Summary of Talks from CORI Conference


Religious Life Evolving – Faithful and Free.  A summary

Our CORI Spring Conference, held on April 25, 2014 in the Grand Hotel, Malahide, was a vibrant, joyous encounter, marked by excellent input from our speakers in the morning and a great dialogue with the participants in the afternoon. The event was fully booked for weeks in advance and a buzz of anticipation and involvement could be felt in the hall, throughout. The day’s focus was on recent changes in the understanding of religious life, and the sub-title “Faithful and Free” meant to suggest that authentic fidelity involves being free to adapt our core values to the evolving reality of the world where we live.

Our keynote speakers were Sr. Pat Farrell, OSF, former President of the LCWR in the United States, and Sr. Sandra Schneiders, IHM, Professor Emerita at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, California. Since both of our speakers kindly allowed us publish their lectures in full, on the CORI website, we hope our readers have given them a thoughtful reading. But at the request of several religious, I will venture here a summary of the points that struck me most during the talks.

Pat Farrell’s lecture, entitled “Sustaining Transformation” starts from the premise that transformation in our surrounding culture necessarily impacts on our own self-understanding and also our community’s understanding of religious life. Those who entered religious life around 1960 could easily empathise with her sense that “My entire experience of religious life has been one of continual change. Years ago I expected the climate of change to eventually level off and that life would return to some sense of normalcy. I now realize that the only constant is change which is, if anything, only deepening and accelerating.” In more recent times, as the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) she faced the difficulties of trying to be loyal to core values of religious life in changing times, while being subject to scrutiny from conservative church authorities, critical of many of the sisters’ responses to modern social change.

Several times Pat used poetry to convey where we now find ourselves, finding imagery to express express her sense of hope under pressure. In face of adverse criticism directed against the LCWR, she quotes from Christopher Fry:

Cold and dark it may be But this is no winter now. The frozen misery of centuries cracks, breaks, begins to move. The thunder is the thunder of the floes. The thaw, the flood, the up-start spring. Thank God our time is now…

She offers a basically hopeful perspective on the reality of change in religious life, certain that while change is a constant, transformation is the work of God’s Spirit. Our task is to seek what can help us to sustain the process of transformation that God is somehow working in us, in our world, and in our Church during these times. She invites us to ponder, “How do we live with change in a way that makes us malleable to processes of transformation?”

Some light can be sought from the prophetic experience of Jeremiah, whose unpopular message brought him violent opposition and even a personal crisis of faith in his mission and his God. His great contribution, as he embodied the sorrow and pain of the community, was to explain the cause of exile and give the exiles hope for the future. He knew that only God could change the hearts of the people, and only after the experience of exile had purified their hearts.

Sr Farrell suggests that as religious in the Church find ourselves in a situation much like that of Jeremiah and are called, as he was, “to embody the pain and sorrow of the community… to cut through the enormous self-deception of euphemism,” “naming pain by its right name so that it can be faced.” In a timely reference, given that it was still Easter Week, she said: “This season invites us to look evil and death in the eye, to not deny or run away, knowing that it does not have the last word.”

Another image from Jeremiah to help us make sense of this time of great change is that of the potter’s transforming work. As the potter molds the clay a certain way, then starts over and makes it into something of another kind such is God’s way with all human institutions, sometimes tearing down and destroying and sometimes building up and planting. “In this prolonged season of breakdown, upheaval and diminishment in religious life and in the Church, this image of clay in the hands of the potter invites surrender and trust. It doesn’t make loss any less intensely felt, but it does surround it with meaning. It suggests that God has in mind a new design for another kind of vessel.”

She went on to wonder Jeremiah’s situation might help us interpret our own? Just as the people of Israel were in denial about the magnitude of change and needed the shock of a dramatic symbol, “it is equally difficult in our time to take in the enormity of the paradigm shift taking place and the magnitude and depth of our need for letting go. The tendency is to underestimate the extent of the macro transformation in which we are immersed. We’re tempted to rush past it on our way to an attempted return to business as usual. But it is much more helpful to be with the chaos and grief and to allow it to lead and teach us.” In her view, any attempted return to “business as usual” in the church, ignoring the substantial changes in the cultural world of today, would be illusory.

In her quiet, understated way, she posed this challenge, “Can we stay with the chaos, the loss, and the breakdown long enough to allow it to ferment and season us? It will make our need of God absolutely clear. The more deeply we can let go of the past, the more capacity we will have to midwife the future transformation trying to come to birth.” She cites a graphic example from something she witnessed in El Salvador. Whole communities that had fled aerial bombings of their villages returned to find them in charred ruins. Because the destruction had been so complete, they had a unique opportunity to rebuild their community, “including consciously redesigning how they wanted to be together.”

For religious as well, the experience of breakdown and loss can herald new shoots of growth. “We are now undergoing major changes in world view, inviting us to nothing short of a transformation of consciousness.” “The new wine of exploding information no longer fits into the old wine skins of disappearing worldviews. The language, the concepts, the mental categories, the underlying philosophies, indeed the consciousness, that were adequate before no longer are.” Amid all that change, many religious experience a crisis of meaning. We have given our lives in service of God and the People of God and can feel the sense of betrayal , like Jeremiah who cried out, “You have seduced me, O God, and I have let myself be seduced.”

Faced with this crisis, can we stay with those kinds of feelings, allowing them to “carve out in us a larger space for transformation?” But in fact we need to live in the new mind-set, defined more by our new situation than the old one. While are living between the limited light of the past and the pre-dawn time before a new day, “fortunately, we have mentors. The paschal mystery we have just celebrated coaches us to approach transition primarily as a birth, not death.” Furthermore, in our religious communities our elderly companions “teach us so much about ultimate surrender, about the power of letting go. The deeper our surrender, the deeper will be our availability for real transformation.”

In seeking a hopeful outcome from this process of transformation, she turns to another Scriptural image about clay pots, where it says (2 Cor. 4: 7): “We are the earthenware jars that hold this treasure, to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us.” In light of this text, what can help us to manage change in life-giving ways that keep us open to transformation? It is the certainty that there is imbedded in our human nature a certain drive toward growth and newness. “Within us and within all of creation there is an impulse toward greater life, greater complexity, greater wholeness.. a hidden purposefulness, the unique imprint of the divine in each of us and in creation. There is some basic pattern or gift in each of us that wants to unfold, to develop, to come to fullness.”

While admitting that very few people like change and the insecurities it brings, it is also true that in a crisis situation, “we are likely to bump into both the best and the worst of ourselves. .. I find it heartening that crisis and change can activate extraordinary responses. We do rise to the occasion when times are difficult. We may catch ourselves acting out of a strength or a generosity we didn’t know we had. There can be new energy, surprising creativity, fresh ideas and insights.”

The final part of her talk focussed on how religious can manage their relationships in an environment of shared vulnerability. There can be a positive side to this, a greater kindness toward one another, a shedding of reserve, a caring that is more demonstrable. Conversely, it can bring out the worst in us. When we’re suddenly thrust into insecurity, defense mechanisms can surface and old patterns of reaction can reappear, making us irritable and defensive. What helps, then is to name the tendency, to normalize it, to anticipate it, to embrace and accept it, and to be compassionate with ourselves and with one another… and to create emotional safety for the difficult conversations that are required. Disturbance and confusion can enable us to break patterns that can keep us stuck. But in discussing how to face our future as religious it is essential that we communicate in a manner that is not judgmental or demanding. “The raising of expectations has to be accompanied by a lot of love and reassurance that makes it possible for us and others to go forward with some security.”

We must avoid looking for a place outside themselves to lay both blame and praise. Both tend to fall on leaders and usually reveal some degree of misplaced responsibility. She cites how Pope Francis expressed his frustration with the tendency to make him into a hero, and often reasserts that he is a simple normal person, which is disarming and refreshing. Idealizing the pope can be a way of not taking responsibility to concretely do the same as he does. It is idle to praise his concern for the poor, if we are not personally committed to caring for them. Blaming is the opposite side of the same coin. “It is a challenge both to accept responsibility and also not to accept responsibility when either is appropriate.”

In trying to plan our future as religious, non-violent communication is a useful skill to cultivate. This involves being non-judgmental toward others while also accepting the judgment of others in a non-violent spirit. We need to foster an atmosphere for complex conversations that don’t further divide, communicating feelings and expectations without harsh judgment and with a clear sense of compassion for the other’s point of view.

Pat Farrel concludes by noting how our relationship with God is our basic anchor, to nourish and sustain us, when so many external aspects of religious life are in flux. We are thrust back onto the essential impulse of vocation, the desire for God. “Isn’t that what brought us to religious life and has kept us here?” The longing for God draws us into our deepest selves, to the surest compass that guides us towards the newness that lies ahead. After citing Rilke’s “I love you, gentlest of Ways,” she said: “In the surrender of contemplation God takes us to a deeper inner place where another kind of wisdom and resiliency become accessible to us. Contemplation is the crucible where the treasure we carry in earthen vessels is purified and where God’s way unfolds from our most authentic selves.”


The Ongoing Challenge Of Renewal In Contemporary Religious Life was the title of Sandra Schneiders talk. It was somewhat longer than the preceding paper, but we will try to similarly highlight its principal points.

Sandra began by alluding to the “new era” of the pontificate of Pope Francis who has stirred hopes throughout the Catholic world and especially among Religious, but then noted: “We have been here before… surveying the broad vistas of possibility for genuine renewal in Religious Life and in the Church as a whole.” Her characterisation of the Vatican leadership over the past 50 years was blunt in the extreme. What followed Vatican II were “thick black clouds.. the darkness of the reform of the reform,” the explosion of the abuse scandals and the huge exodus of Religious, especially the younger ones, from our Congregations. “The bright hopes of the Council seemed more like a golden dream from which we awoke in the cold reality of pre-conciliar ultra-montanism.” And yet once again, “as with the election of John XXIII, the Holy Spirit confounded the best laid plans of some and the deepest despair of others.” Still, while welcoming the humble, affable style of Pope Francis, she finds it understandable if we are hesitant to get our hopes up again, for a renewal of religious life.

She comments wryly: “the fact is that Religious Life is on the rocks and recovery, even under Francis, is most unlikely. New ecclesial movements and various other kinds of lay initiatives might replace us but Religious Life as it existed when we entered is over. Some of us have decided to go down with the ship but cannot see much reason to entice anyone else to get on board, even if there were anyone interested in being enticed or a board to get onto.” Many heads nodded sombrely at this realistic, if bleak, summary of our situation.

From this starting point she invited us to consider whether there are constructive ways of addressing it, in light of the Easter encounters of Mary Magdalene and Thomas with the Risen Jesus. Both of them had the same problem, captured in the metaphor of touch, that most intimate form of human contact. The Jesus to whom each was fiercely attached has moved beyond their reach and they cannot see any way to go on unless he restores to them what his death had definitively ended.

Schneiders began by considering how our current situation of crisis has arisen, and traces two currents, one negative and one positive, that, since Vatican II, have been running through Religious Life. The negative current is some loss of place and identity of religious in the Church, arising from the Council’s message that

all the baptized are called to holiness and to share in the mission of Jesus, prophet, priest, and servant leader. “Now, if one did not, by becoming a Religious, enter a superior spiritual state of life, nor, as quasi-clerics, have access to participation in ministries not open to the ordinary laity, why take on the obligations of Religious Life?” Through the new ecclesiology, much of the rationale for Religious Life — the call to superior holiness and special access to ecclesial ministry — was seriously undermined in the minds of many Religious. This may explain why so many left Religious Life in the wake of the Council and few considered entering.

Since Vatican II focussed on local churches composed of laity and clergy, the religious, especially women, were suddenly without a clear role in this renewing Church “of which they had been, prior to the Council, in many ways, the backbone, the workforce, and the public face.” As their institutions foundered, some Religious took up ministries in parishes or diocesan offices, which could be filled just as well by a competent lay person, and which were individual ministries working for the hierarchical Church rather than ministries of their Congregations. In such cases the Religious was a glorified lay person. Some other Religious took up ministries for which a cleric was desired but unavailable, again as an employee of the hierarchy rather than as a missionary of her or his own Congregation. In these cases, the Religious looked and acted like second-class clergy.

In her trenchant analysis of this “placelessness” Schneiders sees it as exacerbated by two interlocking problems: the exodus of many religious because they could now become holy and minister in the Church without the burdens of the Religious Life; and the sudden decline of the institutional ministries of orders themselves. Plus, of course, the choices of religious themselves to de-emphasize exotic dress and medieval practices dissipated the fascinating mysteriousness of their lives! In addition there was the effort by some of the hierarchy to bring religious to heel.

On the positive side, religious did wholeheartedly embrace the Conciliar renewal. They were the group in the Church best prepared to receive and implement the thrust of the Council. They were beginning to appreciate the feminist movement which created a natural affinity between religious and liberation theology. Adopting contemporary leadership models, they moved from the hierarchical absolutism of pre-conciliar religious life toward more egalitarian and communal forms of life. Already sensitized to the agenda of renewal, they were poised to plunge into the spirituality movements that emerged from the Council such as serious study of scripture and theology, directed retreats and individualized spiritual direction, and so on. Religious were among the first to study the Council documents in depth. They got deeply into biblical and liturgical renewal and took seriously the Council-mandated renewal and reworking of their Constitutions.

But this positive reception of the Council ironically reinforced the marginalization of religious in a Church that was increasingly centered on the laity. Religious came to really believe in the Church as a discipleship of equals and ministry as service preferentially offered to the marginalized. They embraced, at least in theory, the relinquishment of their “favored nation” status in the Church. So the spiritual conversion within the religious life was working in tandem with the ecclesiastical deconstruction from without to dismantle a lifestyle that had been consolidated over the past 400 years, since the Council of Trent.

Schneiders had some sharp words to say of the retrograde steps taken during the previous two pontificates. “A new form of religious life was conceived in the period immediately after the Council but it was a long way from birth and the pregnancy encountered major problems as the “restoration” under John Paul II gained momentum and led to the “reform of the reform.” While a minority of Congregations gladly embraced the restoration of pre-conciliar forms of religious life, most religious “remained inveterate Conciliar Catholics and this resistance to the restoration dynamic could not fail to place them increasingly in tension, if not outright conflict, with the right wing of the laity and the hierarchy.”

In this current state of affairs in the Church and the world, where are we, as Religious, now? In reply she named three significant “markers”: 1) our relation to the institutional Church; 2) theological insights which are central to our life at this time; and 3) the changed cultural situation in which we find ourselves.

1) Our relation to the institutional Church. This has become less fraught since the election of Pope Francis, himself a religious sho clearly understands the religious life. This changed atmosphere may allow us to relativize the threat from the central power structure that has consumed so much of our emotional resources in the last few decades. Francis has validated the religious life as a prophetic vocation in the Church charged to preach the Gospel in the world that God so loved. “It is much easier to hold to a steady course when there are some indications outside one’s own cockpit that one is on the right track.”

2) We should hold firmly to certain key theological insights. These are crucial to our self-understanding and must be the basis for our ongoing renewal if we are going to carry Religious Life into the future. The first is our conviction that our prophetic ministry is intrinsic to Religious Life, not simply a behavioral overflow of a primary vocation to personal holiness. This Gospel-based autonomy is not deliberate provocativeness, but helps us to calmly resist manipulation or the mere functionalization of our ministries. The second theological insight is that there is really only one reason in the present to stay in our vocation. “Religious Life is a free response to a personal and compelling vocation to a particular kind of relationship with Jesus Christ (expressed in consecrated celibacy) and a particular kind of participation in his mission (full-time prophetic ministry).” We do not claim to know what is going to happen in the immediate or long-term future, in the world, in the Church, or in Religious Life, but we do know Christ in whom we have placed our trust. “Staying” is a genuine perseverance in a relationship and a mission even in the face of darkness and opposition.

3) We should see our cultural situation as the “new normal.” Today’s cultural reality impacts on our theology, our ministry, our community life, our finances, our personal well-being, and our viability into the future. Whether or not we can manage the transition from the presuppositions in which most of us entered Religious Life in to the “new normal” in which we find ourselves, will determine whether we will be the last generation of pre-conciliar Religious, taking that form of the life to the grave, or the first generation of a new form of Religious Life that will flourish into the future.

Sandra then set about unpacking what she means by the “new normal” and its implications for religious life. Our “normal” is the reality context that we take for granted, and according to which we live our daily lives. “It is what we do not have to re-negotiate every morning when we get up.” The “new normal” on the other hand is the situation of the exile who arrives in a new country, with no home, no job, no relatives, no money, little knowledge of the language or customs, and somehow has to make a go of it. Whatever precipitates a “new normal” is unlike the “bumps in the road” that we experience from day to day. It qualitatively and irreversibly modifies our outlook so that we have to find a new of being and living. Our values may have to be renegotiated and perhaps modified. We no longer live in the same world we lived in before the experience that de-constructed our “normal” and now requires us to adjust to and find a way to flourish in a “new normal.” This new situation is permanent. There is no turning back, not because we do not want to but because we can’t. There is no “back” to return to.

She lists a number of life’s turning-points from which there is no return, situations where the old “normal” has irrevocably ended and one must find one’s way to and in a “new normal” or one will simply die, if not physically, then emotionally or socially or spiritually. At the same time, such “normal-ending” events are not always negative but may bring in a new phase of life. We not only have to find a way to deal with what has happened, but also how to live in the new situation in which we find ourselves. One has to deal with “not only the being diagnosed with a terminal disease, but what that means for whatever span of life we now have.”

In the new normal, we need to rework our models of community life, redefining membership so that we can replace ourselves with non-vowed members who will carry on our works. We need to sell or re-utilize some of our property. We have to open up new revenue streams. Religious Life as it existed at what seemed our highpoint, is irreversibly gone and it is not coming back. In this context, Schneiders urges that we avoid the damning self-judgment that we brought this on ourselves, which leads to either “we must get things back to the way they were” or “we can’t get things back to way they were, so the situation is hopeless.” This, she feels, is exactly the scenario Cardinal Rodé tried to induce in U.S. Sisters when he launched the Vatican investigation in 2009. He had already made up his mind that it was the “lax, secularist, feminist American nuns” who had caused the decline in religious life, hence the real point of the investigation was to prove his analysis correct and justify remedial action to get things back to “normal.”

For the remainder of her paper Sr. Sandra outlined her proposed alternative interpretation of our situation, with its focus upon what we can hope to do now. She began by graphically illustrating the “new normal,” cultural and ecclesial, in which we have to live if we are to flourish into the future. To appreciate its newness, we must recall the “old normal” that we are leaving behind, where the two purposes of religious life were personal sanctification and the sanctification of souls. The first was through separation from the world via “cloister” “horarium” and “habit” which symbolizing a lifestyle of “total institution”. The second was through joining in the congregation’s institutionalized apostolate. She noted that virtually nothing of that “normal” exists today.

Demographic change is a vital feature of the new normal. In the 1950s or 60s, when most of our CORI members entered religious life, a third of the population were children under 5 years of age, and a small minority were over 65 years old. The main membership were the middle-aged, people from 20 to about 50. Today the distribution is completely different, with the number of over-65’s equal to that of  the under-5’s. By 2050 the over -5’s will be double that of the under-5’s and a third of the population will be over 60. As she put it, “the age span pyramid of the 1950s and 60s is lying on its side right now and will be upside down in a couple decades”, with children a declining minority and the elderly an increasing majority. What does this change in the human lifespan mean for Religious Life? Back then, golden jubilarians were few and frail – but today many golden jubilarians are not yet fully retired. “It is those celebrating 70 or 75 years in Religious Life who are the stars of the jubilee show today. And many of them walk down the aisle unaided and eat the banquet in the dining room, not on a tray in the infirmary.”

She observes how more stages in the human lifespan are recognised today and “the really interesting stages are not childhood or adolescence … but the adult spectrum” during which various changes are normal. Here and now, our main source-group for vocations must not be adolescents, as in former times, but among the age-cohort of “emerging adulthood which can last into the 30s (which was mid-life in 1950), or young adulthood which runs to about 55 or 60.” We may forget about dreams of early retirement and aim for communities in which “the elder is fully independent, often working and highly productive”, and active up to a brief period at the end. The time is past, for healthy people to go into “retirement mode” at 65 or 70,since they could be facing “20 or more years of relative idleness primarily occupied in waiting to die.” It would be wrong to spend so long “in a holding pattern, lamenting the death of Religious Life because of the lack of adolescents in the novitiate.”

The implications of this thinking about the “new normal” and the real lifespan of contemporary people could lead to a more hopeful and reakustuc assessment of the current state of religious life.

   1) We could be more serene about a congregational age distribution chart with the majority of professed members between 60 and 80 with a smaller number in the 40s and 50s and a very small number in the 90 to 100+ bracket. There is no need to give in, just because so many in the Congregation are over 70.

   2) Our vocational recruitment would focus on emerging adults, aware of the kinds of people they are, today – and seek to offer them the help these candidates need if entrance and perseverance is to be a real possibility.

   3) Initial formation needs to be completely recast to deal with people who are already involved in first careers, adult relationships, and financial commitments but who may be virtually un-catechised and un-liturgized and without significant experience of permanent relationships and/or community.

   4) Ongoing formation for virtually all members would now have to include a renewal program in their mid-60s or early 70s in which the person could evaluate and discern her or his spiritual and ministerial direction for the next 20 to 25 years.

   5) We would shift the focus of our ministries from the first half of life (caring for children and adolescents) and the extreme end of life (for the sick and dying) toward the bulk of the population, who are in Adulthood I and Adulthood II. Instead of supplying what these people can get elsewhere – formal education, job training, health care – we would seek to provide what they can’t get elsewhere: faith development, spiritual formation, ministerial commitment, etc.

   6) Our new members need to expect to be ministerially active, out in the field, at least into their late 70s and early 80s if not beyond. ” If our corporate culture prepares people to retire at 70, that is when they will begin to opt out.” But if it expects that Adulthood II will be an active period of their Religious Life they will live in terms of that expectation.

   7) We need to expect that congregational leaders will normally be in their 70s — able to deal with the people who actually make up the Congregation. People in their 60s then would normally be in the support roles, e.g., vocation and formation work, committees, planning groups, ministerial decision-making, etc.

   These implications of the changed lifespan structure invite us to leave behind the “normal” we grew up in and regard the bulk of life, for us and for the people to whom and with whom we minister, as unfolding between 40 and 80.

The individualizing of ministry.

For the rest of her talk Sandra expanded on her view of the ministry of religious, today. Since Vatical II we religious have understood ministry not as a mere annexe to our primary end (viz.our own sanctification), but as an integral element of our vocation. We have also moved from seeing ministry as a “prescribed” project, where the individual works at something which promotes the Congregation’s apostolate. Nowadays, ministry is seen as intrinsic to our personal identity as well as to that of our Congregation. In practice, our  ministry is less collective and more individualized.

Over the last few decades, instead of institutionalized, congregational ministries we have increasingly moved, by choice as much as by necessity, into “smaller, often individual, non-institutionalized , personal ministries”, such as working with victims of social injustice, personal spiritual ministries, engagement in the professions, or theological or scientific research. “It is counter-factual to regard these ministries as exceptions to the Congregation’s real ministry in Catholic institutions. The exceptions have become the rule.” But this is not mere individualism, and the members involved in these ministries are not alienated from their Congregation, somehow “doing their own thing.” They are some of our best, most community-involved members. We need to see these diverse ministries, as not an aberration but part of the ministerial “new normal” that has developed since the Council.

 Another part of the ministerial “new normal” is to have one or two Religious animating a group of lay ministers – a better use of our limited personnel than six or more Religious running one institutional ministry. One Religious in a ministry which no one else in the Congregation is doing is no longer an anomaly. It is the new shape of Religious ministry today.

In a seasonally-appropriate coda, she ended by evoking the figures of Mary Magdalene and Doubting Thomas as exemplifying the Easter realization that the “normal “of their life with the pre-Easter Jesus was really over. The new normal is the life of the Resurrection — different, frightening, beautiful, unfamiliar, exciting. Jesus was the same person he was before Calvary. But the new dispensation was also massively discontinuous because Risen Life is a new Creation being lived, already, in history. Like Mary and Thomas, we have to realize that there is no turning back.  Our life must proclaim in the Church and to the world the only message that is fully life-giving: “We have seen the Lord and he entrusted this message to us.”



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