I’ve received quite a few comments and emails (for which I am grateful) following the TIME article in which my blog and I were referenced. There’s a common theme that keeps creeping up and I thought I’d address it head on.
There seems to be this idea that religious life and the viability of a religious community is measured by NUMBERS — numbers of vocations, numbers of people who want to wear the traditional habit (BTW, is this phenomenon in men’s communities?), numbers in the novitiate, etc. Numbers seem to be the only measure of a community’s attractiveness, mission, ability to sustain itself, and future.
I find this utterly preposterous. Somehow we got stuck with this idea that religious communities should be large, ever-growing bigger, with novitate buildings that are as big as city blocks. We think that this is the sign of “success” and, dare I say, God’s favor. I am truly happy for communities that experience this kind of growth in their communities today. But, this is not the norm, nor should we expect it to be so. Religious life was never meant to be measured in size. In fact, the first communities were made up of a handful of people. Religious life was highly countercultural which meant it really wasn’t attractive to the vast majority of people. It wasn’t a popularity contest then or now.
Jesus himself said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). He did not say, “Where institutions, buildings, and popularity abound, there I am.” Certainly, Jesus is there wherever and however many we are. No question about that. But size was not the criterion for following the gospel, being a viable community, or pursuing a mission that God planted in people’s heart. We have no right to proclaim that a religious community is dying because of its numbers. No right whatsoever. Where only two or three are gathered, we must not assume that they are dying or that they have somehow failed in their mission (if they failed the popularity test, then I take this as a sign of health). God is at the heart of their community, their vocation, and their future. I for one would not want to suggest that God is incapable of inspiring any community because they are “too small” or “too old” or “not attractive enough.” I think such comments are more a reflection on our own assumptions and limited imagination than it is about the community.
Such thinking about numbers and religious life is disturbing to me on another level as well. When the focus of religious life becomes the religious community itself or the individual herself/himself, then something has gone terribly wrong. Religious life is not about any one of us or our community. To get caught up in such navel-gazing is to neglect the whole reason religious life exists: to serve the world and Church. It’s about MISSION. Without mission, it doesn’t matter how many people come through the convent doors or how consecrated you look or what lofty ideals you subscribe to.
So what’s the measure of a religious community? Serving the poor, caring for the sick, praying for the needs of the world, being open to God’s Spirit, striving for holiness, encouraging others …. It’s about following the Gospel, plain and simple.