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End the exodus

Not long after Pope Francis’s election a Vatican official made a sombre announcement. Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo disclosed that more than 3,000 men and women were leaving religious orders every year. Most left, he said, at a relatively young age due to an “absence of spiritual life”, a “loss of a sense of community” or a “loss of a sense of belonging to the Church”.

So it was not surprising that the Pope sounded the alarm about the decline of the religious life last weekend. In an address to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the Pope said the traditional orders were “haemorrhaging” members.

This is no exaggeration. American women religious reached a high point of 181,421 in 1966. Today there are fewer than 50,000, a 72.5 per cent decline. According to the most recent Vatican statistics, the number of Brothers worldwide fell from 55,253 in 2013 to 54,559 at the end of 2014. Why is this significant? Because for the past 500 years the Church has relied on religious orders to advance its mission. Arguably no one has contributed more to education than men and women Religious. To this day orders are present in the world’s most inhospitable environments for Christians. The Missionaries of Charity and Salesians, for example, have risked their lives to sustain the mission to war-torn Yemen. Without Religious, the Church would live broadly within its comfort zone.

In his speech, Pope Francis blamed the decline largely on the wider “provisional” culture, which discourages lifelong commitments. But he also conceded that some orders have lost their original

Many vocations could be saved by patient and wise ‘spiritual accompaniment’

sense of purpose and suffered poor leadership. “If the consecrated life wants to maintain its prophetic mission and its fascination, continuing to be a school of faithfulness for those near and those far,” he said, “it must maintain the freshness and novelty of the centrality of Jesus.”

Decline is not uniform, however. While the number of women religious is falling in North and South America, Europe and Oceania, it is rising in Africa and Asia. But even in the West, a handful of communities are suffering an enviable vocations crisis: they don’t have enough space for everyone who wants to join them. The orders that are flourishing – such as the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and the Nashville Dominicans – tend to have a strong sense of identity, distinctive dress, a deep communal prayer life and a courageous missionary spirit.

The Pope accepts that religious orders will always have a turnover rate. That is why the novitiate was invented: to allow candidates to discern whether they were truly called to community life and, if not, to depart. But Francis is rightly concerned about those who leave shortly after making their final profession. He believes that many vocations could be saved by what he calls “spiritual accompaniment”: patient, wise and individually tailored spiritual direction. That’s surely correct. We are so preoccupied with the decline in vocations to the secular priesthood that we overlook this vocations crisis. We must ask ourselves searching questions about why some of the world’s great orders haven’t flourished in the post-conciliar era.

Our planet would be truly impoverished without religious priests and Sisters, monks and nuns. We must do all we can to end the annual exodus of 3,000 souls from religious life.

Pope Francis has set up a new commission, to be chaired by Archbishop Arthur Roche, the former Bishop of Leeds and now the number two in the Vatican’s liturgy department, to examine Liturgiam Authenticam, the decree that laid out new guidelines on liturgical translation, which gave rise to the current English translation of the Roman Missal.

The “new” translation of the Missal is now just over five years old. The transition to the new translation took place remarkably smoothly, despite initial

Missal test misgivings. All our congregations are now used to replying “And with your spirit” when the priest says “The Lord be with you.”

Moreover, various sung Mass settings have adapted well to the new wording of the Mass.

But whether the new translation represents an advance over the old is something that only time will tell. Five years is a short period; translations take a long time to bed down. This one, too, needs time.

If the Pope’s new commission, whose members are drawn from all over the world but whose names have not yet been released, is a sign that we are to be given yet another new translation, then hearts may well sink. Changing liturgical habits is hard enough, and the changing of liturgical books is costly as well. The upheaval that is brought about by such change is not of itself desirable.

Let us hope that the new translation that we already have may be allowed to prove its worth over the next few decades. It is far too early to think about replacing it.


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