This is part four of a five-part essay by Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders on the meaning of religious life today. The series is published in the U.S-based National Catholic Reporter. In this part Schneiders, professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, explores the tasks of those who choose to live a prophetic life. Religious life, says Schneiders, has been called a prophetic life form both in official documents and in spiritual writing almost since its inception. The meaning of this affirmation, however, is often unrealistically romanticized or left so piously vague as to be useless. (See my earlier post on Tom Fox’s interview with Schneiders here, and Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.) The quotes that I highlighted and my set of questions are at the bottom of the post.
Tasks of those who choose the prophetic life style (Part 4 of 5)
Religious Life has been called a prophetic life form both in official documents and in spiritual writing almost since its inception. The meaning of this affirmation, however, is often unrealistically romanticized or left so piously vague as to be useless. In the current situation [Vatican investigation of American Catholic sisters] in which the nature of ministerial religious life as a prophetic life form in the Church is in public contention it would be helpful for us, as a church in general and as religious in particular, to clarify the meaning of this affirmation.
First, it is the life form, not the individual religious, that is characterized as “prophetic.” Just as entrance into an enclosed monastic community (often called a “contemplative order”) does not make one a contemplative, and there are many genuine contemplatives who do not enter monasteries, so entering religious Life does not make one a prophet and there are many prophetic figures who do not enter religious Life. However, different life forms in the Church offer corporate witness (corporate as in “organic,” not as in “corporation”) to particular dimensions of Christian life in which all the baptized are called to participate. All are called to contemplation, to fidelity and fruitfulness, to prophetic witness. But certain life forms, such as enclosed monastic life, matrimony, or ministerial religious life raise one or another of these dimensions to particular visibility by their corporate living of this charism. So what follows makes no claims that all ministerial religious are prophets or that religious life has any monopoly on the charism of prophecy in the Church.
However, the life form as corporate witness to the charism of prophecy does (or should) explicitly challenge its individual members to the exercise of this charism and empower, support, and promote their fidelity to this charism. The felt call to prophetic ministry and the gifts of spirit, mind, and heart for the exercise of such ministry, therefore, should be factors in discerning a vocation to religious life.
At certain times in its history, religious life has been so caught up in a hyper-institutionalized and over-clericalized understanding of Church and ministry, and of itself in that framework, that many Congregations lost sight of this vocational criterion. They preferred candidates who were compliant and docile. The less experienced and competent, the more girlishly romantic about their calling, that they were at entrance, the better, since they were more easily “formed” for submission. Most congregations today prefer candidates who have a sturdy sense of self developed through education and work experience and sufficient maturity to live and work well outside a “total institution” environment. Such candidates are more likely to grow into a truly prophetic ministerial identity and spirituality.
Second, some can be tempted to label “prophetic” any kind of protest that is extreme, conspicuous, or stubborn, or to claim the title of “prophet” for anyone whose ideas or behavior are questioned by authority, no matter how reasonably. The truly prophetic are typically very reluctant to call themselves prophets. They know well their fear in the face of conflict and the high cost of putting themselves in the line of fire of angry officials. Furthermore, they recognize the need to receive seriously and incorporate responsibly institutional authority’s positions and concerns into any discernment that influences other people, in or outside the Church. Again, discerning between the genuinely prophetic stance and mob fanaticism, between courage and arrogance can be very difficult. It requires prayer, communal consultation, testing, and a humble willingness to consider seriously all reasonable and respectful disagreement with one’s position.
The Inaugural Vision or Prophetic Call
Religious life begins, both corporately and individually, in an experience analogous to the inaugural vision of the Old Testament prophets and of Jesus himself. Although the literary form of the biblical narratives of prophetic calls convey the substance but not necessarily the historical details of these experiences, all these texts indicate that the prophetic vocation is not undertaken on one’s own initiative. Nor is one appointed to it by human beings. The call comes from God, often to one who feels frightened, unworthy, or incompetent. Even Jesus is clearly sobered by the dimensions and evident dangers of the life to which he is called. God’s call to him is powerful and compelling, but Satan’s opposition is both real and dangerous.
Religious orders begin, typically, in the charismatic experience of one or more founders who feel impelled to give themselves to God and God’s work, almost always in response to some historically pressing need. Subsequent members respond to a personal call to join the founders in this divinely-originated enterprise. The ensuing process of mutual discernment for later candidates is designed to test the “fit” between the prospective member, the foundational charism, and the historical shape that the order has taken since its founding.
Religious orders, then, are not the creations of the ecclesiastical institution (although it makes certain regulatory provisions regarding the living of the life, approves rules, and exercises some supervisory or protective functions in regard to approved institutes [L.G. VI, 45]), any more than the Old Testament prophets were appointed by Israel’s kings or priests or Jesus by the Temple officials. In fact, those who functioned as “court prophets,” who “worked for” the king or priests by telling them what they wanted to hear or leading the people to submit to their rulers when God spoke differently through the true prophets or “the signs of the times,” were quintessentially “false prophets.”
Religious Life, then, is a charismatic life form, called into existence by the Holy Spirit, to live corporately the prophetic charism in the Church. It is not a work force gathering recruits for ecclesiastical projects and it does not receive its mission nor the particular ministries of its members from the hierarchy. Congregations, in the exercise of particular ministries within dioceses or parishes, are bound by the applicable local directives and must work collaboratively with the ordained leadership. But this does not put the Congregation or its members “under” the bishop or clergy. This is especially true of “exempt” Congregations which minister across ecclesiastical boundaries.
When members of the hierarchy get panicky about the decline in numbers of religious they reveal a serious misunderstanding of the nature of the life. No Congregation “needs” more members than are actually called to it by God. There is no optimal or minimum size for orders or length of their lifespan. Some orders have never had more than a few dozen members and others have thousands. Some are centuries old and others have had a very brief history. The purpose of the life is not to perpetuate particular Congregations nor to staff Church institutions; it is to live intensely the witness to the Gospel to which the Congregation is called and for as long as it is so called. As long as an order and its members are able to live religious life according to its own founding charism and approved constitutions intrusion by ecclesiastical authority into its internal affairs is not only unwarranted; it is unjustifiable and counter-productive (see e.g., Canon 586).