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Religious Life: From chaos to ‘kairos’?

Victor Codina, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Fri, Apr 22nd 2022


Historians of religious life know well that in the course of Church history some religious institutes, both male and female, have disappeared after years of fruitful life. They also know that each new cycle of religious life – the transition from monasticism to mendicancy, from mendicancy to modern apostolic congregations – has in some way thrown the previous cycle into crisis. Time to recover and adapt has been needed. This is a positive process: Western religious life has been enriched by the experience of the desert, the periphery and the frontier.

Today, however, something different and new is happening in the Western world, affecting all religious institutes: a shortage of vocations and inverted demographic pyramids, with many elderly religious at the top and few young people at the bottom, as well as many leaving religious life. The question is: Why are they leaving?

This widespread situation causes uncertainty about the future of religious life and, in many cases, generates a climate of fear or panic: Will religious life disappear from the Churches of the Christian West? In time, will the same phenomenon occur in Asia and Africa? Will there be a move toward new communities of religious? Will new lay movements replace traditional religious life?

If we want to summarize this situation, perhaps we should speak of a “chaotic situation,” that is, a mix of confusion and disorder. All kinds of consequences ensue, not only pastoral and spiritual, but also institutional, economic and social. What can we do about our educational, pastoral, health and social apostolates when there is a lack of religious personnel and economic resources to maintain them? How can we cope with the considerable costs of infirmaries for religious? How can young  religious be formed in this climate of insecurity? What future awaits the young people who enter very old religious communities? Is it possible to continue to dream? 


With respect to the picture we have sketched, there are divergent positions amongst religious. For some it is a passing phenomenon, a temporary crisis that will soon be resolved. There are indeed examples of some religious communities that have recently seen an increase in the number of vocations. Others, instead, adopt an apocalyptic attitude: there is nothing more to be done, there is no future, we cannot continue to dream.

We must then delve into the current situation in order to discern some alternatives, which are neither naive nor catastrophic.

Insufficient explanations

People often try to explain this phenomenon in a personal and subjective way: the senior generations of religious did not give adequate evangelical witness; meanwhile the youth are only interested in enjoying life and having fun.

There is no doubt that we mature religious have not always been transparent signs of the Gospel. But it cannot be said that religious life today constitutes in itself a decline with respect to that of the past, when there were many vocations. This is not just a personal problem: in previous eras, there were many holy people in religious life, but there are also many now. The problem is not numerical, but more complex, more formal than material, more institutional than individual, more relating to time than to space (cf. Evangelii Gaudium [EG], Nos. 225-230), more a matter of structure than of specific actions.

At the same time, it is true that among young people there are some who are more interested in the economic and material dimensions of life and less sensitive to spiritual values. But there are others who are generous, willing to sacrifice themselves for great social, ecological and health causes, for migration, human rights, justice and so on, to the point of dedicating themselves to long and very demanding volunteer experiences. Many of them open themselves to the dimension of transcendence, to silence and prayer. Not even in this case can we make value judgments about the moral quality of today’s youth compared to that of the past. These are different times.

It is clear, however, that today’s youth do not want to commit themselves to communities that are strictly bound to a past that no longer has a future. The present crisis of religious life in the West is a reality so widespread everywhere that it cannot be explained by personal situations. Since the crisis touches all institutions simultaneously, there must be an objective, historical, general, structural cause. It is not a question of purely quantitative or numerical data, but an essential and vital one. It is not a matter of particulars, but a formal situation, a kind of Gestalt.

Looking for an answer

At this point we enter into the well-known theme of epochal change, which expresses itself in different forms: a new axial period; the overcoming of the past era, centered on altar, priesthood and sacrifice; a change of paradigm, which questions the previous one and opens up to new perspectives. In any case, we have certainly not arrived at the end of history, as some naïve writers think.

We live in a secularized world, where the hypothesis of God has disappeared – a time of  atheism – and believers are called to consider God not a stopgap, but a person who respects mediations and secondary causes. We must live before God as if God did not exist (Dietrich Bonhoeffer), taking responsibility for the world and history. We must accept God’s silence in the face of Auschwitz and the migrant children who die in rubber dinghies or on beaches.

On the other hand, things are not much better for the secularizing optimism of a few years ago. Utopian and rather messianic, secularism put all its trust in science and modern progress. Today, it falters in the face of harsh reality which involves  injustice, hunger, wars, climate change, disease and death. The pandemic of our day has raised ultimate questions about the meaning of life and death. Faced with such a situation of failure and vulnerability, science has no answers to give. Religions bet on the mystery of God, who for Christians is God the creator, Father of Jesus and giver of the Spirit. In the face of illness and death, we Christians have the horizon of the cross and Easter hope. We must humanize faith and transfigure the world in the light of the paschal mystery of Jesus (cf. Gaudium et Spes [GS], No. 39).

Faced with this change of epoch, the Christian faith must open itself to a clear evangelical discernment, so as not to commit two opposite errors: condemning the past as a failure and irrelevant, or opening itself to the new with an almost messianic fervor. The word of God, the Gospel, the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth who died and rose again, and the great ecclesial Tradition all have much to tell us about the present, the past and the future.

Often the causes of this crisis in the Church and religious life have been attributed to the Second Vatican Council. This statement is not only false, but is a sin of historical ignorance. Vatican II sought to place the Church in dialogue with today’s world, without condemning it (cf. Gaudium et Spes), in order to supersede an ecclesiology that was by then obsolete. We are talking about the famous “aggiornamento” of John XXIII, the elderly and charismatic pontiff who was able to sense that Christianity was already outdated. And he was careful not to utter a prophetic announcement of doom.

Vatican II took note of this reality and sought to explore the consequences (cf. GS 4-10). Both the universal Church and the charism of religious life were in need of renewal in the face of this new epochal context of post-Christianity.

Lessons from the past history of religious life

Before looking for new formulations for the current unprecedented situation of religious life, we want to consider some lessons drawn from history.

In the Church, religious life has always had its origin in a prophetic charism, aroused by the Spirit as a critique of an ecclesial situation that was not genuinely evangelical. It is a proclamation of the authentic values of the Kingdom and a seed of ecclesial and social transformation. Johann Baptist Metz, in speaking about it, used the expression “a therapeutic ecclesial shock.” For this reason, religious life is not born from the heights of power, but from the margins, the desert, the periphery, the frontier (Jon Sobrino).

However, there is no doubt that over time there has been a slow but steady tendency to leave the periphery and move toward the center: a clear temptation, and one not always overcome, to place oneself at the top of economic, social, ecclesial and spiritual power. Many times the religious community has become an elite in the true sense of the word, ever more distant from the people, self-referential, self-sufficient and isolated from other ecclesial charisms, with a certain collective pride, enclosed in a kind of “splendid isolation,” with the undeniable risk of seeking social status, of placing oneself above everyone else.

This has led to negative consequences. When religious institutes with priestly ministers, in the name of service make up for the shortage of clergy and support the diocesan Church, taking charge of parishes, they run the risk that their charismatic dimension will somehow be marginalized. Where is their charismatic role  as prophets, if in the end religious end up being parish priests?

On the other hand, female religious life was often so dependent on male religious life that it was prevented from expressing its spirituality in all its own original brilliance. It is equally significant that the religious life born or restored after the French Revolution did good social, educational and health work, and yet maintained a very conservative mentality and regretted the loss of the ancien régime, the union between the throne and the altar. To put it schematically and frankly, religious life, which originally, around the fourth century, was born as a critique of “Christianity,” slowly ended up imitating it and adapting to it.

The evolution of the theology of religious life

Today we are fully aware that there has been a positive evolution in the theology of religious life. Vatican II, in spite of ambiguity in some texts, places religious life within the framework of the  people of God (cf. Lumen Gentium [LG], Nos. 43-47), which is all called to holiness (cf. LG 39-42). Religious life is a gift of the Spirit that, although not part of the hierarchy of the Church, is part of her life and her holiness (cf. LG 44). It must renew itself by returning to the practice of following Jesus, according to the Gospel and the original charism of each religious institute (cf. Perfectae Caritatis, No. 2). There can be no religious life on the margins of the Church, nor is the Church fully constituted and present in a mission country that lacks a contemplative and active religious life (cf. Ad Gentes, No. 18). As Bishop Bergoglio said in the 1994 Synod on Religious Life, “consecrated life is a gift to the Church, it is born in the Church, it grows in the Church, it is entirely directed to the Church.”[1]

Religious life does not belong only to the field of canon law and spirituality, but to the constitution of the Church. Vatican II promoted a profound reflection on it, as evidenced by Paul VI’s Evangelica Testificatio, John Paul II’s Vita Consecrata and numerous theological publications. Since the Council religious life has been profoundly reformed. But there is still a long way to go.

Vatican II, despite its immense pastoral and theological richness, was somehow conditioned by the Eurocentric perspective of the bishops and theologians who were its main actors. Therefore, it was mainly concerned with atheism and secularization, the possibility of salvation outside the Church, ecumenism, religious freedom and the importance of individual conscience. These are themes typical of the so-called “early enlightenment.” The poor do not appear in its texts, except for two mentions (cf. LG 8 and GS 1), although John XXIII wanted the face of the conciliar Church to be that of a Church of the poor.

It was the Churches of poor countries that gave a creative reception to Vatican II. In particular, it was the Latin American Church in Medellín (1968), which listened to the voice of the Spirit through the cry of the poor who ask for justice, like the Israelites oppressed by Pharaoh in Egypt. From Medellín came the option for the poor, the struggle against the sin of unjust structures, the relevance of the exodus and liberation, the intention to build a poor, simple and paschal Church, which keeps faith and justice united. These are the typical elements of the so-called “second enlightenment,” which is sensitive to justice and to the poor.

All this has had positive effects on religious life, especially in Latin America, but also in other places, where it has committed to inserting itself into poor environments, peripheral neighborhoods, the villas miserias and favelas, the rural world, mines, and among indigenous people and those of African descent. In religious life there has been an authentic renewal. Among its ranks there have also been many martyrs, victims of dictatorships and of military regimes.

Finally, let us add the appearance of the “third enlightenment,” centered on others and those who are different from the mainstream, which has enriched the Church and religious life, opening it to fields such as cultures, women, intercultural and interreligious dialogue and ecology. And yet, just as this path was reaching its goal, when it seemed to be well-established from an ecclesial and theological point of view, the crisis broke . Therefore, the current problem is not of a theological nature, because the theology of religious life is very clear, but of historical praxis.

A pneumatological theology of the signs of the times

Before delving into more theoretical formulations, let us begin with a very eloquent text from the Acts of the Apostles: the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, prevents Paul from preaching the Word in Asia and Bithynia. Paul and Silas are on their way to Troas. But one night Paul has a vision: a Macedonian begs him to pass through Macedonia to help his people. The apostle understands that God is asking them to go and evangelize Macedonia. They embark at Troas, go to Samothrace, Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a colony in Macedonia (cf. Acts 16:6-12). In this text, it is somewhat puzzling that the Spirit of Jesus closes the doors of evangelization to Paul in certain areas and instead opens others for him, sending him to another place. But the meaning is clear: the Spirit desires that Paul not go to Jewish communities, but that he reach out to the Gentile world. Paul will do so, going first to Athens and then to Rome. The Acts of the Apostles concludes when the apostle has finished his missionary work to the Gentiles.

We have before us what Vatican II calls the “signs of the times.” The Church must scrutinize them thoroughly (cf. GS 4), convinced that it is the Spirit of the Lord who fills the universe that guides God’s people; and in the aspirations, events and needs of our time, in which she takes part together with her contemporaries, she must see the true signs of God’s presence and plans (cf. GS 11). To listen attentively, discern and interpret, with the help of the Spirit, the many and varied voices of our time is a duty of all God’s people, but especially of pastors and theologians. Paul did just that, when in a dream he recognized the voice of the Lord calling him to go out to the Gentiles. The Spirit closes some doors, but opens others.

To discern the signs of the times, however, a number of dispositions are required. First of all, the conviction that the Spirit of the Lord does not act only in the Church, but fills the universe. For this reason we must listen, together with the people of our time, to the voices, aspirations and needs of humanity. This implies an ecclesial attitude of openness, dialogue and closeness to our world and our times, in order to know what God wants from humanity. And it requires discernment, in order to illuminate this reality with the values of the Gospel and the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Applying all of this to religious life, we can ask ourselves if we, too, are not in a situation where the Spirit closes some doors to us while opening others. We need to discern whether the current structures of religious life are responding to the signs of today’s times or, rather, to outdated eras of Christianity. The Spirit closes the doors of a religious life that is numerous, powerful, elite, self-sufficient and self-referential, but perhaps opens those of another style of religious life that is more evangelical and poor, more in keeping with the signs of today’s times.

Let us ask ourselves if our experience of chaos cannot orient us to a kairos, a favorable time. Pneumatology teaches us that the Spirit (ruah) acts from below. From the initial chaos of Genesis (tohu wa-bohu) the Spirit generates a breath of life (cf. Gen 1:2); from the wombs of barren women the Spirit brings forth leaders of Israel (cf. Gen 11:30; 25:21; 29:31; 1 Sam 2:1-11); and the Spirit causes a young virgin in Nazareth to conceive and give birth to Jesus (cf. Luke 1:35). For the Spirit, nothing is impossible (cf. Luke 1:37). He is able to give life to a multitude of withered bones (cf. Ezek 37:1-14); he enlightens a poor Maccabean woman who sees her seven sons die as martyrs, so that she may proclaim her faith in the resurrection (cf. Mac 27:20,23). It is the Spirit who raises Jesus from the dead (cf. Rom 8:11) and descends upon a group of poor and fearful apostles gathered in Jerusalem to transform them into witnesses of the Risen One before the whole world (cf. Acts 2). The Spirit is the origin and source of religious life;  every new religious congregation is a gift and a miracle of the Spirit, who from poverty and littleness generates evangelical life.

What doors does the Spirit open to religious life today?

Before talking about what doors are opening to religious life, let us point out that today many religious institutions are more concerned with reopening doors that are closing than with seeking new doors that are opening. In many cases young vocations are destined to spend a great deal of energy reopening or keeping open doors that are now closing, instead of exercising their imagination and creativity in seeking to open new doors. An example of this can be found in the text of the First Book of Kings in which Elijah commands his young servant to climb the mountain seven times to see if a cloud announcing rain is going to appear from the sea; in the meantime he, having thrown himself down, remains in prayer (cf. 1 Kings 18:41-46). Young vocations must scan the horizon of new possibilities, while others pray in silence.

This task of observing the signs of the times and the horizon now is fostered by Francis’ commitment to a reform of the Church. The pope dreams of a Church with open doors, that is welcoming, a field hospital, a Church going forth, to bring the faith to all and to set out toward the existential and geographical peripheries where people live and suffer, a Church that smells of sheep, that is not bureaucratic but merciful, and that is not self-referential but an inverted pyramid, polyhedra, synodal, a Church in which the poor and their piety occupy a privileged theological place (cf. EG 197-201). There are so many ways for a new religious life to be open to the future, to the kairos, and fruit of the Spirit. Let us now try to consider how this conversion can take form.

Returning to the smallness and minority of the origins

At the origins of every new religious community, at the time of its foundation, there are a few poor, weak, unknown members who call themselves small: minor brothers, minims, a little   company, little brothers and sisters. Over the years, this smallness has often turned into greatness and ostentation. We have chosen the option for the poor, but we have not become poorer. Today circumstances take us back to the minority of our origins: we are few, weak and poor; we have no assured future, just as the poor do not have one either. We cannot offer young vocations security and complete guarantees; we can instead promise them a great evangelical adventure, open to the future and to the breath of the Spirit.

We have to live the littleness of the mustard seed and the yeast (cf. Matt 13:31-33), following a Jesus who has nowhere to lay his head (cf. Luke 9:58). Religious life is not a privilege, but it is an exciting adventure, an evangelical risk, open to the newness of the Holy Spirit. Our help comes to us from the Lord and from the life-giving presence of his Spirit.

Entering into synodal dynamism

Let us now consider a complementary aspect to the concept of smallness. Etymologically, “synod” means “path together,” and this, according to John Chrysostom, is the definition of the Church (cf. PG 55, 493). Synodality is entering into this walking together with the whole people of God who, born of baptism and with the anointing of the Spirit, possess a sense of faith such that it is infallible in belief (cf. LG 12). Synodality is the path that God expects from the Church in the third millennium, as Pope Francis stated in his address on October 17, 2015, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops.

Religious life, too, must enter into the perspective of a path of synodality. This implies that we put behind us privileges and economic, cultural and spiritual privileges, in order to place ourselves among the holy people of God who have received the Spirit. It is not a matter of renouncing our charismatic identity, but of sharing it with others, without sectarianism, without elitism. In some way, synodality implies an initiative on the part of the laity, who constitute the majority of the people of God. We should ask ourselves if the decrease in vocations to religious life and ordained ministry is not perhaps part of God’s mysterious plan to make the whole people of God walk together toward mission, toward the kingdom of God. We must then speak of mission shared with others, men and women, discussing together what concerns everyone, where we all teach and learn and the dualism between the teaching Church and the learning Church is broken. It is an inverted pyramid, something so new that some say it could cause a “theological heart attack” in the defenders of the established order.

If we return to religious life, this change means much more than a mutual exchange among the various religious congregations and institutes. Nor does it mean that the laity must collaborate with religious life and its representatives, with its pastoral, educational, social or health care institutions. It is the whole of religious life that places itself at the service of the entire people of God in the common mission, in collaboration with parishes, with movements and with other types of communities open to the Kingdom, to the care of the common home (cf. Laudato Si’) and to universal fraternity (cf. Fratelli Tutti).

It is evident that all this implies a process of ecclesial conversion, which will be slow and marked by common discernment. The task is not easy, but it is exciting and challenging. Only with time will we be able to see how this involves apostolic life and work, reaches monastic and contemplative communities, changes the economy and lifestyle. But the scarcity of vocations, the small numbers  of the minority are transformed by the Spirit into being on a journey together with others. Only with time, practice and discernment will personal, community and institutional paths be found to realize this dream. And all this takes place  under the protection and in the orbit of the Spirit, who overcomes everything, overflows, rejuvenates and vivifies starting from situations of chaos, from the de profundis of history. Chaos can be translated into a kairos. Those who sowed tearfully will be able to rejoice in the harvest (cf. Psalm 126:6).

Recovering the mystical dimension of religious life

A well-known text of Benedict XVI affirms that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, No. 1).

If every Christian life is born from an encounter with the person of Jesus, religious life, which has a prophetic origin, cannot renew and flourish without a deeply spiritual and mystical dimension; it needs the anointing of the Spirit. This means that religious life, which is often overburdened with work, must foster ample personal and communal space for prayer and silence, lectio divina, a vibrant liturgy, so that life and society, in a world far from God, may become increasingly imbued with Gospel values and attitudes. But it is equally necessary to place ourselves beside the crucified one of history, to encounter God in the poor, to avoid our prayer being an escape from an alienating world.

When we recall eminent figures of religious life, the founders and foundresses, we are surprised at the great richness and spiritual depth brought to the Church and humanity by people like Anthony the Coptic, Benedict and Scholastica, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis and Clare, Dominic and Catherine of Siena, Ignatius, Xavier and Peter Faber, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux and Edith Stein, Hildegard of Bingen, John of God and Camillus de Lellis, Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, Joseph Calasanz and Antonio María Claret, Don Bosco, Joan of Lestonnac, Candida of Jesus, Nazaria Ignacia, Teresa of Calcutta, Charles de Foucauld and many others. Mysticism is an essential part of religious life: it is not possible unless one is personally passionate about the Lord Jesus and the Gospel. The current transformation to which it is called will not be possible without a conversion to mysticism.


Can one move from chaos to kairos? This passage is possible, but it is not an instantaneous or magical leap. Instead, it is a paschal passage: it implies that we pass, personally and communally, from death to resurrection; it requires that we do not cling to a transient past and that we open ourselves to the innovative, overflowing and life-giving action of the Spirit of Jesus, who acts from below in moments of crisis and death, closes some doors, but opens others, a Spirit who is never on strike, neither in the Church nor in human history.

Today’s religious life resembles the psalmist’s experience of the de profundis (cf. Psalm 130),  a psalm that begins in the darkness of the night, crying out in anguish to the Lord, and ends open to hope, that of the sentinel who awaits the dawn.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.2 art. 6, 0322: 10.32009/22072446.0322.6

[1].    Francis, Apostolic Letter to All Consecrated Persons, November 21, 2014, III, 5. The pope quotes here from his address to the Synod on Consecrated Life and Mission in the Church and in the World, XVI General Congregation, October 13, 1994.

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