Religious Life and its evolution since Vatican II: the response of Religious to Vatican II and the trends that have taken place within Religious Life over the past 40 years.

In 1985 the Church celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Vatican II with an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops. Their Final Report recalled the benefits seen by the Bishops to have arisen from this event. At the same time, they acknowledged that acceptance of the Council had met difficulties. “However”, they said, “in no way can it be stated that everything that has occurred since the council has occurred because of the council” (Par A3). This paper will reflect on what has occurred because of the Council and because of what has happened before and after the Council.

If going to seminars and lectures is any indication of the acceptance of Vatican II, Religious of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s were certainly there! Hardly had documents been issued than they were devoured and discussed in community groups and workshops. From the pulpit I once heard a priest tell his parishioners a story of two Catholics arriving in heaven but seeing no Religious there. “Where are they?” they asked. “Oh!” said St Peter, “they’re at a seminar!”

The world of Religious, especially women Religious, was ripe for Vatican II. In the early 1950’s, Pope Pius XII had instructed Religious to adjust their way of life and the structures that sustained it to current requirements of healthy, human living. This instruction coincided with the requirement for Religious in Australia to update their educational qualifications in order to deal with the educational and social developments taking place in the country. New methods in catechetical instruction were also being promulgated, requiring theological studies. So by the time of the proclamation of Vatican II, Religious had already been in a process of change and renewal in response to the needs of the time.

Many Religious in Australia had come from families of high co-dependency – poverty, secret abuse and/or alcoholism, for example. The society to which they belonged had been extremely conformist – a typical reaction to the disturbances of two World Wars. Moreover, while the object of pre-war Australia’s discrimination had been Catholicism, that discrimination was now being deflected to new migrants, and thus the siege mentality of Catholics was dying down. The walls that had formerly kept Religious “safe”, but also co-dependent and conformist, were crumbling (or, to use John XXIII’s phrase, the windows of the Church were being opened).

Whether Pius XII or Vatican II had happened or not, I suggest that this process would still have taken place, albeit it in a different context. The Church as an institution, as an organisation, owes its existence to the presence of the Spirit. The phenomenon of Religious Life is also a response to the Spirit. Primarily, it is a way of life – just as marriage is a way of life. In this it differs from business corporations, or clubs, or other institutions. Nevertheless, because it is made up of human beings, individual expressions of this way of life in particular Religious Congregations still experience the normal developmental stages of any human organisation. In particular, the way it organises its life will change according to the environment in which it finds itself.

One example suffices. Over the years, from the times of the Roman Virgins and the desert mothers and fathers to now, the expression of consecrated commitment to this way of life, signifying for the Church as it does a stark reminder of its mission, has changed according to the needs of the times. This has meant that the majority of what we now call “Monastic Orders” and “Apostolic Institutes” have gone through the cycle of enthusiastic beginnings, phenomenal growth, decline and extinction. A few, though, have survived through the centuries – some in altered forms (like the Dominican Sisters), others experiencing a rebirth after having diminished and continued on with just a few members.

Most apostolic institutes operating in Australia today locate their beginnings to the period of religious and social upheaval in 18th and 19th century Europe. The stage of phenomenal growth within their life cycle coincided with the spawning of institutions that characterised the world of that time. The Industrial Revolution established systems of financial and social institutions on a scale never seen before. The environment of the Religious of these times was one in which Schools, hospitals, Mental Asylums, orphanages, Homes for the Aged, Poor Houses, Reformatories, Refuges for Pregnant Women, Prisons (to name but a few) were seen as the answer to all of society’s needs. Being children of their time, Religious responded to the call to portray the face of Christ to Church and world through the setting up of institutions – a language understood by their society. Indeed, the life of Religious themselves was organised as institution – often cited in textbooks of sociology as being, along with prisons and mental asylums, the example of “pure institution”. As a system, institutions lend themselves to “institutionalism”.

The hierarchical structure of institutionalism reflects that of the well-run machine – an easy flow of authority from top to bottom with responsibilities allocated to particular areas having little or no relationship to others – like workers on an assembly line putting parts into cars but never seeing the final product. As for the products of institutionalism, they are kept anonymous – all dressed alike, often neutralised with assigned names or numbers, keeping the same timetable, obeying the same rules according to the given line of command and having the same solutions applied to their needs no matter who the subject.

What happens, then, when a mistrust of institutions emerges – when institutions are proved to be harmful to the very people they claim to protect – when the world they represent is experienced as one of insecurity, failed dreams and social chaos? The first rays of post-modern disillusionment were just dawning on the world when Pope John XXIII called for Vatican II. That meant that the age of diminishment was already beginning for Religious Life as institution, even though the full effects of this diminishment would not hit Australia for another eight or so years.

Vatican II produced two documents directly concerned with Religious Life: “The Decree on the Up-to-date Renewal of Religious Life” (Perfectae Caritatis, 1965), and “Norms for Implementing the Decree on the Up-to-date Renewal of Religious Life” (Ecclesiae Sanctae, 1966), and five post-Vatican II documents, “Instruction on the Renewal of Religious Life” (1969)”Instruction on the Contemplative Life and the Enclosure of Nuns” (1969), “Decree on Confession for Religious” (1970), “Declaration of Coeducation in Schools Run by Religious” (1971) and the important “Apostolic Exhortation on the Renewal of Religious Life” (1971).

The over-riding message in these documents was for Religious to understand themselves within the context of Church mission as followers and proclaimers of the Gospel. Their renewal was to be based on “both a constant return to the sources of the whole of the Christian life (the Gospel) – and to the primitive inspiration of the institutes and their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time” (PC 1). While it was emphasised that adaptation must be “animated” by spiritual renewal, it had to be informed by the learnings of human sciences (physiological, psychological) (i.e. development) and “in harmony with the needs of the apostolate”, the “requirements of culture” and “social and economic circumstances” (PC 2) (i.e.environmental shifts). “The mode of government of the institutes should also be examined according to the same criteria” (PC 3) (i.e. location of power).

While, as I have said, Religious entered enthusiastically into the process of renewal called for by Vatican II, this was done in an environment of gathering disarray. With the realisation that Church mission is a mandate of all the baptised and not just priests and Religious, the discovery for some was that their call was to the apostolate, not Religious Life. For a whole host of reasons connected with other aspects of change and in the context of general ferment characteristic of the time, these years witnessed what might be called an “exodus” from the ranks of Religious.

However, the works of organisational change theorists support the direction set out for Religious by Vatican II as being the only way to choose life within Religious Congregations and to allow it to evolve into whatever shapes might best address present and future need. This process, applied to Religious Life, can be summarised under four headings:

1. Attending to the organisation’s central purpose.

The primary purpose of Religious Life, as of the whole Church, is to enable and signify communion with God; to be “a sacrament for the salvation of the world” (Final Report 1985, Par D1). Involved in attending to this purpose, then, is one’s relationship to God and an understanding of the identity and mission of Religious Life.

contemplative relationship to God – Joan Chittester says that “Contemplation is at the core of contemporary religious life… Contemporary religious are called to the contemplation of God in this time as few generations before them have been” (The Fire in These Ashes, 1995:175). But since relationship with God is integrally connected to personal development, and given the background from which many Religious came (referred to above), the process of renewal since Vatican II has needed to address both a growth in self-understanding and an integrated spirituality based on informed understanding of Scripture, liturgy and theology.

clarification of identity – With Vatican II came the clear statement that in baptism we all receive the “vocation” to mission and holiness. While welcomed – indeed, most had grown up with the understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ, thereby involving all in some way in its mission – it did mean now there arose a lack of ‘role clarity’ for Religious which affected their sense of identity, so crucial for personal and corporate well-being. Religious were no longer regarded as the “work-force” for the Church. They rejected being “cheap labour” so that the mission of the Church could operate. Many committed themselves to educating the laity so that they could take their “rightful place” in the Church. Religious drew back from positions of leadership in order to promote lay people. At the same time, the reduction in numbers of Religious meant that there were fewer among their ranks to be assigned to these positions anyway. There was confusion among some when former members seemed to easily fit into the vacuum as lay people, sometimes appearing to fulfil their role more freely and efficiently than they would have if they had remained in the Congregation.

As in all movements of change, the position taken by some Religious in the years following Vatican II did alienate them from Church bureaucracy. Some saw their withdrawal from Church mainstream as rejection of the Church itself. However, being Religious without the context of the Church does not make sense. While some Religious struggle with the burden of being identified with institutionalist trappings, their identity is tied up with being Church.

Sandra Schneiders says forcefully that clarification of identity for Religious is important because, “first, living with integrity and persevering commitment, to say nothing of joy and enthusiasm, depends upon a sense of the meaning and significance of one’s life commitment. And second, healthy relationships of Religious within and beyond the Church depend in significant ways on a deeply appropriated and non-defensive identity of Religious within and among themselves.” (Finding the Treasure, x, xxv-vi). Vatican II has forced Religious to clarify their identity in a changed and changing world. Forty years have passed and we might say this process has barely begun. For the Church and world at large, the stereotype of the pre-Vatican II Religious is alive and well.

renewal of the vision – for Religious, this has meant re-examining and reclaiming the charism of the foundress/founder. Mission and ministry receive meaning when there is corporate ownership of a clear vision.

The years since Vatican II have seen a profusion of biographies and histories recording the beginnings of Religious Congregations. Vatican II had insisted, “the spirit and aims of each founder should be faithfully accepted and retained, as indeed should each institute’s sound traditions, for all of these constitute the patrimony of an institute” (PC3). A vital question for Religious has been, “Given what we understand was the response of our founders and the spirit out of which they operated, what would their response have been today?” The thing is, these founders are not alive today – but if their spirit lives on, current members have the responsibility to “re-found” the direction of the Congregation according to the vision (or charism) they have inherited.

One result of this awareness is the fact that, in handing over to lay leadership the management of institutions formerly administered by them, Religious are consciously instructing all lay people involved in the traditions and history of the Congregation. The spirituality that inspired the vision is seen to be as important as the work that expressed it. As they attend to this aspect of their mission, Religious are learning that their particular Religious Congregation does not exhaust the expression of a charism; it exists, as David Ranson says, unacknowledged perhaps in the hearts and lives of many people who are not members of a Religious Order. It is the task of Religious humbly to “foster their charism beyond their own structures in creative and constructive ways so that the ecclesial community is alive with the fullness of the Spirit” (Compass Theology Review, 1995:15).


2. Renewing the Essentials in Religious Life.

a) Community Life: Because Religious Life is a microcosm of the Church and reflects what the Church is, some expression of forming community is integral to it.

It is to be noted that living in common is not the same thing as living in community, which are about various things their communities do to improve communication and create warm, human places where people relate and share faith. The institutional way of life did lend itself to “living in common”. However, according to the “signs of the times”, the institutional way of life bears messages at cross-purposes with what Religious aim to give. Within smaller groups, one is forced to live in relationship with others. But relationships take energy, especially when there is little holding you together.

The development of faith communities demands the sharing of vision and goals and an ability to deal with the nitty-gritty of daily abrasions that can wear down ideals that motivate us. Many Religious Congregations have invested much into providing for their members whatever courses and counseling are necessary for individual members to live healthy community life.

Essentially, in the process of opening community life beyond the institutional model, Religious have steered a path from the childlike dependence so often portrayed as a reflection of the attitude of Jesus to God and the virtue of humility to one of interdependence, where the adult exchange of gifts towards the common goal reflects the self-giving of the Trinity in a loving dance of communion.

Sandra Schneiders says it this way: “Religious life is no longer a quasi-primary patriarchal family organised according to the pattern of a divine-right monarchy. Its forms will be less totalitarian, hierarchical, and control-motivated and ever more egalitarian, participative and responsibly free.” (New Wineskins, Re-imagining Religious Life Today 1986, pg 265.)

Some Congregations go further. Sheila Carney talks about an expectation that in the near future “religious communities will be characterised by inclusivity and intentionality. These communities may include persons of different ages, genders, cultures, races, and sexual orientation. They may include persons who are lay or cleric, married or single, as well as vowed and/or unvowed members. They will have a core group and persons with temporary and permanent commitments. These communities will be ecumenical, possibly interfaith; faith sharing will be constitutive of the quality of life in this context of expanded membership. Such inclusivity will necessitate a new understanding of membership and a language to accompany it. Religious life will still include religious congregations of permanently vowed members (The Mast Journal, 1992:3-4).

b) Being prophetic. This aspect of Religious Life, implying that they give public witness to the rest of the Church as to its nature and mission, and to the world as to the destiny of creation, is one clear purpose that has emerged for Religious since Vatican II. MSC priest, Kevin Barr, has this to say: “As religious we are called not simply to do good work or to be the workforce of the Church or to be its civil service. We are called to live the radical message of the gospel in a prophetic way. We are called to witness to society and to our times that there is a way of life that is countercultural, a way of life which can transform the world through the power of the gospel “ (Fire on Earth, 1995:50).

(The question of witness is often reduced to being identifiable through the wearing of distinctive dress. I find it rather ironic that Religious in medieval Europe adopted the dress worn by the poor – peasants and widows –so that Religious could identify themselves with the poor – not so that others could identify them! They were indistinguishable from the poor. I do not see farm labourers and widows going around these days wearing Franciscan browns or wimples and veils!)

The prophetic aspect of Religious Life is typically represented in the three vows made by many Religious. What might be summarised as the journey in understanding of the vows since Vatican II has been described by Berneice Loch RSM. The vow of Chastity, she says, portrayed as “non-involvement in sexual activity as if the activity itself is somehow to be avoided, has little to say to the needs or aspiration of contemporary Australians. However, the focus of the vow is primarily relationships, and this is a central issue.” (“Restructuring Mercy Religious Life”, 1998). From the portrayal of physical virginity as “abstinence from genital activity, loving God alone” we have come to an understanding of the vow to being one of “right relationships with all of creation and with the Creator”. From total dependency, not having and not using material goods, we now understand poverty as “using only what we need with gratitude, being happy in simplicity and generous interdependence”. The “superior/subject relationship, decision-taking by the few” of a childish obedience has given way to an attitude of listening with prayerfulness, personal responsibility and sharing of wisdom.

The documents since Vatican II reflect the expanding prophetic dimension of Religious Life. In Vita Consecrata Religious are urged to “promote justice in the society where they live”, since working for justice belongs to their very character. They are seen to be agents of ecumenism: “There is an urgent need for consecrated person to give more space in their lives to ecumenical prayer and genuine evangelical witness, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit the walls of division and prejudice between Christians can be broken down” (par 100).

3. Promoting Mission in the Preferred Scenario.

A common finding of Religious since Vatican II is the overwhelming evidence that their roots lie in service of the poor. The years of stability had meant that some Congregations had become identified with the rich – or at least with the upwardly mobile in society. If they were to reclaim their true identity, they had to transfer the scenario of their mission to where it spoke most clearly.

Carney suggests that Religious must “Invest their resources in direct service with, and advocacy for, structural change on behalf of the poor and marginalised. They must minister where others will not go; listening to and learning from the poor and marginalised, will shape all aspects of their lives. This will lead them to a simpler life-style that includes reverence for the earth and a spirituality that will free them to be more authentic witnesses by letting go of non-essentials, by being content with what is enough, and by sharing their resources with the poor” (p 2).

This is a challenge that is being taken seriously by Religious. Preference for areas that cannot produce a stipend means that Congregations frequently donate the services of Religious to minister in outlying suburbs and remote communities. Aging membership does not prevent innovation – some Congregations, for example, have set up “No Interest Loan Schemes” for small borrowers who would have no chance of being able to negotiate with banks.

The integration of spirituality with life has been a special focus for Religious since Vatican II. Breaking down a dualistic world-view has meant that the awareness of God in creation and the events of daily life have attracted many Religious into leadership in movements caring for the earth and in Spiritual Direction. These are trends that are expanding; if we are reading the “signs of the times” correctly, they are also trends that speak most clearly to the needs being expressed by people in our society.

Harmer thinks that religious of the future will include fewer core members who will be older and living a life of prophetic witness. She also thinks it very probable that these groups of core members “will be surrounded by and associated with many other people who will be attracted to the mission, but who will see themselves committed for a shorter time, or even for life, but not necessarily to the institution of religious life” (p65).

Some see a danger in this – they identify “worrying signs of a growing conservatism or restorationism, even fundamentalism, more so among younger clerics, including clerical religious, and what is more worrying, … the lack of fruitful engagement between those of such diverging views…Perhaps the current temptation for younger religious is that of ‘careerism’. The cult of the individual can lead to the objectives of the order becoming confused with the individual aims of some of its members” (Religious Life Review, 2000:177-187).

4. Using the role of Leadership to Advantage

Theories of change agency emphasise the role of leadership in promoting evolutionary growth. They advise organisations to do three things in particular:

a) Choose excellent (rather than average) leadership.

Note that leaders rather than administrators are needed. As groups become smaller, the tendency is to go for managers – to take some control over the “dying” process. “Leaders are risk takers, committed to the greater good, able to establish processes that liberate their organisation’s collective spirit and place that energy at the service of the global community” – Choosing Life, p 25).

Carmel Leavey OP and Rosalie O’Neill RSJ in their book Gathered in God’s Name, point out that Religious need to make “adequate distinctions between authority, leadership and power” (1996:19). Authority that operates well, however, enables a group, as Joan Chittester says, “to remain true to itself. It functions best when it brings direction and unity to a group, when it raises the questions that the group needs to face. Authority does not exist to give orders. It exists to facilitate the group’s ability to facilitate itself “(p 131).

b) Identify resistances, restraining forces, and withdraw energy from them. Political dynamics in any group will bring about struggle for power. This struggle often takes the form of resistance to change in ways that do not benefit the organisation as a whole. Groups who want to remain open to the evolutionary process need to address resistances and ensure that the clash of ideas does not result in hard and fast groupings unable to identify with a larger shared vision.

Harmer reminds us that “we have the freedom to resist; we have the freedom to change. We may be either the architects or the victims of change. Insofar as we have choices, we need to pay attention to the nature of the shifts that are underway and see what within religious life will be enhanced and what will be destroyed, what changes are of the essence and what are accidentals, where religious life is being called or where it is being driven.” Not all change or all resistance is good. “What religious need to do now and for the future is to look at what is the true essence of religious life, what are the paradigm shifts that are occurring, and how best we shape religious life for the future” (Religious Life in the 21st Century, 1995:19).

c) Encourage innovation. If efforts to discern a congregational “corporate mission” (eg. ecological awareness, homelessness, rural focus) fail to succeed initially, Ukeritis advises that Congregations should at least begin with a committed core group. “Congregations that have experienced success have been willing to think small initially, to celebrate the seemingly insignificant victories, and to encourage their members to connect the focus with current ministerial efforts (avoiding the temptation to focus on more than one significant issue)” (Review for Religious, 1996:129).

Cada points out that “it is well to remember, when initiating changed models of religious life, that over the centuries there has been a pattern where the new model was not considered to be “true” religious life. (Our own Mary MacKillop is an example). Yet, many grew to be widely accepted, sources of inspiration, and more in tune with the needs of the times.” (Consecrated Life Today, 1993:230).

Change is a process not an event.

Change is a process and not an event, it is normal and constant, it can occur in continuous small changes or in radical new processes. Change is untidy, but it is part of the life cycle of organisations and will be inevitable as organisations respond to the three forces of development, environmental shifts and location of power.

At the personal level, fear causes many people to find excuses not to change – negative behaviour can be so ingrained they know no other way of being; they lack the energy to uproot the familiar; they are afraid of losing control over their own lives. In the same way, groups can find excuses for avoiding change, even though its necessity is manifest and obvious. What can be said of all organisations can be said of Religious Life, especially during the years of dramatic change experienced in the years immediately following Vatican II.

In times of diminishment, morale can be very low and confusion rife. The experience of diminishment immediately following Vatican II has continued to the present. Recent experiences have exacerbated post-modern mistrust of the way of life of Religious. Their credibility has suffered, for example, with the exposure of sexual abuse being carried out by some of their members. The fact that through the 1940’s to early ‘60’s – the boom-days – little attention was given to screening of candidates or to counselling for those who had suffered childhood abuse has meant that some communities have had to carry the burden of maladjustment and psychological illness in higher proportions than normal.

As a consequence, some bewail the process of renewal outlined in the Vatican II documents and emphasised again in subsequent documents, eg Vita Consecrata (1996) and most recently “Starting Afresh from Christ” (2002). They would have us go back to the forms of Religious Life that characterised the pre-Vatican II world. Others would have us choose death. The purpose for which many Religious Congregations were begun – the education towards a consciousness that Church mission necessarily involves the laity – has been achieved. Therefore there is no longer a need for Religious Life.

The restorationist movement in the church downplays the prophetic and ministerial emphases in religious life. Restorationism is described as a crusade to take the Church uncritically back to the values and structures of the pre-Vatican II era. Arbuckle points out that “whenever religious accept models of the Church not sanctioned by the Council, and base formation programs on them, they are not true to the mission of Christ.” (From Chaos to Mission, 1996: 83).

Signs of hope.

Yet, far from “dying out”, many religious congregations show signs of energy, hope, and life-giving ministries. For past reasons of staffing institutions, economic well-being, and a tradition of formation in large numbers, an expectation grew that for a congregation to continue into the future it needs similarly large numbers. Sandra Schneiders points out that, “in fact, it is highly unlikely that very large numbers of people are actually, or ever were, called to Religious Life. Many contemplative communities that have been in existence for hundreds of years have never had more than a couple of dozen members. If ministerial communities could re-examine the relationship between their identity as Religious communities on the one hand and their ministries and finances on the other, they might discover that the felt need for numbers is, at best, exaggerated. As long as there are some people entering who are truly called to Religious Life, who interiorize the charism of the community, and who persevere, the future of the congregation as a locus of Religious Life is quite secure. Religious Life itself has no need of large numbers.” (p 90).

The life and death journey of Religious Congregations is a faith journey. That means that Religious, individually and corporately, need to enter into the pain of diminishment in the same way as Jesus entered the Passion. Through death came new life – this is what we proclaim as Christians. But what must a group do in order for new life to sprout from that death? What attitudes invite extinction while others allow the Spirit to birth anew?

Nothing, of course, can guarantee that certain actions will produce predictable results. “The Spirit blows where it wills.” But life experience certainly tells us that, in order to open ourselves to the Spirit, we need to “read the signs of the times” and avail ourselves of the learnings available to us. And, as Andrew Hamilton points out, this faith quest currently being undertaken by Religious “is for life and not for mere survival”. (The Way, 1998: 31).

The Vatican Document Vita Consecrata gives a reminder about our attitude towards the evolution of Religious Congregations into new shapes and forms: “The consecrated life”, it says, “may experience further changes in its historical forms, but there will be no change in the substance of a choice which finds expression in a radical gift of self for love of the Lord Jesus and, in him, of every member of the human family.” (Vita Consecrata, #3).

Regarding existing Religious Congregations, Dudley-Edwards has this to say: “Those of us who seek to join existing congregations rather than found new ones do so in the belief that the accumulated wisdom of today’s established religious orders needs to be received and carried on as a living tradition. There are skills and knowledge.. that will always be valid, which can only be learned from those who have stood faithful all their lives, and in the present case who have learned so much and lost so much in the pursuit of integrity.” (Dudley-Edwards, 1997:147).

And finally, the whole reason for us embarking on this journey anyway:

“I must proclaim the Good News of the Reign of God…for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43)

(Mary Cresp RSJ is a Sister of St Joseph and currently the Executive Director of the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes – the official association for Leaders of approximately 200 Religious Orders (Catholic and Anglican) representing around 10000 Priests, Religious Brothers and Sisters. She has a BA(Hons), Adelaide University, Diploma Spiritual Theology, from Regis College, Toronto, Canada, and a Masters in Theology from Washington Theological Union.)