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franciscan - January 1997

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1996

Why?: The future of the Religious Life

By Brother Samuel SSF

“We don’t seem to be getting many vocations these days,” said the Reverend Mother at a meeting of religious communities. That was something of an understatement, as there had not been a novice in her community for several years, and there was now just a small number of elderly sisters left.

The Religious Life, as we have known it, has shrunk dramatically over the past half century under the pressures of changing social patterns, the erosion of the idea of life commitment and a rising expectation of individual self-fulfilment. Many religious orders have already ‘gone under’. Are the rest of us going the same way? I’m not a gambling man, and I hesitate to predict the way things will turn out for us Franciscans or for any other congregation in the years ahead, but I have a strong hunch that there is a future for Religious Life in the Church, because we stand for three things which can speak to the prevailing culture of our world as we approach the third millennium.

Far from being a society in which religion is being squeezed out by scientific progress, the world today is witnessing an explosion of interest in almost any kind of religious experience. Look at the shelves of any high street bookshop, where publications on New Age spirituality, alternative therapies, Gaia theory and Eastern religions jostle for place alongside Bibles, Christian teaching programmes and CD’s of Gregorian plainchant. Underlying the wide variety, and often superficial interest, there is a quest, a searching, which we recognise in the large number of people who come and stay in our community houses.

Our life as Franciscan sisters and brothers begins with the question we are asked as we are admitted as postulants: “What do you seek?”, and our response states very clearly where we stand and what we are about: “I seek God.” Before any work that we do, or any need or inclination of our own that is met through this life, our desire, our longing for God is the foundation and justification of our existence. The context of our searching is the Christian story of a God who has already sought and found us, and whose longing for us is greater than anything we can grasp. When lived to the full through prayer, worship and joyful participation in God’s creation, this seeking and being found is both transforming and attractive. We shouldn’t worry too much about new vocations – just live the life!

Back at the end of the fourth century, Saint Augustine of Hippo told a congregation in his cathedral that “God longs to give us something – the gift of himself – but we are unable to receive it because our hands are already too full.” Sixteen hundred years later we are even more burdened with ‘fullness’. We can shop twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week; we can select from any number of communications networks and channels for our entertainment; we can have at our fingertips more knowledge that we can possibly assimilate; we can travel the globe, choose our genes and re-build our faces – and yet we are still unsatisfied! In fact, there is a growing recognition that the free market, which has been allowed to run our society, is running out of control. “Those whom the gods would destroy they first drive mad.”

In such a world as this, Franciscan poverty can have a sharp cutting edge, not as a luddite approach to progress or a manichæan attitude to material things, but as a way of sitting lightly to all the glittering images of the market, from the latest technology or therapy to the most exciting new experience or opportunity. Sitting lightly means keeping our nerve amidst much of what is going on around us, not responding to every good offer, nor succumbing to the pressure to fill our hands with false treasures. Francis’s way of living the Gospel, his humour, his humility and his joy, can help us to open our hands and find room for the one great treasure of the Kingdom which alone can fill and sate us. In this radical way of life, we will find good company – even new brothers and sisters – because, as many of those who care for the well-being of our society now understand, travelling light holds the only future for ourselves and for the planet.

At the entrance to the Friary at Hilfield, we have erected a sign: “In Christ, Welcome”, as an expression of our desire to share the precious gift of community with others. Community life reflects our experience of God who is Trinity and who calls us into ever deeper communion with him. It is made real for us in Jesus, our brother, through whom all people become our brothers and sisters. It is made possible for us through the work of the Holy Spirit. Of course, we do not claim to have got it all right or to be a perfect community – I sometimes think that it would all be much easier if it wasn’t for the other brothers and sisters! – but community is the greatest gift that we have to offer. It is also what both the Church and the world need. The Church needs community because people can only respond to the good news of Jesus Christ when they see it lived out in the context of a living fellowship of believers who are journeying together; in fact, community is an essential part of evangelism. The world needs community because, in our fragmented, privatised and individualistic society, people are quite simply dying for the lack of it.

Undoubtedly, there will be changes in Religious Life and in our particular Franciscan Way: this has always been a developing tradition. There will be new patterns of living in community, our approach to the surrounding culture will be different and God will always be the Mysterious One who leads us on. Like the Church as a whole, we will need to avoid the twin dangers of, on the one hand, being neurotically concerned about ourselves, attending successive conferences and meetings about the future, and trying to ‘defend’ our community life so that it might survive. On the other hand, we must be careful of losing our identity, forgetting that we are called to be different, and becoming captive to the latest trend or fashion.

Paradoxically, the more single-mindedly we seek God in our prayer, worship and our life as a whole, the lighter we travel in our frenzied world and the deeper our community life, the greater will be our appeal to the world around us. Risking all things for the love of God, we can be a sign of life, joy and hope for others. That was Francis’s pattern eight hundred years ago and it will do for our future too. §


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