VATICAN CITY – When Pope Benedict XVI met with the superiors of religious orders recently, most media coverage focused on the pope’s description of the “difficult crisis” religious life is facing.
But like many papal talks and encounters, his realistic assessment of problems was matched by appreciation, encouragement and some advice for the future.
At the end of the 90-minute session, participants left feeling encouraged and even “thrilled” at the pope’s interest and support, according to one participant in the closed-door meeting.
The encounter had been requested for several years by the international federations of male and female religious orders, so just the fact that it happened was considered a positive development.
Present at the Feb. 18 meeting were the pope, three Vatican officials and 21 superiors general who represented, in a sense, the approximately 950,000 men and women religious around the world.
In a brief prepared talk, the pope spoke frankly about clouds on the horizon of religious life and the process of secularization that “unfortunately does not spare even religious communities.”
He cited some promising signs, too, including new forms of religious life marked by simplicity and austerity.
But he said the church’s oldest religious orders have experienced “a difficult crisis due to the aging of members, a more or less accentuated diminishing of vocations, and even sometimes a spiritual and charismatic fatigue.”
“The crisis, in some cases, has reached worrisome proportions,” he said.
Those were the money quotes in many reports on the meeting. The pope’s words were seen as reflecting deep Vatican dissatisfaction with mainstream religious orders in general.
But as usual, the view from the inside was far different.
“It’s certainly an entirely wrong perception to say that this was a dressing-down of the superiors general for any kind of failings or wrong leadership,” said Father Glen Lewandowski, master general of the Crosier order and a participant in the meeting.
“The pope had many inspirational things to say, and words of appreciation. It was very positive, and nothing like, ‘Why are you guys doing these things wrong?’“ Father Lewandowski said.
The pope seemed tired at the beginning of the session, but got “wound up” and was charming and cheery as it progressed, Father Lewandowski said.
The pontiff answered questions with ease, noting that bishops reporting about their dioceses inevitably underline the active and passionate contributions of men and women religious in their dioceses.
What impressed the religious superiors most was that the pope approached the issues not with a checklist of errors or problems, but from a theological perspective, urging a renewed focus on their commitment to Christ.
“He said what we’re looking for among religious is not so much what they do and what functions they serve in the church and in society, but a radical witness to Christ,” Father Lewandowski said.
“He mentioned this several times: It’s so simple. It entails meditation, reading of the word of God, silence and loving God with your whole heart and soul. And he told the group, that’s what you need to do. You need to go back not only to the roots of your founders, but to the roots of starting fresh from Christ,” he said.
The religious superiors left the room encouraged and inspired, in part because this was not just another strategy meeting about how to increase numbers.
Of course, the numbers do matter to some extent.
According to official church statistics, from 1978 to 2005 the number of religious priests worldwide declined from 158,000 to 137,000, while religious brothers decreased from about 75,000 to 55,000. The sharpest drop was in the number of women religious, which went from 985,000 to 783,000.
The situation is clearly going to get worse in coming years, mainly because of the aging population of the largest religious orders.
There are other problems, too, including the increasing defection rate of new entrants; in many places, 40 percent to 60 percent of those entering religious order formation programs leave before making their final commitment.
Father Lewandowski said his own Crosier order has projected that its membership will decline by half over the next 10 years.
Every order is trying to tackle the problem and attract new vocations, he said, mainly by focusing on “better clarity about identity.” New entrants need to have a better understanding of the individual charism of each religious order and a clearer idea of what religious life is all about, he said.
Father Lewandowski also suggested that religious orders may have life cycles, and that those emerging in one social age may naturally die out in another.
For example, he said, many orders formed over the last 200 years were based on the secular principle of being useful to society in educational, health care or other social roles, which have now been largely taken over by government organizations or by lay Catholics.
“All of these orders are now in significant crisis,” he said.
He also said the decline in religious life is usually measured against statistics from before the Second Vatican Council. But that was an exceptional period of flourishing for religious orders, and those numbers should probably not be used as a base line, he said.