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The Growing Freshness of Consecrated Life: Some Loss, but Great Gain

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 30, 2013

If you haven’t yet read our news summary of Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo’s report on the numbers who currently leave religious life, I highly recommend that you do so (Curial official: over 3,000 religious leave consecrated life each year). The Secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life focused on the reasons people abandon their consecration, and these are revealing.

It is important to note that the current numbers of departures are far lower than they were one to two generations ago, beginning in the 1960s, when the number of religious in the West dropped like a rock into a nearly bottomless well. During the period of 1965 to 1990, for example, the annual departures in the United States alone exceeded the worldwide figure today. The numbers of living religious who are leaving now are considerably lower than the numbers who enter into consecrated life each year; there is a renewed growth in nearly all the sound religious institutes throughout the Church; and overall growth is fairly rapid nearly everywhere except in the declining, obsessively secular West. (See relevant statistics from 2009 in Some Statistics on Women Religious; the positive trends noted there have only grown.)

Nonetheless, an inevitable winnowing continues, which is exactly what we would expect as the Church grows stronger in a society in which ecclesiastical commitments are no longer a source of status, comfort or power (as they have been in some periods of Church history). A certain number will always look back after they have put their hand to the plow (Lk 9:62). This plowing can be tough and demanding spiritual work, and there are fewer and fewer worldly reasons as time goes on to remain in consecrated life.

It is particularly telling that Archbishop Carballo can see a strong correlation between dissent from Church teachings and loss of a sense of community, a sense of “belonging”, in the Church. When Phil Lawler and I began our work as laymen in the Catholic apostolate, going back now forty-odd years, the situation was quite the opposite. It was those who accepted the teachings of the Church who often felt a loss of community, a sense of not belonging, in many quarters of the Church, including a great many religious communities.

This reversal is yet another sign of the slow restoration of ecclesial health.

It is not surprising that another major reason for departure is a lack of proper integration of one’s sexual desires into one’s vocation. After all, sexual disorder is a hallmark of the modern world, a key point in the seriously misguided contemporary quest for liberation from our very nature as persons made in the image and likeness of God. That people become almost addicted to the satisfaction of their sexual proclivities—truly enslaved by their disordered affections and lusts—is hardly new; it is a story as old as time. But in a culture which literally defines itself by a positive attachment to such disorders, temptations against the sexual deprivations of consecrated life are particularly severe.

Meanwhile, some religious communities—and these are universally in steep numerical decline—continue to fight what is now a rear guard action against deep fidelity to Jesus Christ, who can be truly known only through the Church. On this quesiton of how we know and respond to Christ, the theological contribution of Pope Benedict XVI, which I explored yesterday in some depth, is very much to the point (see The End of Modernism: Joseph Ratzinger’s Dialogue with Love).

To never experience the deep personal exchange of love with our Lord and Savior is cause for sadness; to exchange this Christian inheritance for some form of worldly “relevance”, which amounts to a “mess of pottage” (Gn 25:29-34), is far worse. Religious life is supposed to be a shining example of this deep interior dialogue of love, making the consecrated person not only a fruitful branch of the one vine, but a living icon of the presence of God in our midst. The rest of us benefit enormously from both the signification of such commitment and the graces poured into the world as a result.

It is very possible, then, to read in a positive light this report on what is really a declining abandonment of religious consecration. Enormous progress has been made over the past fifty years. The real story of the communities over which Archbishop Carballo presides is that, on the whole, they are renewing themselves, joined to the Lamb in making all things new (Rev 21:5).

Indeed, this reference to the Book of Revelation is extraordinarily apt. Consider:

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day—and there shall be no night there; they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (Rev 21:22-26)

Thus does consecrated life foreshadow our destiny in “the holy city, the new Jerusalem” (Rev 21:2). Truly, our consecrated Catholics are once again the harbingers of Spring.

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