A Little Heresy of My Own

When Pope Francis declared this was to be a Year of Consecrated Life, we greeted his announcement with muted enthusiasm. We are very enthusiastic about monastic life here at Howton Grove and happy to share our vocation with others, but we are not so keen on some of the ways in which consecrated life in general is promoted or some of the attitudes that surround it. I have been trying for years to work out why and think I may have had a lightbulb moment, at least as regards women religious. I hope it won’t read like a grumble, because it’s not meant to be. I’m trying to articulate something I think matters, and if my viewpoint is a trifle heretical, I hope I’m being heretical in a good cause.

I have the feeling it’s become increasingly common in Europe, though possibly less so in the U.S.A. and other parts of the world, to regard women who live under religious vows with something akin to contempt. It as though the moment we put on the habit (or not), we ceased to be people with minds or feelings and became complete ninnies, neither demanding nor deserving the ordinary courtesies of life. As communities age or struggle to maintain their former apostolates, they are relegated  to the margins of the Church as so much dead weight. I’m sorry to say the Catholic clergy can be among the worst offenders in this respect; and I think that may be at the heart of my unease about the Year of Consecrated Life.

It is no good asking for prayers for vocations or spending money on promotional videos and the like if we don’t really believe it is worthwhile. If we think religious men and women — above all, women, since they cannot be priests — are essentially wasting their time; that there is nothing they can do or be that someone else can’t do or be better; that the accidentals of religious life matter more than the substance; that religious are wrong about the choices they have made or are deficient in their understanding of what the gospel asks; then, of course, I can’t see anyone being attracted to any form of consecrated life in the first place, still less persevering until death, and it is fundamentally wrong to pretend that religious life is a valid way of following Christ. But as someone who has experienced the joy of monastic life, and who has known people of genuine holiness who have become so precisely through the faithful living out of their vocation, I don’t want the nay-sayers to have it all their own way. It is because I believe in the value of consecrated life that I would like to see it flourish in the Church.

For consecrated life to flourish, several conditions need to be met, and religious themselves need to meet the challenge of changing times. Every week, I deal with a handful of vocation enquiries and I can see that, while there is still great generosity of spirit, the way in which people think about vocation has become increasingly secularised. For example, there is a kind of tick-list the community, rather than the candidate, is expected to meet. There is a presumption that discernment involves only the individual, not the accepting community. It would be easy to dismiss this as ‘unmonastic’ (as indeed it is), but I think that is unfair. A vocation isn’t an abstraction; it is enfleshed in an individual; and none of us, whatever our vocation in life, starts out knowing everything or being everything we are called to be. We need to expand our ideas about how people are drawn to religious life, and how we can best help them find their way. I must emphasize that this isn’t a numbers game. Just as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI foresaw a much smaller Church in years to come, I myself think the religious communities of the future will be smaller, too. I don’t think they will disappear, however, because, in the end, religious life is all about responding to God, and God does not cease to call people to himself.

My hope for this Year of Consecrated Life is that we’ll do more than just pray for vocations or run discernment days and the like. I hope we’ll think deeply about the nature of vocation and the place of consecrated life in the Church. I hope those of us who are religious will examine our own attitudes and accept that, ‘because we’ve always done x or y’ may no longer be a valid reason for continuing to do so — any more than changing for the sake of changing is valid. I hope those who aren’t religious will also examine their attitudes, for and against. If you lament the decline in numbers, ask yourself whether you would become a religious, or how you would feel if your son or daughter wanted to become a religious. If you think religious are a waste of space, go and meet some and see whether they justify that negativity. And if you are a Catholic priest, perhaps you could ban the phrase ‘the good sisters’ from your lips and just see religious as the people they are, fellow-toilers in the Vineyard.

Note: Throughout this post I’ve used ‘religious’ as short-hand for ‘members of a religious order or congregation’. I’ve written principally about women because I am one myself and because male religious are often priests as well, which gives them a different standing in the Church. I’d also like to emphasize that I’m lucky enough to count priests and monks among my friends. My remarks do not refer to them but to the kind of senior cleric who, at a lunch I attended, was overheard saying to the person taking him in, ‘Seat me anywhere, so long as it’s not next to one of the nuns’. For our sins, we were seated together. 🙂