This is a unique moment in the life of the church for people in consecrated life, said Religious of the Sacred Heart Sister Maria Cimperman, director of the new Center for the Study of Consecrated Life at Catholic Theological Union, located in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Pope Francis, a member of a religious order himself, called for a special Year of Consecrated Life to focus on the gifts it brings, said Cimperman, who spoke at the center’s launch on Feb. 12. The year comes at a time when religious vocations, especially in the Western church, are falling, and many religious institutes are consolidating or dying out. That doesn’t mean that various religious congregations have no more contributions to make, she said. “We are not alone in realizing that some things are dying and will have to change,” she said. “We have something to offer if we but dare.” Those gifts include hope and encounter, said Cimperman, who also is an associate professor of Catholic theological ethics at CTU. In addition to working on areas of contemporary religious life, her scholarship is at the intersection of moral theology, social ethics and spirituality. “Hope allows us to reshape our reality in a particular way,” she said, noting that doing so requires a clear-eyed perception of reality as it exists. “The reality towards which hope leans is the wounded heart of humanity and the wounded earth. We actually only lament because we have hope. We lament because we believe that the future can be different from what the reality is.” Passionist Father Robert Schreiter, a theology professor at CTU, also spoke at the launch event. While this is a time of flux for religious life in the church, that doesn’t preclude hope. The average lifespan of a religious community is 200 years, he said, and two-thirds of the religious institutes active at the time of the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century have since disappeared. “We may be living in a time of contraction,” he said. “Are we living in a time of upheaval? Yes.” But new communities are being born to meet the needs of the current time, he said, and existing communities are finding themselves shifting to greater emphasis on the global south. There are now more Jesuits in India than in the United States, he said, and 1,000 of the 7,000 members of the Society of the Divine Word are in Indonesia. At the same time, the world is changing, not just with the advent of social media around the world, but also with global migration, urbanization and climate change. Religious institutes have valuable experience for the way the world is now, both in terms of bringing cultures together — sometimes with members of two disparate cultures coming together to work in a third culture — and with interreligious dialogue, as men and women religious have often worked in environments where Christianity is not the dominant religion. Religious life is the form of consecrated life that most Catholics are likely to be familiar with, although there are several other forms. “Consecrated life” is used to describe a stable way of life, recognized by the church and characterized by a constant search to conform oneself to the life of Jesus Christ. In religious life, members are drawn to a particular spirituality and charism and express their dedication through the profession of the public vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. “Religious communities are a vital presence in today’s global Catholic Church,” Cimperman said. “With new forms of consecrated life also emerging, there is a compelling need for a center where the theology, spirituality and history of religious and consecrated life can be studied, and where collaboration, dialogue and creativity will yield valuable resources for these communities worldwide.” CTU is the only institution in the United States currently engaged in the study of consecrated life. “An international school of theology such as CTU is the perfect venue from which to collaboratively engage in scholarship and conversations of consequence in the service of the church and the world,” Cimperman said. The center plans to offer yearly courses, workshops, and symposia on topics such as: vowed life in today’s world; community living that welcomes a diversity of cultures; and collaborative models of church among religious congregations. For more on the center, visit www.ctu.edu/consecratedlife.