We Have Dialogued Enough! We Have Experimented Enough!

Author: Bishop James Timlin


Bishop James C. Timlin

Most Holy Father, Your Eminences, my brothers and sisters in the Lord. I speak in my own name.

I agree wholeheartedly with all that has been said about the great gift that Consecrated Life has been and, I fully expect, will continue to be in the Church. I will direct my remarks to what I see as problems in Religious life in order to give a complete picture.

I believe the last twenty-five years have been devastating to Religious life as we have known it, especially in my own country. Thirty years ago, 22 percent of all religious in the United States of America were under 30 years of age. Today less than 1 percent are under 30. The number of religious has been cut in half. And that is easy to measure, but it is impossible to measure the pain and heartache experienced by <so many> of our dedicated religious men and women during this period.

The losses and uncertainty of recent years have finally gotten us to the point of asking some important questions about the identity and mission of Religious life. Nothing but good can come from our frank, collaborative discussions.

But the time of uncertainty and lack of direction must now come to an end. It goes without saying we must not do anything which would <even appear> to stifle the Holy Spirit—as if that were possible! We must leave ample room, indeed, for a rich diversity in Religious life, knowing that the Spirit does not contradict Himself.

But we must <still be clear> about what is expected by the Church of those who publicly profess to be vowed sons and daughters of the Church. We must be determined to chart a <clear> course for Consecrated life. We must also give encouragement and support to all those thousands and thousands of faithful religious men and women who seek to be faithful to their commitment to Religious life in the Church, as well as to those who feel abandoned by the happenings of recent years.

We have dialogued enough. We have experimented enough—some would say too much. The era of experimentation, or whatever we want to call it, has <not> been all that successful, and we should honestly and humbly admit it.

It is only common sense that we should not depart from tried and true measures in Religious life until we are absolutely certain we are going in the right direction. The wisdom and guidance of holy mother Church is the principal way of insuring this moral certitude. One might say that for religious it is the only way. While many necessary changes have occurred in Religious life since the Second Vatican Council, it should be obvious that the aberrations and the painful upheaval and much of what we have seen in Religious life in our time cannot be of God.

Pope Paul VI, in speaking on this very subject, was very blunt: "There may be better ways," he said, "but searching for them must no longer be carried out to the detriment of these forms [of Religious life that are truly holy and effective]. Those desirous of what they believe will be better, must either embrace the present forms while they search, or search in a life apart from the Religious life." (And that was back in 1971 !) (cf. <Evangelica Testificatio,> June 29, 1971).

A few practical observations. First of all, authentic Religious life must be an authentic Christian life. At the very least, for one to be considered a religious, he or she must be what we euphemistically call a "practicing Catholic." How can one claim to be a loyal son or daughter of the Church if he or she deliberately fails to join the Christian community in the greatest act of community worship known to the world, the holy sacrifice of the Mass?

Or how can one be a Catholic in good standing if he or she takes doctrinal or moral positions which are in direct opposition to the clear teachings of the Church? This sounds very basic and may even seem ludicrous, but I am afraid it has come to this in some circles and in some religious communities. They need our help.

Second, I call for a traditional understanding of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. More recent interpretations of these vows have gone far beyond the biblical teachings of Jesus, and we must get back to living the vows simply, as they were understood from our Bible studies and just plain good sense.

The time-honored vows of poverty, chastity and obedience must be seen as facets of Gospel values. But "Gospel values" must be <further defined>. Some might say they are clothing their actions in "Gospel values or Gospel freedom" when they <withdraw> from eucharistic life, are absorbed in extreme feminism, when they publicly question magisterial teaching. We must make it clear that the Gospel for the Church's publicly vowed members is the Gospel only as the Church relates it to their vowed state and approved form of life. The Gospel for religious in the Catholic Church is the Gospel as taught by the Church.

Finally, there are three possible outcomes of all that is going on in Religious life today: 1) extinction; 2) minimal survival; 3) re-founding and transformation.

I do not think there is any question but that many institutes will become extinct in the near future unless there is a radical change of course. And who wants to survive minimally? This is not much better than extinction.

Indeed, the only hope we have for Consecrated life is a transformation, a re-founding firmly based on Gospel values and the particular charism of the founder or foundress as approved and fostered by the Holy See.

"If the age of transformation succeeds," said Father Paul Philibert, O.P., "you will see religious more principally as <people on fire with good news about their experience of God's love and Christ's call to them>, and you will find that they will be restless to have you know and share in that charism that is the <passion of their lives>. The time has come to talk of such things."

It is this kind of transformation in Consecrated life of which we must speak in this synod. Thank you very much for your kind attention.

This article appeared in "Religious Life," the November 1994 issue. Published by the Institute on Religious Life, P. O. Box 41007, Chicago, IL 60641.