So the report came out on American Religious women from the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of the Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life and gave the Sisters a clean bill of health. This investigation and report needs be differentiated from the ongoing investigation and concerns of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which is not nearly so positive. The “difference of opinion” between the two Congregations says more about Roman politics and infighting over curial reform than it says about the Sisters, but that is somewhat beside my point in this posting. The harassment of the Sisters has been political from its inception and now very much reflects the stress between the pro-Francis faction in the Curia and the anti-Francis faction. This will make it all the more interesting to see if Archbishop Lori of Baltimore gets a red hat in the upcoming February consistory as Lori, along with his mentor Cardinal Law and with Cardinal Burke, has been one of the primary movers in the persecution of the Sisters. I am not saying not to expect Lori to be made a Cardinal—Pope Francis can be very unpredictable when it comes to balancing out his supporters with opposition members—but just that it will be interesting to see what happens and how it plays out. But let me get back to the subject of an evangelical renewal of the Religious Life.
In earlier posts I drew eight principles for the renewal of Religious Life from George Weigel’s description of what he means by Evangelical Catholicism in his book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform for the 21st Century. I am not advocating Weigel’s program for reform, either for Religious Life or for the Church in general as I think it is in fact anything but evangelical. I do think, however, that his basic description of Evangelical Catholicism is superb and it is from that description that I picked the eight principles. We have looked at the first three in previous posts and more recently have been looking at the fourth which is that the integrity of Religious Life—and thus the success of its evangelical renewal—comes from the Religious having a friendship with Christ. Of course, for any of us to live out our baptismal vocation with any degree of integrity means to live in friendship with Christ. In the previous post I differentiated piety and spirituality with the claim that piety alone is not sufficient to sustain a truly intimate friendship with Christ and that the Religious—or any Christian—who wants such friendship needs to mature beyond piety into a genuine spirituality. Now the question arises: what do I mean by “spirituality” and this segues into the next principle which is “This friendship with the Risen Lord is nourished by an immersion in the scriptures.”
There is no authentic spirituality in the Catholic Tradition that does not find its principal foundation in a prayerful approach to Sacred Scripture. Dom Jean LeClercq, the great historian of Christian mysticism wrote that in the literature of the Desert Monks the most important source for learning the virtues was the Scriptures and that the goal of the monastic in his or her search for God was to come to know the scriptures by heart. Now some Religious will argue that they are not monks and that such a principle of spirituality does not apply to them, but as I wrote in an earlier blog that if Religious of any Order or Congregation hope to have any purpose at all it must be that the principal drive of their vocation is the hunger to find God. And indeed, as I agree with Karl Rahner, that the Christian of the future will either be a mystic or be nothing at all, let me express my opinion that each and every Christian—if they want to persevere in their baptismal vocation—must set themselves on this path to find God. And there is one language and only one language in which this search can be pursued and that is in the Scriptures. The Scripture is the Word of God, it is the means by which God communicates God’s Self to us. A prayer life that is not closely tethered to the reality of the Sacred Scriptures is all too likely to drift off into the lalaland of religious fantasy. Every acknowledged mystic in the history of Catholicism from Saint Paul to Origen to John Cassian to pseudo Dionysius to Gregory the Great to Gertrude of Helfta to Teresa of Avila to Ignatius Loyola to John of the Cross to Thérèse of Lisieux and all those in between peppered their writings or sayings with words from Scripture. They knew the scriptures inside out because the scriptures provided them the vocabulary of their prayer.
But beware the Word of God is a two-edged sword and an encounter with the Word will challenge and change one. It is like a mirror in which we both see ourselves for whom we truly are and for whom we can be if we take that Word seriously and let it refashion us in its own image.
In the years since Vatican II Catholics have been exposed to the Word of God much more than we had ever been before. There was a day in which many Catholics were discouraged from reading the Scriptures for fear that they would fall into “Protestant heresy.” (Talk about not trusting in the Holy Spirit.) But since the Council we have been accustomed to hearing Scripture read to us at Mass. Many Catholics belong to Bible Studies or Bible Sharing Groups. Even more read the scriptures on their own daily or at least several times through the week. And while we, as a Church, still have a long way to go until exposure to the Word of God reaches each and every Catholic “where we live,” the effects have been incredible. Reading the Scriptures we see that “Social Justice” is not only the legacy of the prophets, but part of the very warp and woof of Christ’s own Gospel. Reading the Scriptures we see a vision of Church which is—as Pope Francis speaks of—A Church for the Poor. Reading the Scriptures we see that the humility of a contrite heart is an even greater gift than one’s own moral righteousness. Reading the Scriptures we see that the self-appointed judges of others are liable to judgment themselves. In other words, reading the scriptures we see that God has taken all the fun out of being churchy people and instead challenge us to a personal conversion where we have to leave all we cherish behind if we are to be disciples.
I think this is a huge challenge for Religious today—indeed a huge challenge for any and all who want to lead a full Christian life. Joan Chittester writes a scathing critique of her fellow Religious that all Religious should take and examine with self-searching honesty.
We started renewal and then left it in mid-flight. We know that renewal has “slowed down” we do not realize that we abandoned it. …we live within all the rules …docile and dutiful, and risk very little to get it, not our reputations, not our clerical connections, not even the peace at our dinner tables. We want the ministries of the congregation to continue, we tell ourselves, but too often we concentrate more on funding our retirement programs than on subsidizing the ministries that are needed and trusting our retirement programs to take care of themselves if we take care of others, as our foundresses did before us. We vote in chapter after chapter endorsing postures, positions, and actions that are wildly prophetic and prophetically wild, and then we retire to our separate little worlds and wait for someone else to do them on the grounds that we ourselves are too old, too unprepared, too tired, too involved elsewhere in more important things to shift direction now. Or worse, we support nothing at all that would in any way damage the reputation or the security of the group because “What good will it do to irritate people?,” or so that we can challenge without confronting. We want the future without having to pay the price to get it. We regard the local prophets with great suspicion and sink deeper and deeper into ourselves every day. We become old religious sissies, far from the quality of the visionaries who withstood social, political and theological resistance of their time so that we would do the same in ours.
If Religious return to a monastic spirituality in which they forge a friendship with Christ rooted in an ardent attachment to his Word, they can fight this tendency to be “old religious sissies” and their communities can be lively and life-giving.
But if they stay rooted in the spiritual apathy of some communities or the quasi-spiritual silliness of others or the unhealthy pieties of a revived past that some of the newer communities have embraced, they are ultimately doomed for death.