People are surprised when I tell them that for seven years of my priesthood, I lived with 80 women. I had the great privilege of being a chaplain at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Mercy. Each day, I would celebrate the morning Mass. It was humbling and inspiring to look out into the pews and see, represented in the sisters, a countless number of years of faithful and generous service to the church. They ministered as Catholic educators, nurses, social workers, counselors and in a variety of other ways. I was blessed to learn of their remarkable stories and to witness their joy and serenity.
Because women and men in consecrated life are true gems in the life and mission of the church, we have honored and prayed for them each year on a Day for Consecrated Life. Now Pope Francis has asked us to expand our attention for a whole year to the witness of those in consecrated life and in doing so “to deepen awareness of the diverse charisms and spiritualities” of the various religious institutes. This celebratory year begins on the weekend of the First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 29-30, and will conclude 14 months later with the World Day for Consecrated Life on Feb. 2, 2016.
It is fitting for the church to celebrate as we approach the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s “Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of the Religious Life.” Still inspiring to this day, the decree reminds us that “from the very beginning of the Church there were men and women who set out to follow Christ with greater liberty, and to imitate him more closely, by practicing the evangelical counsels” of chaste self-dedication to God, poverty and obedience. Over the centuries the church exhibits a wide array of forms of consecrated life: from contemplative to apostolic, from consecrated virgins to secular institutes, from hermits to those drawn to community life. Men and women in consecrated life teach in schools, care for the poor and needy, bring hope and healing in hospitals, pray in contemplation for the world and serve in a vast diversity of other ministries which again and again demonstratesthe abundance of Christ’s love for his church and the world.
Perhaps most famously, the decree on religious life also called for the renewal of religious life not only through a more profound discipleship but by retrieving the “proper character” or charism of each order. The acceptance of this invitation to renewal has brought many blessings and not a few challenges. In many ways, religious orders continue to discern healthy paths to be true to the vision of their founders and, in the words of the decree, “share in the life of the church.”
The Graces and Challenges
The face of consecrated life in the United States is very different now than it was 50 years ago. The trends evidence great graces. Among them are the following:
Newer Vocations. Currently, there are thousands of men and women in religious formation in the United States. These men and women believe that religious life will continue to persevere in the future. It is also encouraging that in a recent study by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops of never-married Catholics ages 14 to 35, approximately 350,000 men have seriously considered being a priest or a brother and 250,000 women have seriously considered being a sister or nun.
Increased diversity. Among the graces and blessings is the tremendous growth in racial and ethnic diversity within consecrated life. A 2009 study showed that 94 percent of women in perpetual vows were white. Among those in initial formation that same year, only 58 percent were white. The remainders were Hispanic/Latina (21 percent), Asian/Pacific Islander (14 percent) and Black/African American (6 percent). Religious men are also becoming more diverse. Of those men who were full members of their communities, 92 were percent white. However, of those in initial formation, 59 percent were white, 23 percent were Hispanic/Latino, 11 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander and 6 percent were Black/African American. (See charts.)
Desire for community. Among the youngest generation of new members, there is a great interest in lives lived in community with others. As one vocation director noted: “We’re finding young women who are already geared into service and social justice issues, but are hungry for communal and prayer life.” In a culture that seems increasingly individualistic and relativistic, some young people are attracted to what Catholic religious orders offer—a sense of belonging, of meaning, of truth.
Contentment in newer entrants. Some of the most rewarding and satisfying aspects of religious life identified by newer entrants in the 2009 study include a sense of peace in following God’s call and a deepening of their relationship with God and Jesus Christ through personal and communal prayer. Being of service in ministry and being a witness of God to others also scored high in the survey.
But despite these many blessings, there are also tremendous challenges and pressures on consecrated life today. Among them are:
Changing demographics. The decline in the number of women and men in religious life in the United States is well known. While it is true that the influx of religious vocations after World War II was exceptional, the precipitous decline over the last few decades is of concern. Since 2000, for example, the number of sisters has dropped by 38 percent (from 79,814 to 49,883), brothers by 24 percent (5,662 to 4,318) and religious priests by 20 percent (15,092 to 12,010).
Some communities have merged with others, while other congregations have discerned that their life and mission is completed. Although such movement is not new in the history of religious life, nevertheless it poses challenges to individual communities, their members, and the church as a whole.
Aging population. According to the most recent study (2009), the median age of men religious is 66 and of women religious 73. Ninety percent of women religious in the United States are at least 60 years old. Men are slightly younger: 75 percent are 60 years old or older. (See chart.) This means that consecrated life as we know it in the United States is changing significantly.
Obstacles to Vocations. On the vocational front, there have been some notable success stories. However, while there are several thousand currently in formation, the overall challenge remains formidable. More recently, educational debt has become an issue. From 2002 to 2012, seven out of 10 institutes have turned away someone because the community could not afford to assume student debt. Among women, one-third who enter have at least $20,000 of educational debt.
Accommodating international members. While greater demographic diversity is certainly a blessing, as noted above, it presents religious communities and individuals in consecrated life with some significant challenges as well. In a recent study commissioned by the National Religious Vocation Conference, candidates born outside the United States are accepted by more than nine out of 10 institutes. Just over half of these institutes, however, have policies and procedures in place for accepting such candidates.
The same study found that many vocation directors, formation personnel and institute leaders were very open to welcoming those from different cultures into initial formation. But among the same group of community leaders, this openness drops when it comes to accommodating the customs and practices of new members in community life. Furthermore, the level of welcoming and accommodation drops even further among the general membership of the community.
Congregations are currently striving for better integration of cultural diversity into their communities as they recognize it is essential for their future. Communities that successfully integrate members from multiple cultures have discovered certain strategies that are helpful. Some communities use music, for example, or display art from different cultures in prayer, sponsor mission trips to different cultures and share traditions during holiday celebrations. Also, new members from other cultures are encouraged to have contact with others from their culture outside the community. These simple efforts encourage diversity and do much to welcome and incorporate those from different cultures.
The wider culture. We live in a culture in which the call to the religious life is often repressed or even silenced. The studies are sobering in this regard. Dr. Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame has found that the concerns and worldview among emerging adults in the United States ages 18 to 23 are remarkably parochial: “Get a good job, become financially secure, have a nice family, buy what you want, enjoy a few of the finer things in life, avoid the troubles of the world, retire with ease. That’s it,” Dr. Smith writes. And sadly, the same study shows that there is nothing to indicate that this will dramatically change once these emerging adults transition in life.
This should not surprise us; our culture has become more secularized. The 2012 Pew Study was telling. It found that one-fifth of the American public—and one-third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. In addition, with few exceptions, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them.
And yet, in the face of many challenges, there is great hope in consecrated life. God is still calling, and men and women are continuing to say yes to this call. Studies show that despite negative societal pressures, there is an increase in the number of Catholics who have considered a religious vocation. Many young people are hungry for something more meaningful and transcendent. They are hungry for God.
A Culture of Vocations
A vocation director for a community of religious sisters, responding to a question about who is coming forward to express interest in religious life today, responded, “Those who are most interested are those whose faith has been nurtured in their family, school and parish and who have felt the Lord tugging at their hearts in moments of silent prayer.” A culture of vocations is built on precisely these two pillars: nurturing relationships and deep prayer.
Prayer is always at the heart of vocational discernment and a culture of vocations. A vocation starts and is built within the quiet of a human heart where the “tiny whispering sound” of God’s voice is heard. Yet the involvement of others in our spiritual journeys is essential. In a study of never-married Catholic youth and young adults in 2012, four factors emerged that moved individuals to a serious consideration of religious life: attendance in a Catholic school, participation in a parish youth group, personal encouragement and personally knowing a priest, seminarian or religious. Of particular interest is the personal encouragement factor. If just one person encourages another to consider a religious vocation, he or she is twice as likely to do so; if three people encourage, the potential candidate is more than five times as likely to do so. The recent research confirms what we instinctively know: relationships are the key.
Many religious orders recognize the need to do more to make their members available and visible where vocations are nurtured—most especially in parishes and educational institutions. In my life, the sisters who taught me in first and seventh grades were the first to whisper in my ear the possibility of being a priest. And these women have remained a great source of inspiration to me.
I am encouraged that many religious communities are planning to take advantage of the upcoming Year of Consecrated Life. Of particular promise is the idea for a religious community to invite the faithful to three separate days of observance: one for religious communities to host an open house, another to serve with religious sisters and brothers in their apostolate and a third to pray with them in their communities.
In addition, dioceses and parishes can do their part. Simple initiatives take very little time or investment but can have a powerful impact. Some possibilities include inviting a woman or a man in consecrated life to be introduced to the congregation and to greet parishioners at the door of the church after Mass on days celebrating religious life, like the World Day for Consecrated Life or the World Day of Prayer for Vocations; encouraging members of the church to pray for vocations to religious life during Mass at the Prayer of the Faithful; highlighting religious profession of vows and jubilees in diocesan media; and providing space in diocesan newspapers, parish bulletins and on websites for regular columns by religious about their ministries.
As I began my ministry as the bishop of Raleigh, I began to experience the tremendous unity of the religious and diocesan priests. This unity allowed diocesan priests to appreciate the history and charisms of the religious communities represented in the diocese. Likewise, the religious had a clear understanding of the blessings and challenges of the diocesan priests and their ministries. Thus, both have a greater ability to speak effectively with those discerning a vocation, whether to serve as a diocesan priest or to enter religious life. One thing is clear: the church at all levels must be renewed in the commitment to highlight the role of religious and to encourage vocations.
The Inspiration of Pope Francis
With the exception of mercy, perhaps the most frequent theme of Pope Francis’ pontificate to this point has been “encounter.” And Pope Francis believes this theology of encounter has important implications for consecrated life. “Consecrated life [is] an encounter with Christ,” the pope says. “It is he who comes to us...and we go toward him guided by the Holy Spirit. He is at the center. He moves everything.” Furthermore, this encounter with the Lord seeks expression; it moves outward towards mission and bearing witness to Christ in the world. This is precisely the heart of the new evangelization.
In a particularly inspired section of his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis writes: “True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.” The Year of Consecrated Life provides a wonderful opportunity to gratefully remember how women and men in consecrated life have, over the years, done just that. They have given of themselves in community to serve in many varied ways the church’s ministry of reconciliation. God continues to draw close to his people in the rich variety of consecrated life. As they faithfully witness to the good news of Jesus, consecrated persons help us to look to the future with hope. It is the responsibility of the entire church to ensure that this unique form of discipleship continues to provide similar hope to future generations.