By the late 1950s, many men and women religious realized that they were doomed. Their religious communities had the same name and may have worn the same habit as the founder, but its way of life and its work was different. Even the relationship between the members of the community were not the same. For example, Franciscans realized that if Francis came back, he would never be allowed to rule his order. If Bonaventure came back, he would not have been allowed to be a kitchen helper and cook, which he did for many years or Anthony would have been forced to become a priest, instead of the way that it happened, according to Providence’s plan. He became a priest just three years before he died, after 17 years as religious, preacher and theology professor.
These concerns were presented to Pope Pius XII who advised the religious to wait. When Vatican II declared that all religious orders, religious congregations, secular orders and secular institutes had to go back to their roots and begin again, the bottom fell out. Many men and women were very comfortable in the new version of religious life. They did not feel called to live the life that the founder had designed for them. Going back was hard for them. They left. In many houses, superiors pushed so hard that many men and women got angry and left. Some religious became angry, because they thought that the Church should be encouraging them to go forward, not back and they left.
None of this would have happened if the religious communities had remained faithful to their founders, if the bishops had told the laity to wait until they could meet their needs instead of pushing religious to become what they were not and if the laity had paid close attention to the religious life and noticed that they were getting services at someone’s expense. There were religious who were being treated as servants and as if the consecration of their lives had little or no value so that others could run schools, parishes, and medical facilities. The fact is that religious could have done those things, if left to do them on their terms, according to the principles left to them by their founders.
Many people still argue that religious life was being lived in these houses. However, that is not the point. The point is that the religious life that was being lived in those houses was not always the same religious life that founders had left us. You don’t just want religious. You want religious who will be as their founders wanted them to be. You don’t want Franciscans who act and pray like monks. That’s not what Francis founded. They don’t do Gregorian Chant, don’t have scholas and choirs, don’t have communion rails in their chapels, don’t distinguish the ordained friar from the lay friar. They are all consecrated men. If you get that, that’s not what Francis founded. Why would you want it in your parish?
You don’t want Christian Brothers to run schools for middle class boys. St. John Baptist de La Salle was very clear that they were to educate the poorest boys. Why would you want brothers who live and work contrary to the mission and vision of St. John de La Salle? You don’t want Sisters of St. Joseph who look and act like nuns. Their fonder deliberately made them diocesan congregations so that they would never be subject to the canons that govern nuns. They lived everywhere. You don’t want Daughters of Charity who live in convents. St. Vincent de Paul forbade convents. The sisters were not even allowed to attend a novitiate. To avoid the laws that required women religious to live in convents and attend a novitiate, Vincent de Paul and Elizabeth Ann Seton got around it by making it so that the sisters never make perpetual vows. If they don’t make perpetual vows, they are not religious. Therefore, they don’t have to live and act like nuns. This freed them to do the work of charity wherever they were needed. They simply renew their vows every year March 25. If they choose to leave, they don’t have to renew. We, the faithful, were unfaithful to the founders. We started calling them nuns and demanding that they live and look like nuns.
I say we the unfaithful, because our grandparents and their grandparents didn’t know any better and didn’t have the resources to learn. They went by what the priests told them and what the sister in school said. But we have access to a great deal of information. Before we get too rattled, we need to look at what happened between the Middle Ages and the Age of Enlightenment, what happened between then and the 1960s, that will give us a clear picture of why we have the problems today.
We are recovering. We will never have the thousands that we had in the past. This is good. As Mother Agnes of the Sisters of Life once said, we want dedicated and faithful religious who will live according to a charism. She’s right. We need to focus on recruiting men and women who can be faithful and stop focusing on increasing the numbers in the personnel roster. The religious life is not going anywhere. Some communities will become extinct. New ones are born. Others merge and many old ones return to their roots and you will not see us in your neighborhood again. But if you’re ever under a bridge, a homeless shelter, a school, college, or a dispensary in some rundown part of town, we would welcome you. Please don’t ask us to be Bring Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. That was the worse portrayal of religious life, but a beautiful movie.
We have many holy men and women, people of prayer, great charity, dedicated to their communities and devoted to their founders and the vision of their founders. They have not disappeared.
Br. JR, OSF