On Monday 29th Feb I was really fortunate to attend a talk in Sydney by Dr. Nancy Schreck, OSF (Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque, Iowa, USA).
In this reflection I will describe some of the 'light-bulb moment' insights gained from Dr Nancy. How this relates to Religious Life in regards to its word definitions + How as an apostolic congregation in 2016 we perhaps need to re-examine the term Religious & what Religious Life means; are we more Spiritual than Religious?
In no way shape or form am I attempting to say that I have all the answers. I'm simply posing questions, sharing knowledge, ideas, starting a conversation and attempting to move forward, not backward.
RELIGIOUS LIFE HISTORY
The focus of the talk was Religious Life - it’s history and the challenge of living Religious Life in what now seems to be a middle space. Middle space relates to the placement of most religious congregations today.
Imagine if you will; A simple line chart with a repeating line going high up and down low several times across a page - with this image she highlighted the fact that over time (the past 2000 years), religious congregations have gone through huge highs and lows (as far as membership numbers). Congregations have weathered the storm, adapted and moved forward.
Dr Nancy stated that due to large social changes congregations are now again in 2016 in the middle space of re-structuring & changing. Four Stages: Foundation - Expansion - Stabilisation - Breakdown.
Many are not able (or not willing) to change and are in the middle of closing, many are in the middle of growing, many are in the middle of creating something entirely new. And here in lies the challenge, we need to be open, creative, attentive and willing to change.
She used the parable of the prodigal son >> CLICK TO VIEW PASSAGE (LK 15: 11-32)
Perhaps we need to go away from what we know, what is safe, travel to the wilderness, metaphorically to a foreign country, leave what is secure and set out to re-find ourselves. Have we already done that? are apostolic congregations now ready to ‘come home’ to why we started; to the father, just as the son did?
She determined that it is critical that we always ‘come home’ to the core of why congregations started in the first place. Where was God needed, where was the need for compassion & mercy?
As a member of an apostolic congregation (a Sister or brother) professes to devote their life to God, they are called to be liminal, on the margins, to spread love, dignity and equality to those who need it the most. For the Sisters of St Joseph - (apostolic congregation); St Mary MacKillop and Julian Tenison Woods saw a dire need for education of poor children. It wasn’t solely a Catholic or Church driven need. It was a God (Love) driven focus.
Through prayer, open eyes and the spirit of courage Mary and Julian trusted their hearts and went forth. They did not focus on what if? They focused on the future, on where the need was and moved towards compassion & mercy with vulnerability, open arms and trust.
"... woe for habit in the spiritual life; woe to crystalizing our charisms in an abstract doctrine: the Founders’ charisms — as I have said at other times — are not to be sealed in a bottle, they are not museum pieces."
~ Pope Francis, 2nd February 2016
Now in 2016, perhaps we need to come home to the father (just as the prodigal son did). Perhaps through vulnerable brokenness we can be realise that things such as language need to continue to change and help create a new way of living what we currently call Religious Life…
SOCIETY – THEN vs NOW
"Sometimes the things we can’t change, change us"
Society has changed dramatically, and certainly in abundant lightning speed over the last 100 years. However as human beings and congregations we have become easily stuck and focused on the past in our understanding of how we label religious life. Are congregations in a comfy middle space thinking they know what religious life is, and what the definition of the word religious means?
It is clear that many still have the old ways in their mind - I met someone about 6 months ago, he said “Hey, aren't those Nuns are just teachers are still wear those habits!" - simply not true.
"Too many adults are spiritually lazy.’ A de-construction of the ego has to happen before maturity. When we are lazy we stay on the path we are already on, even if we are going nowhere."
~ Richard Rohr
As a Graphic Designer I have spent a lot of time over the past 12+ years focusing on how companies brand themselves. Branding is a name or a visual identity. Now, just pause for a second - before you screw your nose up and think “O that term Branding is just so corporate!” Take a breather and remove the corporate element, open up and view the term Branding at it’s core definition.
a. A trademark or distinctive name identifying a product, service, or organization.
b. A product or service so identified
c. An association of positive qualities with a widely recognized name, as of a product line or celebrity
If we are to truly re-examine, re-imagine, and change in 2016 then perhaps we need to adopt the language of this century within the new radically different apostolic congregational context?
When a brand is mentioned an individual will instantly have an understanding of what that is. For example: Nike = maker of sports products. This is also true for the term Religious. Anytime Religion is mentioned a person will instantly have an understanding // judgment // re-action to that. This can be positive or negative. But more often than not the term Religious or Religion conjures up feelings of close-minded, exclusive, one way or the highway fear based thoughts.
Belonging to an apostolic congregation is very very very different to how it was 100 or even 20 years ago.
One of many light bulb moments after listening to Dr Nancy; as we re-look at the foundation stage // the core of why our congregations started, and look at God as bigger than just one faith tradition perhaps we need to re-brand and change the wording that we are using too?
Does the term Religious need to take a hike?
I have often heard “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual”. This got me to thinking – it is also important to define and understand the term Religious and important to look at the term Spiritual in 2016...
1. Having or showing belief in and reverence for God or a deity.
2. Of, concerned with, or teaching religion: a religious text.
3. Extremely scrupulous or conscientious: religious devotion to duty.
n. pl. religious
A member of a monastic order, especially a nun or monk.
1. Of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not material; supernatural: spiritual power.
2. Of, concerned with, or affecting the soul: spiritual guidance; spiritual growth.
3. Not concerned with material or worldly things: led a spiritual life.
4. Of or belonging to a religion; sacred: spiritual practices; spiritual music.
1. often spirituals Religious, spiritual, or ecclesiastical matters.
After looking at the dictionary definitions above perhaps the term Spiritual is more suited – yes we are a Catholic congregation, we are indeed Church based. But actually, we are more than that. We are apostolic. To be apostolic means to go out, be with people, live on the margins (just as the apostles did). Most apostolic congregations do not wear habits anymore. The reason for this is to remove what can seem like a barrier. The habit can make it seem exclusive or separate. Just as the term religious does. God is bigger than the term religion. We are more than Church alone. God, equality and Love is our core focus.
“We must teach more by example than by word.” ~ Mary MacKillop
There is also a huge variety within the official term that describes those who live Religious Life // are a Religious. The definition of the term is listed below.
Religious are men and women who:
1. Profess vows (Chastity, Poverty, Obedience) and live communally.
2. Dedicate their lives to loving and serving God, the Church and ALL people.
3. Live through prayer and ministry. This is what Religious “do”.
4. Life is lived in 3 forms; Apostolic, Cloistered, Monastic
Apostolic (Sisters of St Joseph)
In the context of consecrated religious life, apostolic religious communities are engaged for the most part in active ministries. While prayer and community life are important to them, their members serve in a variety of ways: teaching, parish ministry, health care, social work, care for the elderly, work with young people, service to the poor, and many others.
Contemplative religious communities are often cloistered or partially cloistered—that is, they live separated from the rest of the world to be more focused on prayer, including prayer for the needs of the world. As cloistered religious they rarely leave their monasteries, and all or most of their work is done within the monastery itself, depending on the degree to which they are cloistered.
Monastic communities fall somewhere between apostolic and cloistered. Monastic men and women place a high value on prayer and living in community life, but many are also engaged in active ministries. Monasticism centers on community life, work, and common and individual prayer.
>> CLICK TO SEE GLOSSARY OF RELIGIOUS LIFE
It’s pertinent to point out that as Sisters we are not clergy. Yes we take vows; yes we commit our lives to the service of God (Love). But, as non-ordained members of the Church we have the same hierarchical status as married or single people within the Church structure. As Brothers or Sisters within an apostolic congregation (active & not ruled by a diocese) we are more adept to the movements of the spirit. We can simply go where the need is greatest.
“Never see a need without doing something about it.” ~ Mary MacKillop
I can’t tell you how often I’m at a table with other sisters and the conversation again and again turns to the old, past Novitiate and past religious life rule structured days. It certainly is apt that we appreciate the past and learn from it. But the old ways of religious life are just that old, past, gone, finito!
Now more than ever it’s a time to re-focus, re-imagine, re-brand, re-open and change for the future.
As Catholics in 2016 and into the future we are now encouraged to learn about other religions. It has been wonderful to see Pope Francis meeting with so many leaders of various faith traditions. This is also a huge change within what was formally known as religious life. Throughout history we can see that other religions have been present. Please view the timeline graphic below.
I was chatting with a 90 year old sister about a month ago. We discussed my great love of Buddhism and I said to her – “you know, I think God is in Buddhism”. She quickly and loudly said back:
“Oooo of course love, God is in all religions, all of them!!!”
Here's a classic old joke:
Joanna is Baptist, Henry is Buddhist, They both die and go up to heaven, they see God and Jesus says to them with loving open arms – welcome my beloved – welcome!!! He then says, now please go down that pathway, but be sure to be quiet and tiptoe past the door on the right... Why they ask?
He replies, O well you see, that’s where we put the Catholics, they think they’re the only ones up here!
(Note; Catholic can easily be replaced with another religion to emphasize this point).
I do believe first and foremost in God, and in the trinity (God = Father, Son, Holy Spirit), but also in learning from each other...
"Find God in all things" ~ St Ignatius
Q. How would people react and interact if we did not use the term Religious?
Perhaps instead we can say we are a Spiritual Congregation? A Josephite Congregation, a Franciscan Congregation, or a Jesuit Congregation? etc
If you met someone and they said:
“I’m part of a congregation; I live life as a vowed Spiritual person”
“I’m part of a congregation; I live life as a vowed Franciscan”
“I’m part of a congregation; I live life as a vowed Religious person”
Q. Would you react differently to the Religious?
As part of an apostolic congregation we are not called to be comfortable, not called to be in the middle space. We are called to be liminal, on the margins. The core focus is to keep changing, keep moving forward to where the need for Love (God) is greatest - I do believe that in 2016 includes how we communicate with our words and actions.
" Today we too are called to make prophetic and courageous choices."
~ Pope Francis, February 2nd, 2016
Perhaps from now on and into the future I am not living Religious Life?
I am living a vowed Spiritual Life?