Br Paul Macrossan CFC has taught, or was Principal, in schools in NSW, Queensland, the ACT and Zimbabwe. He was a member of the former Queensland Province Leadership team, involved in teacher education in Southern Sudan and worked in the Darwin Catholic Mission. He is currently a member of the Christian Brothers' community in Darwin.
The present article was prompted by a report in AD2000 (August 2009, page 8) which described the disturbing views being promoted by the leadership group of a well-known religious order, formerly involved in teaching in Catholic schools. Br Macrossan discusses how such a situation can arise.
Members of religious orders or institutes today, older ones anyway, have been brought up to guard against criticism of authority in their institutes. Many prefer to accept situations and ideas that are seen as modern rather than go against the tide of commonly accepted opinion, and risk being regarded as "different" or troublesome. So obviously harmful situations can arise and persist, relatively unchallenged.
Those religious who consider that certain changes, or projected changes to the rules of an institute, are not helpful to its welfare and the Church generally may be spoken of as "unable to accept change", or not acting in "the spirit of Vatican II". They may be marginalised, ignored, ridiculed, or kept out of the public eye.
On the other hand, praise and advancement are bestowed on those who accept the "progressive" ideas of their leaders.
So gradually the spirit of a whole religious institute may change from decade to decade, with a lessened regard for the daily practice of praying together and attending at the sacrifice of the Mass. Periodic attempts by the Vatican to counter such tendencies are seen by some religious leaders as unwarranted interference in an institute's autonomy.
This lower regard for the Church's authority by an institute's executive should ring alarm bells for the membership that things are not heading in the right direction. And if the situation persists the end result can be easily predicted. Vocations will dry up, as youth, and others seeking to enter the religious life, after an interview or two, detect the discord and decide that the institute will not satisfy their desire to give themselves to God.
It is a widespread notion that all institutes today are suffering a dearth of recruits. That this is not the case can easily be seen by perusal of the Vatican's Annuario Pontificio, consisting largely of statistical information about the Church's membership worldwide and published each year.
Some congregations are not short of vocations. In Australia, for example, one of our own home-grown institutes, the Missionaries of God's Love, not forty years old, is looking for financial help to build new houses of formation as they have accommodation only for the thirty students currently in residence, with others wishing to enter.
Of course the members are in their first fervour of the institute's life, which is a factor that helps keep them focused on the reasons they entered the religious life in the first place.
Various avenues have been pursued by some older congregations as providing new and exciting ways of praying and getting better in touch with God. Many of these are even now somewhat old hat but others may take their place. Excessive pushing of eco-theology (tree hugging), Celtic spirituality (much of it pre-Christian), assorted relaxation techniques, spiritual dancing and the rest do not seem in general to have made their devotees any more contented with their lot as children of God.
Congregational leaders by and large these days seldom quote the more challenging words of Jesus about the spiritual combat that is necessary to live a truly Christian life. For example, "The path is a narrow one that leads to life. Broad is the path that leads to destruction"; or "If any man wishes to be a follower of mine he must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me."
Older members of institutes today have been trained to appreciate such advice and found it worthy of trust in setting the direction of their lives. However, if such pieces of advice are not mirrored in the ideas of their leaders they turn off listening after a time, which is an added reason that wild ideas can flourish at the top apparently unchecked.
Leaders with unsound ideas may be pleasant to live with and exercise exemplary Christian charity in their daily dealings with others. That, however, will not lessen the harmful effects that will follow from implementing all their agendas. General intelligence, and judgement of what leads to the prosperity of an institute and its works, do not always go hand in hand.
As mentioned above, youth interested in a religious vocation today will look to find their commitment elsewhere if they judge that the Emperor has no clothes. Where do they go?
Mercy Sister Mary Bendyna, Executive Director of the Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate, in Washington DC, was quoted in CathNews on 12 August: "The youngest people coming in to religious life are more attracted to a traditional style of religious life where there is community living, common prayer, having Mass together, praying the Liturgy of the Hours together. They are much more likely to say that fidelity to the Church is important to them, and they are really looking for communities where members wear habits."
Many of today's congregations will continue to decline numerically for some years to come due to the already advanced age of most of the membership. However, the fact that today's young aspirants to the religious life have a stronger sense of the Church's God-given authority to guide, points away from the style and ideas of "progressive" leadership teams which have contributed to the decline in religious vocations.