No one who attends carefully to the present experience of religious life in North America can be entirely sanguine about its present or its future. Despite the celebratory character of this gathering (and certainly the twenty-five year work of the Institute for Religious is something to celebrate) we are all aware of the signs of diminishment that mark contemporary religious life: aging membership, decline in recruitment, dwindling financial resources in the face of relentlessly rising costs, loss of institutions, if we attend only to the material problems. When these are compounded by ecclesiastical harassment of individual members in their ministries and of congregations in their legitimate exercise of self-determination and by intense struggles within congregations over self-understanding and identity, the picture can look bleak indeed.
Some people confront these distressing data with a panic that is barely held at bay by reactive rigidity. Others take refuge in a fatalistic resignation expressed in a fatigued hope that the congregation will at least die with dignity. Still others try not to think about the situation and to get on with the day-to-day business of life and ministry while secretly hoping that they will not be the ones who finally have to turn out the lights.
Nevertheless, in the face of such indisputable cause for concern, other factors which suggest a different line of reflection seem to be at work among large numbers of religious, especially women. In the past few years I have been increasingly struck by two features of contemporary religious life that have puzzled and intrigued me. My data are not scientific. They are gleaned, however, from experience with a large number of individual religious, often in the context of spiritual direction or renewal work, and with religious congregations and their leaders, usually in the context of community events such as assemblies, workshops, and reflection weekends.
As I articulated this puzzling experience for myself my reflection became a bit clearer and I hesitantly shared it with several groups of religious. I gave a very short presentation on the subject to the sisters of the diocese of Oakland, California during a Sisters' Day of Reflection in the fall of 1990 and was surprised at the depth of response it elicited. In 1991 I hinted at the same material in a ten-minute contribution to a videotape designed for use in my own congregation, and that same year I gave a fuller presentation to a group of religious from a number of congregations at Maria Center in St. Louis. On both occasions I was again surprised by the resonance the material evoked in the experience of the participants. In January of 1992 I developed the reflections into a more coherent presentation as part of a weekend seminar that I gave for several hundred religious in New Zealand. Congregational leaders and sisters overwhelmingly agreed that that presentation, among the four in the seminar, was the most useful for their individual and communal reflection. I mention this history by way of saying that, on the one hand, these reflections are based on my own experience rather than on anything that has been or perhaps can be established by objective research, but, on the other hand, they seem to resonate with the experience of many other religious in a variety of congregations here and abroad.
Consequently, when I was invited to participate in this Anniversary Institute I decided to try to put the reflections in publishable form, and that effort is what I offer you today in hopes that your reflections will confirm or correct, challenge and enrich my own.
Religious Life: The Challenge of Tomorrow
Cassian J. Yuhaus
Schneiders, Sandra Marie “Contemporary Religious Life: Death or Transformation?” In Religious Life: The Challenge of Tomorrow. Edited by Cassian J. Yuhaus, 9-34. New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994.