on Consecrated and Monastic Life

Blog Published: October 17, 2008
By Sister Julie, the online news magazine, has an interesting but highly questionable assessment of consecrated and monastic life in the article A Monastic Kind of Life: How Catholic religious communities are trying to attract young people again by Harold Fickett (October 14, 2008). Have you read it? If not, it’s a must read. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

As for me, I found the article not only questionable but just plain wrong. Here are my thoughts.

1. The terminology is totally off. Monasticism is one form of consecrated life. Not all nuns, sisters, brothers, friars or priests live a monastic life.

2. Even though folks are quick to note the decline in numbers for consecrated life, they fail to note that the comparison is always to the early- to mid-1900s when there were 50+ people entering mainstream communities a year. But that time period is not characteristic of consecrated life throughout the history of Christianity. In fact that time period is more of an aberration because the history of consecrated life has never seen that kind of influx before nor possibly again.

3. Consecrated life was never meant to be a life for the masses. The viability of consecrated life is not dependent on numbers. True, some communities do end up disbanding but that too is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit just like the community’s founding was. We are not here to create a legacy but to do the work of God and live the Gospel in this particular vocation.

4. The article says, “The mission of many orders has become simply caring for their aging populations as they sell properties and consolidate with others.” I beg to differ. We always have and always will live our mission AND care for our sisters. There is nothing new about caring for aging populations, selling property, collaborating, and combining congregations. What is new is that we have such large numbers right now because of the major influx from the early- to mid-1900s. We have to be a bit more creative perhaps in how we care for our sisters and deal with our assets, but other than that, we remain vibrant.

5. What the heck is this?

For a time, the life of Catholic religious orders became about social justice issues, psychological issues, peace studies, interreligious dialogue, the ecology movement—everything and anything, seemingly, except the central proposition: that one can know a loving God and be transformed.

I am deeply offended by this statement. It reveals the author’s lack of understanding about consecrated life and about this period of history in the Catholic Church. Read the Vatican II Church Documents, spend time with religious who lived through this time period, and then perhaps you will understand that religious have been and will continue to be centered around a life and mission based on being in relationship with a loving God and working towards the transformation of ourselves and the world.

6. The jump from discussing consecrated life through Vatican II to the recent foundation of Clear Creek Monastery suggests that only newer communities are faithful to the Church and attractive to young people. While the growth in the monastery is great, the newer communities have not stood the test of time to see if young people stay, how new communities will grow and change as all religious communities before them have. It is exciting to see newer communities and the ways the Holy Spirit continues to inspire people. But make no mistake, the Holy Spirit is alive and well in established religious communities who continue to live out their charism according to what Vatican II called the “signs of the times”.

Well, that’s my two cents (or three) on the article.

Your thoughts?

Archived Comments

Annie October 17, 2008 at 10:06 am

*reads article* Hahahaha. I’m laughing because I think the article is so neo-conservative that if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry. The author seems to be saying that the changes of the 60s were just a silly misuse of everyone’s time, and that progressive religious orders are more selfish and earth-bound (like being earthy is a bad thing) than conservative ones are. Personally, it makes me want to puke, and I’m not even Catholic. When I read something like that though, I do think it’s a microcosm of society at large though the specific topic in this case is the Catholic Chuch. Some people pine for a simpler time when life wasn’t so complicated, and women did whatever men told them to. A lot of people romanticize the heck out of pre-Vatican II days, and it’s seriously irritating. I understand that people like rituals, but come on…this guy wants to go back to mass in Latin.

To me, social justice issues are the only reason I can relate to the Church, and I think it’s the Church’s main connection to the rest of society which doesn’t necessarily believe in Church doctrine or even in God, but can still relate to acts of charity and kindness. If the Church were 100% about the afterlife and not much about the world we live in, it would be much tougher for the Church to relate to anyone outside of it, and vice-versa.

Numbers declined in religious orders primarily because other opportunities arose after the 1960s which were not there before, especially for women. What this guy fails to understand is that all those people that left the convent after Vatican II, or those people who were going to join but didn’t – all those people are still around, and if they were good people before, they probably still are. It’s not exactly a tragedy.

So I know there’s an issue with orders needing more people, but I think it’s outrageous to say that it’s terrible that numbers have dwindled, because that line of thinking somehow implies that women SHOULD have limited options, because then surely we’d have more nuns! If anything, people joining orders today are more likely to actually want it – after all, they could have done anything else with their life – they didn’t join the convent just because they had no other choice. Like you said, it’s not just about numbers. And I think romanticizing the past is bad for everybody; yes, there were more nuns and priests around pre 1960s, but there was also more racism and sexism and homophobia and everything else in society; it wasn’t exactly a grand time for all.

If anything, this article is interesting because I think it points out the different “schools of thought” that people belong to in terms of societal change. I’m a sociologist, so this stuff fascinates me.

Lavona October 17, 2008 at 10:26 am

Actually, I had expected something trashing the concept of devoting one’s life to God and was surprised to find that it was not anti-Catholic nor anti-religious life. Yes, his use of terms was not clear but I think he tried to reflect what I believe is true of many of the people I’ve known and know. Our institutions, like our beloved Church, are made up of many different people and there were many (a good number of which ended up leaving) that became so involved in social ministries that they dropped the LOH and community prayer. I applaud all those that hear the call to religious life that truly focus on our Lord, and yes, active ministry is included for many though there is something special about contemplative life as well. A huge thank to God for each person that is living their life God focused and seeing God in his people.

Jen October 17, 2008 at 10:24 am

I saw that article, read it, cringed, then dove under my desk, before the nuns I know read it. I really resent the implication that orders that wear habits or are more cloistered are somehow more faithful to the Church, or more “orthodox.” I know when I was thinking about such things, the last thing I cared about was what they were wearing or if they got air time on EWTN. I hear a lot of young people say that they won’t consider an order, unless they wear habits. On the one hand, their zeal for the Church is commendable, but on the other, they’re driving a huge wedge between anyone unlike them. Our Church has always been about unity in diversity.

Gayle OSF October 17, 2008 at 10:52 am

The acticle made me wince for many reasons. I usually cringe when a journalist takes on the topic without having much background knowledge. In addition to your points, Sister Julie, the notion that families “donated” their children to the Church is inane. And what was that about “chasitiy being largely ignored”? As though all the religious had their own “free love fest.” I skimmed the comments at the end of the article, some lauded the “positive slant,” too bad there is so much misinformation. There is the implication that the only reason for the emergence of the newer communities is because all the exisiting ones are allegedly running hopelessly amok. Sigh. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

Kazimer October 17, 2008 at 1:46 pm

Hey Sister Julie, I just read the article as you suggested. I agree with the points you listed. What bothers me with these types of stories is the sense the author portrays in their word choice to the reader that the conclusions drawn are accurate , definitive and encompass the depth and scope of the subject area. I suggest, if you have the desire and time, to pen your experience and understanding regarding consecrated, monastic and various forms of religious life and submit it for publication to Kaz

Patrice Tuohy October 17, 2008 at 4:32 pm

Dear Sister Julie: Here’s a recent response I sent to a reporter who was making many of the assumptions the Slate article made (i.e., that religious life is in dire decline; that renewal is only taking place among more traditional communities):

Two points that I think you should make clear in any discussion of vocations is that:

1) The high percentage of vocations we had in the 1950s to early ’60s was an exception. No one who studies these things sees that period as representative of where vocations should be. Over the centuries religious life has waxed and waned. With some communities dying out and new ones starting. Religious life answers the spiritual needs of each individual and each generation. One person or generation is more drawn to apostolic service the next to community, structure, and simplicity. Neither is better than the other. All are doing God’s great work. Religious life is not one size fits all.

2) My theory is that the renewed interest in vocations is due to availability of information about religious life. The rise of the Internet, in my opinion (and I’ve been actively involved in vocation work for 15 years), has played a significant role (if not the most significant) role in presenting religious life as an option to young adults. With fewer priests and nuns in education, a generation of young adults went through a period with little exposure to religious men and women. Even if they had a spiritual longing for some other path, they just didn’t know enough about religious life to see it as an option. Now a generation later, every religious community has a website, as do dioceses, parishes, and the Vatican itself. All the information a seeker could need is at their fingertips. And of course, interactive programs, such as, help discerners even more to sort through their options.

Another Sister Julie, CSSF October 17, 2008 at 6:45 pm

Boy, did the author get the whole fiasco of what happened to the Los Angeles IHMs wrong!! As I heard it, the sisters–a diocesan community–were divided into two camps. Cardinal McKintyre told those who wanted to keep to the staus quo that they could keep the properties and ministries, and the rest of them were “out.” Those IHMs reorganized into the IHM Community, an ecumenical lay association which also includes men and womenwho want to follow IHM spirituality.

And I don’t get this use of the 1962 sacramentary. It is not the Latin Mass I grew up with. There are still so many things happening that I haven’t a clue about. Like, what it the subdeacon holding up under the veil as he stands at thte foot of the altar from the Offertory until Communion time? My arm aches for him!

Oh, well. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. Sigh. Some day we’ll have something good to read, comment upon and rejoice in.

deerose October 20, 2008 at 8:04 pm

I too agree with Sister Julie’s appraisal of this article. Here are a few points I’d like to emphasize:

-Saying that caring for elderly sisters is the “mission” of an order is just downright ignorant. It seems to me that most of the apostolic orders (and some monastic) are indeed into social justice, ecology, peace studies, interreligious dialogue, psychology (counselling?), etc. I would say most are not into all of those things at once. You can’t do everything. But they pick what is most important to them to focus on.

-I don’t believe the religious life is for the majority by any means. After all, it’s countercultural. It amazes me when someone thinks every third Catholic woman should or wants to be a nun.

-I sometimes get annoyed when I see so much emphasis on faithfulness to the Church, the Magisterium, etc. How about faithfulness to God? I realize that sometimes it may be difficult to distinguish between the two, but to me, God is key.

-People may have “donated” their children to God centuries ago, i.e., in the Middle Ages it was customary in particular areas. But that has certainly not been common in modern times. Where this dude gets his material???

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