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VATICAN LETTER May-26-2006 (810 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Survival tips for religious orders: Get newcomers, keep members

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- While the numbers game is certainly a concern for religious orders struggling to keep their convents, monasteries, schools and other institutions staffed and afloat, Pope Benedict XVI and some superiors general say the real concern is quality when it comes to religious life.

When the pope met with some 1,500 superiors of women's and men's religious orders in late May, he didn't lament the declining number of religious in the world's most developed countries.

His address to them and to members of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life last September focused more on how crucial it was that members of religious orders authentically live the Gospel and make following Christ their first priority.

Father Carlos Azpiroz Costa, superior general of the Dominicans, told Catholic News Service May 25 that number-crunching "is a big mistake" in the effort to identify threats to religious life today.

In discussing the challenges facing religious orders, one shouldn't start with the figures, he said, because after all Jesus began his ministry with just 12 people.

Those Twelve Apostles were not perfect, "but they were chosen, they received a vocation" and they accepted Jesus' call despite their fragility, the Argentine Dominican said.

Father Azpiroz was one of more than 200 superiors attending a May 24-26 Union of Superiors General assembly in Rome. The Union of Superiors General is an umbrella group that represents more than 240 male religious orders worldwide. The assembly was a follow-up to last year's look at some reasons people abandon religious or consecrated life.

The vocations crisis has hit the United States, Canada and Western Europe the hardest. The number of people joining religious orders in Latin America is somewhat stable, and the growth of religious orders in Africa and Asia is on the rise.

Often, the vocations crisis has been blamed on the pervasive secular, consumerist or pleasure-seeking culture of the West in which people may be hesitant to make any permanent commitment -- much less to take up perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Father Azpiroz said this kind of finger-pointing is useless and avoids reflecting on the state of religious life today.

Whether the church likes it or not, "these are the young people of today. We can't wait for them to change and get to our level," he said.

The church needs to understand what young people are seeking, he added.

Father Pascual Chavez Villanueva, the rector major of the Salesians, said in a May 24 talk that the atomic age ushered in an era of gloom and doom in which the sense of a future has been obliterated by the very real threat of nuclear annihilation and environmental degradation.

People crave a sense of belonging to the past, living the present and hoping for the future, he said.

The fear that there may be no tomorrow not only affects consecrated life, he said; it also affects marriage and family as people look anxiously toward the future wondering, "Is it worth bringing new beings into the world?"

These are the sort of questions that have to be addressed if religious orders are to create and sustain a lifestyle and charism that attracts newcomers and keeps members, said the president of the Union of Superiors General, Christian Brother Alvaro Rodriguez Echeverria.

Initial and ongoing formation is key, he told CNS, as well as getting older brothers to mentor the young since they can be a "very important" living witness.

He said the religious who persevere have the most to teach others.

Franciscan Brother Jose Rodriguez Carballo, the minister general of the Order of Friars Minor, said in his May 25 address that religious men and women need caring dialogue with their superiors throughout their lives.

He stressed that religious formation should no longer aim to form "solitary navigators" who set out alone to take on the world and its problems, but to help people become capable of "entering into relationships, of sharing and cooperating with others."

Brother Rodriguez said the vocations crisis marks a time to "help us understand and find our vocation and live happily," following and paying witness to Christ, so that "young people can discover his path."

For men and women religious, this time of crisis reflects "a call to live with greater authenticity" and to help others live "a full, complete, evangelical life."

Christian Brother Rodriguez, from Costa Rica, also praised the work and dedication of laypeople who often outnumber religious and help carry on the mission of a religious order, including urging young people to take up religious vows.

But he and others said an active laity can never replace the need for religious men and women who dedicate their entire life to the Gospel and act as a resource and guiding light for the faithful.


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