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Marist Bulletin - Number 337


Vocation promotion within contemporary Marist life
Are we up to the challenge?

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Seán D. Sammon, FMS

Message of Brother Seán Sammon, Superior General, to the Brothers and Lay participants in the meeting on Vocations Ministry held in Les Avellanes (Lleida - Spain) from April 3 to April 8, 2008. The meeting was organized by the Bureau of Vocations to analyze the situation of the Vocations Ministry in the Marist Provinces in secularized countries.

At the outset, a word of thanks to each of you for putting aside these days to meet and study the topic of vocation promotion in a secular society. Luis and the members of the General Council share my grateful for your presence and hard work.
A word of apology also that I am not with you in Les Avellanes for this meeting. The present General Administration has included vocation promotion among its top priorities; were it not for a previous commitment to visit the Province of Brasil Centro Norte with Luis, I would most certainly have joined you for the sessions held this past week.
Yours is a unique ministry within our Institute; few among us face as you do the day-to-day challenge of promoting vocations in countries characterized as secular. Those charged with responsibility for evangelization within these same countries can probably best identify with your mission. For if truth be told, we know far more today about evangelizing those who live in developing countries than we do about carrying out the same work within those that make up the developed world. The latter are, of course, those nations also most often classified as secular.
What is the purpose of this morning’s presentation? To raise three concerns about the work that is yours and to say a word about each. They are not the only concerns I could address, nor would they be applicable to all parts of our Marist world. I do believe, however, that they have relevance in countries characterized as developed or secular and that a brief discussion about each may be helpful to you in the ministry that is yours.

Three concerns
First point: today we appear to be on the verge of a new moment in the process of renewal in religious life. Far more challenging than any we have encountered in recent years and our response to this phase of renewal will determine our future as an Institute and the effectiveness of our mission during the years to come. This development has serious implications for the promotion of vocations.
Second point: in countries characterized as secular the fruit of our renewal efforts to date has been shaped by thinking that more appropriately belongs to a period called “modernity” than to post-modernity. I will say an additional word about each period in a moment. However, the fact that thus far principles associated with modernity have guided many of our efforts at renewal thus far has given rise to rather bloodless results and an ever-widening generation gap between a number of us and those who make up the world of the young. This development also has serious implications for the promotion of vocations.
Third point: the Church shows evidence of floundering today in parts of our world. This situation is due in part to religious life’s failure to renew itself and assume its proper role in relationships to the wider People of God.
Religious brothers, sisters, and priests were never meant to be solely an ecclesiastical work force. Instead, their role and true identity, is to be a searing presence, a leaven. Consecrated life, at its best, was always meant to be the Church’s living memory of what that Church can and must be. When it falls short of that mark, religious life suffers and so does the Church. Once again, this development has serious implications for the promotion of vocations.

The challenge of renewal
Forty years ago we set out as an Institute on the path of renewal. Our 17th General Chapter, occurring just as the Second Vatican Council came to a close, produced a library about Marist religious life that remains unrivaled to this day. Chapter capitulants along with many others expressed great confidence that we had the wherewithal to move into the future and to thrive.
At the time the Institute numbered just shy of 10,000 members. Conventional wisdom suggested that by implementing the decisions of the Chapter and living out the spirit of the Council we could only swell in size. For some very human reasons we measured success by material standards: number of works, percentage of students admitted to university, recognition by national and international agencies.
As time progressed, however, these criteria came under fire and we were forced to re-examine the meaning and purpose of our way of life. In so doing, many of us came to realize that religious life was more appropriately described as the undivided pursuit of God centered in Jesus Christ and expressed in lifelong consecrated celibate chastity.
In relying on this definition I am not suggesting that our way of life has at its core a “God and me” theology. Rather, echoing the first call found in the Message of our last General Chapter: our mission as Marist brothers is most effective, and our motivation for undertaking it most selfless, when Jesus Christ is the center and passion of our lives. In undergoing the change of heart necessary to reach this new understanding, we also have the possibility of rediscovering religious life’s ministry of prophecy.
In our initial impatience to get on with the work of renewal we failed to understand the nature of change. The world many of us knew was ending and we wanted a hoped for new beginning to get underway as quickly as possible. And so we employed all those human means we had at our disposal—consultants, pastoral and strategic plans, renewal retreats, to name but a few—assuming that one or another would move us ahead more quickly, thus helping us to avoid some of the loss and discomfort required to reach our goal. When we failed to achieve this outcome, some became discouraged and began to wonder about the future of our way of life.
In spite of our protests, few of us welcome change. It disrupts our lives and leaves us feeling a bit lost. Most of us prefer stability and predictability. Change also includes three distinct but overlapping phases: first there is an ending, followed by a rather prolonged period during which uncertainty and doubt are common, and finally there is a new beginning.
In many ways we have spent the last 50 years falling apart as a group. As unsettling as that process has been, it has brought us to a place wherein we can ask those questions and face those challenges that are at the heart of genuine renewal. Perhaps we are even ready to allow God lead the way in the process of renewal and not rely so consistently on our human solutions. Embracing the adventure of this second stage in the journey of renewal, we are well advised to take with us but faith in God and the tools of a pilgrim.
The young have always been more attracted to adventure than to certainty. Rather than waiting for the journey of renewal to be finished before inviting them to join us, we need to give them the opportunity to take their place as fellow pilgrims.

Modernity and post-modernity
What do we mean by modernity? It’s that worldview that began with the Enlightenment, led on through the Industrial Revolution, reached its high point during the Victorian period, and moved on into today. Clearly, modernity’s onset has been staggered in different countries, dependent to a large extent upon economic development. What features characterize this period? A confidence in scientific reason, individualism, and a belief that material progress is unlimited.
This emphasis on scientific advancement and material progress has also led many societies to become more secular. Sociologists point out that modernity’s onset appears to coincide with the marginalization of religion, relegating it to the sphere of private belief.
How did the Church react initially to these developments? With fear; it pulled up its drawbridges and created a self-contained world that survived pretty much intact until the early 1960s. Throughout this period, for example, one encyclical or another argued that Catholic teaching must remain uncontaminated by modern thought.
Vatican II, of course, brought this self-contained world to an end. The Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World was a clear sign that the Church was at last embracing modernity. But a certain irony exists here, for by the time the Church decided to embrace modernity, modernity itself was being questioned by post-modern thinking.
The catastrophic events that had marked the history of the twentieth century up until the time of Vatican II – the First and Second World wars, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to name but a few – seriously undermined the notion that the application of universal reason could solve life’s great issues.
While this critique of modernity was taking root, many Catholic seminaries and houses of formation in the West exhibited an enthusiasm about catching up with modernity. Post Vatican II theologians adopted the scientific rationalism that their predecessors had repudiated. Explanation was in; symbolism and mystery was out. Retrospectively, these developments can be seen as a mixed-blessing. For example, in rushing in to be part of the secular world religious life lost much of its previous identity.
Today we live with the consequences of this approach to renewal. The liturgy, for example, greatly in need of some reform at the time of Vatican II, was updated largely along rationalist lines. However, it seems that the more we pared down our celebrations, the more people in society at large seemed to yearn for ritual and the symbolic. In recent years this longing for the transcendent has been particularly true among the young. And where has the Church and religious life been? As religion was coming in by the back door, religious life and the Church in general had their backs to that door. Harvey Cox, a champion of the notion of Church in a secular world, was moved to write the following, “Nearly three decades ago I wrote a book, The Secular City, in which I tried to work out a theology for the ‘post-religious age” that many sociologists had confidently assured us was coming. Since then, however, religion – or at least some religions – seem to have gained a new lease on life. Today it is secularity, not spirituality, that may be headed for extinction.” (Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven 1996, p. xv).
Post-modernity may be difficult to define but one of its chief characteristics is a return to religion and spirituality. This may not be evident in the number of people joining mainstream Churches but they are once again asking religious questions. The purely rational and secular no longer seem to satisfy. Make no mistake about it: post modernity also has its problems. It has introduced, for example, a time of moral relativism and social and individual fragmentation. So too it demonstrates impatience with overarching explanations of reality. At the same time, post modern thinking has its virtues and we avoid them at our peril.
Religious life in many developed countries appears to have gotten itself stuck in a post-Vatican II modern phase. Once again, this is not to say that it should try to solve that problem by mindlessly embracing post-modernity. The post-modern world, for example, has little regard for commitments. Our religious vows lived fully challenge this notion.
As brothers, especially those charged with the work of vocation promotion, we must listen closely to the experience of young people today, even when what they tell us it is seriously at odds with our world view. Many coming to us today appear to be looking for spirituality, a sense of the transcendent, and community. In doing so, some have found themselves labeled as reactionary, accused of having an interest in restoring the practices of the past. But let’s remind ourselves, they did not live in the past. More often than not, they have rediscovered some tradition of the Church and want to make it their own.
The terms modernity and post-modernity are of course constructs given to us to help us better understand our experience in life. They are complicated notions and I do not mean to oversimplify either. However, as an Institute we must examine the values contained in each. A failure to do so might condemn us to holding on to the past at the very same very moment a new beginning is getting underway.

The meaning and purpose of religious life
In recent years I have come to favor this definition of consecrated life: the Church’s living memory of what it can be, longs to be, must be. Prior to the Council the Church, in the mind of many resembled a pyramid. Priesthood, considered the highest calling, sat at the top of this structure and religious life found its place in the middle. The vast majority of the Church’s membership, the laity, were assembled at the base of the pyramid. Priests and religious were also considered to be the only ones having a vocation or mission.
The Council’s universal call to holiness brought this way of thinking to an abrupt end and made this point quite clear: henceforth all who numbered among the People of God had a mission by reason of their baptism. That mission was the Church’s singular mission: to love God and to make God known and loved.
However, while Vatican II helped clarify the role and place of laymen and women in our Church and world, it was less successful in helping men and women religious understand their identity anew or to find their place in the Church. Consequently, many in the Church began to ask what it was that laymen and women could not do and brothers, sisters, and priests could. But the answer to that question has always been clear: when it comes to work, there is nothing that brothers and sisters can do that any layman or woman could not do just as well.
As mentioned earlier, though, religious life was never meant to be solely an ecclesiastical work force. In retrospect, Vatican II did an enormous favor for religious life. It reminded all who would listen that consecrated life was never meant to be part of the Church’s hierarchical structure. It was instead to be seen as a charismatic movement that would more properly find its place within the charismatic structure of the Church. Our way of life was meant to be a bit wild; prior to the Council, however, it has allowed itself to become domesticated. For that situation to change its members had to experience personal conversion, read accurately the signs of their times, and reclaim the spirit of their founding charism.
Charism sitting at the heart of consecrated life was to be one of the keys needed for its renewal. Pope Paul VI reminded us that charism is nothing more and nothing less than the presence of the Holy Spirit. The challenge that faces us today, then, is this: do you and I really believe that the Spirit of God that was so active and alive in Marcellin Champagnat longs to live and breathe in you and me today. In inviting young people to our way of life today, we give them the opportunity to become involved with the Spirit of God in such a way that their life is forever changed. What a great blessing for them and for our Church and world.

A better understanding about the process of renewal underway within religious life today, the inclusion of post-modern insights in our analysis of the present state of consecrated life and its future, and arriving at a proper understanding of our life as brothers would redefine the conversation taking place about vocation promotion in secular societies. These changes might also give us a fresh perspective and lead us to some new approaches to this age old task: inviting young men with generous hearts to make their own the dream and charism of Marcellin Champagnat. Thank you.

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