A future full of hope?

Nicolas Stebbing CR considers the future of religious life

Our modern Catholic movement in the Anglican Church is reckoned to have begun in the early 1830s. As a direct response to that in the 1840s women began to form themselves into religious communities of Sisters. They took on the habit, the daily offices, the Mass and the prayer of the Catholic Church. They also won support, even from hostile bishops, for the work they did in parishes, slums and anywhere there was a need. The Sisterhoods were one of the glories of the nineteenth-century English church.
It took another 20 years for men’s communities to start, and they were never so big or so numerous. But it is hard to imagine the Anglo-Catholic world of the larger part of the twentieth century without Cowley, Kelham, Mirfield, Nashdom and the Franciscans.


It is very different now. Many of the orders have passed out of existence. All are a shadow of what they once were. This is not surprising. The pool of Catholic parishes on which religious communities drew is much smaller than it was, and contains a far smaller proportion of the young. At the same time we are part of a wider story: the Roman Catholic Church has experienced a similar decline, with whole orders of nuns disappearing. Vatican 2 changed the face of the Catholic Church and the face of religious life too. Huger attempts were made at renewal, reframing, reinventing religious life. The results sadly are hard to see.

It is a different world from the one in which religious life flourished. Forms of the life will change. Numbers may never again be so great. But will it last? In the Church of England it could expire within a generation. This would be a serious loss to the Catholic movement as religious life is one of the marks of Catholicity. It is in everyone’s interest to make sure the present dying of the life is turned somehow into a resurrection of something new, appropriate and attractive to those who want to serve Christ with all their hearts.

‘Profound adventure’

So a book recently published by Roman Catholic religious is of great interest. Called A Future Full of Hope and edited by Gemma Simmonds cj it tries to look hopefully at what future there might be. The most hopeful part for me came in the Preface by the remarkable Dominican Timothy Radcliffe who writes, ‘If Christianity is to flourish in the West, then we must recapture a sense of the profound adventure of our faith.

Young people do not want a religion which offers just a vague, warm spirituality. A lifestyle accessory like aromatherapy or a fitness regime. Their imagination will be touched if we embody the staggering invitation to share God’s own life. Religious life will surely revive in our time, precisely because its craziness points to God’s unimaginable promise to us all.’ Fr Radcliffe’s own Dominican order has more than a third of its members in Europe in the first years of formation, so he has good grounds for being right. The essays which follow though are somewhat more problematic.

Need for a proper theology

First comes the Benedictine, Gregory Collins, on the need to develop a proper theology of religious life. He points out that the twentieth century was one of the most theologically creative centuries ever, yet little of this has spilled over in religious life. He sketches a theology which is paschal, Pentecostal,
Eucharistic, Marian and mystical. Unfortunately it is only a sketch and gives little idea of the dynamic effect such a theology could have. Collins is undoubtedly right in seeing a need for theology. The English do not like doing theology and this is particularly true of Anglicans (despite figures like Michael Ramsey and Rowan Williams); Anglican religious have been particularly bad at doing theology and have prided themselves on their practical and pastoral record. We now have a theologically sterile environment and must not be surprised that there is nothing to nurture new growth. The few religious left need urgently to ask themselves, what can we do about this?

Charismatic founders

The next two chapters seem to me to describe two developments from Vatican 2 which have been, if not delusory, then far less fruitful than it was hoped. One was the direction for religious to ‘return to their sources’ and rediscover the charism of their founders. Undoubtedly much good came out of this, as we found in CR, as it helped to see what we have always been about. However, for many there was no particular source, beyond a charismatic founder, now departed. Many charisms were a product of their age. Once that age had passed it seemed the Congregation should pass too. It is probably time this search was firmly laid to rest. It roots us too much in the past, rather than in the present where we are and the future where we hope to be.

Monastic and apostolic

The other distinction made after Vatican 2 was that between monastic and apostolic religious life;
 broadly speaking those for whom prayer, liturgy and community life were the priority, and those for whom it was the work, the apostolate which determined their choices. This was largely intended to free up those sisters whose work was being hampered by what seemed excessive demands of the monastic lifestyle.

Fifty years after Vatican 2 most of these sisters are in lay dress, elderly, in shrinking congregations. Some very impressive work has been done in social justice, retreat work, education, but it does not look as if there is a great future. At the same time monastic communities, which have changed less, are doing much apostolic work, very well. And many of the apostolic sisters, brothers and priests are, not surprisingly, very committed to prayer and clearly holy people. Anglicans have been less affected than Romans by this distinction. Where they have tried to follow it disaster has usually followed.


Chapter 4 takes up the issue of feminism in the religious life. Classically, nuns are supposed to be meek, obedient and subservient to male authority. Certainly Rome gets very agitated when they are not. Yet in fact there have always been armies of nuns who were very independent-minded; foundresses, mothers superior, teachers and nurses have managed to be obedient to the Church and yet independent in the pursuit of their religious lives. An elderly male religious like me is not the best person to assess the impact of feminism in the religious life, but one cannot help wondering if some false distinctions have been made and the wrong questions asked.

Fostering vocations

Christopher Jamison, former Abbot of Worth, describes his work fostering vocations throughout the country. He makes the important observation that people have assumed that, as in the past, a Catholic youth, coming from Catholic families and Catholic schools, will produce a regular crop of devout and well instructed young men and women wanting to be religious. This he calls ‘skimming the cream off the top of the solidly nourished Catholic milk’. Sadly the Catholic milk has evaporated.

This means that those who do enquire seriously vocation need to be helped to understand the realities of religious life before they take the plunge. He has set up a well-organized, well-resourced facility called Compass which brings such enquirers together with religious men and women to guide them, answer their questions and help them think about the issues of religious life. We certainly in CR have found modern enquirers woefully ignorant about Church and monastic life. There is no question of taking them in until they have learned more.


In a moving chapter on what really does bring young people into the Life, Joanna Gilbert gives evidence of a not surprisingly wide range of motives. Many are simply drawn by the attractiveness of prayerful dedicated religious whom they have met. They want a good community life, good
liturgical life and a ministry that is significant and different.

In fact it is the word ‘different’ that might sum up their aspirations. They do not want to be living just as they always have; they want something sufficiently rich and challenging to make the sacrifice worthwhile. They want the religious they are joining to believe strongly in the worthwhile nature of the life they are living, and to be so rooted in Christ that they have a real message to share with a hungry and despairing world. That is quite a challenge to us who have lived with disappointment for many years to keep showing the hope that is inherent in Christian life.

The next chapter, by an Irish Dominican, Gerard Dunne, tells the exciting story of how a Province with one man in formation in 2000 to the situation ten years later of having 28 men in various stages of this early period of Dominican life. The change that seemed to bring this about was really a revamping of the whole process of formation with a full-time vocations director and hand-picked, experienced Dominican men responsible for the teaching and training.

This made sure Dominicans are what they always should be, well-educated, well-focused preachers and teachers who live a good community life in which prayer too is taken seriously. When a young man joins the Dominicans he has a very clear idea of what he will get.


Gemma Simmonds then takes up the thorny issue of visibility. After Vatican 2 religious generally and apostolic religious particularly progressively gave up habits and increasingly dressed in secular clothes and often adopted secular lifestyles. The aim was good: to insert themselves more effectively into the world, to simplify their lives so that they could work better and not to claim to themselves a special degree of holiness that habits seemed to imply. Unfortunately it made them invisible.


They look like other women or men. Often they live like other women and men, sometimes alone. How would you know they are sisters, and why should you join them if you do? A younger generation needs a clear identity, especially in the formative stages. They also want a lifestyle that includes high quality corporate prayer, not just the muttering of an office in a living room.
Sr Gemma does not really present a solution, except to suggest that work itself should distinguish the religious, and that the work should engage with the major problems of today, including the general loss of meaning, fragmentation of family and society, world poverty, and the looming ecological disaster. She is undoubtedly right, but avoids the question whether young women and men are more likely to take up this work if they are helped by a traditional style.

Changes in society

The final chapter by James Sweeney tries to look at the future. He seems to conclude that the monastic and mendicant groups (e.g. Benedictines and Dominicans) seem to have a future and to have managed change without disintegration. Numbers of new recruits are not spectacular in Western Europe, but not negligible and seem to be rising. Their identity is clear and the role in the Church is valued.

The apostolic orders are much more problematic. This should not surprise us as they are most vulnerable to and dependent upon the changes in society. They flourished in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as a response to major social problems, expanding education, the new world of mission, and a general appreciation for institutional life and institutional forms.

In our world of modernity and postmodernity all this has changed. Apostolic orders can be prophetic,
identifying with the poor for instance and getting lost among them or they can revert to previous models – look more monastic or mendicant and so lose their unique charism. It is still too early to predict which way will prove the way not just of survival but of real flourishing.

Lessons for Anglicans

Which brings us back to Anglicans. In one sense we cannot compete. We are tiny, with only a few religious communities scattered across the world, and with numbers in those communities small in all but a very few cases (SSF and Melanesian Brothers, and some Sisters Communities in Tanzania and Zululand). However, we can learn from this example:

Firstly, there is no point in going down the apostolic road. Our communities have never been apostolic in the full Roman sense. There is doubt whether they will survive anyway. It would seem that monastic and mendicant are the two models with a reasonably secure future. We need to ask how we can do that well.

Secondly, religious life is not at an end. The Catholic experience is that there are still larger numbers of young people, growing numbers actually who enter it, provided they can see that it is exciting, fulfilling and richly demanding. It is a wonderful life; we need to believe that and say that. Tired, cynical or bored religious communities will cut no ice and deserve to die out. The rest of us need to ask ourselves how we can be the kind of exciting place that young people will want come to.

Thirdly, we need to be serious. We cannot just muddle on and hope things work out. The Dominican experience shows what can result from getting serious about recruitment and formation. We need to make that an absolute priority if we are to fulfil the purpose God has for us in the future; or there will be no future for us! ND

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