Courageous response to the pressing needs of the day, bold initiatives, constant giving, patience: movements, congregations and renewal

September 5, 2015

As Catholics committed to a vision of “what the church can be and longs to be” in implementation of Laudato Si’ it is worth considering the recent remarks of Seán D. Sammon, directed toward religious congregations and renewal, in the current issue of America magazine.  Getting in touch with the charism is key, notes…“charism is a free gift of the Spirit given for the good of the church and the use of all.  Pope Paul VI, who defined the charism of religious life as the fruit of the Holy Spirit, who is always at work within the church, identified these signs of its presence: bold initiatives, constancy in the giving of oneself, humility in bearing with adversities, fidelity to the Lord, a courageous response to the pressing needs of the day and willingness to be part of the church(If) we are falling short in the work of renewal…our designs for the future are not daring enough”

What follows is an excerpt.  To read the whole, go to Religious Life Reimagined:  Looking for opportunity in a misunderstood vocation crisis

Lack of imagination and fear of innovation on the part of the church as a whole are two elements obstructing the renewal of contemporary religious life, for every baptized Catholic has a role to play in the task of reimagining this way of living. In declaring 2015 a year dedicated to consecrated life and challenging men and women religious to “wake up the world,” Pope Francis was speaking to the church’s hierarchy and its lay men and women as well….

The council’s unequivocal statement that all Christians, clergy and laity alike, are baptized into the one mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God and its imminence put an end to that view of the church.  This shift in understanding moved religious life from being within the hierarchical church to its rightful place within the charismatic church, helping to clarify its nature and purpose. Never intended to be an ecclesiastical workforce, sisters, religious priests and brothers are meant to be the church’s living memory of what it can be, longs to be and must be. Their job is to continually remind the larger body about its true nature.

Tempted to wring our hands about the current state of religious life, it is helpful to remember that religious congregations experience crises at each stage in their development. During their early years most groups face three: in leadership, direction and legitimacy. As they swell in numbers and spread out geographically they confront another: maintaining unity in the midst of rapid growth.

By the time territorial expansion slows down, the congregation usually has moved into a stable phase. Success marks its undertakings; members are held in high esteem. Having accumulated considerable human and financial resources, the group as a whole often begins to forget the reasons for which it came into existence; members behave as if everything depended upon their efforts alone.

At the onset of the council, many religious congregations found themselves in just such a place. Boasting more members than at any other time in their history and applicants aplenty, the vast majority of men and women religious believed that renewal meant ever increasing numbers, bigger and better institutions, and greater respect and prestige.

Instead, a period of surprising change ensued…To do so, they must first be courageous in responding to the real challenges facing our world and church today; second, have a membership willing to allow itself the experience of personal and congregational conversion; and third, rediscover the spirit of their founding charism.

Signs of Renewal

In recent years, a number of lay men and women have claimed as their own the charism of one or another religious congregation. Neither pseudo-religious nor substitutes hired to cover a shortfall of vowed members in congregational ministries, they are sharers in the group’s charism and co-responsible for its ministry. As such, these lay partners have an essential role to play in redefining consecrated life for the 21st century.

Today many lay partners are bound to a particular congregation through the group’s works. Serving alongside men and women religious, they too struggle to identify those characteristic features that distinguish their efforts from those of other congregations. A parish or university founded in the Franciscan tradition should be able to distinguish itself from one established by Jesuits, Marists or Dominicans. Over time, lay partners, along with the members of the founding congregation, become a living endowment for the institutions in which they minister, ensuring that the institutional identity is clear and the founding values respected.

How can the members of a congregation judge that they have turned a corner in the process of renewal?  When a significant portion of them admit that their present life and the group’s structures are neither personally satisfying nor appropriately responsive to the major needs of today’s church and world.

At the same time, there must also be willingness on the part of those involved to change their current ways of living and acting and to develop new and renewed means of service. The individualism that plagues a number of groups at the moment must be confronted. Members must also grow in interdependence and show willingness to alter personal plans for the sake of the common good.

Groups will also know that they have turned a corner when they are able to assess the congregation’s works honestly. Many of the ministries for which men and women religious continue to take responsibility no longer need their presence. They must be willing to put aside their concern with these institutions and ask themselves:  To what absolute human needs would our founder respond were he or she to arrive in this country today? Where would we find him or her, what groups would he or she choose to serve, what means would he or she use to evangelize?  Men and women religious were meant to be on the margins, in those places where the church is not.

Today congregations must take steps to ground themselves again in the biblical roots of religious life and to use this foundation to rebuild community life. This will require new models suitable for adults who have come together to share life around the Gospel. For genuine renewal to take place, transformation also must move beyond the personal. The networking of like-minded members is essential for any process of renewal to take root and flourish.

As they address these tasks, individual men and women religious and their congregations will develop a new sense of personal and corporate identity and purpose. For personal identity to be clear, a sister, brother or religious priest must be in love with Jesus Christ and have grown over time to resemble a living portrait of his or her founder.

Organizational identity, though similar to personal identity, has some distinct characteristics of its own. Groups with a strong organizational identity stand for something; they have a backbone. They claim a mission that is unique or, if similar to the mission of other groups, different from them in some unique way. Finally, these groups have a set of values that have stood the test of time.

Examples of congregations that are moving into a new phase of renewal are not easily labeled. Included among their number are groups that have developed a more profound understanding about their foundational spirituality and have spent time addressing important issues of community life. No longer defining the latter as a family, they have reaffirmed that life together is for the purpose of mission, centered around faith and spirituality and marked by the members’ genuine interest in one another, as well as a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Reclaiming Charisms

Our world and church today are facing challenges far more profound than the superficial problems often reported by the media…For example, the Catholic Church has during the last century witnessed the single greatest demographic shift in its 2,000-year history. At the outset of the 20th century, almost 70 percent of its members were found in Europe and North America; today more than two thirds of Roman Catholics live in the Southern Hemisphere. That number is projected to continue to grow during the years just ahead. The church in the Northern Hemisphere also once focused its attention on the young; today it is dealing with the fastest growing aging population in human history.

The growing influence of Islam worldwide, the rise of Pentecostalism, our failure as a church to effectively evangelize emerging generations of young Catholics, a set of social teachings that were formed for a world dominated by the Industrial Revolution and the transforming influence of information technology are other important developments that need to be considered as well

…charism is a free gift of the Spirit given for the good of the church and the use of all.  Pope Paul VI, who defined the charism of religious life as the fruit of the Holy Spirit, who is always at work within the church, identified these signs of its presence: bold initiatives, constancy in the giving of oneself, humility in bearing with adversities, fidelity to the Lord, a courageous response to the pressing needs of the day and willingness to be part of the church.

…Reclaiming charism means letting the Spirit lead…This approach translates into daring, even unexpected action, ministries that respond to today’s absolute human needs, centeredness in Jesus Christ and his Gospel.  (If) we are falling short in the work of renewal…our designs for the future are not daring enough; fear and routine cause us to bicker over accidentals rather than embrace what is essential…

To read the whole article, go to Religious Life Reimagined:  Looking for opportunity in a misunderstood vocation crisis