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Symposium looks at ‘Reclaiming the Treasure’ of religious life

By Neil W. McCabe
Posted: 10/3/2008

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EASTON -- The prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life joined the “Symposium on Apostolic Life: Religious Life Since Vatican II ... Reclaiming the Treasure,” a frank exploration of consecrated life hosted at Stonehill College Sept. 27. The symposium was held in honor of the archdiocese’s bicentennial.

Cardinal Franc Rode, CM, who delivered the afternoon’s keynote address and celebrated the closing Mass, brought the broader perspective of the universal Church as the pope’s representative for consecrated life, said Father Mark T. Cregan, CSC, the college’s president. “Plus, I think he is delighted to be here to celebrate the bicentennial of the archdiocese.”

Once they had settled on the idea of a symposium, Father Cregan approached Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley to see if it was an event he would welcome. With the cardinal’s approval, the college president asked Bishop George W. Coleman, the Bishop of Fall River, if he would act as the co-host. “Given who we are, an academic institution, when we say celebration, usually we mean something intellectual.”

Although Stonehill is located within the Diocese of Fall River, the school owns property in Brockton and is active in the Catholic schools of Brockton, which is part of the Archdiocese of Boston, he said.

The organizers were expecting 250 attendees, and instead there were more than 650 registered participants, said Bishop Coleman.

“I come among you as a brother religious who has experienced the adventure and the turmoil of the renewal of consecrated life called for by the Second Vatican Council. This extraordinary experience has made me who I am and has shaped the words I address to you today with immense affection and hope,” the prefect said in his address.

The role of consecrated religious in both the history of the Church and of civil society has always been vital, he said.

“Even a sketchy overview of history can show abundant evidence that, without the presence and activity of monks and nuns, religious women and men, despite their acknowledged cultural and historical limitations, the history of Western civilization and the evangelization of vast areas of the globe would be immensely poorer,” he said. “The history of the Church in the United States of America is rich with the contributions of consecrated men and women who have left an indelible mark on the culture.”

There is a crisis in religious life, especially in those who have struggled with the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council, and its document on religious life, “Perfectae Caritatis,” he said. In the period of innovation that followed the council, some religious orders mistook the spirit of renewal to license rupture, rather than reform.

This rupture from tradition and from the charism of their founders has fundamentally changed how many religious have made public witness to their consecrated life and how they maintained their vows of obedience, poverty and chastity, he said.

Although, many religious are distressed and resigned to accept the decline of consecrated life, it is significant that those orders founded at the time of or after the Second Vatican Council are growing and have not experienced the turmoil as the older orders, he said. These growing orders have embraced many of the routines and customs of consecrated life rejected by the other orders in their spirit of rupture, he said.

When the remaking of religious life made consecrated life so similar to the lifestyle of those not bound by vows, vocations suffered as there no longer seemed to be a reason to enter religious life, he said.

In its worst manifestation the spirit of rupture has led some Catholic religious to reject their Catholicism, he said.

“It would seem superfluous to make this remark, for one would imagine there is no discussion on this point. However, we have all, sadly, experienced the presence of groups or individuals who, by their own admission, have ‘moved beyond the Church,’ yet remain externally ‘in’ the Church,” he said.

“Surely, such an ambivalent existence cannot bring forth fruits of joy and peace, neither for themselves nor for the Church. We pray that the Holy Spirit will give them the light to see the path to true peace and freedom, and the courage to follow it,” he said.

The morning’s keynote speaker, theologian Sister Sara Butler, MSBT, delivered an address called, “Apostolic Religious Life: A Public, Ecclesial Vocation,” in which she said the increasingly progressive leadership of religious orders threatens the Catholic character of the orders and is polarizing those in religious life. This is occurring despite the fact that the vast majority of consecrated religious are not progressive, even in progressive orders.

“The problem is not only that so few are joining our ranks,” Sister Sara said. “It is that the current polarization and division in the Church at large is found among us as well. It exists in the uneasy and even fractured relationships among our apostolic institutes, within many of our institutes, and -- for many -- in the relationships of religious with the diocesan clergy, the bishops and the Holy See.”

Sister Sara said, “The reality of this polarization is more than regrettable; it is a cause of scandal. It is a counter-sign. We are called to be vivid, visible signs of the kingdom and to attract others to Christ and his Church by the joyful witness of our consecrated lives.”

This polarization continues abetted by bishops unwilling to confront progressive religious, she said.

Part of the problem was timing, she said. The 1960s and 1970s were the worst times to initiate reforms, given the turmoil and strife that marked those decades. This was especially true, considering the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the apostolic at the expense of the monastic, she said.

Because much of the apostolic impulse was expressed through participation in social justice crusades, after religious had finished fighting for civil rights or to end the Vietnam War, they turned the tactics and revolutionary fervor towards perceived injustices inside the Church, she said.

The other aspect of the problem was that Church leaders underestimated the strength of radical feminism in the United States, she said. This strain of feminism is no longer a part of the conversation in civil society, but it remains ascendant within religious communities, she said.

As someone who herself took part in the remaking of religious life, the way forward in revitalizing it must be consistent with Church doctrine, Sister Sara said.

“Those of us who freely choose to remain, and who embrace the obligation to live the religious life as the Holy See defines it, long for the rebirth of relationships in which our place in the Church is clear and unambiguous, and in which we can ask of one another the witness of holiness -- the radical following of Jesus, poor, chaste and obedient -- according to the nature, purpose and spirit of our own beloved institutes.”

Speaking from one of the floor microphones for the question and answer period after Sister Sara’s talk, Sister Mary Elena Rizzo, OP, a Dominican Sister from New York City, said she did not have a question, but she wanted to thank Sister Sara for exposing the problems in religious life. “I am from the silent majority that can be silent no more.”

Other speakers at the conference included: Father Joseph T. Lienhard, SJ; Sister Gill Goulding, CJ; Father Hugh Cleary, CSC; Sister Elizabeth McDonough, OP; Father Kurt Pritzl, OP; and journalist Ann Carey, who covers issues in religious life for Our Sunday Visitor, a co-sponsor of the event.

There were two panel discussions. The morning session’s discussion, “Apostolic Religious Life in the Post-Vatican II Church: Sources of Renewal,” was introduced by Father Thomas Looney, CSC, of Stonehill. The afternoon session, “Apostolic Religious Life in the Post-Vatican II Church: Ongoing Challenges of Renewal,” was introduced by Sister Marian Batho, CJC, the archdiocese’s delegate to religious.

Sister Marian said after her discussion she was pleasantly surprised by the strong turnout and the openness of the discussions. “I really sense that here in the archdiocese we are experiencing a period of renewal under Cardinal Seán’s leadership. This event is very timely.”

The frankness of the discussions was necessary for the free flow of ideas and concerns, said Sister Jeanne Gribaudo, CSJ, who works at Stonehill as both an instructor and in the president’s office. “We need to establish what it means to live a publicly avowed consecrated life and this symposium is a way to do that.”

“I just think it is wonderful to bring everyone together,” said Sister Anne McDermott, CSJ, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Springfield.

“Oh, my goodness this is awesome,” said Sister Joseph Marie Cruz, LSP, from the Jeanne Jugan Residence in Somerville. “It was really courageous of the speakers who have gotten up there to recognize that they have fallen away from their commitment to really voice their opinions, and now to speak in front of everyone.”

Despite the difficult topics, the atmosphere was positive, she said. “There’s this sincerity within the atmosphere here.”

The Little Sisters are very grateful to their superiors, who have kept them in the right mind, she said. “We continue to live faithfully following the charism of Blessed Jeanne Jugan.”

At the end of the symposium, Cardinal Rode said it is difficult for him to say now what he will report to the Holy Father.

“I think we are all in research. We are all in research, but we all want something better for religious life,” he said.

There are hundreds of new religious communities forming, even in the United States, which shows the power of the Holy Spirit working in the Church, the prefect said.