Last week Pope Francis presided over a Mass to mark the end of the Year for Consecrated Life. Robert Mickens reported here that the Holy Father also gave a short talk to men and women religious at an audience prior to the Mass. “Why has the womb of religious life become so sterile?” he asked.
The answers to that question are complex and manifold. A small share of an answer may be linked to how many of our parishes and dioceses chose to celebrate the Year itself. For the most part, it was seen as an opportunity to say a much deserved word of thanks to men and women religious for their service and their lives of witness. Those words, while sincere, often had the tone of an elegy, an acknowledgment that many religious communities may have reached the point of irreversible decline.
What I generally did not hear from the pulpit or the episcopal chair was any sustained argument aimed at the Catholic laity for why religious life--a life dedicated to the “perfection of charity” through the practice of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience--remains integral to Christian witness in the modern world. This way of life, rooted in the example of Jesus himself, has been part of the Church from the very beginning. To use an overworked metaphor, a Church without communities committed to the practice of the counsels is a Church breathing with only one lung.
I may seem an odd person to make this argument. I am a happily married layman who was never seriously drawn to religious life. I hold a senior position in a large company where I spend my days working to help us survive and even thrive in a marketplace that increasingly shows little mercy to the slow, the weak or even the momentarily confused. My family and I live in a reasonable degree of comfort and it’s fair to say that our children aspire to lead a similar lifestyle when it is finally time for them to venture out into the world.
I take seriously the idea that such a life can be lived in a Christian manner. The Council Fathers at Vatican II were clear that “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Lumen Gentium 40). Being a husband and a father has acted as a powerful solvent for my ego, forcing me to place the needs of others before my own. Fr. Ron Rolheiser has noted that, for parents, the needs of their children serve as the “monastic bells” that “summon you out of your own agenda and self-interest to something larger than yourself, the agenda of the community and God’s cause.”
When confronted with the primal drives for money, sex and power, the Christian living “in the world” seeks the via media rather than the radical path of the counsels. For most of us, this is both realistic and reasonable, but its spiritual risks should not be underestimated. To own a home or a car is to be constantly tempted to trade up to something “just a bit” larger and more comfortable. It’s not enough for exhausted parents to drowsily make love. The sex must (if the magazines at my local grocer are to be believed) be “over the top” and “mind blowing” and, if not, there are always services like Ashley Madison to provide a range of other options. Efforts to cultivate a spirit of obedience and humility must compete with a culture where you are expected to “be your own brand,” “never eat lunch alone,” and keep your LinkedIn profile constantly updated.
It is not that these forces cannot be resisted. It is possible, with God’s grace, to live simply, chastely and reverently. But it requires a willingness to work against gravity and that gets exhausting after awhile. There are times when I simply lean my head against the wall and say “Please Lord, remind me that there is more to life than this.”
For me, to know that there are communities living the evangelical counsels gives me strength. It’s a reminder that another way of life is possible and that so much of what we think we “need” to be happy is unnecessary. At a time when so many voices in my head tell me there need be no incompatibility between my middle-class lifestyle and Christian life, I need that other voice telling me to “sell all that you have and give the money to the poor...and come follow me” (Lk 18:22).
I suspect there are many who feel the same way. It’s why we find ourselves reading Thomas Merton, listening to CDs of Gregorian Chant, making Ignatian retreats, and becoming Benedictine oblates or Third Order Franciscans. We drink deeply from the wells dug by thousands of men and women religious over the centuries. But do we replenish those wells for the next generation? Have we encouraged our children and grandchildren to be open to the possibility of a religious vocation?How will future believers know that our minivans can be monasteries if we no longer have monasteries?
I know enough men and women religious to realize the dangers of sentimentalizing their lives. Those without property can often become proprietary about their roles and responsibilities and unhealthy power dynamics can afflict any community of human beings. The spiritual risks of celibacy are well known, even if they are sometimes exaggerated.
The lives of ordinary believers and the lives of those called to practice the counsels should complement one another, embodying the tension between a Kingdom that is already present and yet still to come. In the past, the balance may have tipped too far in the direction of the latter, leading to the suggestion that the married state was somehow inferior to religious life. Over the last half century, however, we have tipped far in the other direction. Somehow, we must find balance.