Wednesday 13 July 2011
My blog posts during these last four weeks have not included my typically occasional social, political, ecclesiastical or cultural commentary. That is not by accident. While I have remained true to my word to regularly post here, I do not have the same access to the news and other media that I ordinarily would. That is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that, at least in theory, such occlusive action would provide me with more freedom for prayer and reflection; and to a certain extent it has. The curse is that, at least in practice, I feel removed from both the “joys and hopes” as well as the “anxieties and grief” of the world. I’m not entirely sure of what is happening daily in the world.
As the number of days shrink until I return to the East Coast and once again return to my daily consumption of information and news, I’m sure I will have much to share and many things about which to reflect. Until then, I thank you for your continued reading, comments and prayerful support.
One of the things that we began to discuss today seems as relevant today as at any other time, a realization that is made without much knowledge of the most fleeting worldly news. As we reflect together on the composition of the world-wide Order of Friars Minor (OFMs), several trends supported by centuries of data raise questions for me.
It is well known that the numbers of “vocations” (in this case commonly used to describe the people entering religious life. A common definition, but one that so often leads to the general presumption that the term “vocation” can only refer to those who respond to a religious path of life) in the United States have not been as numerous as they had in previous decades during the twentieth century. Likewise, the Canadian and European provinces of the Friars – and quite likely among other religious communities in those national and geographic areas – have experience even starker declines in the entrance of young men into professed religious life.
While this phenomenon is much discussed in the “West,” one sees a boom in the number of young men in the developing world or the global south. Here one thinks particularly of Eastern nations such as India and Korea, but the trend is also reflected in some countries on the continent of Africa.
Similar trends, for various reasons, were once the case in the United States just as the number decreased rapidly in Europe. Immigrant populations, post-war social conditions and other reasons provided the nexus for religious-community growth in those years. But that stopped. Why?
I should say here that I believe firmly that the Holy Spirit has always, in every age, called a certain number of women and men to live a form of professed religious life. Some respond to that invitation, while others do not. We’ve also seen socio-economic and cultural reasons for artificial increases in such numbers for a short time until many of those who, I would argue, were never actually called to this way of life left their communities in what has been remembered as the mass exoduses of the 1960s and 70s.
The Holy Spirit continues to invite young women and men to live as members of professed religious communities. The problem is that it is increasingly more difficult to hear that invitation, let alone know how to respond in an age when professed religious are hardly seen in the public square and commitment to such a way of life is rarely supported within the wider culture.
Part of the problem is the amount of wealth in our society. The affluence and comfort that comes with the way we live in the “post-industrial world” masks our fragility, finitude and dependence. Like so many Europeans during the industrial age before us, we have found ourselves “not needing God anymore” from social standpoint.
On the other hand, in those places in our world where the luxuries that so many take for granted in this nation hardly register as a dream, there is only God who can provide the hope amid suffering, the release amid pain and the promise of life unlike the destitution experienced by so much of the global population. I can’t help but wonder whether this daily existential encounter with one’s own poverty helps explain the large numbers of those willing to respond to the Holy Spirit’s invitation in our time.
This raises certain challenges, the solutions to which I do not yet have. One major hurdle in trying to wrap my head around this sort of trend is why abject poverty is the seeming ground for bountiful religious life. I wonder if it isn’t really abjection that God desires in providing the condition for the possibility of women and men responding to the Holy Spirit’s invitation with an echo of Mary’s Fiat, but instead a reminder of everyone’s need to embrace evangelical poverty.
Living as Christ teaches us in the Gospel – without anything of our own – is what all are called to do by virtue of baptism. This evangelical poverty serves, as liberation theologians so keenly remind us, as both a protest against abjection and as fecund grounding for Christian growth. In distancing one’s self from the overly hyper materialistic and consumption-driven culture of our society, one begins to recognize the neo-Pelagianism that summarizes the popular spirit that says: “we no longer need God. We can do (buy) it ourselves!”
Sure, one doesn’t say so with as many words, she or he continues to say “in God we trust” and sings some cheery songs at Church each week. But it is not our words that mark us. Jesus warned that it would not simply be our saying “Lord, Lord” that will cut it. Our actions indeed speak, shout, proclaim so much more than our words. We act as if we no longer needed God. We can afford to do so.
I don’t know what the answer is or even how to make sense of what I’ve been reflecting on here. I certainly wish to avoid romanticizing material poverty, that indeed threatens human dignity. Yet, there is something to be said about the distance that evangelical poverty can provide for those who seek to follow God more perfectly. Perhaps only then might the next generation of women and men religious be able to hear the Spirit and respond to Her invitation.