for it can enable us to bear new life. The traditional Gospel values that stand behind religious life in its various expressions are as vital today as they ever were, no matter what forms religious life might take in the future. Put another way, all forms of religious life, including the most contemplative, have a mission that transcends their own internal structures and concerns. Concerns by religious communities about their survival should be subordinated to a focus on their mission in the world. Even if a particular religious community might cease to exist, its past contributions to the Christian mission have everlasting value; that mission continues in another mode until God’s will is accomplished.

Today the same cultural forces that may have eroded religious life cry out for a correspondingly strong Christian response. Is Western society too individualistic? Too fragmented? Is our society too violent and alienated? Is the world moving down a path to bitter hostility among diverse peoples? A fundamental quest of religious life is to form authentic Christian community—that is, a community bound by love, reconciliation and compassion, one that embraces diversity and recognizes all human beings as children of God.

Is our society too materialistic? Too self-indulgent? Has sexuality become commodified and deprived of its beauty? A fundamental value of religious life is to treasure relationship, to care for the body in a truly Christian way, to seek communion one with the other driven by love.

Are we too content with terrible economic disparities? Not attentive enough to desperate human need? Too ready to violate our natural resources? A fundamental commitment of religious life is to poverty, that Christian perspective on possessions that prevents them from becoming obsessions and calls us to a modest use of resources and equity in the distribution of wealth.

Is spirituality a fascination for this generation? Do people hunger for deep and lasting values? Is there a quest, however fragile, for the spiritual and the divine in life? Are people being drawn aside into frivolous and even dangerous ideologies? Religious life endeavors to be obedient to God’s word, to seek the truth in love, to be open to God’s authentic grace, to listen to the wisdom of others, to be tempered and shaped by a loving community of faith.

The World is the Field

Being attentive to the realities and needs of our world and striving to respond in the spirit of the Gospel—these are the ways that barrenness becomes fecundity. While the forms and mechanics of religious life may find themselves today in a state of great transformation, the fundamental mission of religious life remains crucial. We are not engaged in something petty or sectarian or trivial. We are not simply leading pious lives or performing routine tasks. Our biblical heritage, the very wellspring of our faith, remind us that we are called to partake in the divine task in the world—reaching out in healing and compassion to all of God’s people, reconciling the world to God, drawing people from across boundaries of culture and race and age to form a communion of life pleasing to God.

We must remember that in our biblical heritage and our Catholic tradition, God’s Spirit is not confined to the church, but roams the world and its peoples, breathing where it will. Our mission is not confined to the church or our own communities either, but extends to the world itself. As Jesus says in his explanation of the parable of the weeds and the wheat, “The field is the world” (Matt 13:38).

Despite our problems and our weaknesses, this is no time for hesitation or retreat on the part of religious communities. Now is the time to lift up for ourselves, for the church at large and for the next generation of Christians our best, most noble and most ambitious ideals, come what may.

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11 years 8 months ago
The article “Religious Life at the Brink,” by Donald Senior, C.P., (10/16) was certainly thought-provoking; but what of today’s brothers? I would like to see an article dealing with them and their call to serve Christ, not only with their hands but intellectually and academically as well, according to the spirituality of their order.


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