#40 Living into a New Consciousness

Religious Life in the 21st Century:

The Prospect for Refounding


Helene O’Sullivan, MM, has done a précis

of Diarmuid O’Murchu’s insightful book, and we continue

to share just a few excerpts from Chapters 4-5.

Chapter 4. Parable and Paradigm in the History of Religious Life

We now move into the story of Religious Life as we have known it for almost two thousand years. Most history books tend to prioritize those who advanced the church’s progress and defended it against heresy and attack, namely, outstanding patriarchal males. Women in general and vowed women specifically were not meant to be visible in the church’s agenda of power and control and therefore for most of Christian history (down to the 19th century) women were officially “silenced” by monastic enclosure. The historical texts rarely, if ever, acknowledge that throughout Christendom women Religious made significant, even major, contributions. This grave injustice needs to be addressed and rectified.

The Underside of History

Most historians do not even allude to the rich Eastern traditions of vowed life in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism and their enriching parallels with Western forms. I want to highlight a more empowering and inclusive view of the vowed life.

The Apotactic Movement

The Beginning of Women’s Religious Life

The Apotactic Movement often referred to as the village ascetics, was the first group to which the term monachos (monastics) was applied. The movement adopted a life of simplicity and celibacy and lived in small clusters in towns and cities, not merely in Egypt but in Syria and Palestine. They seemed to have been involved in local church communities.  Australian scholar of ancient history, Edwin Judge, suggests that virgins were the first apotactics.

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The virgins, were known to have existed throughout the second and third centuries. In the dominant patriarchal culture, women were viewed essentially as biological organisms designed by God for the primary purpose of biological reproduction. A woman gained status and dignity by being somebody’s wife or mother. The virgins saw through the oppressive misogyny and decided to change things by opting for the virginal state.

Toward a New Historical Paradigm

The first attempt to outline a cyclic version of the history of Religious Life was undertaken by a French Jesuit, Raymond Hostie:

  • 300–600: The Egyptian Monastic Model—consisting of communal foundations in Syria and Egypt, and a more popularized diverse set of eremitical expressions, extensively documented in the writings of John Cassian (360–435).
  • 600–900: The First Benedictine Era—mark-ing the launch of the Benedictines and their spread across mainland Europe.
  • 900–1200: The Second Benedictine Era—documenting the Cluny-led renewal, restructuring of the Benedictine movement and the rise of the Cistercians.
  • 1200–1500: The Mendicant Era—the rise of the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites.
  • 1500–1800:The Apostolic Era—the Jesuits and followed by Orders of Brothers and the first groups of apostolic women (for example, the Ursulines), the new Orders-
  • 1800–: The Missionary Era—in a spirit of solidarity with the missionary thrust of the church a range of new groups came into being, many initially serving local apostolic needs but quickly embracing the international missionary outreach of the 19th and 20th According to the above schema, the present missionary cycle is likely to complete its course toward the end of the 21st century.

Religious in the Catholic world will number fewer than 200,000 by the end of the 21st century.  

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The cyclic approach offers courageous hope in the sense that it indicates that Religious Life will prevail, come what may. It seems to be a divine gift to humanity that has always flourished (in one way or another) and apparently always will. Its survival, however, is based on readiness to die to those behaviors and institutions that render us indispensable (mainly to ourselves) and a willingness to be open to radical new ways of responding to the needs of the times and the urgent call to serve God’s world, particularly through the struggles of the poor and marginalized. 

Life exists to expedite the wholesomeness of all God’s creation through serving the empowering companionship of the gospel ~ God’s reign on earth.  The following of Christ today is focused on the human and earthly transformation inspired by Jesus as the first disciple of the new dispensation.

It is that sense of divine abandonment that provides the greatest hope and impetus for a possible future refounding of each of our Orders or Congregations.

Study Questions: 1. How would you imagine the “underside” of Religious Life? 2. We are currently in the Missionary Era. What are your thoughts on this? 3. What might the next era be? What would you name it?

Chapter 5. Overcoming the Monastic-Apostolic Split

Change and transformation are not the same. Change happens at a point in time; transfor-mation happens over time. Change is a new beginning; transformation begins with an ending.

(Brother Sean Sammon, FMS)

The refounding discernment relevant for the 21st century requires us to focus our attention on commonalities held jointly by Monastic Orders and Apostolic Congregations. Ideally, the apostolic need to embrace more explicitly the solitude and prayerfulness of the monas-tery; monastics need to engage the cultural spiritual hunger with more creative outreach.

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Benedictine Reforms

St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547) created a formal structure for the vowed life that was to last for several centuries. After the collapse of the Roman Empire it was primarily the monks who restored and advanced European civilization. Their influence went far beyond the monastery walls, co-creating the earthly and cultural development that in time would make Europe among the most advanced cultures on the planet.

The second Benedictine wave: In the early 10th century, Western monasticism was exper-iencing a severe decline due to unstable political and social conditions: continuous Viking raids, widespread poverty, and especi-ally, the dependence of abbeys on the local nobles, who controlled all that belonged to the territories under their jurisdiction. To rectify the problem, William, Duke of Aquitaine, in 909 donated one of his domains for the founding of a new Benedictine monastery; this marked the initiation of the Cluniac reform.

The focus was on the more authentic spirit of Benedictinism through a strict observance of prayer, liturgy, silence, and solitude. During its height (c.950–c.1130) the Cluniac movement was one of the largest religious forces in Europe, with more than 1,000 affiliated monasteries. In the 11th century, yet another attempt was made to rescue the pure Benedictine vision, leading to the birth of the Cistercian Order. It enjoyed a 100-year period of growth before yielding pride of place to a whole new articulation of the vowed life, the rise of the Mendicant Orders in the early thirteenth century.

Women Religious during this Time

For women, it was different. In 1298, Pope Boniface VII promulgated the bull Periculoso, decreeing that all women Religious everywhere must be cloistered. The bull was reiterated at the Council of Trent (1545–63) and again at Vatican I in the 19th century.

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The Mendicant Era (Franciscans; Dominicans; Carmelites; Augustinians; Servites and Bequines)

Throughout the 12th-13th centuries, seismic shifts were happening around the monastic archetype. The significant male developments are extensively researched and documented, while the subversive female presence has been largely suppressed and neglected. Best known were the Beguines. They usually were located in Northern Europe. They did not take formal vows and could leave if they wanted to get married. They had to work to support themselves because most of their members were not from the wealthy classes. Some made lace; others were fullers, washing wool in the canals for weavers. Others cared for the elderly and sick, or operated schools. Most controversial of all, some Beguines translated the Bible into German and French, while others openly debated questions of faith and theology, to the ire of church authority at the time. One of their visionaries, Margaret Porete, scholar and mystic, was denounced as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1310.

The 12th century saw great changes in Western Europe. As commerce revived, urban centers arose, and with them an urban middle class. New directions in spirituality were called for. Religious Life for women in the Middle Ages was more complex than is usually imagined. The nuns and hermitesses of the 11th-12th centuries; the anchoresses of the 12th-13th; the Beguines and Tertiaries of the 13th-14th; the Observant nuns of the 15th ~ all were in the forefront of the religious mood of their days. As cultural catalysts, they integrated a genuine love for God and for God’s creation; to them, the nunnery was indeed an earthly paradise.

In 1210 and 1215, respectively, Pope Innocent III received in Rome two visionaries with strikingly different dreams for the evangelization of Europe. The first visit was from Francis of Assisi (1181–1226) and eleven of his companions. They were lay men who had given up their worldly possessions, living among the poor.

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Five years later, Innocent’s visitor was a Spaniard, Dominic de Guzman (1170–1221), who, challenged by his preaching among the Cathars, was acutely aware of the need for a more empowering theological vision amid the intellectual questioning of the time. He was given Innocent’s blessing to launch the Order of Preachers.

The courageous and daring initiatives of Francis, Dominic, and the entire mendicant movement in its foundation phase has important implications for crisis periods in Religious Life ~ the present one included.

No matter how entrenched Religious Life becomes in any one historical, cultural, or spiritual mold, the Spirit will call forth prophetic leadership to pioneer new possibilities in response to new needs!

The historical overview of the vowed life provided in this book stretches the meaning of both history and the vowed life itself as a paradoxical evolving cycle, driven and lured by the dynamic of birth-death-rebirth.

Study Questions: As you read through this evolving history, a litany of imagination and vision, what is your personal response to how Religious Life has emerged and is still emerging? The monastic and apostolic dimensions of the vowed life tend to be explained in terms of significant differences. What do you consider to be the commonalities shared by both forms?