What is the root cause of the disastrous collapse in vocations to the priesthood and religious life over the past twenty-five years or so in Australia?
There are always several reasons why such a catastrophe can happen, but there is usually one principal cause that has brought to a head the ailment that has gone undetected for years. This is so in nearly all the examples of which we are painfully aware of individual religious houses (monasteries and convents) or even whole congregations vanishing so swiftly, almost without a trace, or changing so radically as to be almost unrecognisable.
Of course, many face-saving excuses are found to explain the sad phenomenon, but, I think all through Church history, one salient failing is discernible, one which grew until it became accepted as inevitable and its destructive influence was done: namely a breakdown in observance of the vow or spirit of poverty.
Some fifteen hundred years ago, St Benedict wrote his rule for monks. It remains notable for its sanity and wisdom, its understanding of human nature with its failings and limitations, but also its capacity for good, when open to the influence of divine grace. He exhorted his monks to live in harmony and to make allowances for one another's faults.
But any breach of poverty, even the slightest, raised the hackles and drew from the usually mild- tempered saint swift retribution and punishment, because he saw in such failings a return to the ways and standards of the world his followers had abandoned in order to follow Christ more surely along the road of salvation, without being weighed down with the useless baggage of created things.
Poverty in the gospel sense does not refer only to money and material goods. It refers also to spiritual gifts. Since these are not of our own making they must also be benefits bestowed freely by a loving God and therefore regarded as a cause for humility rather than pride.
For this reason, we speak of "the gifts of the Holy Spirit," and the Eucharist itself is the gift of divine love - God giving himself. St Paul asks the question: "What have you that you have not received?"
But mainly when we speak of the vow or spirit of poverty, we refer to the lack or abundance of material goods, and it is in this area that religious men and women must show the world the true spirit of the poor Christ.
A very wise and holy abbot once told me, "We can talk for hours about the vow of poverty, but unless we actually feel the pinch of poverty, words remain just words."
The present crisis in vocations to seminaries and religious life is not by any means the first of its kind in the history of the Church. There have been several such phenomena and like the one we are going through now (and there are good signs on a global front that we are breaking out of the present malaise) they usually began with a return, in small ways, to the values of the world and the thinly masked desire to amass greater and greater slices of this world's possessions, a mentality directly at variance with the spirit of the Gospel and the teaching of Jesus Christ.
To those who declared their willingness to follow him Jesus demanded first of all a preparedness to divest themselves of worldly attachments and imitate his own example for, as he said, "the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" - that is, the maker of all things had no place to call his own: his first bed on this earth was an animal's feed box and his last was a cross and a tomb belonging to someone else.
All the great religious orders founded by saints in early times were founded on the vow of poverty and a firm trust in divine providence. Many stories are told of answers to prayer when the need was the greatest.
For example, in the past when Fridays were meatless days - why ever did they have to change? - the Little Sisters of the Poor found they had no fish to serve the old people, so they took their request (as always) to St Joseph. Very soon a young man came to the convent's kitchen door with a package of fresh fish. She told him that she had been expecting it (and immediately set about preparing and serving it to the residents).
Not long after, in frantic fashion, he returned to reclaim the fish, realising he had made a terrible mistake, the order being meant for the big hotel on the corner. Unperturbed, Sister explained to the bemused young man, "I'm afraid St Joseph had other ideas."
It is a fact, and a matter of concern, that many presbyteries and religious communities are much better off than the people they serve. In the days when churches, convents, schools and various other institutions were built on the "pennies of the poor," and not with government handouts, the going was often tough, but the independence from government control and influence made the sacrifice worthwhile and brought many blessings in its wake.
Fr Fabian Duggan, Lumen Christi Priory, Wagga Wagga, NSW.