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Sustaining mission focus – Religious institutions in transition


Photographs and memoirs of Catholic Church life fifty years ago highlight the place of Religious. In parish, hospital and in school, there will inevitably be sisters and brothers conspicuous by their dress who made a lasting impression on those who met them. In schools, indeed, there would have been few laypeople.

Today Religious may seem to be a dying breed. Certainly, there are only half the numbers of thirty years ago, and the average age is high. But there are still over 170 religious congregations in Australia, with over 8,000 members working here and abroad. They continue to have responsibility for many large institutions.

The interesting story, a story of organisational change, is how they are moving to carry on into such a changed environment the spirit that inspired the foundation of their Congregations.

The changes are indeed formidable. Within the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council emphasised the role of the laity, to the extent that the Church was seen as the Church of the laity.

At the same time Catholic Religious were asked to re-imagine themselves by reflecting both on the inspiration that shaped their beginnings, and on the changing needs of the contemporary world. Central to the Christian Gospel, to the religious vocation and to today’s environment were the diminished lives of the poor.

In the contemporary Catholic Church it is much more common for laypeople to staff and lead Church institutions that once would routinely have employed Religious. The Catholic Church, too, has suffered the revelation of the extent of abuse by clergy and Religious. This has inevitably affected the esteem in which the clerical and Religious life is held.

In the Western world, too, permanent commitments of any sort became problematic. Many people, for example, will change their employment at least ten times in their lifetime. This sets the declining numbers of Religious and their ageing into a broader social context.

Against this background Catholic Religious must plan for their future. Planning draws two styles of conversation. They reflect two views of the future of religious communities. Some communities believe they have a real future. They may be unsure what that future is. But even as they age, diminish and change, they are not dying. International congregations, in which declining local numbers are matched by growth overseas, often display this buoyancy.

Other communities, particularly local ones, display a different style. They may not have received novices for twenty or thirty years and their average age now nears 70 or more. Though their members live remarkable lives of witness, they cannot realistically hope that they will survive. Instead, most plan realistically to live out their lives, true to their calling to be contemplative and to serve others.

Changing conditions have forced all Catholic Religious to consider who we really are, and what kind of actions and institutions will truly reflect our identity. They cannot shape their institutions alone; it will involve a transfer of responsibility. In making this transfer, they will want to honour the original inspiration. Different congregations have approached the communication of inspiration and mission in different ways. I would like to identify five of these approaches.

1. Integration: In this approach laypersons are invited to take leadership roles in mission within the corporate ministries of a congregation. In our Australian Jesuit Province, for example, are about 150 Jesuits. The number of active members diminishes by around 5 a year, mostly through ageing and its consequences. Yet our ministries count around 2,000 laypersons who are either employed or volunteers. We invite all of these to join the mission of the Province. Some respond with great alacrity and energy to this invitation and give themselves to the Province’s ministries as a vocation. Around half of our Jesuit ministries are now under lay leadership.

2. Partnerships: Some congregations have seen that they cannot continue to run their institutions alone. So they have entered into associations and cooperative partnerships with other congregations. Sometimes these arrangements involve transferring the assets of one congregation into the safekeeping of another congregation so that they can continue to be used for mission. When the original inspirations of many groups flow into partnerships, it can lead to confusion. We again need to be clear about the mission and so about the characteristics of the new organisation.

3. Transfer: When they foresee that they may not be able to continue to be responsible for an institution or for a network of institutions, some religious congregations create new juridical persons and set up trustees that will govern this new body. The Christian Brothers, for example, have done this with their schools in setting up Edmund Rice Education Australia (EREA). In transfers, much work needs to be done to clarify the mission and values that inspire the new body, and to recruit the people who can drive the project.

4. Networks: Some new ministries are effectively cooperative expressions of a religious inspiration. They take advantage of the corporate identity, existing institutions, and networks of a religious congregation. The Jesuit Refugee Service is such an organisation. Although it comprises only about 100 Jesuits, it nonetheless is active in some 60 countries and recruits thousands of co-workers, some of whom are religious.

5. Individual initiatives: Many expressions of a Congregation’s inspiration do not represent the congregation’s corporate identity, but do reflect its spirit. They often begin in the initiative of a member of the Congregation. Mercy Sister Patricia Pak Poy, for example, initiated a Landmines campaign and gained the support of the Australian, Lao, Vietnamese and other governments. Having set that project moving she is now working to establish “Hope Adelaide”, a movement that reaches out to Burmese, especially refugees, who suffer HIV/AIDS. Both of these projects perfectly reflect the Mercy spirit, yet they do not need to carry the corporate identity of the Mercy order.

These examples show that religious believe the Spirit to be present in both world and Church. They also believe that if religious life is to serve people it must be responsive to the changes in the world.

To engage in this process we need to be very clear about our mission. It requires induction, orientation and formation of those who respond to the invitation. We need to identify the essential characteristics of our institutions so that we can measure and evaluate them in the light of the mission. It is not appropriate for a religious congregation to remain identified with any institution that no longer reflects its mission, especially the characteristics of faith and service of the poor that are at the heart of mission.

Service of the poor is stressed because it is central to the Gospel. In our day, too, it has also been emphasised by the Church as central to Christian life. It is central to the witness of religious congregations. Service of the poor is not based in ideology but in attention to the faces of those who are most in need, and in accompaniment of them. This attention will guide the ways in which we serve the poor and advocate for them.

– Fr Mark Raper is President, Catholic Religious Australia. This is an edited version of a talk he have  at a Colloqium on Mission and Identity in Church-based Organisations at Australian Catholic University on 12 April 2007



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Existing comments

Your editorial comments and the article made great sense but why, when discussing the budget, did you fail to mention the disgusting deal handed out to Aboriginal Australia?

John Collins | 10 May 2007  

Thanks for this excellent article! I believe that religious congregations may choose a number of these models in sustaining their mission focus.

Anne Dooley | 10 May 2007  

What a great analysis by Mark Raper SJ of the circumstances facing the religious orders of the catholic church in the modern world when he says "The interesting story, a story of organisational change, is how they are moving to carry on into a changed environment the spirit that inspired the foundation of their congregation" I am not a member of a religious order but in my youth I was a member of a apostolic and missionary organisation founded by Joseph Cardijn, the YCW. At present that organisation and the wishes of its founder are struggling in coming to terms with the modern world but Mark Raper has set out in his paper a method that can be used by lay missionary organisations to access their founders original spirit. I hope that former members and new recruits to the Cardijn mission can come together and carry on the spirit of Cardijn. I would be happy to make contact with any people who feel the same way.

Kevin Vaughan | 11 May 2007  

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