Sunday, December 14, 2014

Evangelical Catholicism And It's Not The Veil That Makes The Nun

Sister Joan Chittester OSB
I want to return for several entries to the subject of an evangelical renewal of Religious Life.  The Vatican Report on the Religious Sisters in the United States is supposedly to be released on Tuesday and I am anxious to read what it has to say, but I am not overly hopeful that the Holy See will—or, for that matter, can—do a substantial critique of Religious Life as most of those who hold key positions, other than Pope Francis himself, are not Religious and have typically shown (as have our American bishops) a gross inability to capture the substance of the vocation to the consecrated life.  I think of Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington, a somewhat typical American bishop—that is to say a well meaning but dense individual who has no appreciation for the limits of his own knowledge and who, in a once-hopeful ambition for higher things (The Archbishopric of Hartford) has traded his moral compass to become nothing more than a “company man.”  Now that the “company” has had a change of direction under its new pontifical leadership, the Bishop is befuddled and confused and the Church entrusted to his care is finding its wheels spinning but unable to move forward.  Tragic.  But I digress.  The Bishop remarked to some friends regarding a community of women Religious that has to withdraw from their apostolate in his diocese for lack of vocations that “everything would be fine if they only still wore veils.”  Now I think this particular community of women is dying out in great part for reasons of their own doing, but not for lack of veils.  In fact, I think the preoccupation in the pre-Conciliar Church for how veils got pinned or how the Sisters were to keep their eyes lowered left many religious congregations totally incapable of the sort of renewal to which the Council called them. 
I mentioned in previous blogs George Weigel’s vision of an Evangelical Catholicism and while I think his treatment of the renewal of Religious Life is absolutely from Planet Qo'noS or some other distant unreality produced by a mind unaccustomed to having to confront the daily challenges faced by those who belong to the working class, I do agree with his fundamental thesis that
The Catholic Church is being invited to meet the Risen Lord in the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and Prayer and to make friendship with him the center of Catholic life. Every Catholic has received this invitation in Baptism, the invitation to accept the Great Commission, to act as evangelists and to measure the truth of Catholic life by the way in which Catholics give expression to the human decency and solidarity that flows from friendship with Christ the Lord.
 From which thesis I have drawn the following principles to look at Religious Life.

1.   The Religious vocation, like all other vocations in the Church is rooted in the baptismal vocation common to all Christians.
2.    Therefor all Religious, of whatever tradition they belong, are called to participate in the evangelizing mission of the Church
3.    The authenticity and power of the Gospel to which they bear witness will be dependent on their integrity as human persons (human decency)
4.    Their integrity, in turn, flows from their friendship with Christ
5.    This friendship with the Risen Lord is nourished by an immersion in the scriptures
6.    This friendship with the Risen Lord is nourished by a rich sacramental life
7.    This friendship with the Risen Lord is sustained by a life of deep personal prayer
8.    This friendship with the Risen Lord will bring us into a profound solidarity with the least of his sisters and brothers.  

We have discussed the first three of these principles in an earlier blog; let’s look at the fourth, which by the way, I consider key.  Sister Joan Chittester in her book The Fire in These Ashes which concerns the renewal of Religious Life writes that there is one reason and one reason only to come to Religious Life and that is to find God.  A friend of mine, himself a Religious and a Professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, expanded on this and said in a homily: “There is only one reason to come to Religious Life and that is to Find God through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  To me this is spot on and I think it is what Weigel means by “to make friendship with Christ.”  It is great to want to be a missionary or to teach children or to nurse the sick or to work with the poor but these are not reasons to enter Religious Life.  And the problem with many of the communities founded in the 19th and 20th centuries is they copied the trappings of the monastic vocation—habits and choral prayer and kissing one’s scapular when begging pardon—but not the essence of the monastic vocation which is the solitude of the heart in search for God.   Many of these communities, both of men and women, have great pieties but no spirituality at their foundation.  The particular group of Sisters to which Bishop Loverde was referring run a retreat center where they have for years triaged the spiritually ill and comforted them with palliative care but not given them the health of a mature and genuine spirituality.  And they couldn’t because, while several of the individual sisters had discovered the spiritual life, their Congregation itself never understood the substance of Spirituality proper to their particular identity.  In fact many Religious today have nothing more to offer than the milk and cookies of the Spiritual Life.  That must change if Religious Life is to survive.       
I have to say that I am not impressed by most American Religious today.  On the one hand you get the mascara-wearing latte-sippers like Sister Sara Marks who was written about in the article that triggered this series.  On the other hand you get groups like the Friars of the Renewal or the Franciscans of the Immaculate or the Sisters of Life which groups revert back to that model where the religious are so different from the rest of the Church that they cannot effectively serve as witnesses to the universal call to holiness.  On the one hand, in a world that needs the witness of community, we don’t need Religious living individually in apartments—we need the example of people who are struggling to live in an intimate communion with one another despite the individual differences and preferences that we all have.  We need people who choose to live together in charity and to work out their differences and conflicts in mutual respect with one another so that there is an example for families—and by families I mean all the arrangements of human persons that designate themselves as families—that some sort of communal life is not only possible but an attractive alternative to the isolation of our modern culture.  In this secularized world we need examples of men and women who are educated and intelligent and professional who still gather for prayer and consider such a gathering the most important time of their day.  In a world of crass consumerism we need the challenge provided by men and women who have what they need to live with dignity and self-respect and to accomplish the work entrusted to them but who aren’t out to have the latest and the newest and the most costly of everything.
At the same time, we need to have men and women who embrace a simple life freely and whose lack of life’s frivolities are their own mature choices and not because someone else has determined what they need and what they don’t need.   We need mature men and women who can make sound decisions for themselves in in how best to serve God and his kingdom and not be at the whim and prejudice of a “superior.”    We need a Religious Life that brings out maturity in its members, demands of them a responsibility for their choices and actions, and permits them to respond to the graces that God has given them individually and not expect them to conform to some cookie-cutter “ideal” that a founder or a bishop has/had for them.  A mature spirituality will evoke this psychological autonomy  balanced with a free desire for self-emptying (kenosis) from Religious that will enable them to serve as examples of mature Christian discipleship.  I admire the enthusiasm of the various new congregations that are springing up; they are a welcome breath of spring after the burned out and tired old souls who no longer have the passion for radical commitment but I at the same time I am afraid that the enthusiasm will shortly be quenched by unhealthy structures of power copied from pre-conciliar days and a lack of roots due to the shallow pieties that characterize the devotional life of these new communities.  A genuine renewal of Religious Life will find a via media that will both provide a depth of the Spiritual Life and a psychologically healthy model for communal living.  To be cont.  

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