Sister Louise Hembrecht, community director of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity and assistant chairwoman of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious in the United States, shared that view and others with ZENIT on the state of religious life.
ZENIT approached her on the occasion of the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, observed this Monday.
Q: What is the overall trend in religious life in North America?
Sister Louise: I think it's difficult to pinpoint a trend in religious life in North America. If the question refers to the number of vocations, I think there is more than one trend in communities of women religious.
While many newly founded communities seem to be attracting significant numbers of young women, others are not growing as rapidly.
Some communities founded in the 19th or early 20th centuries, or whose historical ties go further back than that, have not had a young person join in quite a few years. Others have had and continue to have many new vocations. Still other communities, like my own, have only one or two come each year. In many cases, it is not easy to point out the reasons for the variations.
If the question refers to religious life in general in North America without getting involved in number counting, I'm not sure that the trend is any different than any other time in the history of the Church or any other place.
The trend among religious is to continue to enter into an ever-deeper relationship with the Lord through a life of vowed commitment expressed in prayer, community life and a missionary spirit of service. The way this is lived out may be a little different than in the past and differs among congregations, but the essential desire, I think, is to live the Gospel in a radical way.
Q: What attracts people most to religious life today?
Sister Louise: I think people are attracted to religious life by Jesus and the Gospel. They want to join and live in community with others who are passionately in love with the Lord and dedicated to living Gospel values and bringing that Gospel to others.
Q: Some religious orders have experienced a significant decline in recent decades. What do you see as key factors that can play a role in the renaissance of religious life?
Sister Louise: There are many factors that have contributed to the decline in religious orders -- changes in values within the larger society, the breakdown of the family, confusion within religious orders, breakdown of identity, etc. The list goes on.
Some of the decline in religious life might also be attributed to positive factors. The renewed awareness of the universal call to holiness and the recognition of the role of the laity may be factors. Many of those who left religious life continue to serve the Church as dedicated laywomen.
It may well have been that the initial call had been to service within the Church but not necessarily to religious life. It may have seemed that religious life was the only way to serve the Church at the time. Obviously, religious life is about service, but it is more than that.
I believe that a renaissance of religious life depends somewhat on whether or not religious life is seen as valued. Over and over again, the Church proclaims its esteem for religious life, but young people discerning a vocation to religious life have to experience that esteem in the encouragement of family and friends.
It is obviously essential that we as religious give witness that we value and treasure the gift of our vocation. Contemplating the face of Christ, we need to continue to embrace all that he embraces -- the cross, the poor, the joys and sufferings of everyday life. We need to live our vowed commitment fully and with evident joy. We need to give witness to the life of the Trinity.
The postsynodal apostolic exhortation "Vita Consecrata" of our Pope John Paul II states it this way: "To the extent that consecrated persons life a life completely devoted to the Father, held fast by Christ and animated by the Holy Spirit, they cooperate effectively in the mission of Jesus and contribute in a particularly profound way to the renewal of the world."
I think that sometimes we take the gift of our vocation for granted. We don't speak about it enough or share the wonder of its mystery. We don't let others know and see in us that we daily experience the love and goodness of a most gracious and generous God. We need to proclaim that we live lives of generous service.
We as religious need to embrace fully the sacrifices called for by profession of the evangelical counsels and boldly proclaim that doing so is a great joy because our hearts are caught up in a tremendous love relationship with our God.
Q: How have religious successfully applied the counsels of the Second Vatican Council? Any examples?
Sister Louise: First, it is necessary to acknowledge that there were difficulties applying the counsels of the Second Vatican Council. The council called for both renewal and adaptation. Renewal takes time; conversion is constant. Outward changes, adaptations, are easier to measure.
We can pat ourselves on the back on the progress of our adaptations, but it is not so easy to do so in terms of renewal. We like to start a project and finish it -- that's not possible when our focus is on renewal. This tension was and is problematic. There was a rush to adapt. Different religious congregations made different decisions.
There is a section in [the Vatican II decree] "Perfectae Caritatis" that we, as religious, sometimes overlooked: " The purpose of the religious life is to help the members follow Christ and be united to God through the profession of the evangelical counsels. It should be constantly kept in mind, therefore, that even the best adjustments made in accordance with the needs of our age will be ineffectual unless they are animated by a renewal of spirit. This must take precedence over even the active ministry."
That being said, there are many ways that religious have successfully applied the counsels of the Second Vatican Council. The first principle of renewal of "Perfectae Caritatis" states: "Since the ultimate norm of the religious life is the following of Christ set forth in the Gospels, let this be held by all institutes as the highest rule."
The council asked for a suitable renewal of constitutions, directories, custom books, etc., and communities responded. Where constitutions had been primarily normative, these norms have been put in a spiritual context. We are all aware that it is not obeying detailed rules, though there are rules and directives to be obeyed, but that it is the Gospel that is the basis of our life and gives us life.
This call to return to the source of all Christian life was followed by a call to return to the original inspiration behind a given community. "Perfectae Caritatis" also states: "It redounds to the good of the Church that institutes have their own particular characteristics and work. Therefore let their founders' spirit and special aims they set before them as well as their sound traditions -- all of which make up the patrimony of each institute -- be faithfully held in honor."
I can't speak for all communities, but I know that within the Franciscan tradition this has meant a deepening of our understanding of the charism of Francis and Clare of Assisi and a renewed dedication to living out that charism in the present.
Q: Many of the religious orders that are in decline are in Europe and North America, while those that are flourishing are in Asia or Latin America. Will this geographical shift affect the way religious life is lived in the Church?
Sister Louise: Religious orders are flourishing in Asia, Latin America and also in Africa. I believe that the decline in Europe and North America is temporary.
Will the geographic shift affect the way religious life is lived in the Church? Perhaps in the accidentals, but not in the essentials. We all seek to contemplate the face of Christ and are caught up in lives of prayer, community life and a missionary spirit of service.
Q: What are the prospects worldwide for religious life?
Sister Louise: I think the prospects for religious life worldwide are tremendous.
"Starting Afresh from Christ," the 2002 document from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, puts it this way: "The call to follow Christ with a special consecration is a gift of the Trinity for God's chosen people. Recognizing in baptism the common sacramental origin, consecrated men and women share a common vocation to holiness and to the apostolate with other members of the faithful. By being signs of this universal vocation they manifest the specific mission of consecrated life.
"Consecrated women and men have received a call to a 'new and special consecration,' for the good of the Church, which impels them to live a life in imitation of Christ, the Virgin, and the apostles with impassioned love. In our world this lifestyle stresses the urgency of a prophetic witness which entails 'the affirmation of the primacy of God and of eternal life,' as evidenced in the following and imitation of the chaste, poor and obedient Christ, who was completely consecrated to the glory of God and the love of his brethren."
There is certainly cause for celebration of and within religious life.