An unprecedented crisis in Western religious life
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?