Re-founding religious life


"I would never encourage my niece to join us.” After several years working with religious in Ireland and England, this is among the most common, the most honest and the most challenging remarks I’ve heard during discussions on promoting vocations. Its starkness crystallises several realities.

For a start, how can religious life ever be renewed if some of those living it today feel this way?

I’ve always thought the answer to be quite straightforward. The nieces and nephews who enter religious life today will, generally speaking, not be expected to propagate religious life as it is often lived at present – atomised, diversified beyond coherence and, at times, and in places, joyless. Instead, they are being generously invited to be part of a project of re-founding.


Their formation will be an empowerment to make religious life their own, to dream their own dreams and to reform it as has happened in every age. What the result of this will look like is not yet clear. Will anyone at all come forward to reform and renew? Will it happen from inside the existing orders or from entirely new groups?

My gut feeling is that it is only a matter of time before a small group of committed young people – and maybe not so young – will gather together, either within an existing congregation or in an entirely new expression, with a zeal and energy that attracts many others and allows some great work to be done.

Pope Francis, in his words of encouragement to religious, speaks repeatedly about joy. This is not a marketing ploy to attract new members. Rather, in the words of the French philosopher and Catholic convert, Léon Bloy – quoted by Pope Francis in the first homily of his pontificate – it is because, “joy is the most infallible sign of God’s presence”.

This is what people are looking for from the religious of today and the future – people whose lives, interior and exterior, offer some proof for the existence of God; people  whose faith is a decision and whose vocation is a passion.

In every age there will be people who will seek to know God intimately and to serve God’s people. Religious life affords the space for this to happen. It allows God to be prioritised. It is inconceivable, on the basis of human nature alone, that this will not find a dynamic expression again.

Meanwhile, religious life continues to be lived – it has not been paused. There are still men and women who by their example remind us of another reality, a reality that places God and others before one’s ego and ambitions.

The Church needs this witness. Society desperately needs it. 


Online discerning

The internet plays a key role for many people discerning a religious vocation today. It is not uncommon to hear that an entrant first came in touch with their order via the web.

While a congregation’s website is one way of interacting with curious discerners, perhaps the most creative effort has been the initiative in the US.

Just as dating websites bring potentially compatible couples together, VocationMatch allows enquirers to create a profile in which they specify their interests and what they desire from a religious congregation. This is then ‘matched’ against the profiles of participating religious communities, offering the enquirer a short list of ‘matches’.

It makes the search for a religious order less intimidating and more enjoyable. 

And, unlike online dating sites, the service is free of charge.


Returning to the roots

The lives of the Irish founders are interesting and inspiring. News that Mary Aikenhead has been declared Venerable by Pope Francis, less than 18 months after fellow Cork woman, Nano Nagle, is an overdue affirmation and recognition.

I was on a Presentation Brothers pilgrimage recently to two sites associated with their founder, Blessed Edmund Rice. We visited Callan in Co. Kilkenny and Mount Sion in Waterford city – Edmund’s birth place and resting place, respectively.

The Rice family home – a picturesque, whitewashed, thatched cottage – in Callan is well worth a visit, while the story of Edmund’s later life is told in an impressive multimedia Heritage Centre at Mount Sion.

Blessed Edmund’s tomb is also located in the chapel there.

A visit to Callan and Mount Sion would make an ideal itinerary for a parish pilgrimage. And there’s a demand for it – we filled two buses from Cork and Dublin for the outing.