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Going Forward, Boldly


by Mary Cresp RSJ

We've all heard of the little girl who asked her mother why she always chopped the end off the roast before cooking it. The mother referred her to her grandmother who in turn sent her to her 90 year old great-grandmother.

"Struth!" said Great-grandma. "Imagine the two of them doing that! Why, I only cut the piece off because my pan was too small!"

I heard that story years ago, but in my version, it was a postulant asking the various generations of Convent cooks the meaning of the same custom. The direction set out for Religious by Vatican II brought to the surface many such "legs of roast", and so, in order to address present and future need, Religious Congregations have consulted the works of organisational change theorists to help them in the process of group adaptation. Change Theory, applied to Religious Life, can be summarised under four headings:

  • Attending to the Organisation's Central Purpose;
  • Renewing the Essentials;
  • Promoting Mission;
  • Developing Leadership.

    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." Involved in attending to this purpose, then, is (a) one's relationship to God and (b) an understanding of the identity and mission of Religious Life.

    a) Since relationship with God is integrally connected to personal development, and given the co-dependant background from which many Religious came, 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.

    At the same time, the search for meaning in the whole of our society has expressed itself in a general thirst for spirituality. In the last 40 years, Religious have responded to both these needs in establishing Houses of Spirituality, training Spiritual Directors, providing Retreat opportunities and branching out into a plethora of other ministries to do with the spiritual quest.

    b) 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 fulfill 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.

    Renaming identity for Religious has meant re-examining and reclaiming the original vision of the founder. 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". 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.

    For most, this has meant that Religious now operate on the edges of society, as did their founders. Further, partnerships between Religious and those lay people who clearly share the same gifts of the Spirit exhibited by their Congregation have now grown up. 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, he says, 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". Associate Movements and other partnership groups are being promoted by Religious to this end.

    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 community. The institutional way of life did lend itself to "living in common". But "living community" is about the various things people do to improve communication and create warm, human places where they can relate and share faith.

    Within smaller groups, one is forced to live in relationship with others. And relationships take energy, especially when there is little holding you together. Religious Congregations have invested much into providing for their members whatever courses and counselling are necessary for individual members to live healthy and faith-filled community life.

    Essentially, in the process of opening community life beyond the institutional model, Religious have steered a path from childlike dependence (so often stereotyped by the media) 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".

    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."

    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 would be associated among the poor - not so that others could identify them! They were identified with the poor. Farm labourers no longer wear coarse "Franciscan" browns; widows no longer wear wimples and veils!

    The documents since Vatican II take up this 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. The prophetic aspect of Religious Life is typically represented, too, in the three vows made by many Religious. To affirm the God-given dignity of each person and of all creatures, the vow of Chastity directs the Religious to love universally; over against the consumption of goods for personal gain, Religious proclaim in the vow of poverty a relationship of respectful, God-given interdependence between persons and things; the vow of obedience challenges our world to an attitude of listening with prayerfulness, and personal and communal responsibility in order to grow into the God-perspective of life.

    Promoting Mission
    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.

    Sheila Carney rsm 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, she says, 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.

    This is a challenge that is being taken seriously by Religious. Preference for areas which 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, limited in their ability to conduct active ministries, have instead directed their financial resources to 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 has 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.

    Some see a danger in these trends and do not see their connection with the founding spirit of the Congregation. There are, according to Religous Life Review, in a few cases, "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 (Church) 'careerism'."

    Developing Leadership
    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.

    Authority that operates well 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".

    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.

    c) Encourage innovation:
    Lawrence 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."

    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.

    As a consequence, some bewail the process of renewal outlined in the Vatican II documents and emphasised again in subsequent documents, e.g. 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, they say, 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. Gerald Arbuckle points out that "whenever religious accept models of the Church not sanctioned by the Council, and base formation programmes on them, they are not true to the mission of Christ."

    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".

    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."

    While claiming the traditional wisdoms handed down about cooking the roast, we nevertheless change our methods according to the implements available and the requirements of the time.




    Mary Cresp is a Sister of St Joseph, born in Berri, South Australia. Having taught at primary, secondary and tertiary level she was elected in 1989 as Congregational Leader for the Sisters of St Joseph. From there she went on to serve as Executive Director of the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes and is currently doing research for networking projects in her own Congregation.






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