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.

Photo: Stock

3 Comments

  1. No. This seems to gloss over what was the real reason for many leaving.

    ”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.”

    Rather than express my opinion, I give you a post I recieved just today that expresses a current reaction, and fits the reaction you refer to above:

    ”George,

    Thanks for sending this to me. What is happening in Australia that is so different, from everywhere else in world, that this letter needed to be written? In fact, many of the issues raised have happened and are continuing to happen right now right here in New Jersey.

    The bottom line, the way I see it, is that nothing will happen in response to this letter because the Church does not acknowledge the legitimacy of such complaints and does not, therefore, see the need to change the way it conducts business. And, don’t forget, this organized religion thing is a BIG business that is very lucrative. The ”universal good” only applies to and is representative of a small, select group of Catholics, not one of whom many of us have ever met. The Church does not care that people feel disenfranchised and uninspired, and are leaving in droves. In fact, gosh darn it, if the early indoctrination/regimentation had worked, none of us would be complaining now; the Church miscalculated and put too much trust in blind obedience and lording the fear of damnation and excommunication over us. It is next to impossible for anyone in the Church to move many of us through guilt about anything anymore. This is so liberating!!!!

    I know I’m preaching to the choir on this response. Thanks for taking the time. Have a blessed day!”

    My Catholic High School class had three become priests and 17 become sisters. One of the priests taught me theology at Siena. All three priests and 15 of the sisters “came out” because of the oppressive system they found, the system that is described above. A Church like that is in deep trouble, and it will get deeper unless it changes into the Vatican II Church it was supposed to change into. Incidentally, the post was replying to the Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Bishops of Australia,

    [The Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Bishops of Australia Petition to Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Bishops of Australia was created by Catholics for Renewal and written by Peter J Johnstone (pj_johnstone@hotmail.com). ]
    http://www.petitiononline.com/adlim11/petition.html

  2. Dan,
    I try to read your blog every day and am successful most of the time. In the past I have posted comments in response to some of the things you wrote. Most of my comments have been positive and supportive.

    However after reading today’s offering I thought I would sent this to your personal email. I am not sure if I read or understood your comments as you intended them. In particular this paragraph – “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 neveractually called to this way of life left their communities in what has been remembered as the mass exoduses of the 1960s and 70s”

    I was one of those called to the religious life as a member of Holy Name Province and eventually called to the priesthood. I knew and know many of those members of HNP who left the community in what was the “mass exoduses of the 1960’s and ’70’s. My question at the time which has not been answered yet is whether we left the community or did the community leave us. I strongly disagree with your statement that “we were never actually called to this way of life.” I believe we were called and served as true followers of St. Francis. The fact of the matter is that, in my opinion, some of us were only called for a time. Each one of us had our own reasons how and why we took up a life outside the province. I know and keep in contact with many of the friars around my time carried out the work and spirit of St. Francis after our formal time in HNP. I worked with the staff and inmates of prisons and jails nationally. Others worked with the sick, poor, alcoholics, counseling, teaching and other work that St. Francis would do. All of the staff I worked with knew I was a priest and a Franciscan. Many came to me for advice and counseling. My other brothers did the same work. To say that we were never called and did not remain doing the work of St. Francis is, in my opinion, to not know or understand those of the mass exoduses of the 1960s and ’70s.
    I would appreciate it if you would think about my objection and respond when you get a chance.

    I am currently in NY with my wife, two children and three grandchildren and a son in law. We live in VA and would welcome you into our home to break bread and discuss today’s blog or any other issues.
    Pax et Bonum,
    Bill Taylor

  3. In response to George, Bill and others who have contacted me privately about this post, I wish to copy my response to an email earlier today on this subject:

    “Always a pleasure to get some feedback. I believe you raise some very good points and that there is a combination of a misreading of my intentions and my own lack of clarity in this particular post. For my part, I apologize. As someone well aware of the manifold reasons for women and men departing traditional forms of professed religious life in recent decades, it was careless of me to be to vague in my comments. I am all-too-aware of the call that many men and women feel to both ministry and married life as well as the call that many women I know tell me they experience to ministry in the church. My comments were not intended to neglect or dismiss those experiences. Instead, the audience that this line you’ve highlighted is directed at is to a certain population that laments the change in numbers, an artificial obsession that distracts from engaging in the real questions — many of which you raise in your response — and stymies productive re-imaging of religious life. The comment you’ve highlighted below comes largely from Sandra Schneiders’s two-volume work on women’s religious communities (the Holy Spirit’s calling a smaller number than the masses of the 1950s and 60s in the United States). I think your points are well raised and I would encourage you to post them publicly, there is at least one other who has already responded similarly on the blog — I’d love to see this conversation continue with a wider audience.

    As to one remark you made in your email, that I would espouse any position that reflects this line of yours: “did not remain doing the work of St. Francis” is to not understand me. I’ve not said anything near that. I believe that the genus “Franciscan” is made manifest in a multitude of species. Never would I make a claim that you, any former friar or sister, or anybody who was never in a religious community per se would not remain in the work of St. Francis. Quite the contrary. I have said time and again the exact opposite.

    I understand the sensitive nature of this post and its subsequent responses. Just to again reiterate where I was coming from in making any remarks at all: this has to do with those who remain within provincial ministries of the Order around the world and noting the numerical trends that have become the obsession of so many in the church. I wished only to note a factor that is rarely discussed — that is the cultural role of affluence in the decision to enter or not enter religious life, or to participate or not participate in a faith community.”

    — Peace and good.

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