Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe had intended his talk at Catholic Theological Union’s symposium on consecrated life as a defiant statement in the face of a dearth of vocations.
After spending time with women and men religious and others in consecrated life at the Feb. 5-6 symposium, he said that perhaps his talk on “Community Life and Mission: Towards a Future Full of Hope” was not as defiant as he thought.
Radcliffe served as provincial and then as master of the worldwide Dominican order from 1992 to 2001. Last year Pope Francis named him a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He now lives in the Blackfriars community in Oxford, England, where he helped start the Las Casas Institute, which examines issues concerned with human dignity in the light of Catholic social teaching.
“Many of you are in fact younger,” Radcliffe told the gathering at CTU, noting that religious communities in Western Europe are not seeing as many vocations as their U.S. counterparts.
Still, he had words of advice for people who have seen the size of their communities contract.
The first thing, Radcliffe said, for communities to do is to make sure they are living, not just surviving.
“If people see that your religious life is a life — it’s a sharing in God’s abundant life — then we will attract vocations,” he said. That was what attracted him to the Dominicans when he visited them in 1965, which turned out to be the beginning of the English province’s “greatest crisis since the Reformation.”
“In my one year of novitiate, there were six novice masters,” he said. “The day I joined, we had 42 men in formation. One year later, we had nine.” But crisis is necessary to human development, Radcliffe said, and should not be feared.
“Crisis is how human beings grow up,” he said. “If you don’t have crises, then God bless you. You need them. If you look at the history of salvation, it’s one damn crisis after another.”
For communities that do die out, even if they live their religious lives in God, he had words of comfort: “It’s not your fault. It may be that your mission is accomplished. Or it may be that your charism is so antithetical to the times that it’s difficult to attract vocations.”
Religious communities are born and die according to their own life cycles, he said, noting that 70 percent of the communities active at the end of the 15th century were gone by the beginning of the 17th century.
Those communities that are growing are finding new ways to understand the traditional evangelical counsels of chastity, obedience and poverty. Chastity, he said, is not so much a commitment to forgo sexual relationships and activity as it is a promise to participate in God’s universal love, a promise that requires those who make it to love all people, including those who are different.
“It speaks of a love where no one is excluded,” he said. “The beauty of society is that we are different.”
That includes not only differences in race, gender, religion and wealth, but also in generations, Radcliffe said, and congregations that embrace the different ideas new generations bring are more likely to have vocations. Blackfriars, which has an average age under 35, is one example.
“Let them be different,” he said. “Let them build something new. That’s how it’s always been.” In the end, perfect love is the goal, he said.
Obedience, he reminded his listeners, does not mean that subordinates must be made to follow nonsensical orders against their better judgment. Rather, it means uniting the will of the subordinate to the will of the superior, as Jesus was obedient to his Father on the cross. Ultimately, those who vow or promise obedience are committing to try to imitate Christ, and that promise shapes their journey toward their goal.
Radcliffe defined poverty as resisting the desire for superficial things. A simple life, without the clutter of unnecessary things, intensifies desire for the essentials.
Franciscan Sister Dorothy Kramer said she found signs of hope in the whole symposium, which included opportunities for men and women in consecrated life to share their vocation stories and share their way they are living those vocations in a changing world.
“What this really does is provide an opportunity to explore different ways of living out our vocations,” she said. “The focus is on the renewal of religious life.”
If women’s religious congregations want to find young women with religious vocations, the Catholic Volunteer Network has a simple suggestion: look among our volunteers.
When you hear about three religious vocations from one family, a certain picture comes to mind, a picture of generations steeped in the faith, of aunts who are religious sisters and uncles who are priests, a family heritage that reaches back to a bastion of Catholicism.
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