Pope Francis has asked that 2015 be devoted to prayer and consideration of the consecrated life. It started on the first Sunday of Advent, 30 November, and will go through to February 2016.
With numbers in both male and female religious orders declining, we need to ask why this is happening and offer an alternative.
The norm for many years has been of entry to the novitiate in the late teens, early twenties, with a commitment made on final vows for life-long attachment, if the person is accepted by the community.
But life-long commitment is not an easy choice at a time of relative immaturity. Our societal pattern is now short-term in so many ways, whether it be where one works or where one lives. High material expectations add to the pressures on men and women making life decisions. Trying to re-create a dated pattern of vocation will not necessarily meet today’s needs.
In the foreword to the collection of essays A Monastic Vision for the Twenty-First Century, Br Patrick Hart OSCO, a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, writes:
“When I was younger in the monastic way I had dreams of a kind of monasticism in the Christian West that would be open to young men and women who, after completing their college work and before deciding on a life situation, would retire to a monastery for several years as part of their growth process, much like Hindu and Zen Buddhist monks of the Far East have done for centuries.”
This could be a consideration during the coming year. It was interesting to see reported (The Tablet, 12 November) the ecumenical community of 20- to 35-year-olds, single and married, planned for Lambeth Palace under the leadership of Revd Anders Litzell.
Communities built from a shorter-term commitment might offer younger people from fractured family backgrounds their first real sense of community living, with its inter-dependence and shared responsibility, a thread so often missing from their family experience. Our life in faith is nurtured in the patterns of our day-to-day living; one is not divisible from the other.
How can we build on Christian formation from the time of the Desert Fathers, to where we are now, where change is often both rapid and radical? The monastic vision of contemplative prayer, of a consecrated life, has to be connected in some way to the current experience of Christian faith.
And we must not forget to ask the fundamental question – why seek a monastic vocation at all? In looking only at structures we can easily forget what it is we are seeking, and how it is that we are being sought by God.
Our reason for considering the monastic choice, whether it is life-long or short-term, is to seek and experience the love of God. Only then can the pattern of life be determined.
Chris McDonnell is secretary of the Movement for Married Clergy UK