The Life-Giving Potential of Religious Life

Religious orders have always held a particularly important role in the history of the Church. Orders range in their charisms from one end of the spectrum to the other; whether it be caring for the poor, a mission for evangelization, theological prowess or any other valuable contribution you can imagine, religious communities have been helping the Church grow for over 1500 years. The peculiar thing about orders, however, is that these same charisms that enable them to be true representatives of Christ in the world also work as boundaries—in some sense—to help determine the functional capabilities of any given group. To appreciate a charism, one needs to appreciate both its positive and negative implications, and I think that is something worth taking a look at.

The first and most obvious point is that, once an order is officially founded (and with a particular purpose, as is generally the case), it immediately accepts a certain area of evangelical work as its own; in positive terms, it can and should venture as deeply as possible into this realm (of hospital ministry, grade-school education, mission work, etc.). If this happens, and the order delves deeply into its charism, its chances of fidelity and successful evangelization greatly increase. However, if its members forget what the true charism of the order was intended to encompass, problems begin to arise which can sometimes cause severe complications.

One need not look too far for examples of great religious orders, faithful to their mission and growing so fast they don’t know what to do with themselves (The Sisters of Life / Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist / Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration). For the most part, these orders are young—not only in their foundation but also in their membership, which says something important about this subject that cannot be overlooked: there is a passion for truth that is found in youthfulness that we cannot neglect to nurture. This obviously pertains to youthful people—those seeking the truth in their own lives—but also to the youthful spirit of a religious order. Unless an order actively seeks to retain its youthfulness, staleness and out-datedness will ensue and sure enough the order will falter. You needn’t look very far to find examples of this either.

So what happens when the negative does occur, when orders vacillate and lose their identity? It seems they have a choice to make, between a rebirth and renewal or an ultimate demise. As serious as it is, one of the two is inevitable; fortunately, either of the two can be just as good and holy as the other, in certain circumstances and with regard to the Lord’s will for the order. Certainly, rebirth hearkens to the baptismal imagery of entering anew the Paschal Mystery of Christ—recommitting oneself to the mission of evangelization through living, suffering and rising with Christ. On the other hand, realizing the limitation of human structures can also be a holy approach to religious life—not that an order could rightly cede its mission to the whims of the world, but rather to the will of God; death, too, is part of the Paschal Mystery, since it brings about new life if it occurs with submission to the will of the Father. In the end, either ‘solution’ is viable, and either can be good and holy. Both take extreme dedication and trust in the Lord.

To the outside observer (like you or me, most likely), it’s really difficult to determine what is right for a particular order. Without living the charism and praying in the community, we cannot rightly judge what the Lord’s will is for any religious community. With that in mind, what we ought to do when we see a situation that looks potentially perilous is simply pray for the community. No amount of bad-mouthing or speculative suggestions can possibly fix anything, nor can we assume it should. The recent election of the Jesuit superior general [right, with Pope Benedict XVI] comes to mind here; although the recent history of the Society has been plagued with much trouble, the best thing we can do is pray. In some way, this order manifests perfectly the whole idea of this post—an order at the crux of its existence, struggling between mission and identity. Let us pray for them and all religious orders at such a potentially holy and life-giving moment in the history of the Catholic Church.

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    # by Adrienne - January 28, 2008 at 3:10 PM

    You're pretty smart for a young fellow. I'm adding you to my blog roll.

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    # by Andrew Haines - January 28, 2008 at 7:31 PM

    Thanks for the add. I hope that you find our subject matter edifying in the future as well. Anything you could do to pitch our mission to your readers would be helpful--networking is key in Catholic blogging!


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    # by Fr Scott Bailey, C.Ss.R. - January 29, 2008 at 9:59 AM

    Andrew, this is the best essay I've read on the current situation of religious orders. Period. You have hit the proverbial nail on the head. Your insights on the subject are filled with wisdom.

    I am happy that I found a link to this post on the Roving Medievalist.

    Have you been to San Alfonso on the Via Merulana yet?

    May our Mother of Perpetual Help ever watch over you and guide you.

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    # by Andrew Haines - January 29, 2008 at 4:55 PM

    Father Bailey,

    I have not been to San Alfonso. I do know where the Via Merulana is (thanks to GoogleEarth). I will have to check it out when I am in the neighborhood.

    Your comment on this post is valuable, seeing how you belong to a religious order yourself. I wish I knew more members of religious communities. It seems that these orders really are where the life of the Church is preserved, particularly in terms of their distinct spiritualities, etc. What's more, it really seems that such orders are the ones who push the Church in directions it needs to go (even if sometimes she needs to reel them back in a little). If you think about it, there can be no real growth without a bit of growing pain, and I truly admire religious orders for being able to provide that growth. It's something often overlooked but integrally important to the sustained life of the Church.

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    # by Adrienne - January 29, 2008 at 9:05 PM

    Andrew - I left a comment on Ted's post but here's one just for you.

    Go see your advert -

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    # by Basil Seal - January 30, 2008 at 9:32 PM

    With that in mind, what we ought to do when we see a situation that looks potentially perilous is simply pray for the community.

    Isn't it the Carthusians who say 'Never reformed because never deformed'?

    I am especially indebted to four orders that have provided sanity and clarity for me in my hours of need: the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, and the Trappists.

    Thanks for the excellent post.