10 July 2015, The Tablet

How can Religious life continue?

by Sr Maura O'Carroll

The Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux and the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy are pulling out of running nursing homes, the Jesuits are closing Heythrop College and the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul are looking for a lay director to lead some of their activities. Sr Maura O'Carroll asks, what is going on?

There are many challenges facing Religious life today, forcing some orders to take difficult decisions. How do we understand what is going on? Is it simply that religious life is on the wane because of a lack of vocations? What is behind this realigning of priorities? What is the best way for an order to preserve its charism?

In no way can I give answers, except two: firstly, the economic pressures on religious orders have never been harsher, with the resources diminishing. And secondly, the best way for an order to preserve its charism is to use it. But we have to search for ways appropriate for today, and these need prayer and discernment.

Heythrop Ageing is one of the biggest realities facing religious communities. This brings its own changes, pleasant or otherwise, and can lead to significant modifications of ministry, especially if ministries are based on numbers that were available 70 years ago.

Meanwhile the opportunities for women in theology and related areas have expanded massively. Women do not have to be in an order to live the apostolic life: many women by their commitment to parish in catechetics, in pastoral care and through ongoing education are making real the mission of the Gospel.

Economic pressures on orders are not only massive but constraining. Communities’ cost of living has risen with the need to pay for 24/7 care their older members.

The Jesuits’ Heythrop College is an example of an apostolic venture an order has been sustaining for centuries, but that order has many responsibilities other than the college, including supporting the Church in the developing world. Changes in law, in employment control, in salaries, in the deliberate lack of public funding mean that the order cannot continue its financial generosity. (Theology is not regarded by certain elements in UK higher education as relevant and worth prioritising.)

The very public sample above of religious orders having to make harsh choices could be multiplied. It also begs a question. If the Church in England and Wales still wants some of the ministries religious orders have provided, then a corporate enquiry and response is needed. It is a question similar to the question of the ordination of married men.

In UK the need for vocations requires us not to look for a replication of the past but to be open to a different future. Christ promised the Church, his mystical body, survival to the end of time, but its “institutions” for example the Roman Curia and some of its “organisations”, such as religious orders, do not have the same assurance.

The religious orders that are most necessary to the wellbeing of the Church are the contemplative ones. The apostolic orders are bound to change because of the redirection given to the Church by Vatican II. Ministry is not confined to special groups; all baptised members of the Church are called to it. The growth of lay involvement in recent years has been great, though not always accepted as valid by a certain out-of-date clericalism that is a hangover from earlier times.

Nevertheless the growth is there, and the new ministries of Christian service exemplified by some young people are a work of the Holy Spirit. Francis, our first pope from outside Europe for many centuries, is calling us back to the Gospel – not to Canon Law – and how life-giving that call is.

Do we have the courage to hear, listen and follow?

Sr Maura O'Carroll SND is a former lecturer at Heythrop College (pictured above). Her views do not necessarily reflect those of her order

What do you think?


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User comments (12)

Comment by: Bob Hayes
Posted: 29/07/2015 19:56:50

Come on Jim McCrea, we know our Savour instructed us to love our enemies. I cannot recollect that Christ told us to ridicule them.

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 21/07/2015 23:39:59

Mike: you sound like your namesake in San Francisco:

Salvatore Cordileone.

btw ... that's NOT a compliment!

Comment by: kathryn sperrazzo
Posted: 20/07/2015 14:41:13

you may think the church behind the times, but the church promulgates eternal values; the current state of the position of women is deplorable - they are not serving as wives, companions, true mothers or true women; the tims has come to repudiate feminism, and rebuild family life.

Comment by: AlanWhelan
Posted: 16/07/2015 10:08:11

I believe that the Spirit works in respect of the foundation of religious communities/families, each with their distinctive charisms. I equally believe that when a religious society or congregation dies that too can be the Spirit at work. Thankfully religious life continues to flourish in other parts of the world.

Meanwhile, I repeat again that is no such reality as a UK Catholic Church. There are national churches in Ireland, Scotland and England and Wales, each with its own special charism.

Comment by: mikethelionheart
Posted: 15/07/2015 19:51:55

Sorry Cleophas, I didn't realise I'd have to use such simple and basic terms to get a point across.
There is a difference between 'declining' and 'in decline'.
Have the Benedictines, Franciscans, Carmelites and Dominicans dropped the habit?
Actually, some of them have.
I presume you realise that those orders are not all monolithic but are made up of many different orders within orders.
And guess what; it's the 'trendy' ones that are in decline.

Comment by: cleophas
Posted: 15/07/2015 17:49:33

I am not sure where mikethelionheart gets his statistics. It is not a church I recognise. Traditional orders - Benedictines, Francisans, Carmelites, Dominicans, most Missionary orders? All in decline. Or perhaps he calls these dreadful ’trendy’ groups too.

Comment by: mikethelionheart
Posted: 14/07/2015 20:42:28

The SND are one of the dreadful 'trendy' groups who dropped the habit.
These orders are virtually all declining at an incredible rate.
They became so diluted and watered down they are as bland as the rest of the trendy lot.
The traditional orders are booming.
The future is healthy.

Comment by: Martin
Posted: 14/07/2015 15:52:19

I think this diagnosis is wrong in some respects, actually.

It may be that now there is less scope for orders which carry out works such as nursing as, after all, women can be nurses without needing to be nuns these days.

However, strong contemplative orders do still have a role and are attracting vocations - there is a successful recent foundation of a house of Dominican sisters in the New Forest, for instance, or the Tyburn convents which are thriving, and both strongly contemplative and more pastoral male houses such as the Premonstratensians in Chelmsford and the Oratories in Birmingham and Oxford have plentiful vocations. The traditionalist institutes appear to be flourishing on the continent, especially in France.

More traditional religious life, whether contemplative or pastoral, is not going to disappear. This is a good thing, as these vocations are vital to the Church (it is essential that there are communities of a permanent cycle of prayer and the more pastoral institutes plug the vocations gap when it comes to the lack of secular priests such as is now happening in the north of England with the ICKSP).

Those institutes that are having problems are perhaps doing so because they do not offer a clear identity to potential entrants. If they wish to survive, they should think about this. Some are no longer viable, but some can still save themselves.

Comment by: Paul
Posted: 14/07/2015 09:14:01

I am surprised by the comment by 'Bluepoles' that 'The contemplative orders aren't necessary for the wellbeing of the Church'. Surely their contemplative and intercessory prayer enriches us all. I for one have cause to be profoundly grateful to two communities of contemplative monks which I visited, as encountering their quiet witness set me on the path to joining the Catholic Church. And as for such orders being insulated from what Bluepoles calls 'real life', I would suggest that, on the contrary, their attentiveness to God helps us all to see more clearly what 'real life' might be like.

Comment by: Bluepoles
Posted: 12/07/2015 01:58:51

The questions are good. Some of the answers are really, really wrong. The contempletative orders aren't necessary for the wellbeing of the Church. They may be essential for those who choose to live like this but the Church is rooted in family life and not in celibates who are protected from reality, by the wealth and property they have accumulated from the community, and their isolation from real life since they were recruited, in most cases, as children.
Families have no where to go to ask for money as these orders do, and have done so, especially in hospitals and nursing homes, where there are many stories of religious managing to wrangle the assets from the dying which should have gone to familiy members.
Families have always been dealing with those damaged by wars, the elderly, the disabled, the mentally ill, those escaping domestic violence, and the many other life challenge that come. Only recently have the religious found out about the issues that ageing and a drying up of access to funds can bring. However there seems to be no shortage of them at the Papal events in Rome, World Youth Day and the many, many events that most families can't even dream of attending. And as for holidays! Well there is a whole can of worms with the religious orders owning prime holiday places for their own exclusive use and these are never available to families, especially the poor, who are in every parish. Just ask your local SVdP
Places like Heythorp should close as it's out of touch.

Comment by: MargaretMC
Posted: 11/07/2015 11:42:56

My daughters' generation is almost lost. If my grandchildren's generation is not to be completely lost, Pope Francis needs to get his skates on. Saying the same old things in less harsh ways, two steps forward, one and seven eighths steps back, doesn't really cut it. Jesus met people where they were. The Catholic Church is currently centuries behind.

Sell the convents and give the money to secular organisations where so many Christians are doing so much good.

Part 2

Comment by: MargaretMC
Posted: 11/07/2015 11:41:28

"The growth of lay involvement in recent years has been great, though not always accepted as valid by a certain out-of-date clericalism that is a hangover from earlier times."

Those to whom the first third of that sentence relates are to be admired for their doggedness. For the majority, the remainder of the sentence says it all.

Forty-five years ago, as I entered adulthood, I was drawn to neither teaching nor nursing and I wasn't blessed with domestic gifts, pretty much all that was acceptable (I won't say valued) by “the Church” at that time. So all of my contributing to the well-being of society has been and continues to be in the secular sphere where my skills and I are not only welcomed but valued.

For the next generation, well-educated women like my daughters, “the Church” is simply an anachronism. My daughters were in fact quite enthusiastic about the Church as they experienced it within their schools that were run by progressive, outward looking nuns. But the “Sunday church” that they met, the one weighed down by the heavy hand of a backwards looking hierarchy, had nothing to offer them and, nothing having changed since my school-leaving days (Vatican II basically gathering dust), they had nothing to offer that “the Church” valued. They didn't see themselves barefoot and pregnant, not venturing outside the home, being “admired” for raising a family. Nor does being told how disordered she is, in the case of my gay daughter, go over well.

Part 1

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