Despite the devastation of the last thirty or more years (see “Disappearing nuns”), there are some signs of renewal and hope for religious orders. Those signs are evident among the newer orders that have remained true to their spiritual tradition and are still making the traditional demands of religious life.
Those orders are successfully recruiting new members. Both DiIanni and Wittberg have described how the thriving communities are re-establishing an emphasis on “intense community life” and “communitarian living.” Nygren and Ukeritis have found that the orders that are most healthy have reinstated monastic practices and a sense of clarity about their life and work.
Traditionally, before taking final vows, members of orders are required to successfully complete an extensive four-stage formation program. Before Vatican II, formation programs were normally conducted within the religious order, thus reinforcing its unique “charism” or unique spiritual identity and mission. However, with the declining numbers that followed Vatican II many orders moved to intercommunity formation. A characteristic of the newer and revitalised orders is that they conduct their own formation programs and thus successfully impart their unique charism to new recruits.
Dilanni has observe three aspects that characterise the religious orders that are thriving in the post Vatican II world:
1. Explicit religious goals. They are committed to Christianity as classically understood rather than a vague faith that has died the death of a thousand definitions.
2. An intense community life. They are committed to a common life and to the practices that sustain community. The founder’s values are given community expression in oft-repeated symbols and practices.
3. A passion for an explicit worldwide evangelisation. They attract young people who are willing to minister anywhere on the globe and whose priority is evangelism.
Thriving orders make high demands on their members, they hold to traditional doctrine but are innovative in method. These growing orders have made an innovative return to their tradition, interpreting and reapplying it in a fresh way. In doing so they have sought “to make their mission relevant to the surrounding culture without being a part of the culture.” In the modern and now postmodern world they have become the legitimate heirs to a religious heritage that has known decline and rebirth throughout the whole of its eighteen hundred years.
Albert Dilanni, Religious Vocations: New Signs of the Times. Review for Religious, 52 (1993), 745-63.
Roger Finke, “An Orderly Return to Tradition: Explaining Recruitment of Members into Catholic Orders”. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Mar. 1997, 36:2, pp218-230.
David Nygren and Miriam Ukeritis, “Future of Religious Orders in the United States,” Origins Vol 22 number 15 (24 Sept, 1992), 271.
Patricia Wittberg, The Rise and Fall of Catholic Religious Orders: A Social Movement Perspective (Suny Series in Religion, Culture, and Society)